Posts Tagged ‘memoir’

Mourn not the dead that in the cool earth lie —
Dust unto dust —
The calm sweet earth that mothers all who die
As all men must;
Mourn not your captured comrades who must dwell —
Too strong to strive —
Each in his steel-bound coffin of a cell,
Buried alive;
But rather mourn the apathetic throng —
The cowed and the meek —
Who see the world’s great anguish and its wrong
And dare not speak!

—“Mourn Not the Dead” by Ralph Chaplin

Earlier in my life I was a strong supporter of Israel. I wished to become a first generation pioneer with well-tanned and muscled biceps and calves, live in a kibbutz, and carry a rifle, clearing, tilling and protecting the land. Attacks by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) on passenger airplanes and ships in the 1970s and the violence against Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics repelled me. However, while in South Africa in the 1990s as apartheid retreated, I noticed parallels between Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and South African apartheid.


By a Palestinian artist in Gaza exhibiting thru Windows from Gaza

As I studied the situation more deeply I grew angrier and angrier, aware that my anger might explode and result in hurting myself and possibly others. Well then, Skip, with such strong impulses and your deep belief in nonviolence, why don’t you find something useful to do with that rage? Transform it into fuel. So counseled my still small voice inside.

OK, I photograph, that’s my craft, and make movies, and write. How can I apply my craft to what I now believed was the extremely unjust, immoral, illegal Israeli occupation and siege? And how can I be so certain of my newly formed understanding, so opposed to my earlier beliefs?

Go there, young man, see for yourself. Determine if what you conclude from your studies is accurate, and whether with your crafts you can do anything about it. As Lucretia Mott is alleged to have stated, challenging her 19th century Quaker colleagues, “What is thee doing about it?”

But Palestine-Israel is a dangerous region, I’d not be safe, maybe I’d be caught in a terrorist attack or an army invasion.


After Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s bombardment and invasion in 2008-2009

Don’t go alone, for your first trip. Find a group you can explore with, stated that inner voice, urging me on.

I was on the edge. Clinching my resolve and hefting me over my fear, in 2002, partly responding to Palestinian suicide operations, Israel invaded much of the West Bank. Operation Defensive Shield utterly destroyed Ramallah, Hebron, Jenin, and other metropolitan regions of the occupied West Bank. I felt this so strongly that I feared—with two minds, one rational reminding me I lived in a relatively safe situation in Cambridge, the other frantic, persuading me I lived in the West Bank—the Israeli army would destroy my home. The next year, on March 16, 2003, an Israeli soldier driving a Caterpillar monster tractor bulldozed and murdered the peace and justice activist, Rachel Corrie, as she attempted to protect a Palestinian house from demolition. My hyper imagination, spurred by the martyrdom of Rachel Corrie, launched me. In October 2003 I first stepped foot in the West Bank with a Fellowship of Reconciliation delegation, my first of 9 trips so far.

That began my work. What has sustained and I hope deepened it? Five major factors. First, close friends, Jewish and Palestinian, in many parts of that land of limestone and olive trees. I can only be truly with them if I return and share their experiences. Second, the eternal presence of Jesus, one of my primary teachers, as I live—albeit two millennia later—the land, the air, the water, the earth he lived and walked. Third, the Mediterranean light, which I wish to understand and use deeply as a photographer. Fourth, a Jewish friend I’ve become close to, sharing her fears about a loss of protection of Jews in Israel and everywhere, including in our own country with the possible recent eruption of fascism and anti-Semitism. Fifth and finally, Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), mostly young, chutzpah-filled Jews who object to and struggle against Israel’s occupation and siege.

I, JVP, and a growing number of others call for BDS—Boycott, Divest, Sanction—a position many Jews vociferously reject, while state legislatures and the congress pass laws criminalizing this form of nonviolent advocacy for Palestinian rights. I have found my comrades. My Jewish woman friend and I, despite divergent views on the general topic, find some common ground thru the fervent application of compassion—and agapic love.

Along the way I’m learning about Talmudic thinking, which I understand is the practice of holding multiple, apparently contradictory truths simultaneously. This has allowed me to more fully appreciate seemingly conflicting points of view.


November 12-13, 1960, some 1000 Quakers vigiled at the Pentagon against nuclear weapons.

I need Talmudic thinking with another of my core communities, Quakers. We exhibit many points of view, few supporting BDS, but we work together, united by common traditions and beliefs, feeling ourselves family. Working with my Quaker family helps me daily to try to understand varying points of view while not allowing myself to lapse into deadly silence. In fact, my local Quaker meeting, Friends Meeting at Cambridge, and another of my core communities, the Agape Community, a lay Catholic nonviolence community in central Massachusetts, along with my biological family and JVP, extend my network of faith in action. We hold each other accountable, we support and “elder” (using Quaker terminology) each other, that is, lovingly differ with and teach each other.

A great wind is ablowin and I expect it will eventually result in the salvation and renewal of that land called Holy.


Final session of the national membership meeting of Jewish Voice for Peace, Chicago, April 2017


A memoir I wrote in 2007 about my involvement with Palestine-Israel, with many illustrations, “Israel, Palestine, Kaleidoscope”

Currently I attempt to link Detroit and Palestine via water justice.

I’m part of two New England Quaker teams, local and regional, advocating for freedom, justice, peace, security, and reconciliation between Palestine and Israel.

Boycott-Divest-Sanction (BDS)

Talmudic thinking is summed up in the phrase “Turn and turn the Torah.” When an answer is developed, it is not the end, but only the beginning of a new question. The Talmudic way of thinking is the seeking of ever-new ways to see. It is the practice to seek ever new ways to think of Torah….

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© All text & photos (unless otherwise noted) copyright Skip Schiel, 2004-2010

A series from my earlier writing, not always directly about Palestine-Israel, this an attempt to understand my journey of discovery that continues to enthrall and mystify me.

PHOTOS: September – January, 2005

(first written on November 13, 2004, revised March 1, 2010)

Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Center, a speaking Voice, to which we may continually return. Eternity is at our hearts, pressing upon our time-torn lives, warming us with intimations of an astounding destiny, calling us home unto Itself. Yielding to these persuasions, gladly committing ourselves in body and soul, utterly and completely, to the Light Within, is the beginning of true life.

—Thomas Kelly

In a nutshell, fruits borne by my Quaker connections are myriad. Without those connections my current trip [2004-05] to Palestine and Israel would be an entirely different journey.

Al-Quds University in Abu Dis with the Separation Wall impeding access of many students

Feeling a call to be in Palestine and Israel for an extended period, primarily to observe, comprehend, photograph, and portray what I experience–some would call this: witness with a camera–I wrote letters to many organizations engaged in the struggle for justice and peace in the Holy Land. One of the most promising replies came from Birzeit University near Ramallah, which was willing to engage me in a project about the right to education.

Ramallah happens to be the most active site of Quakerism in Palestine. The city is traditionally Christian; Quakers have been in Ramallah since at least the late 1800s. Motivated by the missionizing instinct, they organized a meeting for worship while establishing a school for girls.

Arriving in Ramallah in mid September 2004 to begin my work thru Birzeit (I might have landed anywhere in Israel and Palestine, depending on which organization first accepted my offer), I visited one of the two Friends schools (archaically named “Girls” and “Boys” but in reality elementary and secondary, respectively). This first visit was to attend the meeting for worship on Sunday morning, since the meeting house is currently being renovated. Later that day I met the principal of the school, Diana Abdel Nour, who was in her office “catching up.” (I’d met her during the summer of 2004 at New England Yearly Meeting. The summer before at Yearly Meeting I also met the former directors of the Friends schools, Colin and Kathy South.) Diana invited me to visit the school the following Monday, coming in time for the chapel (which in reality is an assembly).

–Could I photograph?

–I don’t see why not.

Friends elementary school

Photographing I felt instantaneous resonance with the people and the place. Thus began my weekly visits to both schools and a growing series of photographs.

Connection number one with Friends in Palestine: Ramallah and Friends schools.

The Birzeit photo project ended prematurely, it did not work out. So I revived my efforts to volunteer my photography. Friends’ schools was on my list, not high, but present. I met the Friends schools’ head, Joyce Aljlouni, at a meeting for worship. Learning of my experience teaching photography, she asked me if I’d be willing to lead an afterschool program. Initially, because of prior commitments, I said no, then, as my plans changed, I agreed to offer limited photography teaching at the secondary school.

She informed me that my offer to photograph the school was not timely–just days before my offer Joyce learned that a German photographer associated with the Barenboim-Said music project at the school was going to be photographing. The photographer, Peter Dammann, and I now work around each other.

Jean Zaru in the Ramallah meeting house

With the Birzeit project ending and the apartment they provided no longer available, I was faced with the question of where to base myself and where to live. I wrote my cyber clearness-support committee (a twist on the Quaker tradition of clearness or support committee, but not in the actual presence of the members, by email instead). A friend many times to the region, the late Hilda Silverman, suggested I consult with Jean Zaru, clerk of the Ramallah Friends meeting. Jean is Palestinian, very wise, experienced in many forms of resistance to occupation, harbors a dramatic vision of using the soon-to-be-opened Friends meeting house as an international center for the nonviolent transformation of the Palestinian and Israeli society–and might be able to help guide me on my next steps. I’d met Jean at meetings for worship in Ramallah and also in Cambridge when she spoke at our meeting. I emailed her. She suggested asking at the school whether any of the teachers or parents might have a room or apartment to rent.

Joyce replied that the school has an apartment they’d be willing to rent me at a reduced rate, the rate possibly negotiable for services to the school.

Connection number two: Jean Zaru, presiding clerk of Ramallah Friends meeting.

Ramallah meeting house

I’d heard about the Ramallah meeting house, its deterioration, and one day, ambling around central Ramallah, after noticing on previous occasions a church-like structure–not quite a church, but a house of reverence perhaps–I learned this was the Friends meeting house. Later, Jean asked me to photograph its interior for the international committee which is supervising the renovation.

While searching for more organizations to photograph for, a Friend from South Africa, Jeremy Routledge, contacted me.

–Skip, I’m in Palestine, with the Ecumenical Accompaniers, let’s visit.

We had met for the first time in 1990 when a small group of us from Friends meeting at Cambridge visited South Africa to learn about the situation and express solidarity with those in the struggle against apartheid. We met again in 1999 when I photographed for the Quaker Peace Center in Cape Town that Jeremy directed at that time. And most recently we came together in Ramallah, he stayed overnight with me. He told me about the Ecumenical Accompaniers program, suggesting I might photograph for them.

One week later, I was at his team’s site in Sawahreh, a village east of Jerusalem. I photographed one of their projects observing checkpoints. Later, Jeremy invited me to join his team for a visit to another team in Bethlehem, a group of three clerics that Jeremy jokingly calls “The Three Wise Men.” With them we joined an Italian Catholic nun to pray the rosary at the new Separation Wall running thru the birth town of Jesus. I am now photographing their various other teams in Jayyous, Yanoun, Hebron, and Jerusalem.

Connection number three: Jeremy Routledge, South African Friend, and thru him the Ecumenical Accompaniers

Praying the rosary at the Separation Wall in Bethlehem

One of the Ecumenical Accompaniers teams is in Ramallah, residing at the Swift House, which is owned by the Friends School. I drop by occasionally for tea and to chat, also to photograph some of their activities, such as Emily Mnisi (also from South Africa) working in the Jalazoon refugee camp.

Emily Mnisi at Jalazoon refugee camp


Connection number four: the American Friends Service Committee in Gaza

On my first solo trip to Palestine/Israel in 2004 I heard about the AFSC working with youth in the West Bank and Gaza. Gaza? Really! I remembered that the AFSC served refugees in Gaza after the Nakba began, the Palestinian catastrophe, coincident and caused by the founding of the Israeli state in 1948. And I’d learned they’d left after one year when they realized they were not working in resettlement camps, that Israel intended to permanently displace the Palestinians. And now, roughly 60 years later, Quakers, in the form of the AFSC, are back. I contacted them, found a way into Gaza, the first in a continuing series of visits volunteering to teach photography and make photos for this organization and its fully indigenous staff.

And one final connection with Quakers.

In 2002 a Friend, Paul Hood, videotaped at the Friends schools, and later told me stories of his experience. When that project was beginning, I felt so jealous–that could be me, I thought, maybe making a slide show for the school. His experience enlightened and propelled me to initiate my own. And here I am–not only because of my multifarious Quaker connections in the Holy Land, but because of my Beloved Quaker Community back home–living for awhile at the Friends elementary school, very happy with the sounds of children, the early and late light that streams in my apartment, the connection I have with a long tradition of Friends’ activities in some of the most difficult places on earth. Not always are Friends so placed. Thru the bases of the Ramallah meeting for worship and my refuge in the Friends school, I hope to sustain and encourage that tradition.

We will have to repent in this generation, not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.

–Martin Luther King Jr.

Quaker connections links:

The Friends International Center in Ramallah (FICR)

Friends schools in Ramallah

Jean Zaru

“Crossing boundaries in Israel/Palestine: An interview with Jean Zaru” by Marianne Arbogast in The Witness

Ecumenical Accompaniers

Howard Zinn presente! May his life inspire us all: his writing about the uses and abuses of the Jewish Holocaust, “A larger consciousness,” ZNet Commentary, 10 October 1999

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© All text & photos (unless otherwise noted) copyright Skip Schiel, 2006-2010

A series from my earlier writing, not always directly about Palestine-Israel, this an attempt to understand my journey of discovery that continues to enthrall and mystify me.

PHOTOS from most recent trip, summer 2009

Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Whenever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must—at that moment—become the center of the universe.

—Elie Wiesel, Acceptance speech, Nobel Peace Prize,  December 10, 1986


I was aware of Lebanon in 1982. I saw photos and TV images of the destruction of Beirut. Osama Bin Laden, the alleged architect of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, apparently claimed that watching Israel destroy the downtown towers of Beirut planted the idea of attacking tall buildings in the US. I heard about the Israeli-sanctioned massacre of Palestinians in refugee camps, Shatila and Sabra. I observed from afar the flight of the Palestinian liberation organization into exile in Tunisia, and with it the rise of Yasser Arafat.

Sabra refugee camp, Lebanon, 1982, photo courtesy of the Internet

Closer to home, an Armenian family from Lebanon owned a Middle Eastern produce store in Watertown Massachusetts where I lived at the time. Altho I never spoke with them about Lebanon, I imagined the suffering of their relatives trapped in that besieged nation. Thru my imagination the family focused my attention on the unfolding catastrophe. I learned later that I was not alone in coming to the issue of the Middle East thru Lebanon. Leap forward 24 years to 2006: the second invasion of Lebanon. By then, with my 3 years of direct experience in Israel and the Occupied Territories, the renewed suffering traumatized me, as I expect happened in much of the world. During the summer of the 2006 Israeli-Israeli war, Hezbollah missiles landing on civilians in northern Israel, cluster bombs and white phosphorus killing over 1000 Lebanon’s civilians, I wept and bashed my fists into the table, angry and hurt that the massive killing continued.


Some observers of the conflict in the Middle East compare separation between Israelis and Palestinians to South African apartheid. In the mid 1980s I became intensely aware of apartheid in South Africa. This was a period of the worst of the worst, the most repressive period of apartheid. New and highly restrictive laws, censorship, house arrests, banning orders, detentions, torture, states of emergency, along with a growing international resistance movement thru educational campaigns, boycotts, divestment, and sanctions brought the issues to my attention. My first trip to South Africa was in 1990, during the demise of apartheid, a few weeks before the government released Nelson Mandela who would later be elected the first president of a free South Africa.

Photo courtesy of the Internet

I was part of a Quaker delegation. To visit Quakers in Soweto, the notorious township, we had to circumvent a restriction denying entrance to whites. I learned later while in the Occupied Territories of Palestine that Israel forbade its citzens from entering these regions, except for Israeli settlers. Similarly, South African Blacks could not enter white South Africa unless they had passes—leading to the famous anti-pass campaigns of the 1950s. Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza can enter Israel only with permits, very hard to obtain.

Dying in a township, 1999

Robben Island, Nelson Mandela’s home for most of his 27 years in captivity, “The University of Resistance,” 1999


At the gates of Auschwitz, the first night of Hannakah, December 4, 1994

Jews suffered the Holocaust, and before that, 2000 years of persecution. What might Auschwitz evoke if I were to visit? With my Germanic background, how would I respond to a killing field designed and implemented by some of my ancestors? In 1995 a Japanese Buddhist order I’m affiliated with, Nipponzan Myohoji, organized a pilgrimage commemorating the 50th anniversary of the end of World War 2. As much as possible we would walk from Auschwitz to Hiroshima, praying, observing, hearing stories and bringing them to others in World War 2 zones of suffering, such as the death camps, bombed cities, and occupied regions–Poland, Austria, Czech Republic, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Philippines, Vietnam, Japan, and Palestine and Israel. I’d yearned to visit Auschwitz and Hiroshima, but when I learned we’d go thru large parts of Israel & Palestine–my desire long smothered–I was delighted and understood that this was an opportunity I could not pass up.

At Auschwitz standing before the ovens I realized that had I been raised in Germany or Austria at that time, as had many of my ancestors, I could have gassed and burned the Jews. I might have been a willing executioner, intoxicated with Nazism.

Drawn by Emilia Cassela, courtesy of Gemini News Service

After 4 months of travel, I ran out of money and returned home to find a way to rejoin the pilgrimage. I would miss Israel or Palestine–I was devastated. The seed planted when I first discovered the pilgrimage’s plan went dormant, but did not die. After the pilgrimage ended I helped edit a book about our journey, Ashes and Light. The chapter about Palestine-Israel explored the theme of the Abrahamic tradition, Jews, Muslims, Christians all descended from the forefather Abraham and the two mothers, Hagar and Sarah. This common root was a new discovery for me, one I work with to this day in an attempt to comprehend the paradox of a family conflict–both the Abrahamic family and the wider family of all creation–that flames nearly out of control in Palestine and Israel. I gazed longingly at the photos made by my colleagues showing the pilgrims passing thru a Gaza checkpoint. I vowed to somehow find a way to make photos like this myself. If not with a pilgrimage, maybe a delegation, maybe eventually as a solo agent in a broader context. I was disappointed, unsure, confused, yearning: the seed in me slowly grew.

Crossing the Gaza checkpoint, 1995, photo by Bill Ledger


The 1995 pilgrimage began to concentrate my attention more directly on Palestine-Israel. I learned about the first Intifada, shaking off or rebelling in Arabic, that began in 1987 in Gaza, and with others I was hopeful that this largely nonviolent resistance might resolve the conflict. Then the Oslo years, surprise after surprise, again building hope. But I was only marginally knowledgeable about these events, spottily read and fuzzily focused. In 2000 I had a conversation with my elder daughter, Joey, who like me was growing more upset at events in Palestine-Israel after the obvious failures of Oslo and subsequent peace initiatives. She told me about Edward Said’s book, The Question of Palestine. Reading its graceful phrasing and passionate articulation began to ground me in the tortured and many faceted perspectives about the region. Later I was to read Israeli Jewish authors like David Goodman, Benny Morris, and Nurit Peled Elhanan to widen my perspective.

I met a Palestinian activist in Boston, Amer, outspoken about the injustice in his homeland. While driving home one evening, he was stopped by police who discovered in his car political posters about an event supporting Palestinians. He was arrested on a traffic charge and eventually deported to Jordan for an alleged visa infraction. In my mind, not only was he a human being from a Middle East rapidly growing in my consciousness but also a person badly treated by US authorities.

I attended a report meeting about a delegation from my city Cambridge that had recently returned from Israel and Palestine. One of the participants, a portly genial fellow, Marty Federman, wearing a kippah (skull cap), began his message with words to the point that some in the audience will probably object to what he’s saying. Indeed, after a few more sentences someone yelled out at him, liar, self-hating Jew, you should be ashamed! This was Hillel Stavis, legendary local arch supporter of Israel. This interchange–Marty remained calm–alerted me to the volatility of the issue and the imperative to engage with it. Rather than turn back, this evening affirmed my growing direction.

Drawn to deeper awareness of the region, the issues freightened me and caused severe pain. Simultaneously I was attracted and repelled. One outcome may have been to numb myself, to silence my heart, walk away and plunge into some other issue. How could I be useful, learn with an open heart, and bypass narrow thinking and all the preconceptions that had adhered to me over my 63 years? Wasn’t I a little old to begin this new adventure? I longed to be able to wipe my internal hard drive clean, except for my operating system, and reinstall needed software, begin again with absolutely zero assumptions, preconceptions, world views, supposed facts, and see with clear vision. Know the truth and the truth shall set you free.

Deer Island prison, Boston, 1988

Often people asked me what my next photo project would be. I’d completed a series about water, Bread and Puppet Theater, poverty, African Americans, and American Indians. I was musing about what next. I’d photographed in the old Deer Island prison and for three years visited a young Black man in Walpole, a maximum-security prison. I’d delved mildly into the Middle East topic. There were only two possibilities: prisons and Israel-Palestine.

SEPTEMBER 11, 2001

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was writing in my journal about this dilemma–which project to pursue?–when my younger daughter Katy and my sister Elaine visiting us from Alaska rushed into the house. They shouted, You won’t believe this, an airplane has just crashed into the World Trade Center. And they’ve closed Logan airport, all planes in the country are now grounded.

The explosions in the Towers and the Pentagon coincided with potential explosions in myself. I was very angry about the violence and intractability exhibited by all parties of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. So explosive that I felt myself becoming a bomb. This led to the realization that unless I found a way to work with my anger, to transform it into fuel for a long struggle, anger to outrage, a passion that would benefit rather than destroy, I would become self-destructive. I would not be a useful player. But what to do, how to activate, be responsible, use my craft?


If verification of my urgency was needed, reflecting on Operation Defensive Shield, the Israeli invasion and reoccupation of most Palestinian cities in 2002 as a response to increased suicide attacks on Israel, sealed my direction. I recall awakening during that period with gratitude on my lips that I was alive, my home was intact, my family had survived. Yet, had I been living in Ramallah, for instance, I might awaken abruptly in the rubble of my home–if awakening at all, lucky to be alive.

Israeli soldiers during Operation Defensive Shield, photo courtesy the Israeli Security Agency

Presidential compound (muqata), Ramallah, Occupied Palestine, 2002, photo by Ronald de Hommel

Drawing on my experience with South Africa when I experienced the horror of apartheid and the valiant struggles against it, and Wounded Knee when I first learned compassion for others outside my sphere, I decided to engage thru photography, but this would require travel to the region, see with my own eyes and sense with my own heart the various realities people are forced to endure. In my imagination I could become a Jewish high school student on a bus blown up by a Palestinian suicide bomber. I might assume the role of the bomber. I might be an Israeli Knesset (legislative body) member who calls for the forced removal of all Arabs. I might be in the Palestinian Authority, seeking weapons from Arab countries. I could play many roles–in my imagination. I could meet real people, hear their stories, make photographs of them. But only if I were present in the region. And this would require undergoing some danger. I asked myself, am I willing to pay the ultimate price? And are my skills and personality suitable for the challenge?

I knew I could not continue relying solely on books, videos, speeches, slide shows, print exhibits, websites, or first hand accounts by recent travelers. Nothing so second hand. My path had to be on the ground–be there soon. Overcome my analysis paralysis.

What might be the most suitable method? Not solo. Definitely not a tour organized by a Jewish or Israeli group. Ah, a reality tour or alternative tour like those offered by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Global Exchange, and Boston to Palestine. Maybe join with the olive harvest as some friends have done.

During the summer of 2003, I attended a talk by an Israeli Jew who was initiating a housing project called Mosaic that would serve both Jews and Palestinians. He was the first Israeli Jew I’d met. I also met someone in the audience, the only dark skinned man present, Tarek, originally from Egypt, a handsome, deep voiced, impressive fellow who I learned later was part of the Muslim Peace Fellowship of Fellowship of Reconciliation. He was to co-lead a Fellowship of Reconciliation delegation in the fall. After much hesitation and confusion, I’d stumbled into a decision: travel with the delegation for two weeks thru Israel and Palestine, learn what I could, listen and look with an open heart, try out my photographic skills, and decide my next steps.


So I finally began, supported and opposed by one of my primary communities, the Religious Society of Friends. In my Quaker circle, other Friends, both Jews and strong supporters of Israel, are sorely tested by my views, as I usually am by theirs. Some think the photos I show from my experiences take sides, demonize Israel and Jews, demonstrate my anger and hatred, do not align with the traditional Quaker peacemaking mode, and harm rather than aid the cause of peace, freedom, and justice. They’ve walked out of my slide shows, questioned a major grant my community gave me for my work, twice rejected workshop proposals about Palestine and Israel at national gatherings, and might be now blocking my participation in the local meeting’s forum series. My perspectives, some feel, border on or reveal anti-Semitism, that dreaded accusation that can lead to self-silencing. One Friend worries that I may slip from critic of Israel to advocate for its destruction.

Friends Meeting House, Cambridge Massachusetts

I feel my Quaker community is my family, I cannot avoid them, so we must resolve this conflict. Happily in the context of the Compassionate Listening Project, some of my primary adversaries and I have reached reproachment. Additionally for about 3 years a small group of us have been meeting monthly, the Israel Palestine Working Group, and we’ve offered 2 public programs, while visiting key aides to our national legislators. This group acts as a vital support group for me.

For years, in our small group’s ignorance of a larger world, we assumed we were among the few Quakers active on this issue. Then 2 years ago we discovered Friend comrades who publishes maps showing the shrinkage of Palestinian lands and erected a website that links Friends nationally and eventually internationally wrestling with the question of Israel and Palestine.

Friends Meeting House, Cambridge Massachusetts


I’ve been 5 times to the region, nearly 15 months during the past 6 years, with an additional 6 months or so of travel in the southern and western regions of the United States giving slide shows and putting up exhibits. In the fall of 2007, enrolled in a writing workshop at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education where I teach photography, I soon realized I was the only male among 15 students. I tried reading one of my stories from a recent visit to the Middle East, about roadblocks and threats from Israeli soldiers. Some of my fellow students seemed to wince. Maybe I’d made the wrong choice of story to read. During the next few weeks, hearing names of people and listening to their writing, I soon guessed that more than half of my colleagues were Jewish. Perhaps I should choose different materials to work on and read. Discussing this with my good friend Y, herself a writer and writing teacher and knowing my photographic work in Israel-Palestine, I decided to try to tell the story of how I arrived at the issue that now absorbs me.

There’s no place in this world where I’ll belong when I’m gone
And I won’t know the right from the wrong when I’m gone
And you won’t find me singin’ on this song when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here

—Phil Ochs, “When I’m Gone”

Skip Schiel in Dheshei refugee camp, Bethlehem, 2003, photo by Mark Daoud


Quakers With a Concern for Palestine-Israel: Working for a Just and Lasting Peace

Rich Siegel, singing “In Palestine”

A Witness in Palestine, the work of Anna Baltzer

Ashes & Light (a book about the 1995 pilgrimage from Auschwitz to Hiroshima)

Auschwitz to Hiroshima: A Pilgrimage, 1995

Visions of a New South Africa, 1999, photos by Skip Schiel

“And you will be carried where you do not wish to go,” a fuller account of my photographic journey, presented as the keynote at the New England Yearly Meeting sessions on August 6, 2005, (revised January 5, 2007)

Upcoming New England tour with recent photos from Palestine & Israel—seeking venues

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The road between Jerusalem and Jericho in the mid 1800’s

Israeli-only road thru the West Bank of Occupied Palestine, 2009,
photo by Kathy Felgran

© All text & visuals copyright Skip Schiel, 2006-2010 (except for two photos by Kathy Felgran)

The first in a series of my earlier writing, not always directly about Palestine-Israel, an attempt to understand my journey of discovery that continues to enthrall and mystify me.

PHOTOS from most recent trip, summer 2009

VIDEOStarting Point: An exhibition of photographs from Gaza

Look deeply: every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
to fear and to hope.

The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death
of all that is alive…

…Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart
can be left open,
the door of compassion.

—Thich Nhat Hanh, from “Please Call Me By My True Names”


September 1966, 25 years old, a four-month-old daughter, Vietnam raging, quit graduate school, unemployed with skills in mathematics. And so I found a job teaching math and science at an Orthodox Jewish school in Brookline, Maimonides. Rabbi Cohen, jolly and willing to risk hiring someone with virtually no teaching experience, welcomed me to the school. He gave me free range in what I taught and how. The students, tho at times rambunctious, were mostly attentive and dedicated. I taught a calculus class to 12th graders. During the year, the school held programs educating students about Israel and encouraging support of the state. More than 50 percent of the school’s graduating seniors defer their college matriculation so they can spend at least one year studying in Israeli institutions. To date more than 150 graduates have become Israeli residents. Near the end of the academic year, June 1967, a major war erupted in Israel, ending in 6 days with the total defeat of the combined armies of Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Syria. My students and fellow staff were elated–I shared that feeling, buoyed by the prospect of a safe and secure Israel. Later my views were to change. How could I have foreseen then that 36 years later I—in essence a type of Zionist, believing that Jews worldwide had a right to a homeland and nation, even if this required the removal of indigenous people—would undertake a photojournalism project about Israel and Palestine, living there for extended periods of time to make photographs elucidating aspects of the troubles?


I was born one year and a few days before the United States entered the war after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor–1940, as President Roosevelt declared A Day of Infamy. World War 2 effectively ended the Great Depression, brought Blacks and women into the work force, fostered a short lived spirit of sacrifice (Victory Gardens inspired me later to become a vegetable gardener), created unusual alliances such as the US and Soviet Union, and simultaneously initiated the Cold War. The War set the stage for the emergence of the US as the sole superpower.

On the day of my birth, December 4, Jews were being rounded up throughout the regions controlled by Germany. The Nazis were concocting and soon implementing The Final Solution, the extermination of all Jews in all the regions they controlled, potentially the entire world. Not only was I, as might be expected at my age, oblivious to events across the Atlantic, my parents, neighbors, and much of the country were also. As stories slowly leaked out about the Shoah or Holocaust, most people in the US and much of the world chose not to pay attention.

This is especially surprising since my sister and I have long wondered if my mother with her features, mannerism, close Jewish friends and her maiden name, Sage, changed from Zagy when her family immigrated to the US, was Jewish. Asking her about this always elicited a strong denial, as if she were embarrassed even to be asked. I felt simply curious about this possibility, neither proud nor ashamed, neither desirous of being Jewish or embarrassed by the prospect.

My mother, Pearl (Sage) Schiel

When WW2 ended with the defeat of the Nazis and the full revelation of the horrors Jews and others like the Roma and Soviet prisoners of war experienced, I was fearful. My heritage is German and Austrian. I tried to conceal my background, feeling that if discovered, I could be ostracized or banished by even my closest friends. For a short period, I lived in terror, the only time in my life I’ve felt threatened because of elements of my personal history beyond my control. Germans had been the enemy, Germans were now vanquished, the “Mad Man”, Hitler, was Austrian. The 1940s were a volatile time–the beginning of the modern civil rights movement, the anxiety about Communism, and the aftermath of profiling Japanese people, Asians generally, during the War.

Auschwitz, 1994


I grew up with images of young Jewish pioneers settling the newly founded state of Israel. I was 7 years old when Israel became a state, I was entering my own pioneer period. I visualized young tanned bodies, male and female sharing equally in cultivating the land and building communities. They wore shorts and short-sleeved shirts that revealed muscled limbs. Narrow brimmed caps blocked out the intense sun. They all smiled, a few carried rifles, they seemed inordinately happy. I was attracted.


Joining the Cub Scouts, later very active in Boy Scouting, I fantasized that my life as a Scout might transform into a possible life as a kibbutznik . The world was beginning to learn about the communal spirit of the Israeli founders. I was excited by the word kibbutz, striking me as some sort of idealized home shared by many families. With my rebellious spirit I thought if I lived on a kibbutz, I’d have multiple parents and many more friends to play with. Later in college, meeting Bruno Bettleheim, the renowned Austrian psychologist who’d studied children on kibbutzim, I gained a more mature view of benefits and pitfalls of life on the kibbutz. Indeed, the kibbutz inculcated strong moral values, but over time experienced a gradual erosion of communal spirit.


I knew nothing about Palestinians: they were invisible, absent, ciphers. I reflected the ignorance of most of my peers, I had some confused notion of everyone in the region once being Palestinian, but now no one was. Where did they all go? They had mysteriously vanished, like American Indians. I knew nothing of the consequences they’d experienced as a result of the founding of Israel. There was no Palestine, except in biblical picture books that depicted the ancient and supposed life of Jesus.

Skip Schiel dressed for his First Communion

My parents were Catholic. They dragged me to church on most Sundays. I viewed pictures, either photos or drawings and paintings, depicting a hot dry dusty Palestine. Our church sent delegations of church members–pilgrims–to what we called the Holy Land. During this period a desire to journey to special places–pilgrimage–grew in me. For years, whenever the prospect arose of actually visiting Israel (never Palestine as we were taught not to call it) I felt a major blockage, a huge stop sign–a barrier, ditch, checkpoint–in the middle of my path. In my mind, the place was as unreachable as the middle of the earth or the rim of the Milky Way. How would I ever manage to make such a long arduous trip? Yet inwardly a yearning grew.

Sermon on the Mount

Christ on the cross, the suffering Christ, the eternally suffering Christ, is emblazoned on my internal screen. I imagined Jesus as a young boy questioning the priests in the temple. I visualized him later during his last days of teaching sweeping his arms across the moneylenders’ tables in the temple, metal shekel pieces thudding on the smooth white limestone floor. I envisaged Christ entering Jerusalem on a donkey, his followers strewing palm fronds on his path. He was heading heroically to the Last Supper and his final agony. With my Catholic peers, I learned to make the Stations of the Cross, that symbolic pilgrimage with Christ along the Via Dolorosa, The Way of Sorrows. His feet were indelibly imprinted in the limestone–contrary to reality, but foot prints that I would later seek on my various journeys to the region. I learned to honor the man’s teachings–to the point of considering myself one of his acolytes–and even as a youth doubted the more mystical and probably fictitious elements of his story. Not until I was much older would I begin to question the teaching about Jews that emanated from my Catholic background, some subtle like sculpting and painting a non Jewish-looking Jesus and disciples, and some blatant like the passages that ascribe his murder solely to the Jewish priests and mob. And only later would I more fully explore the Hebrew Testament, slowly gaining insights into the archetypal story of the Abrahamic tradition. As I learned some of the stories of the family of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, of Ishmael and Isaac, of Joseph, I also slowly shifted perspectives about the Israeli state and the Palestinian struggles.


Who was Jewish in my childhood and what relations did I have with them? Of course no one was Palestinian, no one was even Muslim or Arabic on the Southside of Chicago in the 1940 and 50s. I remember two Jewish boys in my school class, Chuck Bernstein, living about 5 houses down the street from me, a short kid, but agile and eager to play sandlot football and baseball with our informal neighborhood teams. We weren’t close, but we were often teammates. I knew he was Jewish but I don’t recall it making a difference about friendship. Howie Hoffman, with buckteeth, a remote, mysterious character, was another Jewish classmate, never a friend, never an enemy. My sister, Elaine, however, had many Jewish friends, as did my parents. Occasionally she attended Jewish events such as bar mitzvahs. But never a religious service. Our church prohibited all participation in other religions’ services. For me Jewishness was a mark ranging in importance between hair color and sports ability. It might be an insignificant attribute, or it might persuade me to wish to be teammate.

1952 c.

Later in high school and university, Jewishness submerged–it disappeared as a distinctive mark. I did not notice whether someone was Jewish except when the context disclosed people’s cultural or religious orientation. However, in later life, my current life, I am very aware when someone seems Jewish. One of my best friends, Stan, is Jewish, tho not practicing his religion. With his daughters, he often celebrates some of the holidays. One daughter told me after she’d traveled to Israel, this is the first time I’ve felt safe.

Stan is an artist and feels deeply, he is quick to express his emotions. He is short, walks with a severe limp from a car accident, and works as a tearcher, theater director, and visual artist. He and I endlessly discuss Jews, Israel, and Palestine. He has strong opinions and is trying to formulate a way to peace and justice in Israel-Palestine. In 2003 we traveled together on a delegation to Israel and Palestine, my first of 5 journeys. He was terrified that he’d be identified as a Jew when visiting a Palestinian village. He thought he might be stoned. On the long plane ride home, during a quiet moment when most of us were sleeping, Stan noticed an empty seat next to Scott, one of the co-leaders of our delegation. Scott had asked for reflections about our experiences; he preferred them in writing. Stan took that empty seat, said he wanted to express his feelings from the trip. I am so ashamed, he said as he openly wept, of the suffering Jews are  causing to Palestinians.

Some of my Jewish former friends, like Linda, have abandoned me because of my attitudes about the conflicts in Palestine and Israel. One of my primary adversaries is another Stan, Jewish, with family connections to Israel. He is short, sturdy, ebullient, vociferous, and like me, a photographer and teacher of photography. But this Stan is a strong supporter of Israel. He once brought a tape recorder to one of my presentations, taping without permission Jeff Halper, an Israeli Jew, a fierce critic of Israel. Jeff was testifying in favor of my project at one of my fundraisers. Stan and I had coffee one evening to talk over our differences. He sternly admonished me for what he felt was my partisan approach, claiming I knew nothing of Israeli and Jewish suffering, was merely spouting ignorant propaganda, and would do a greater service if I abandoned my project. I’m on his email list, which I consider a great gift, because he frequently sends me materials from the most conservative Jewish groups. In this manner, I learned better the arguments and evidence of some of my opponents.

Partially as a survival mechanism I now rigorously tune to who is Jewish because this will effect how and what I express concerning the Middle East, the Israeli lobby, Zionism, and related topics. Rightly or wrongly, it also allows me to anticipate some of their perspectives. But most importantly, it reminds me that this human being that I’m now engaged with might feel wounded by history, the stark fact of the holocaust, the millennia of suffering that led to that diabolical act, and feels no one would protect Jews if again threatened with annihilation. I am struggling to comprehend that this is an enduring wound coloring present experience.

MUNICH, 1972

1967, the elation at victory of the Israeli army and then five years later, Munich, the Olympic Games, 1972. The abduction of Israeli athletes added to an unfolding picture of horror, complicating my picture. Who is the victim, who the aggressor? As might have been true for others, I was horrified when all eleven athletes died before and during a failed rescue attempt. The context for this act of aggression on civilians was a wave of airplane hijackings beginning in the 1960s. Palestinian militants–often young men masked and carrying rifles and grenades, an enduring image leading to a dangerous stereotype–committed many of these attacks, with Israelis or the Israeli national airline, El Al, the primary target. These attacks might have heightened sympathy for Israel–it did in my case.

I didn’t follow closely the various attempts at bringing peace, justice, and security to the region. Only recently, with my passion for the region and its troubles, have I explored the details of these flawed attempts. I was only dimly aware of President Carter’s Camp David initiatives and signing the peace treat between Israel and Egypt in 1978. I had no idea then that Carter would go on to continue his deep involvement with the issues, try to broker agreements, monitor elections in Palestine, and finally in 2006 publish a seminal book, Palestine–Peace or Apartheid? This book would help open the debate in the US about next steps to resolve the conflict.


Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.


Palestinian, 2009, photo by Kathy Felgran


Maimonides School

Pioneer Israel:




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