Posts Tagged ‘south africa’

From my journal and letters, my dispatches from the field and now from home in Cambridge Massachusetts, as I photograph internally expelled Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza (once I can enter Gaza), plus their ancestral homelands.


I am here because I care.

—Rachel Corrie

My Own Housing is at Risk

I am a low-income photographer, reliant on Social Security, photographic project funding, and until recently slender earnings from teaching (I left teaching due to enrollment decline and complicated scheduling). For many of my 30 years in a decent section of Cambridge I’m able to afford my 700 square feet apartment thanks to a Section 8 Housing Voucher. However, funding this benefit depends on city, state, and federal administrations. Each change of leadership—the current federal leadership terrifies me—reminds me of how precarious my situation is. A friend I’d shared this home with for a few years always declared, if they boot me out, I’d find a shelter to live in. I feel somewhat the same way, even tho shelters are chronically overcrowded and dangerous.


My home in Cambridge Massachusetts (click here for enlargement)

My neighborhood in Cambridge, and also the Boston metro area, as well as much of our country, is currently gentrifying at an alarming rate. Gentrification means displacement, much as Israel displaced Palestinians during the Nakba. Less violent here perhaps, with some meager means of redress, but thousands are pushed from their homes as entire regions become too expensive to live in. A national crisis, a result of income and wealth inequality, exacerbated by the current federal government.

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My neighborhood, looking west

Because of the uncertainty of my housing I feel more sensitive to the precariousness of the housing of others. In East Jerusalem and in Area C, which constitutes 60% of the West Bank, Israel constantly demolishes Palestinian homes.

What about housing in the refugee camps in Gaza and the West Bank? Currently the United States administration calls for the United Nations Refugee Works Administration (UNRWA), the main agency providing housing, food, and medical and legal assistance to the camp residents, to be defunded. The possible result—maybe intentional—is killing the refugee programs in Palestine, including housing, thereby squelching the demand for the right of Palestinian return.

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Gaza, 2010, photo by Skip Schiel © 

In 2002 during Operation Defensive Shield, purportedly in response to suicide operations by Palestinian militants, Israel invaded the 7 most populous regions in the West Bank, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jenin, and Nablus among them. They destroyed much of the infrastructure, including housing. During that spring I recall going to bed thinking—fantasizing of course, but deeply concerned—that during the night, someone would demolish my home. Then awakening, my home intact, I offered thanks for another night and perhaps day in my home. I might not be able to afford increasing rents or the loss of my housing subsidy, but no one’s going to demolish it—yet it is a constant threat and a connection with Palestinians.

Context of my Palestine-Israel Work

I have studied, visited, photographed, filmed, written about, and presented about Palestine-Israel since the fall of 2003 when I participated with a delegation from the Fellowship of Reconciliation. I felt compelled to witness for myself the reality of life in Palestine-Israel, to pass thru checkpoints, to be harassed by Israeli soldiers, to confront the Separation Wall. Initially the reasons I offered for why I am so attached to this project were four:

  • Oppression: during my experience in South Africa in 1990 and 1998 I began to understand the parallels between the two apartheid systems—and the close links between the two countries, South Africa and Israel. Which helped open my eyes to the brutal and illegal injustice perpetrated on the Palestinians by the Israelis. I was outraged, angry, burned inside. I needed to channel my anger, and decided, well I photograph, let’s try it there.
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South African during the Interfaith Pilgrimage of the Middle Passage, 1999, photo by Skip Schiel © 

  • Jesus: I’m a follower of that great Jewish mystic and teacher, Yeshua, aka Jesus Christ. I don’t believe literally the supernatural parts of his story (not even sure he existed since the historical record is so sketchy) like the Immaculate Conception and Resurrection. I do attempt to follow his ethical teachings, non-violence and unconditional love in particular, which continue to affect me deeply. I’d grown up as a Catholic with images of the Holy Land in my schools, and—thanks to the Way of the Cross or Via Dolorosa—in the churches themselves, rendered in stained glass. The dust, donkeys, arches, wide expanses, hills, water, luminous sky all drew me, the Roman occupation itself. What’s it like there now? I had to experience the land of Jesus for myself. He lived during the Roman Occupation; I shall experience the Israeli Occupation.
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Jesus condemned by the  Sanhedrin (a Jewish judicial body)

  • The Mediterranean Light: photography depends on light, as does vision, not only neurological vision but philosophical vision, wisdom. From my first trip, that unearthly light continues to draw me back. What does it mean, how can I best work with it, how will others respond to my renderings of light? And why so many luminaries from such a small region? Not only Jesus, but Moses, Abraham, Hagar, Sarah, and all the prophets, male and female, and finally, because of his legendary night journey to visit God in heaven, the founder of Islam, one of the three Abrahamic faiths, Mohammed himself. Why so many, and yet there is no agreement on distribution of power?
Mediterranean Sea, Gaza, Palestine
  • Rachel Corrie: In March 2003, a young woman took a leave of absence from college in Olympia Washington to heed the call of a friend in Gaza. She joined the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), entered Gaza, and stayed with a Palestinian family to protect their home from demolition. Wearing a bright orange reflective vest and shouting thru her bullhorn, Rachel Corrie stood in front of a gigantic Caterpillar D9 bulldozer (made by a US corporation) whose Israeli army soldier was about to demolish the home she protected. He crushed her, running the blade twice over her body. She became a shaheed, a martyr. Six months later, 14 months since Operation Defensive Shield, I made my first trip to Palestine-Israel.
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Rachel’s mother, Cindy, carrying the poster

Right of Return

All Jews anywhere, whatever their historic connections with Israel might be, have the right of return (Aliyah in Hebrew, “the act of going up”), with citizenship if desired and benefits such as housing, medical, educational, and others. Palestinians, despite their verifiable connections with the region, even when they can prove land ownership, cannot return to their original homes that existed before the Nakba in 1948. Is this not a massive contradiction, evidence of clear hypocrisy, unsustainable by international law?

The Law of Return was passed unanimously by the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, on July 5, 1950, 2 years after the Nakba, this date chosen to coincide with the anniversary of the death of Zionist visionary Theodore Herzl.

It declared: “Every Jew has the right to come to this country as an oleh (immigrant).” Furthermore, in a declaration to the Knesset, the then Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion asserted that the law did not bestow a right but rather reaffirmed a right Jews already held: “This law does not provide for the State to bestow the right to settle upon the Jew [A Jew is defined as a person with a Jewish mother.] living abroad; it affirms that this right is inherent in him from the very fact of being a Jew; the State does not grant the right of return to the Jews of the diaspora. This right precedes the State; this right builds the State; its source is to be found in the historic and never broken connection between the Jewish people and the homeland.” (My emphasis)

In 1970 the Knesset extended this right to people with one Jewish grandparent and a person who is married to a Jew, whether or not he or she is considered Jewish under Orthodox interpretations of Halakha (collective body of Jewish religious law).

The refusal of the right of return plays an essential role in the apartheid regime by ensuring that the Palestinian population in Mandate Palestine does not grow to a point that would threaten Israeli military control of the territory and/or provide the demographic leverage for Palestinian citizens of Israel to demand (and obtain) full democratic rights, thereby eliminating the Jewish character of the State of Israel….

In 1948, General Assembly resolution 194(III) resolved that “the [Palestinian] refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so” and that compensation should be provided to the rest. Israel has rejected the application of that resolution on security grounds and on the basis of the “demographic threat” of a Palestinian majority: in the unlikely event that the entire Palestinian population of refugees and involuntary exiles returned to Palestine en masse, the Palestinian population under Israeli rule would total some 12 million, electorally overwhelming the 6.5 million Jews in Israel. Even if that refugee population returned in numbers sufficient only to generate a Palestinian majority (as is far more likely), Israel would be forced into either adopting an explicitly apartheid policy in order to exclude them, and abandoning democracy altogether, or enfranchising them and abandoning the vision of Israel as a Jewish State….

Report by Richard Falk and Virginia Tilley, commissioned by the Economic ad Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA0), published in 2017, and then under pressure withdrawn.

Grief & Outrage

Dear Friends,

The news of the mass shooting during shabbat services at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh this morning is simply terrifying. 

News is still coming in, but we know that at least 10 people have been killed, that the shooter was a white man who entered the sanctuary yelling “kill all the Jews,” and that he might have specifically been motivated by the synagogue’s work supporting refugees and immigrants. 

I want first to send love, strength and solidarity to our beloved Jewish communities facing fear and harm today.  

Please join JVPers [Jewish Voice for Peace participants] tomorrow, Sunday October 28th [2018] at 12 pm PST/3pm EST for a virtual grief ritual with Rabbi Margaret Holub of the JVP Rabbinical Council. We will hold space to grieve and mourn and rage together.  

Register now: Mourning and Healing in the Times of White Supremacy and Antisemitism with Rabbi Margaret Holub. 

I know everyone at JVP is committed to fight white supremacy and anti-Jewish hatred, and I definitely know that we need everyone – including you – there with us. We must rely on each other, especially in an era when national leaders foment this type of violence.

May the memories of those whose lives were lost this morning be for a blessing.

With love and rage,

My concluding motivation is finally recognizing the grief and outrage I feel about expelled Palestinian refugees. I first felt this—minimally, largely subconsciously—when researching the topic, meeting and interviewing real people, photographing them, visiting their sites of expulsion, and now, during post production, reviewing their stories, looking into their eyes, posting their images publicly.

The slaughter of 11 Jews in the Tree of Life (ironic name) synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018 exposed my grief. I wept nearly uncontrollably about the Pittsburgh news and almost every time the topic arose. Why, I asked myself, do I feel so strongly about this mass murder when there have been so many others in recent years and I’ve not responded so dramatically? Yes, I have close Jewish friends, Sy, Shola, Stan, Rebecca, Laura; they could be threatened. The day after that massacre I joined an online virtual grieving session organized by Jewish Voice for Peace. During a breakout group, as I prepared to offer a thumbnail of my feelings, the reason for my current grief suddenly cleared to me.

To my colleagues who lived in different parts of the world and were probably mostly Jewish I said that I felt so strongly about the 11 Jews murdered, and their family and friends who also suffered loss, because until this moment I’d not yet fully acknowledged my grief about the Palestinian refugees. The 11 deaths in the synagogue—and the news that the murderer picked that particular Jewish group because it supported immigrants, Jewish and non-Jewish—keyed my feelings about the deaths suffered by the Palestinians, not only their homes, and in some cases actual lives, as result of the expulsion, but the loss of their ancestral homelands, regions of the earth, sacred to them, owned for centuries, perhaps millennia, ripped from them, as the lives of the Jewish synagogue members and their families and friends were tragically redirected.

Irrational tho it may be, I finally understood more of why I engage in this project.

  • 11 Killed in Synagogue Massacre; Suspect Charged With 29 Counts, by Campbell RobertsonChristopher Mele and Sabrina Tavernise (Oct 27, 2018)
  • Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) (Supported by the Tree of Life Synagogue and referred to by the alleged shooter)
    HIAS works around the world to protect refugees who have been forced to flee their homelands because of who they are, including ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities. For more than 130 years, HIAS has been helping refugees rebuild their lives in safety and dignity.

Postscript: On one of my much earlier work trips I inadvertently drove past a sign announcing Canada Park in Israel. I’d heard about it, built with money donated by Canadians, on land previously owned by Palestinians. Now forested to erase the history, I drove in briefly. I didn’t realize then this was my first attempt on the project I began many years later, “On Our Way Home.”

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Lake near the Date Palm Spring, Ayalon Canada Park, photo by Yaakov Shkolnik


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  • A Jew Reflects on the Nakba, by Noam Sheizaf (May 2011)
    Denying the Nakba—forgetting our role in it and ignoring its political implications—is denying our own identity.
  • American Jews and Israeli Jews Are Headed for a Messy Breakup, by Jonathan Weisman, the deputy Washington editor of The New York Times (January 2019)
    Is the world ready for another Great Schism?

    Promised Land, by The Jewish Museum of the Palestinian Experience
    The Jewish Museum of the Palestinian Experience was founded to provide a Jewish perspective on the Israel/Palestine conflict. The Jewish perspective is rooted in Jewish values, to treat our neighbor as we would want to be treated.


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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.

Written 2003, revised 2010

With gratitude to students at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina who invited me to participate in their Art & Social Change conference, 2003—the interview no one at the College proposed.

If art reflects life, it does so with special mirrors.

—Bertold Brecht

1. How is your art about social change?

I don’t make photos purely to produce change; indeed, I try not to think along this line, that what I make and do will change anything. I might harbor hopes, I might have dreams, but I can’t say I usually, if ever, consciously plan to stir social change thru my photos. I remain mindful of Thomas Merton’s plea that artists should not strive to be useful. Their role is elsewhere—play, experiment, delight, make something beautiful, and perhaps at times try to be a social critic.

Pettus bridge

Annual commmorative recrossing of the Bridge, Selma AL, 1999

I offer my photos to others who are the change makers. This could be the Savannah Dept of Community Services in their campaign to honor neighborhood leaders, or the Selma National Voting Rights Institute celebrating another Pettus bridge crossing, or the social service agency in the township of Evaton in South Africa succoring the elderly, or the Quaker Peace Center in Cape Town, South Africa with their multifarious programs in service and change. Or it could be the local Eviction Free Zone in their various campaigns, or Peacework, the late journal of the New England region American Friends Service Committee, and its readers who are often on the front lines of transformation.

South Africa, 1999

But equally important are the mysteries. I think of the woman gazing at my American Indian photos in the Chicago Cultural Center in 1992. Who was she, how might she have changed after viewing my photos, what was her work? Or the readers of the South African Development Fund’s annual report viewing my photos from Alexandra. Would they be moved to contribute money to the Fund which then might be funneled to social change organizations in South Africa?

Bigfoot Memorial Ride to Wounded Knee, 1990

So, in myriad ways, some of my photos might contribute to social change. I am cognizant of that. But my measure is not the change, it is the quality of the photo. Rightly or wrongly, I pursue excellence in photography—beauty and emotional content—rather than political and social effect. My lineage is photography not activism.

2. How do you support yourself in this endeavor?

Thru various funding sources—grants, fees, teaching—also subsidies for housing, food, and medical services. Plus—the community aspect. What I do is deeply embedded in Quaker practice and community. This is the real secret.

3. What difference do your political views and insights have for your work?

That is, how important is grounding myself in the issues?

Vitally important. I read, interview, meditate, muse, struggle, before, during and after any foray into a photo project. Preparing for the Auschwitz to Hiroshima pilgrimage in 1995 I read about the Balkans, Hiroshima, the death camps, Cambodia, Vietnam, and WW2 history. Some reading before, but much after. With the Middle Passage Pilgrimage, similarly, I read about slavery, the civil rights movement, key figures, the South, racism, South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and other topics germane to slavery and racism. And now, with my work in Palestine and Israel, I read A History of God by Karen Armstrong, the writings of Edward Said, various books recommended or given me by friends, the many articles sent me, while attending events about the area and issues, and meeting people who’ve been there.

Hiroshima Peace Dome, 1995

Interfaith Pilgrimage of the Middle Passage

Even if the preparation doesn’t show directly in the photos, I believe it underlies the appearance and undergirds the photographer.

4. What is your center, your anchor?

A combination of American Indian practice (naming and honoring the powerful forces Wakan Tanka and Tunkashila and Creator), thanking, meditating, Buddhist practice (with its emphasis on the bodhisattva and its non-deism), Quaker practice (the silence, committee work, and clearness groups especially), and remnants of my Catholic upbringing (ceremony, endowed figures like priests, the social witness arm of Catholicism in the Catholic Worker movement, etc). Which in real life means I begin each day with yoga and meditation, walk in the spirit of the sacred, read inspirational and devotional and challenging literature, plunge deeply into my 3 core communities (Friends Meeting at Cambridge, Nipponzan Myohoji, a Japanese Buddhist group that builds peace pagodas and conducts walk and pilgrimages, and Agape, a lay Catholic non violence center), and struggle constantly with the notion of god.

A Buddhist-led Pilgrimage to the School of the Americas, 2009

At the core of my center is silence, sacred silence. This is fertile ground for the inner voice to manifest, that still small voice inside that might be conscience, higher power, pulse of the universe, or god itself speaking. I go to and come from silence, building it into my day, resisting to the best of my ability the impulse given by this mad and reckless society to abandon silence and join the maddening yelling crowd, thereby swamping my center.

5. And what is your path?

Look at my photos, look at my life, and you will see it is an endless faltering attempt to walk the talk. The talk of freedom, justice, community, peace, environmental integrity, and the sacred. The walk of the walk itself—walking, pilgrimage, my photo series from various walking pilgrimages, my relations with peers and family, my teaching.

Phil Downey with Rex, Christmas, 2009

6. What would you do if you realized your photography had grown useless (in the sense of inspiring social change)?

First, how would I know this? What is the measure of utility? Aren’t we called to be faithful, beyond successful? Faithful to the call, rather than effective in implementing it.

Let’s assume I am ineffective as a photographer, measured by lack of effect on the society and lack of attention from audience, critics, and funders. What would I do?

If money dried up, I’d probably have to retool, as I did when that happened 20 years ago with my filmmaking. If the sustaining and confidence building flow of equipment, supplies, grants, gifts, and subsidies disappeared, by definition, by popular demand, I’d have to find alternatives. But if I could continue making photos, even without an audience, I do believe I would.

7. Do you regard yourself as a success?

I regard myself as a work in progress, a stumbling bumbling neophyte, persistent and not always as gifted as I’d wish.

In the words of Thurgood Marshall, “I do my best with what I have and who I am.”

Thurgood Marshall

Or as Philip Berrigan is rumored to have once requested for his tomb stone, “He tried.”

Philip Berrigan

Or the late historian and activist Howard Zinn: “It is the job of the artist…to think outside the boundaries of permissible thought and dare to say things that no one else will say.”

Howard Zinn

Or the German artist, Kathe Kollwitz: “While I drew, and wept along with the terrified children I was drawing, I really felt the burden I am bearing. I felt that I have no right to withdraw from the responsibility of being an advocate.”

Kathe Kollwitz, self portrait, 1923


Mitakuye Oyasin: All My Relations, American Indians, 1990

Auschwitz to Hiroshima: A Pilgrimage, 1995

A Spirit People, Interfaith Pilgrimage of the Middle Passage, 1998-99

Visions of a New South Africa, 1999

A Buddhist-led Pilgrimage to the School of the Americas-part 1, 2009

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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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