Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Funny Anecdote

My phone was recently blocked from making outgoing calls. I found it to be frustrating that although I could receive calls and text messages, I could send nothing. After a few non-responses from Pelephone’s customer service email address, I decided to call the toll-free number from a friend’s cell phone.

After waiting 10-minutes for a customer service representative, my call was acknowledged. I asked the reasoning behind my phone’s restriction, and the woman responded with the following: “We noted that your phone had dialed East Jerusalem numbers, and we assumed your phone was stolen.”

“Why didn’t you make me aware of the restriction?”

“We called you twice, sir.” (Seems like a good strategy to contact an individual with a stolen phone)

Finally, my phone was restored to normal capacity, and I was able to check my voicemail. The phone company employee who called stated the following: “Mr. Robinson, we have on record that you have attempted to contact the Palestinian Authority. As a result, we are assuming your phone is stolen, and we are restricting its capacities.”

I don’t really remember ever trying to contact the P.A. I don’t think I have their number.

Bad Omens, Part II


Later that evening, I joined Jonah Seligman and Adam Ross at their apartment for Shabbat. I stopped at a store prior to my arrival, and purchased a bottle of wine and a bottle of vodka for our Shabbat consumption. Within ten minutes of arriving at the apartment, the entire bottle of vodka lay shattered on the linoleum floor sending waves of liquor in every direction. Another guest, who shall remain nameless, accidentally dropped the unopened bottle of vodka. My bad luck persisted. (I also forgot to mention that my toothbrush fell out of my backpack on my walk to the bus in West Jerusalem, a fact that I failed to realize until I needed to brush my teeth.)

Shabbat was a very nice evening, although I was at odds with two of the other guests. Adam had invited two acquaintances who happened to be Brandeis graduates, and former members of the Brandeis Hillel. I described to them the nature of my internship, and they were not amused. As two sheltered Jews living within an insular community (one of the guests bragged that all of his friends throughout his entire life had been Jewish) and considering the decision to make aliyah, they did not know what to make of this kippah-wearing Arab-lover.

During the day on Saturday, Jonah and I decided to attend a tour of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem facilitated by the Center for Jerusalem Studies within Al-Quds University. The description of the tour in the email referred to the confrontation of the “Israeli military colonization,” so we knew we were in for an interesting afternoon.

The tour left from the Ambassador Hotel, and Jonah and I took a taxi from Damascus Gate up the hill since we were running short on time. Once again, my bad luck came into play. As I exited the cab, my keys fell out of my pocket onto the back seat. I realized this immediately, but the cab had gone too far for me to run it down. My only option was to run back down to Damascus Gate and hope that the cabbie returned to his original spot.

I left Jonah with the tour, and ran back down to the gate. I couldn’t believe it, but within 2 minutes of standing at the cab stand being harassed by the various drivers, my original driver approached me to ask if I needed a taxi. I promptly responded, “No” and added, “But did you just drive me to the Ambassador Hotel?” He nodded, and I explained my situation. He led me to his cab and opened the back door. My keys were lying right where I had left them. I guess my luck was changing.

I caught a bus back up to the Ambassador Hotel, and tracked down the tour group. Jonah mentioned that I missed the tour guide’s explanation of the “nakba” (literally meaning ‘the disaster’) which is a politically charged term referring to the relocation of many Palestinians living within the borders of Israel after 1948. The tour guide also used the term “ethnic cleansing” on various occasions to describe Israeli policy against Palestinians. I personally felt that the use of the term was a gross misapplication and inaccurate.

The tour lasted about two hours, and focused primarily on the history of Sheikh Jarrah, a neighborhood named after Sultan Suleiman’s surgeon who operated on Richard the Lionhearted. The tour guide spoke about the famous Palestinian families of East Jerusalem, the Nashashibi family and the Husseini family. I intended to, although I never had the opportunity to ask her about the Grand Mufti Hajj Amin al-Husseini of the Husseini family.

This man was the primary religious leader in Jerusalem in the early part of the 20th century, and had numerous meetings with Adolf Hitler. At these meetings, Husseini tried to gain Hitler’s support for establishing an independent Palestinian state in exchange for Palestinian troops for Hitler’s campaign in Russia. These troops, as you can imagine, didn’t last too long in the Russian winter.

The tour culminated in what is known as the “Resistance Tent,” a place that houses various victims of housing demolitions in East Jerusalem who are now considered by the U.N. as IDP’s (internally displaced persons). Within this tent, we were told by the daughter of a “militant” and others about the “evils” of Jewish settlements. A question was posed at one point by a presenter; who is the terrorist, the person who defends his/her land, or the person who kicks people off of their land with military power? The obvious answer to these people was the person who kicks people off of their land, i.e. Israel.

Our tour guide at one point used the term “judaization” in reference to the increasing number of settlements in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan. I intended to ask her if she was familiar with the origins of this word, although I was again not given the opportunity. The term “judaizer” comes from the time of the Inquisition, and is basically the equivalent of a crypto-Jew, one who practices Judaism in private while outwardly practicing Catholicism. The tour guide was not so good at using the correct application of terminology throughout the session.

My experiences on this tour definitely brought to my attention the capacity that exists on either side of the conflict to manipulate words, facts and scenarios to serve a purpose. In Israel, as I have written about before, everything is political. It is impossible to escape the human tendency to apply one’s own personal views or values when interpreting a situation. Any fact or figure that you hear, especially in Jerusalem, is intended to persuade an individual toward one side or the other.

It is also the case, quite often, that these self-serving accounts exist in the omission. For example, while the tour guide spoke of the Husseini family, she failed to mention that he met on multiple occasions with Adolf Hitler. Such omissions exist on the Israeli side as well. A prominent historical event in pre-1948 Israel was the bombing of the King David Hotel. In modern Israel, no one ever mentions that this bombing was carried out by a Zionist terrorist organization called the Irgun, led at one point by Menachem Begin (yes, the same Begin from the Camp David accords).

I spoke about my experiences on the tour with a colleague in the office who is a member of the famous Nashashibi family. We spoke about the use of the term “ethnic cleansing,” and he directed my attention to the events that occurred at Deir Yaseem in 1948. Deir Yaseem was a Palestinian town near Jerusalem that experienced a slaughter of 107 at the hands of the Irgun. I countered with the citation of the 1938 Tiberias Massacre during the Arab Revolt where Palestinians killed 20 Jews near the Sea of Galilee. He said Israel is a terrorist state, and referred to the recent Gaza operation. I can never defend the violence that happened there, but I disagree with the application of the term terrorist state. Yet another example of the power of manipulating terms to serve a purpose.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Bad Omens, Part I

What I failed to mention in my previous post is the reason behind my abrupt early-morning wakeup. Before falling asleep that evening, I had a cup of tea. Rather than getting up to wash the glass cup, I placed it on my bedside table and left the task for the morning.

I awoke to the sound of shattering glass, which I thought was just an imagined element of my dream. I turned on the light next to my bed and checked the right hand side. No broken glass. I looked to my left. Yep. There it was, the glass cup in hundreds of glorious pieces strewn all over the ground.

When I stepped out of bed to retrieve the garbage can, I noticed a large black dot out of the corner of my eye. A closer, more focused look revealed the spider waiting patiently and motionless. My immediate, 4 am reaction was to blame the spider for the broken glassware. It was my hand that broke the glass, but it was the spider’s presence that invoked the destruction. I quickly reconsidered this position, and thought better of it, but various events throughout the weekend lead me to entertain the possibility of a bad omen.

I woke up several hours later on Friday morning tired from the interruption of my sleep. I went through the motions of getting up, showering, brushing my teeth, getting dressed. As I was packing up my backpack, however, I experienced the first mishap of the weekend. I lifted my backpack from the bed, and from a peripheral pocket fell my external hard drive. It landed with the strongest conviction possible onto the tile floor. It did not sound good. My lament over damage to my external hard drive may sound nerdy, but keep in mind that this piece of hardware contains all of my photos from my Birthright trip. If I am unable to recover the data, I will have lost many of those photos forever.

The day progressed as usual. I sat at my desk and ate some hummus. Read through some ANERA data and pretended to compile it for a survey. I left midway through the day in order to attend a presentation at the Jerusalem headquarters of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

The presentation was only an hour long, but it was informative nonetheless. The lecturer addressed the humanitarian impact of Israeli restrictions on goods entering Gaza, and exports leaving the West Bank. She spoke of the network of transportation within the West Bank, and made the interesting point that there now exists separate highway systems for Israelis and Palestinians. Here are some more facts that I noted during the presentation:

- 80% poverty rate in the Gaza Strip (avg. income $2.8/day)

- 3,000 Gaza housing units destroyed during the 22 day siege in December-January leaving 260,000 Gazans either homeless, or in need of repairing their home (a task impossible with the embargo on construction materials).

- When the Israeli blockade on the West Bank is complete, 126,000 Palestinians will be entirely enclosed by the wall, 360 degrees.

The best part about the presentation, were the free maps that OCHA offers of governorates in the West Bank and in Gaza. They are the most accurate maps to date, and detail every checkpoint and crossing, every settlement and Palestinian village, and they also indicate the territories entitled to each side by the Oslo Agreements.

To be continued...

My Room Mate

I woke up in the middle of the night to pee. When I went back to bed, I notice this beast on the ground near my desk. I figured, either I can try to take care of this spider at 4am, or I can deal with it tomorrow. Naturally, I decided to deal with it tomorrow.

The spider was in the same spot in the morning, so I took pictures of it. It hid from me when I tried to scoop it up with a jar. That afternoon, however, it was waiting near my door. I chased it out of the room using my book. I continued to herd the spider until it was safely outside. Good karma, right?

Well I proceeded to have some pretty bad luck in the weekend to come, so maybe it was an omen...

Friday, June 26, 2009

My Trip to Ramallah

Two days ago, I made my first trip across the checkpoints to visit some friends in Ramallah. I can’t say that I knew what to expect, although my experience was much more seamless than I anticipated. I boarded a bus at Damascus Gate in East Jerusalem which, for 6.50 NIS (about $1.60), carried me all the way to Ramallah.

Travelling from the Israeli side of the wall into the West Bank does not require any stopping of the bus. The checkpoint looks very similar to a border crossing. In a way, I felt as if I was passing from Washington into Canada. The border police don’t even check documents as you pass into the West Bank. You simply drive right on through.

The bus dropped me off at the Manara Circle in downtown Ramallah. Again, I’m not sure what I was expecting to see, but downtown looks like any normal Arab city. There are multitudes of people lining the sidewalks, restaurants and businesses abound. Tea vendors stroll the streets ringing their bells and calling for your money. Truthfully, it just looked like a more active version of East Jerusalem, cacophony and all.

I met my friend Sinan when I exited the bus, and we entered a decrepit looking building. Climbing to the top story placed us in a nargileh (hookah) lounge with pictures of Arafat on every wall. There were absolutely no women in this place. A conversation with my colleague Julia the next day revealed to me that women are usually barred from such places due to social convention. At this lounge were my friends Marwan and Hasan, and another Brandeis student.

Our next stop after leaving the lounge was the Ramallah maqaatah, a government property that houses the mausoleum of Yasir Arafat. Outside of the tomb itself is a large statue with a poem by Mahmoud Darwish written in Arabic calligraphy. The tomb is a beautiful stone structure with two guards standing behind it at all times.

A conversation that arose upon leaving the maqaatah brought forth Sinan’s idea that if Arafat were alive today, there would be much more peace between Israel and Palestine. I am personally unable to speculate as to the validity of such a statement, but I do know this; if Arafat were alive today, the Palestinians would be a much more unified group. Arafat is a beloved figure among the majority of the Palestinian community. He was able to manipulate the sentiments of his people, and he would likely keep Hamas in check in Gaza. These conversations are not productive, however, since Arafat is dead.

As the evening progressed, it came time for me to return to Jerusalem. I said goodbye, and boarded a bus right outside of the Manara Circle. The process of crossing back into Israel is slightly more complex. The bus drops the passengers off about 100 yards from the checkpoint. The passengers must then pass through the checkpoint on foot, which requires metal detectors, x-ray machines and a passport scanner.

I did not cross through the checkpoint immediately after exiting the bus. Some graffiti murals that adorned the wall caught my attention, and I approached them in order to get some photos. There were two boys sitting at the wall, who initially requested that I do not take their picture. Eventually, they asked that I take a picture of them. When I complied, they promptly approached me in order to review the image. I was slightly taken aback by their haste, and a sense of fear rushed through me. I was not afraid for my safety, but rather that of the camera. I guess I’m just very protective of that thing.

After snapping a few photos, and avoiding the theft of my equipment, I proceeded to the checkpoint and put my backpack through the x-ray machine. The officer on duty could have cared less about checking my passport, and simply waved me through to what I refer to as the “holding cell.” Basically, once you pass through security, you haven’t completed your visit to the checkpoint. You must subsequently wait for a door to open, and this door is only open for 5 or so minutes at a time. As a result, there is a corridor full of Palestinians trying to get out of the checkpoint compound. I was among that group, and the only white boy in the bunch.

I thoroughly enjoyed my experience in Ramallah, and I know that it will not be my last trip to the West Bank. I will likely be making trips to the various ANERA offices in Nablus, Hebron and Ramallah, and I am scheduled to do various site visits in Jericho in the near future. For those of you who may have the opportunity to visit the West Bank, but feel intimidated by the prospect of doing so, take my account as reassurance. It’s certainly worth the 6.50 NIS.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Diplomacy and the Prospects for Peace

It is rare to hear of a nation willingly cede land obtained during war. Think back on the Mexican American War. The U.S. more than doubled its land holding with the Mexican Cession, and then manipulated the Mexican government into agreeing to the Gadsden Purchase. It took a comprehensive defeat of the Nazis for Europe to emerge from fascist expansionism after World War II. The list of examples goes on forever, but my point is the following: land almost always must be taken from the “occupier,” and is rarely, if ever, given back willingly.

Now let’s turn back the clock to 1978. Anwar Sadat is the leader of Egypt. Menachem Begin is the Israeli Prime Minister. The two men meet at Camp David and hang out with Jimmy Carter for a while. They drink some tea, do some diplomacy, and there you have it, Israeli-Egyptian peace, also known as The Camp David Accords.

We jump forward a few months to 1979, and Sadat and Begin are signing a treaty known as the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty. Excuse me, what? These are the same two countries that have been quarrelling since 1948? Didn’t Israel preemptively strike in 1967 and hose the Egyptian military? Wasn’t it former Egyptian leader Gamel Abdel Nasser who initiated the creation of the PLO? So now they’re friends, but on a certain condition. That Israel return control of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt.

This condition was not a gift of land, it was a land cession. Israel decided that controlling the Sinai Peninsula was less gratifying that forging peace with the most influential state in the Arab world. Remember I mentioned the 1967 war? That was the war that allowed Israel to control the Sinai Peninsula in the first place. In addition, Israel won the Gaza Strip from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria. Let’s also not forget the Israeli capital of Jerusalem, which was previously controlled by Jordan.

My first point is that Israel made an unprecedented move in giving back land that came out of a hostile encounter. Put the United States in Israel’s place. I’m sure most American presidents would throw a couple fingers in the direction of Egypt if they wanted their land back. Israel, however, made a concession, and did so in the name of peace.

The next point is more of a criticism of Israel’s decision making than a commendation; why not give Gaza back too? I wasn’t alive at that point in time, and I’m obviously not able to speak from an Israeli perspective, but I think that Israel had illusions of grandeur, a type of Manifest Destiny if you will. A common phrase espoused by some Palestinian nationalists is “From the river to the sea,” a reference to the land that stretches from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. This area includes the West Bank, Israel and Gaza. I guess the Israelis at that point in time had a similarly philosophy regarding territory.

Jump forward to 2005, Israel removes all Jewish settlements from Gaza and cedes the entirety of that land to the Palestinian people. Again, a rare occurrence where land obtained through war is willfully given up (granted, I acknowledge that the Palestinians did not control Gaza prior to 1967, although Egypt wasn’t going to take Gaza back at this point). This is not a result of any Camp David Accords. Israel is not promised peace in return. Some criticize Ariel Sharon’s decision to evacuate Gaza, but it seemed to be a genuine step in the direction of peace. The only thing that the Gaza pull-out accomplished, however, was the facilitation of a closer range of fire for rockets entering Israeli towns like S’derot and Ashdod.

This brings us to 2008. Israel devastates the Gaza strip with a 22-day siege as a response to Gazan rocket fire on Israeli towns. I will be the first to admit that the siege was a radically disproportionate response to the typically ineffective attacks from Gaza. However, to understand the Israeli perspective on the issue is a very complex matter. Place yourself in S’derot, a town continually brutalized by rockets. You wake up in the middle of the night to rockets exploding on your streets. People you know are injured or killed. You cannot live a comfortable, peaceful life for fear of being struck by a rocket at any given moment.

Thus, Israel attacks Gaza. Some may blame Sharon for his lack of foresight. Some may blame Israel in general for overreacting. Some may blame Hamas for turning a gesture of peace into an opportunity to exploit closer range on Israeli towns. Those who should not be blamed, however, are the civilians in Gaza, who now live in conditions more destitute than before the siege. The poverty rate in Gaza is a striking 80%, and the unemployment rate is near 50% (both figures come from the UN OCHA). The worst part is that there is no capacity to rebuild Gaza. For fear of smuggling weapons into the strip, Israel has placed significant restrictions on materials entering Gaza. These restrictions include but are not limited to construction materials. There is no rebuilding is Gaza.

A quick tangent about the lack of materials in Gaza; I am proud to say that the organization for which I work has implemented an emergency relief response program in Gaza to accomplish several goals. The program deals with the recycling of plastic used in the process of farming. This plastic is generally discarded, but with the dearth of raw materials entering Gaza, ANERA employs locals to collect plastic for purposes of recycling. Not only are these unemployed Gazans receiving temporary employment, ANERA is stimulating the economy by infusing money into the populace, and also giving work to a local plastic recycling plant that is nearly shut down for lack of purpose. A side note: our organization, as a recipient of USAID money, is obligated to work outside of the municipal governments which are often controlled by Hamas. We do not collaborate with Hamas.

I would now like to speculate on the trend that Israel has established in ceding these parcels of land in exchange for peace. Bibi’s speech on June 14th acknowledged the right to a sovereign, yet demilitarized, Palestinian state. However, he also noted that settlements in the West Bank would continue normal activities, which likely includes further expansion into the territory.

Bibi does not want to be the new Ariel Sharon by pulling out of “Judea and Samaria.” He doesn’t want his concessions for peace to come bite him in the ass the way the Gaza pull-out did to Sharon, prompting a siege on the scale of “Cast-Lead.” Israel cannot afford to destroy West Bank infrastructure in the vein of the recent attack on Gaza. It would ruin any possibility for future peace.

This prospect also prompts the thought, if Jordan still controlled the West Bank, how willing would they be to give up that land to the Palestinian people? Jordan has the largest population of Palestinians outside of the West Bank. At one point, King Hussein was recognized by many as the leader of the Palestinians. However, Palestinians are abused in Jordanian society. Palestinians are unable to rise above a certain rank within the Jordanian army. They are treated as second class citizens. I highly doubt that Jordan would make such concessions for the sake of establishing an independent Palestine. I’m no expert on Jordanian politics, but as I said, Israel’s cession of land is a very rare historical occurrence.

To wrap all of these musings up into one big conclusion, I would like to say that Israel is clearly not opposed to making peace. The government, on more than one occasion, has make concessions to its “enemies” for the sake of forging some fruitful dialogue, but what Israel has learned is that such concessions can be counterproductive. I am in full support of the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, and I think that state should include the entirety of the West Bank. I haven’t made my mind up about Jerusalem, but before Israel is to ever evacuate Jews from the West Bank, there must be a peace agreed upon by both Israel and the Palestinian people. For now, Israel must control its settlers and make sure that there is nothing to prompt a third Intifada.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

An Undivided Capital, and a Response to Adam

I walk nearly every day from the Damascus Gate, a prominent part of East Jerusalem, to Zion Square, a landmark in West Jerusalem. Crossing onto Jaffa Road represents a multifaceted shift for the pedestrian. From one moment to another, the experience of passing the chaos of an Arab market transitions into a calm Israeli neighborhood.

Jaffa Road, while a major street, is entirely gentrified with bagel chains and an Aroma coffee shop as its major characteristics. Israelis wait patiently at the designated bus stops for their Egged buses to take them further into West Jerusalem. Orthodox Jewish parents push strollers down the sidewalk.

Damascus Gate, on the other hand, is teeming with activity. Vendors shout prices in every direction. Arab women sit on milk crates selling what looks to me as maple leafs (although I have yet to see a maple tree). Children chase one another across the street, just nearly dodging the speeding traffic. And as I have described in a previous post, the Arab buses are not orderly.

The contrast between the two areas that are separated by a 10 minute walk is striking. I feel as if I have crossed from one distinct municipality to another. The cultures that exist in each respective part of Jerusalem are representative of the populations that exist there. It will be hard to find someone to argue against the position that East Jerusalem is known as the “Arab half” of Jerusalem, whereas West Jerusalem is undoubtedly Jewish. I rode the bus down the Mount of Olives, and I could not help but notice that I was the only Jew on board.

East Jerusalem, however, remains a part of the Israeli capital. This truth was reaffirmed on June 14th in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech at Bar Ilan University. Jerusalem will remain the undivided capital of Israel.

This statement seemed to come as a surprise to many. If you live in Jerusalem, however, or have visited the city in your lifetime, you would have known this to be the truth without Bibi having to spell it out for you. The walk that I described in the early part of this post follows from Damascus Gate up to Jaffa Road. Now this walk is made to be slightly more difficult than necessary because of the exorbitant amount of construction that these roads are experiencing.

The construction is not road repair; it consists of the placement of street-car tracks that travel from East to West Jerusalem and back. The city of Jerusalem has obviously invested quite a few Israeli tax shekels into the implementation of this transport system. As I understand the project, it is to be quite extensive and allow for travel throughout the city of Jerusalem. The municipality is saying to everyone living in Jerusalem, East and West, that this is one city under Israeli control. Feel free to travel it on our Israeli street-car.

Another, more subtle indication of Israel’s intention to control the entirety of Jerusalem resides in the road signs on the highway from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. For those who are unaware, every street sign and road sign in Israel is written in three languages: Hebrew, English and Arabic. Throughout the ride between Israel’s two largest cities, I couldn’t help but notice that Jerusalem was spelled in Arabic as “Yerushalayim,” which is an Arabic transliteration of the Hebrew word for Jerusalem. The sign read “Jerusalem” in English.

I guess my naïveté got the better of me, and I was surprised to read “Yerushalayim” in Arabic rather than seeing the Arabic word for Jerusalem, which is “Al-Quds.” The signs are a political statement on the part of the Israelis: “We’ll accommodate your language, but this is Yerushalayim. Don’t even think about calling it Al-Quds.”

This thought brought me back to a conversation I had with my colleague yesterday in my office. We were running through the various documents that she had left for me to read in her absence, and the website for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs came up. I simply stated that I read much of the information on the website to have a leftist slant, and to be painting Israeli authorities as the aggressor.

I’m not ignorant, I know that much of the world shares this position with the UN OCHA, but I was surprised to see a UN group to maintain such bias, especially on an official website. Her response was the following; that although we would like to believe that it is possible for political neutrality to exist when it comes to the Arab/Zionist conflict, everyone will inevitably have biases. We all have thoughts and feelings about this contentious issue, and no matter how hard we try to remove ourselves from these sentiments, they will shine through nonetheless. Everything in Israel, and especially in Jerusalem, is inherently political. From the construction projects to the road signs, all things purvey partisanship.

I would like to take this moment as an opportunity to respond to Adam Greenblatt’s comment on my recent post entitled “Talkin’ Generation-X Jews: The Post-Modern Approach.” Adam brings up a great point in that as Americans, we have the unique “luxury” of looking at the Arab/Zionist conflict from the perspective of an outsider. Even as a Zionist with a predisposed bias in favor of Israel, we as Americans can still look at this issue beyond the dichotomous definition espoused by that Israeli settler who I described as “not the brightest bulb.” Our affiliations are based less on survival, and more on politics.

Also, Adam, you’re right that I should be more careful when discussing these issues. In my defense, I wasn’t targeting that man as not the “brightest bulb” because of his opinions, but more because throughout the evening, he demonstrated to me his limited intellectual capacities. However, I do agree with you that his life was shaped in a very different way than ours, one where Arabs were likely posited as the enemy. His tribal approach should be considered a product of his environment, where he was trained to maintain his way of life by seeing the world as “us” or “them.”

Please also keep in mind that “Palestinians” as a whole are not the enemy of democracy. A small group of extremists who resort to means of violence to espouse their political agenda do not represent the entirety of the Palestinian population. Most of the Palestinians I have spoken to desperately want peace and justice and democracy. The avenues for accomplishing this goal, however, are clogged by dogmatism on both sides of the conflict.

P.S. Here is a link to the UN OCHA website: http://www.ochaopt.org/

Also, check out Shai Feldman and Dr. Khalil Shikaki's essay on Obama's options regarding the Israeli/Palestinian conflict from the Crown Center publication: http://www.brandeis.edu/crown/publications/meb/MEB32.pdf

Sunday, June 21, 2009

My Thoughts on Iran

The Obama administration has finally issued a public statement addressing the ongoing violence purveyed by the Iranian government against its people. The president’s words are available at this URL: http://www.politico.com/politico44/perm/0609/statement_on_iran_10a1f69f-8297-4975-8b30-3f06d131c71e.html.

Although I am satisfied with the administration’s willingness to take a stance on the harsh repression of the Iranian people, I am slightly unnerved by the amount of time that has passed since the election. Originally, the Obama group was hesitant to weigh its own hand regarding this issue. I see this as an attempt to refrain from falling into the same interventionist pattern that has too often characterized the American presidency. For that, I commend the president.

Obama rationalized his hands-off approach to this crisis, however, by keeping the doors open to dialogue and diplomacy with the Iranian government. Iran, while a potential nuclear threat in the future, has lost some of its edge in the world community. Low oil prices have limited Iran’s income. This situation has also indicated a relative loss of legitimacy among Iran’s leaders, especially among its own people.

While I advocate Obama’s stance on diplomacy with Iran, I feel that this goal should be secondary to the administration’s approval of the Iranian government’s actions. There is a reason why the United States does not deal directly with Omar al-Bashir, the war-criminal president of Sudan. Just because an administration retains power within its own borders does not require the world community to recognize its legitimacy.

An abusive government such as that of Ayatollah Khomeini and Mahmoud Ahmedinajad should not have the opportunity to hold diplomatic relations with the free world. Until these “leaders” shape up and respect the right of the people to express discontent, Obama should disregard his stance of diplomacy toward Iran.

p.s. Tom Friedman has a great piece on the Moussavi supporters. Check it out here: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/21/opinion/21friedman.html?_r=1

Jerusalem of Gold

I love taking the bus in Jerusalem. I say this having only taken the Israeli “Egged” bus once, but I rely on the “Al-Quds” buses that run in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. I take the 75 almost daily. Not only is it cheap, but it runs so frequently, that I often question the ability of the bus company to remain solvent. There is no time table on which these buses run. They come and go with the rest of the traffic.

There are no bus stops for these buses. Let me rephrase; there are bus stops, although they are a negligible part of the bus infrastructure. No one uses the bus stops to get onto the buses. Passengers have the ability to wave the bus down like a taxi and get on or off at any point throughout the course of the bus’ trip. This system is very user friendly, although it cannot be the most efficient method.

There are no capacity limits on these buses. Keep in mind, many of the Al-Quds buses look like the mini-buses that we use in the states, they aren’t normal sized passenger buses. Regardless, the buses are so widely used that the aisles double as a standing room. I was a standing passenger today, and I was concerned that the bumpy nature of the bus ride would send me into the lap of some old hijab clad woman. I didn’t want to cause anyone to violate the Muslim tenet that holds inter-gender contact as haram, or forbidden. Therefore, I braced myself with a wide stance, and leaned against the back of another chair. Laysa mooshkila, no problem.

My experience with the bus system has been so far seamless. My only qualm resides in the time frame within which the buses function. Every evening, 7 days a week, the Al-Quds buses stop running at 10pm. Only my parents go to bed at 10pm! And even at that point, they’re still watching Letterman. Therefore, if I want to get home in the evening I have to pay for a taxi to get up the Jabal al-Zetoon. Luckily, I’ve made friends with a taxi driver who is consistently outside of Damascus Gate. We’ve worked out a deal, and I’ve made it clear to him that I will refuse to pay the rip-off prices that he charges to gringos. He teaches me a little Arabic, I pay him a few shekels and there I am, home sweet home.

Jerusalem is a spectacular city, and a city that is very easily travelled by foot. In the day, I have no problem walking from the Machaneh Yehuda, a shuk near Jaffa Rd. all the way down to Damascus Gate where I pick up my bus. One observation about pedestrians, however, is their hesitancy to jay-walk. For a culture that is so impatient in most aspects of life, Israelis will rarely dare to cross the street in defiance of the red, standing man. In fact, if they catch you doing so, they will start to yell at you. It’s a concept that I am still trying to grasp, but I’ll get back to you with more musings if I come up some.

My first weekend as an independent Jerusalemite was very enjoyable, and very relaxing. Much of Jerusalem, with the exception of East Jerusalem, is silent on Shabbat. No buses, a few taxis, and even fewer cars. No businesses are open. Hardly any pedestrians venture out into the street. As a friend observed, Jerusalem is like the country-side on Shabbat. It is silent. However, Sunday is a normal day in Israeli society. The hustle and bustle of normal Jerusalem life exists in full force on Sundays.

It is only a matter of time before I absorb these cultural adjustments. After visiting Japan in 2005, I recall bowing to people in the United States long after returning home. I am unable to pinpoint what aspects of Israeli/Arab culture will stick with me after my return home. For now, I am just enjoying the unique intricacies that make Jerusalem one of the greatest cities on the planet (and one worth fighting for).

Friday, June 19, 2009

Talkin' Generation-X Jews; The Post-Modern Approach

Brandeis students learn all about "dichotomy" in our painstaking ventures through the mandatory writing seminars. I remember a few weeks into school, I started hearing the word tossed around by pretentious 'Deisians attempting to sound oh-so-cultured. Dichotomy was not a foriegn concept to these students, but for some reason, learning an esoteric word helped to bring the idea into a new light. Dichotomies became a convention against which these young academics felt compelled to rebel, suggesting a postmodern awareness.

My American generation (we've been dubbed Generation-X) has come of age in a world that defies dichotomies. I first became aware of the acronym GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bi, Transgender) when I was in middle school. Here I was, a 12-year-old boy presented with 4 ways to define sexuality beyond the dichotomy. Later, when I entered college, I heard people tagging on a "Q" to stand for queer. Thus, a fifth. My parents' generation really only knew straight and straight, and maybe the occasional gay, but no one talked about it.

Here's another example which applies most specifically to Jews. Travelling around Israel on Taglit-Birthright leaves you subject to their agenda. I'm not saying I entirely disagree with the ideas presented to the groups, but the program drills into your mind the importance of marrying Jewish, and having Jewish children. "Intermarriage is the number one cause for the world's loss of Jews." How many times have young Jews, especially young American Jews heard this story? Well here I sit, in Israel, the product of an interfaith marriage, and I can safely say, that almost half of my Jewish friends also come from interfaith marriages. America's Jews are growing up in a world of "Chrismakkah," where religion looks more like a Venn Diagram than a dichotomy.

Generation X's understanding of dichotomies resides primarily in our concept that dichotomies are a thing of the past and must be defied at any cost. We've seen the convention, and we can recognize a dichotomy when we see one. Merriam-Webster would call that postmodern.

Our postmodern world places American Jews (or, Jewish-Americans, however you prefer) of Generation X in a unique position, especially in our concept of Israel. I had a conversation last night with a man in which I told him my business in Israel. He responded, "Oh, so you're a Palestinian supporter?" I found myself jumping to respond "No!" but I held back that reaction and said, "Well it depends how you mean Palestinian supporter. I consider myself a Zionist, but that does not mean I do not recognize the humanitarian crisis that characterizes the situation of the Palestinian people."

The only thing this guy got out of my statement was "Oh, you're a Zionist. That's good." Granted, he lives on a settlement in the West Bank, and didn't seem to be the brightest bulb, but I noticed that to him, Israel is about this side or that side, Zionist or Palestinian supporter. There is no middle ground for him.

This scenario for me embodies the unique situation of American Jews of Generation X. We have the luxury of growing up in a society that actively defies and consistently redefines dichotomies. It's O.K. to be a Zionist, Palestinian supporter. In fact, it is our duty as the generation of Obama to bring to the world a renewed sense of unity.

The criticism of Brandeis liberals is that we are too often naive and optimistic. However, in a time of crisis, the world needs optimism and healing, not division. Defy the divisive rhetoric of the past generations. They may have come a long way as far as civil rights are concerned, but they don't know what it's like to chip away at dichotomies. It is our job to teach the world how to do this thing that is inherent to our upbringing.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

"The Challenges we Face"

I've seen this sign all over the place here in Jerusalem. Also a graffiti tag saying, "Obama is an Arab Nigger" which was later changed to "Obama loves Hizbullah and Hamas."

Ok, so I know I’m a few weeks late on this topic, but I just watched Obama’s address to Cairo University in its entirety this morning, and as with most Obama speeches, I’m impressed. He entered the stage to a remarkable ovation, to which he responded “Shukran,” the Arabic word for “Thank you.” He then proceeded to address the audience with the words “al-Salaam Aleikum” which is a common phrase used among Arabs to mean, “Peace be with you.” I could be wrong, but I find this to be an unprecedented moment in politics, where the President of the United States of America reaches out to the Muslim world with such dignity.

The President proceeded to quote the Koran on three different occasions, the final time accompanying quotations from both the Talmud and the Christian Bible. He cited his experiences in Indonesia, as a student in a majority Muslim nation (Indonesia is home to the most Muslims of any country in the world). He also referred to his own familial ties to the religion of Islam, using his middle name as an example.

To many Americans, and particularly, to many American Jews, Obama’s actions may seem like cause for concern. In speaking to fellow Jews throughout the presidential election last November, I heard an inherent distrust among many. There is a common sentiment among American Jews that Democrats are not strong enough supporters of Israel. Thus, you have a historically liberal, Democratic demographic leaning to the right, simply for the sake of Israel. I am by no means discrediting this stance. I myself am a strong supporter of the state of Israel, and find it to be an important issue when I consider my vote. However, I am confident enough in the strength of the American Jewish community through groups such as AIPAC to maintain my sense of Zionism, while critiquing the often flagrant policies of the Israeli government.

Obama is no dummy, however, and spoke directly to this group in his Cairo speech. He affirmed America’s support for the Jewish state and recounted his understanding of the tumultuous past of the Jewish people. He also spoke of the anti-Semitic hate speech that resides in the words of Holocaust deniers. Denying the Holocaust, stated Obama, is “baseless, ignorant and hateful.” Ignorance is not power.

Although Obama’s words were in strong support of Israel, many conservative Jews feel threatened by Obama’s stance on settlements in the West Bank, that being primarily that they must cease to exist (an opinion that I agree with as well, and one that will lead us down a path of peace). An Israeli right-wing group served to manifest these sentiments with their promotion of the sign displayed above depicting Obama as a modern day Arafat. It is fanatical Jewish groups like these that caused the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. It is Jews like these who protested the rally celebrating the 60th anniversary of Israel that I witnessed in Montreal last May. It’s Jews such as these who attend Holocaust denying conventions in Tehran among the likes of David Duke. These Jews impede peace as much as Hamas.

In closing, I was obviously quite moved by Obama’s words. While I do not place him on a pedestal, and see him as a cure-all drug for the world’s ills, he has demonstrated to me a unique quality. This quality resides in his capacity to unify disparate groups in times of desperation. He inspires people to behave civilly, and carries a message of unity, rather than of factionalism. When I travelled abroad during the Bush presidency, I was careful about my admission of my nationality. It wasn’t safe to say “I am an American.” Yesterday, I was sitting in a nargileh spot in the widely Palestinian populated East Jerusalem. When asked my nationality, I proudly declared “Ana Amreekee/I am American.”

It’s an interesting time to be in the Middle East. Obama came here, now Carter is here, the elections in Iran… I’m glad to be here, and I’m learning so much about how important it is to have a strong, positive force in the driver’s seat back home in America.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

From the top of Jabal al-Zetoon

So I trekked the mountain twice in two days. In reality, it was only once and half, but the "half" was uphill. The Augusta Victoria Hospital is located at the very top of the Mount of Olives, or as the Arabs call it, Jabal al-Zetoon. The ANERA office is located at the bottom of the Mount of Olives. Therefore, the logic goes as follows; I walk down in the morning, I hike up in the afternoon.

This morning I stepped into the office for my second day on the job at ANERA. Robert wasn't lying, I do have my own desk. They even gave me a laptop to use for the summer, although it's very, very slow. I'll stick with my own. They will also give me a cell phone, but I have yet to receive it.

My shirt was drenched with sweat, because believe it or not, it's hot in Jerusalem in the morning. My walk down the hill was pretty pleasant thanks to the vocals of Black Francis of The Pixies. It's nice morning music, I'd say.

So far, my job has been a little bit uneventful. Other than getting to know the staff around the office, my only tasks have been to familiarize myself with the various ANERA projects that occur in both the West Bank and in Gaza. The most extensive program by far is called the EWAS (Emergency Water and Sanitation) which is dedicated to bringing clean water and proper sewage systems to impoverished towns throughout what the UN deems as the oPt (occupied Palestinian territories). I don't know what my role will be in the office quite yet, but I'm sure the work will pick up soon.

I had to prepare a presentation this afternoon on a program facilitated by the Palestinian Authority called QIF (Quality Improvement Fund). This is a fund that administers government funds to applicants in the sector of tertiary education who attempt to improve the quality of such education within the Palestinian community. I will present my findings in due time.

Everyone in the office seems very nice. They are all very welcoming, but do they know I'm Jewish? The IT guy Amjad today asked me if I was a Muslim in context with a conversation about my Arabic studies. I responded with a quick "no." I know my boss, Robert, is aware of my participation in the Birthright trip. He showed me an article today in the Jerusalem Post that reported 15 American Jews from Taglit quarantined in Israeli hospitals because of Swine Flu. Thank goodness I'm not locked up in a hospital.

Anyway, I will certainly report back when I encounter some interesting stuff. For now, I will just show you the view from up top the Jabal al-Zetoon. (See top)

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Doors are Locked

The drive between Israel's two most prominent cities takes less than an hour. It is impossible to conceptualize an Israeli suburb, simply because once you've effectively left the urban place, you've almost immediately entered another.

Jonah and I hitched a ride to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv/Herzliyah. Our hitching was a much more controlled version of the image that just flashed through your mind (you know, the one where we stand on the side of the highway with our thumbs out). Our buddy Tomer, with whom we were staying in Herzliyah, had another guest from Jerusalem. This man was a friend of Tomer's from his military unit, and came to share Shabbat with his buddy. Conveniently, this man decided to return home precisely at the time we wished to leave for Jerusalem. He obliged to drive us.

We paid for a cab from the city outskirts to Jonah's new apartment. The cab driver had to stop once to ask for directions, but found it quickly afterward, no harm done. The true challenges occurred when we stepped out of the taxi.

Jonah's landlord had written the address as 5 Ben Yefouneh St., which is where the taxi let us off. We stepped onto the front porch with our luggage, only to have a blinding light projected in our direction accompanied by the suspicious voice of a little old lady. "M'daber anglit? [Do you speak English?]" "Ken, what do you want?" Jonah proceeded to explain his situation, and the lady opened her front door stared us down.

She was about 5 feet tall with a cigarette draping from her lips, her dark brown eyes penetrated the glass of her purple spectacles. "Maybe you go around back. More apartment in back. I come help you. This here is not your place."

We proceeded to lug our luggage (a term that I have recently realized to be both ironically haughty and extremely apropos) up a flight of stairs, followed by Jonah trying his luck with the two apartments in the back. No luck.

"Maybe across street you try."

We lugged our luggage back down that flight, and I waited with the bags with our old lady friend as Jonah probed the area. He came back confused, citing a conversation with a man with limited English skills saying to use another door.

Jonah began to walk around the back of the building despite the assurances of our old lady friend that no door exists in the back. While he was out of our sight, she affixed her concern over Jonah's choices. "What does he do in the back of that building? No door lives there. He wastes time." My simple response was, "I dunno. He must be onto something."

I even tried to change the subject, telling her about my Birthright trip, etc. but she continually came back to the topic of Jonah defying her advice. I gave up.

Just then, a car with a young couple with American accents rolled up to 5 Ben Yefouneh St. Our little old lady friend proceeded to explain the situation to these people who subsequently turned to me to ask the scenario. Jonah was on the phone and walking around in front of the building across the street, too engulfed in his own problems to entertain the curiosities of these two people. I had no information to share with them, since I was just a boarder at Jonah's place for the evening.

When Jonah was off the phone, all three people (little old lady, and the couple) flocked to Jonah and began bombarding him with questions and advice. There were hands pointing in every direction of the street, and each person had a hand on the small Google Map. I was just perched on a cement wall watching our bags, and even more so, watching this scene.

Finally, it was decided that the non-English speaking advisor was right in the beginning. There was another door to the second half of the apartment, Ben Yefouneh 4b. All three of Jonah's helpers followed in a row as he entered the building. They waited outside of the gate, and I heard someone yell "He turned on the light!" Needless to say, they were more excited than I was to find the apartment. It's a testament to Israeli hospitality.

After checking out the apartment (which is very nice) for a bit, Jonah and I went out to get some food. We found a pizza restaurant down the street, and walked back immediately afterward. When we placed the key in the keyhole, however, the lock stuck. "This didn't happen last time." I tried to do it. No luck.

An apartment below opened, and Jonah sprinted with the word "Shalom." A fat man trudged up the stairs to try his luck. No can do. "Fuck." I sat in the stairwell, my head on my palm, trying to rest. "I guess we gotta call a locksmith."

To make a short story longer, the locksmith came relatively promptly. I guess all we needed was some WD-40, because he got us right in after applying that stuff. Unfortunately, the ease of our entrance did not knock down the 400 NIS price of his arrival.

Friday, June 12, 2009


Thanks to the hard work of our founding director Justin Kang, SCB has just published its new website. Check it out, and if you can, donate to our cause!

Shalom from Herzliyyah

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I realize that I have been far from diligent with my updating of this blog. Over the course of my Israel trip, I have slept very little, and have had even less internet access. Birthright trips aren't about sleeping, or staying savvy to contemporary issues. The point of the trip is to remove yourself from the familiar world and to become enamored with Israel, the land, it's people, etc.

I had too many experiences over the course of the last 10 days to recount each one. I saw so much of this country, from the Golan Heights to Eilat, from S'fat to Arad. We were in the mountains, and the desert. I swam in 3 different seas, and rode a camel. I saw the sunrise on top of Mossada. An incredible journey.

Well the trip is over, and now I'm free. I find myself in the home of our friend Tomer, an Israeli soldier who accompanied us on the bus. He offered Jonah Seligman and I a place to sleep for the night before we head out to Jerusalem tomorrow. By tomorrow I, however, basically mean Sunday since no buses run between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem on Shabbat.

My internship with ANERA begins on Monday. I spoke to my boss, Robert Crothers, this morning, and he said they already have a giant pile of work for me on my desk. My response was "I have a desk?" I found it exciting to have a desk in an office. It's a big step for me. I can't wait to get to work on that pile.

Until next time,

p.s. I love you too, Mom and Dad.