+972 Magazine » Mya Guarnieri http://972mag.com Independent commentary and news from Israel & Palestine Tue, 01 Dec 2015 13:30:39 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8 Asylum seekers mourn ‘lynched’ Eritrean man http://972mag.com/asylum-seekers-mourn-lynched-eritrean-man/113154/ http://972mag.com/asylum-seekers-mourn-lynched-eritrean-man/113154/#comments Fri, 23 Oct 2015 15:11:27 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=113154 Asylum seekers hold a memorial service for Habtom Zerhum, who was mistakenly shot and then severely beaten by Israelis at the scene of a terrorist attack in Be’er Sheva earlier in the week.

Members of the Eritrean community in Israel hold a memorial service for a memorial ceremony for asylum seeker Habtom Zarhum in Levinsky park in south Tel Aviv, October 21, 2015. Zarhum died after he was shot by an Israeli security guard at a bus station in the southern city of Beersheba where he was mistaken for an assailant in an attack that killed an Israeli soldier. Zarhum, who was kicked by an angry mob after being shot will not be recognized as an official victim of terrorism. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Members of the Eritrean community in Israel hold a memorial service for a memorial ceremony for asylum seeker Habtom Zarhum in Levinsky park in south Tel Aviv, October 21, 2015. Zarhum died after he was shot by an Israeli security guard at a bus station in the southern city of Beersheba where he was mistaken for an assailant in an attack that killed an Israeli soldier. Zarhum, who was kicked by an angry mob after being shot will not be recognized as an official victim of terrorism. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Hundreds of Eritreans and Sudanese nationals gathered in south Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park Wednesday evening to mourn Habtom Zerhum, the asylum seeker who was shot and severely beaten Sunday night during a terrorist attack in the Beer Sheva bus station.

They lit candles and wept.

Desale Tesfay, 35, from Eritrea, explained to +972 that the gathering also served as a moment for members of the community to come together and talk and support one another.

Mourners expressed shock and anger at the accidental killing of the innocent man, who was mistaken for a terrorist and shot by a security guard. Some, like Tesfay, also criticized the Israeli government, calling on it to formulate a meaningful policy to help asylum seekers.

+972′s full coverage of asylum seekers in Israel

Speaking quietly during a moment of silence, Tesfay reflected on Zerhum’s life and violent death.

“He’s a human being who ran from [Eritrea] because there’s no democracy there,” Tesfay explained. “He was a young man who didn’t do anything wrong, he went to renew his visa and look what happened to him.”

Members of the Eritrean community in Israel light candles at a memorial service for a memorial ceremony for asylum seeker Habtom Zarhum in Levinsky park in south Tel Aviv, October 21, 2015. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Members of the Eritrean community in Israel light candles at a memorial service for a memorial ceremony for asylum seeker Habtom Zarhum in Levinsky park in south Tel Aviv, October 21, 2015. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Members of the Eritrean community in Israel hold a memorial service for a memorial ceremony for asylum seeker Habtom Zarhum in Levinsky park in south Tel Aviv, October 21, 2015. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Members of the Eritrean community in Israel hold a memorial service for a memorial ceremony for asylum seeker Habtom Zarhum in Levinsky park in south Tel Aviv, October 21, 2015. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Tesfay left Eritrea in 2008 after he was forcibly conscripted to the Eritrean army for eight years, for very little pay and with no end in sight. “It’s a dictatorship, that’s why we left. If it was a democracy, we wouldn’t be fleeing.”

When asked if Israel is also a democracy, Tesfay laughed long and hard.

“Yes, there’s democracy here, as they say, for their people [the Jews]. But for the refugees?”

Tesfay, a father of two, points out that his children cannot receive Israeli citizenship even though they were both born here. His visa stipulates that he does not have permission to work. And, when Tesfay arrived in 2008, he spent six months in Saharonim prison, without trial.

Members of the Eritrean community in Israel hold a memorial service for a memorial ceremony for asylum seeker Habtom Zarhum in Levinsky park in south Tel Aviv, October 21, 2015. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Members of the Eritrean community in Israel hold a memorial service for a memorial ceremony for asylum seeker Habtom Zarhum in Levinsky park in south Tel Aviv, October 21, 2015. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

He added that while he has not been summoned to Holot, the desert detention facility where Israel sends asylum seekers, he feels like he is “still in prison.”

“It’s like the government put a long string here,” he said, pointing to his ankle. “I go to work, I come home and [otherwise] I don’t move.”

“Now, today, we are supposed to go to jail again,” he said, referring to Holot. “It’s not how things should be. We don’t deserve jail. What did we do? We requested [protection] as refugees.”

Tesfay said he does not fear for his personal safety after what happened to Zerhum. But because he has no rights in Israel, he added, he feels he must accept whatever happens to him “quietly… even if someone comes to kill me.”

Next to us, the mourners began to wail again.

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The ‘lynching’ of Habtom Zarhum: A history of incitement http://972mag.com/the-lynching-of-habtom-zarhum-a-history-of-incitement/112998/ http://972mag.com/the-lynching-of-habtom-zarhum-a-history-of-incitement/112998/#comments Tue, 20 Oct 2015 13:53:17 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=112998 Activists, asylum seekers and refugee advocates in Israel are pointing to the incitement directed toward African asylum seekers — by politicians, state institutions and the media — as necessary context for the vigilante mob and shooting that killed an Eritrean asylum seeker.

Habtom Zarhum

Habtom Zarhum

An Eritrean asylum seeker was mistaken for a Palestinian during a shooting attack at the Be’er Sheva bus station Sunday night. Habtom Zarhum, 29, was shot by a security guard who thought he was a terrorist and then – as the asylum seeker lay bleeding on the ground – civilians kicked him, cursed and spat on him. A bystander bashed his head in with a bench.

In a video that circulated on social media Sunday night, one man is seen holding a chair over Zarhum. It is not clear whether he was trying to harm the asylum seeker or protect him.


The video also shows a small number of policemen and civilians trying to stop the mob from further harming Zarhum. But their efforts were unsuccessful. At one point a man walks through the loose ring they’d formed around Zarhum, who was writhing in pain, and casually kicks his head like a soccer ball as he passes the already bloody and battered asylum seeker.

When medical personnel arrived, a crowd that was chanting “Death to Arabs” tried to prevent them from reaching Zarhum. The medics first treated the wounded Jewish Israelis. The asylum seeker was reportedly the last to receive help.

Zarhum later died of his injuries. Police on Tuesday said they were waiting to charge anybody in the death until an autopsy clarified whether the gunshot or the beatings caused his death.

Israeli media quickly labeled the incident a “lynch.” Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s top-selling daily newspaper, ran a photograph of Zarhum lying in his own blood and trying to protect his head, on the front page of Monday’s paper with the caption “A terrible mistake.” The article inside the paper was titled: “Just because of his skin color.”

Members of Israel’s African asylum seeker community expressed sadness and shock. Asylum seekers who are currently imprisoned in the Holot detention facility — where they are held for no specific crime and without trial for 12 months — held a vigil yesterday in Zarhum’s memory.

Dawit Demoz is a 29-year-old asylum seeker from Eritrea who has been in Israel since 2009. He criticized the security guard who shot Zarhum for using racial profiling, “You don’t just shoot [because of] the way [someone] looks. [Zarhum] didn’t do anything, he was trying to escape like everyone else… he was just trying to run away from the terrorist.”

Activists, asylum seekers and refugee advocates Israel were quick to point to the incitement directed toward African asylum seekers — by politicians, state institutions and the media — as necessary context for the killing in Be’er Sheva. “You leave a horrible situation [in Eritrea or Sudan] and when you come here and call yourself an asylum seeker, [the government and media] call you an infiltrator,” Demoz explained, referring to the term the Israeli government and media use to refer to African asylum seekers, a term rights groups have long decried as derogatory and inflammatory.

In death, however, Israeli media has taken to calling Zarhum an asylum seeker, “the Eritreat,” and in some cases, even a refugee. Police, strangely, began referring to him as a “foreign subject.”

African asylum seekers in Israel prison. 2014 (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

African asylum seekers in an ‘open’ Israel prison, Holot. 2014 (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Rotem Ilan, head of the migration department at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, echoed the same sentiment. “You can see the difference between how the media talks about asylum seekers every day and how they talk about them when they die. Suddenly, they don’t use the word infiltrator,” she said, “suddenly he’s a human being.”

The lesson Ilan hopes that Israel will take from this incident, she continued, is “to treat people as human beings while they’re still alive.”

Some 45,000 African asylum seekers, most of whom are from Eritrea and Sudan, are currently in Israel. Authorities systematically reject or ignore almost requests for refugee status by African applicants. Israel has granted refugee status to only four Eritreans and no Sudanese nationals. In the European Union, by comparison, Eritrean asylum seekers’ applications for refugee status receive a positive answer 84 percent of the time.

At the height of their migration to Israel, there were 60,000 asylum seekers but numbers have waned as a result of an official policy to “make their lives miserable” and encourage those who are here to leave. Numerous Israeli officials have called African asylum seekers a demographic threat.

While Israel cannot deport Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers directly back to their countries of origin — because it would blatantly violate the principle of non-refoulement — most of the asylum seekers who live here do not receive work visas. With no legal way to survive, they work low-paying black market jobs where they face exploitation.

Israel has also tweaked its 1954 Prevention of Infiltration law, which was initially created to stop Palestinian refugees from returning to their homes, broadening the legislation to imprison African asylum seekers. The Israeli High Court of Justice rejected the legislation that authorized indefinite detention twice as unconstitutional, and upheld a third version while limiting the administrative detention of asylum seekers to one year.

Some activists, like Ilan, are pointing a finger at politicians for fomenting the conditions of xenophobia and vigilante violence that led to Zarhum’s death.

An African man who was attacked following a rightwing rally in Tel Aviv, May 23 2012 (photo: Oren Ziv/activestills)

An African man who was attacked following a rightwing rally in Tel Aviv, May 23 2012 (photo: Oren Ziv/activestills)

In the wake of stabbing attacks carried about Palestinians from East Jerusalem and the West Bank, politicians and state officials — including Knesset Member Yair Lapid, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, and the Jerusalem District Police Commander Moshe Edri — have encouraged Jewish Israelis to arm themselves and to “shoot to kill,” as Lapid put it. Last week, human rights groups issued a public letter expressing their concern about such statements.

ACRI, where Ilan works, sent an additional letter to the country’s attorney general warning of the consequences of such dangerous rhetoric.

“In such a tense time the leader’s job is to calm things down not to add fuel to the fire,” Ilan reflected. “In our letter we said that the end result of this current atmosphere and [politicians’] careless [remarks] is that innocent people will be hurt. This is what we saw yesterday.”

Unfortunately, this is far from the first time asylum seekers have experienced violence at the hands of Jewish Israelis. For years, the community has dealt with near-constant, low-level violence accentuated by more serious attacks. Things boiled over in 2012, when a small race riot broke out in south Tel Aviv after Knesset Member Miri Regev, who is part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, called African asylum seekers a “cancer in our body.”

When asked whether or not he feels safe in light of yesterday’s events, Demoz sighed and answered, “I don’t know what I’m feeling really. It’s hard for me to answer this question.”

*While the Israeli media has identified Zarhum as Haftom Zarhum, he has been identified by the African Refugee Development Center as Habtom Zerhom.

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Israel using ‘preventative arrests’ to stifle dissent http://972mag.com/israel-using-preventative-arrests-to-stifle-dissent/112923/ http://972mag.com/israel-using-preventative-arrests-to-stifle-dissent/112923/#comments Mon, 19 Oct 2015 13:00:20 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=112923 Palestinian citizens of Israel are being subject to preventive arrests as Israel attempts to silence dissent.

Israeli police arrest an Arab youth during a protest in Nazareth in northern Israel, October 8, 2015. (Omar Sameer/Activestills.org)

Israeli police arrest an Arab youth during a protest in Nazareth in northern Israel, October 8, 2015. (Omar Sameer/Activestills.org)

Israeli police came to Adan Tartour’s Jaffa home at half past midnight. They pounded on the door. When the Tartours opened it, police said that they had an arrest warrant.

Adan, an 18-year-old Palestinian citizen of Israel who hopes to study law and history at university, was arrested for “suspicion of violence and terrorism” — all because she’d signed up to take a bus to a protest in Nazareth.


Although the demonstration, which was scheduled for Thursday, had not taken place yet, Tartour and other activists were detained last Wednesday night. Some were arrested on suspicion of planning “illegal” demonstrations. Others who managed to actually attend demonstrations were arrested and charged with taking part in an “illegal” gatherings or attacking police. In reality, lawyers say, the protesters were the ones who were assaulted.

Lawyers and activists point out that, in Israel, protests do not need authorization. They say that the wave of “preventive arrests” reflect Israel’s attempts to quiet dissent against its recent provocations at Al Aqsa and the shooting deaths of Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. They believe that Israeli authorities aim to frighten and intimidate Palestinian citizens of the state.

Attorneys also say that the arrests violate Palestinian citizens’ right to freedom of expression and that minors’ legal rights were violated while in custody.

There are also reports that protesters were beaten — they have appeared in court with visible bruises on their bodies. Family members who are not involved in demonstrations have also been arrested, as was the case when Tartour was detained last Wednesday night.

“They had an arrest warrant for me and my father,” Tartour explains, adding that this was the case with other female detainees. “They were arrested with their fathers… it’s humiliating and chauvinistic.”

The two were taken to a local police station before being transferred to Nazareth, where they arrived at 4:30 in the morning. During her interrogation, which began at 5:30 a.m., police repeatedly told Tartour that she “is a shame to her family” and that her actions are “not good for her family.” She felt that this Orientalist appeal to “family honor” was an attempt to dissuade her from protesting.

“But what they don’t understand is that our [Palestinian] families stand by their daughters,” she says.

While her father was released early Thursday morning, Tartour’s detention was extended by an Israeli court. After four days, she was let go with the caveat that she might be taken for additional investigation, and under the condition that stay away from Nazareth for two weeks.

She is also “forbidden from joining protests.”

Israeli police arrest an Arab youth during a protest in Nazareth in northern Israel, October 8, 2015. (Faiz Abu Rmeleh/Activestills.org)

Israeli police arrest an Arab youth during a protest in Nazareth in northern Israel, October 8, 2015. (Faiz Abu Rmeleh/Activestills.org)

And that’s the ultimate goal, according to Tartour and others — the Israelis want to frighten Palestinian citizens and thus stop them from demonstrating.

Reflecting on her experience, Tartour is troubled by a number of things, particularly the treatment of minors, the court’s role in upholding and extending detentions, and the state’s attempts to depict Palestinian protests as illegal.

When Tartour appeared in court and her detention was extended, Tartour recalls, “The judge said because of what’s happening in the state… they couldn’t interfere with the police’s work. So what is the courts’ job?”

“All protests are permitted and legal,” she adds. “[When] people have to ask for permission [to protest], that’s a worrisome situation.”

Recent weeks have seen a number of demonstrations that the Israeli police have not attempted to prevent or stop: a small number of Jewish Israelis protested the occupation and the escalation in violence; some 15,000 rallied in Tel Aviv for animal rights; twice in Jerusalem, hundreds of right-wing Jewish Israelis marched, chanting slogans like “Death to Arabs.” While on one occasion police prevented the latter from entering the Old City’s Muslim Quarter and arrested four, they did not detain those most of the people involved.

In Haifa, approximately 400 right-wing Jewish Israeli activists attended a protest against Arabs in an area of the city with many Palestinian-owned businesses. Some of the demonstrators wielded sticks. None were arrested.

According to Adalah — The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, between 160 and 200 Palestinian citizens have been arrested before or during protests in recent weeks. Like Tartour, most of those detained have no criminal record. As of Sunday, 40 Palestinian citizens of Israel were still being held.

Sawsan Zaher, a lawyer with Adalah, says that these arrests are illegal. “According to the Israeli law you, cannot arrest a person based on the fact that there is a fear that in the future they might commit a crime,” she explains, adding that stopping people from protesting is a “violation of their constitutional right to freedom of expression.”

It’s not only demonstrators and their family members who are being locked up. Several bus drivers who attempted to transport protesters to Nazareth — but were turned back by police outside of the city — were later arrested and were detained for four days. “Police claimed that the drivers themselves had participated in an ‘illegal’ demonstration,” Zaher says, even though the protest “did not need authorization in the first place” and despite the fact that the buses did not actually reach the protests.

The buses were also impounded. The vehicles were held through the weekend and were then released.

Not only have courts upheld requests to extend activists’ detention, it has, at times, accepted highly questionable “evidence.”

“Judges referred to onions [found with demonstrators] as an indication that the protesters meant for a violent demonstration,” Zaher explains. “We have never seen onions being referred to as a legal defense.” (Editor’s note: Onions are often used to counteract the effects of tear gas.)

Zaher adds that judges have also detained Palestinian citizens based on investigation material that she and other defense attorneys do not have access to. In one case, a minor who doesn’t know Hebrew was being held on the basis of a “testimony that was written in Hebrew” and signed by the child.

Minors’ legal rights are being violated in other ways, as well. According to Israeli law, minors’ parents should be informed and are allowed to be with their child during questioning, children may have a social worker present, and minors should not be interrogated after 10 p.m. Lawyers have seen some or all of these specifications ignored by Israeli authorities during this wave of arrests.

Farah Bayadsi is a lawyer representing a number of activists and minors who were detained. She also says police are preventing detainees from getting the legal counsel they are entitled to, according to Israeli law.

“A police officer intervened when I was giving a 14-year-old teenage [girl] a legal consultation before her interrogation, as [provided for in] the law. The policeman kicked me out of the office and told me that my time was up,” Bayadsi says.

Israeli authorities used similar tactics during the 2014 conflict with Gaza.

For some, recent events are reminiscent of the Israeli military regime that ruled over Palestinian citizens of the state from 1948 until 1966. Shira Robinson, an associate professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University and the author of Citizen Strangers: Palestinians and the birth of Israel’s liberal settler state, remarks, “There were tons of preventive detentions” of Palestinian citizens of Israel between 1948 and 1966. “It was the name of the game.”

She offers the example of Israeli authorities’ attempts to stop commemoration of the Kafr Qassem massacre, which took place in October of 1956. In the days and nights before the anniversary, “Israeli authorities would round up known activists ahead of time. That was standard fare.”

“Military rule [inside the Green Line] was abolished in 1966 but the British emergency regulations in which it was rooted remain on the books today,” Robinson says, adding that the British initially created these regulations in response to riots in colonized India and the Caribbean.

Zaher says that it’s unnecessary to look that far afield. She remarks that the manner in which Israeli police and courts have handled protesters points to a fundamental difference in the way the state treats and views its Palestinian citizens versus its Jewish ones. Ultimately, she says, Israeli authorities treat their own Palestinian citizens similarly to Palestinians in the occupied territories:

“It doesn’t matter where you are—if you’re Palestinian you’re an enemy and you’re a threat and you’re treated as a Palestinian.”

The Israeli legal system, Zaher continues, “is based on a perspective of a Palestinian…as an alien. When they are viewed as an enemy and this is anchored in the law then you have the legitimization to do anything.”

A shorter version of this article was originally published on Al Jazeera English.

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Which is the ‘right’ side of the Green Line these days? http://972mag.com/which-is-the-right-side-of-the-green-line/112612/ http://972mag.com/which-is-the-right-side-of-the-green-line/112612/#comments Mon, 12 Oct 2015 18:06:42 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=112612 Read parts onetwo, and three.

Thursday morning: I wake up and check the news this morning to see what happened last night and then head to the doctor’s in north Tel Aviv. I’m 24 weeks pregnant — yes, with a Jewish-Palestinian baby. My physician in Florida, where we live now, has advised me to keep up with my medical care in Israel even though I’ll only be here for six weeks to freshen up my research for the book I’ve just sold.

I’m a few minutes late to my appointment . When the doctor’s door opens, the woman who is scheduled after me steps right on in. She shuts the door in my face. I check the list next to the door and announce the time of my appointment aloud.

“So, it’s your turn,” the other women who are waiting say. They urge me to knock and assert myself.

I knock and the patient who just entered opens the door. “I’m sorry,” I begin, “but I had the 8:40 appointment.”

She shrugs, smiles. “But you were late.” And the door slams shut in my face again.

“Israelim,” Israelis, one of the women smirks.

When the door opens again and the patient emerges, I’m quick to make my way into the doctor’s office. We talk for a few minutes about what tests I’ve already had in the States, their results, and how I’m feeling. At my American doctor’s insistence, I’ve brought my medical records with me. I offer them to the doctor. He says they’re not necessary and then he sends me on my way to get checked for gestational diabetes.

As I’m leaving, there’s a commotion in the lobby. A Filipino man has followed an elderly Israeli couple into the building.

“They hit my car!” he shouts in English.

No one responds.

“You hit my car!” he tries again to the couple.

The clerk — a Palestinian citizen of the state I spoke to on my way in — goes about his business. Another elderly couple puzzles over a piece of paper.

You hit my car and you’re angry with me?” his voice indignant.

I step onto the sidewalk just as the Filipino man is heading towards parallel parking.

“Look,” he says, pointing. “I was there, they pulled in and hit me, and then they got out, didn’t apologize, and yelled at me.”

“Israelim,” I say.

“Look at how much room they took!” he continues, pointing to the couples’ vehicle, which was, indeed, taking up two spaces. “And they hit me!”

The worst part, he tells me again, is that when they got out of their car, they started shouting at and blaming him rather than apologizing.

I think of Israelis’ reactions to the events of this week — their inability to reflect on what has brought Palestinians to this point. I think of Israelis’ unwillingness to understand the stabbings as violent responses to the violent occupation that began in 1948 for some and 1967 for others, depending on who you ask.

The scene of a stabbing attack near Damascus Gate in East Jerusalem, October 10, 2015. (Anne Paq/Activestills.org) The body is of the attacker, 16-year-old Ishaq Badran of Kufr Aqab in East Jerusalem, who was killed by police.

The scene of a stabbing attack near Damascus Gate in East Jerusalem, October 10, 2015. (Anne Paq/Activestills.org) The body is of the attacker, 16-year-old Ishaq Badran of Kufr Aqab in East Jerusalem, who was killed by police.

I think of what’s happening, specifically, in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, where Israel has taken most of the land and resources and is constantly expropriating more. Where there isn’t enough land and houses for normal population growth, where Palestinians are forced to build “illegally” because the Israeli government refuses to grant them the necessary permits. Where one might have to then pay for the demolition of their own home.

Where the economy has been crushed by the occupation; where there is no freedom of movement; where the lack of freedom of movement further suffocates the economy, feeding only the sense of desperation.

Where there is no hope. No hope for anything — a decent job, a good income, a normal life. Where there is little trust in the PA or politicians or negotiations that wrought the current reality, Oslo, or the negotiations that are resurrected from time to time just maintain an unbearable status quo.

I think of the place my former students live, the place where they left home every morning for school, uncertain that they would make it through the checkpoints and arrive, let alone on time. The place where a student might find that a friend hasn’t made it — maybe his classmate has been taken to administrative detention. Or maybe he has been shot. Who knows? One’s fate is just as uncertain as the roads in the territories.

The stabbings are screams of frustration, rage, despair, hopelessness. They’re the screams of people who are lost, who have no leadership and see nothing on the horizon. I think of the Israelis’ inabilities to hear these screams; I think of how they hear no one’s voices but their own.

Police turn a man away at a checkpoint outside the Old City of Jerusalem, October 4, 2015. (Faiz Abu Rmeleh/Activestills.org) Israeli police banned most Palestinians from entering the Old City for a few days after a fatal stabbing attack.

Police turn a man away at a checkpoint outside the Old City of Jerusalem, October 4, 2015. (Faiz Abu Rmeleh/Activestills.org) Israeli police banned most Palestinians from entering the Old City for a few days after a fatal stabbing attack.

Next to me, the Filipino man is still going on about his car.

He’s looking for consolation, which he won’t get from the elderly couple. I simply repeat back to him what he’s already said to me. “Israelis don’t take responsibility for their actions,” I say. “Instead, they get angry and blame others.”

He shakes his head and cradles his face in his hands as he stands on the sidewalk, looking at the damage done to his vehicle.

Later that day, when I arrive back at the city center, I notice a pile of old hand-painted tiles on the sidewalk near my apartment. They’ve been placed there, neatly stacked one on top of the other, by the Palestinian workers doing the renovation in the building next to mine.

I pick a tile up, brush the dust off, and examine it. I contemplate taking it back to Florida to join the other pre-state tiles I collected in both Tel Aviv and Bethlehem — souvenirs from a time when things were different, from a time when the land wasn’t divided. Remnants from a time when there was still such a thing as Palestinian Jews.

One of the workers joins me on the sidewalk. “Something interesting to you here, miss?” he asks.

“These,” I say. “Are they garbage?”

“Yes, that’s why they’re here.”

As we’re talking, another stabbing is taking place. This time, it’s in Tel Aviv.

“It’s a pity,” I say, “to throw these things away.”

“Death,” he says. “That’s what’s really a pity.”

I leave the tiles and head into my building. Upstairs, I call Mohammad. It’s morning his time and he greets me with a sunny “sabah al-kheir.”

“Sabah al-noor,” I respond as I check the news and update him on all that has happened today, including the Tel Aviv stabbing, which is breaking news on my Twitter feed.

Usually, it’s the other way around — Mohammad checking the news and giving me the toll of Palestinian deaths and Palestinian injuries. On several occasions, he’s told me that a person was killed in “cold blood” and I have had the odd experience of hearing myself arguing with him.

“But they were stabbing people,” I protest. “They weren’t exactly killed in ‘cold blood.’ It’s not like the police walked up to them randomly on the street and executed them for no reason.”

First responders remove the body of a Palestinian man who carried out a stabbing attack in Jerusalem. Police shot him dead, October 12, 2015. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

First responders remove the body of a Palestinian man who carried out a stabbing attack in Jerusalem. Police shot him dead, October 12, 2015. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Of course I think that the police should find other means to stop an attack. Of course, the suspect should be arrested and not killed. Of course, their family home shouldn’t be demolished.

And, of course, I’m not defending the police’s actions. I’m just explaining the mainstream Israeli mentality, I tell Mohammad. It doesn’t mean that I agree with it or condone it.

I try to steer the conversation with my husband back to safe ground—international law. “Civilians aren’t supposed to be targets,” I say.

“Settlers aren’t civilians.”

“Not everyone who has been stabbed is a settler,” I answer. “Just because someone is on the other side of the Green Line at the moment of an attack doesn’t mean they’re a settler. Remember when I lived in Kiryat Yovel and I took Arabic in East Jerusalem? What if I was still doing that and someone stabbed me on my way to class? I don’t think they’re stopping people and asking them whether or not they’re settlers before they stab them.”

“Everyone there is a settler,” Mohammad answers. “Tel Aviv is a settlement.”

I realize I’m not getting anywhere.

“Okay, first of all, the international community recognizes Tel Aviv and everything else inside the Green Line. Second, let’s say Tel Aviv is a settlement — settlers are still civilians. And according to international law, civilians aren’t legitimate targets anywhere. Not in Israel, not in the West Bank, not in Gaza.”

“After we have our rights, we’ll follow international law,” Mohammad answers.

“Really? So this is okay to you? It’s fine to go around stabbing random civilians?”

“No, of course not,” he says, adding that he doesn’t consider me or other Israelis who live inside the Green Line settlers. “I’m just telling you how a lot of Palestinians see things.”

I point out that we’re engaging in exactly the type of conversation that the Israelis want us to — in arguing about the violence, we’ve both lost sight of the context that has given rise to the stabbings in the first place: the occupation, the settlements, the Palestinian refugees, the discrimination Palestinian citizens of the state face inside Israel. And we agree about all of these issues: the occupation must end, settlements must be either dismantled or opened to Palestinian residents, Palestinian refugees have a right to return, and Palestinian citizens of Israel must have full equality.

We also agree that no one deserves to be killed, whether by gunshot or knife.

An Israeli bus driver uses toilet paper to clean blood from the entrance of his bus following a stabbing attack, Jerusalem, October 12, 2015. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

An Israeli bus driver uses toilet paper to clean blood from the entrance of his bus following a stabbing attack, Jerusalem, October 12, 2015. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Today, when I tell Mohammad about the stabbing in Tel Aviv, we don’t argue at all.

“Nowhere is safe,” I say. I sit at my computer, staring at the news, hand on my belly. Our daughter kicks so hard that my stomach moves.

Mohammad jokes that I should wear a headscarf so that I won’t be a target for a stabbing. But, he adds, that could mark me for a shooting.

We can’t figure out which of the two is better right now.

We also talk strategy: should I stay away from crowds? Or are crowds actually better protection?

We can’t figure that out, either.

So I decide to go about my life. Sort of. I was planning a trip to Bethlehem this weekend. I count my friends there as among my closest — we considered naming our daughter after one of them — and I’d also hoped to visit my landlady. Chances are I’d be fine in Bethlehem. It’s the drive out there that worries me. Even in a yellow plate car, an attack by a settler seems as likely as being hit by a shebab-thrown stone.

I message “Leila” on Viber, telling her I’m not sure about coming to visit after all.

“Don’t” she answers.

She calls. “Mya, you’re pregnant. The soldiers, the tear gas, the stones. You can’t.”

I tell her that I’m frustrated — last summer, I was stuck in the West Bank during the war and unable to give a proper goodbye to friends and places on the other side of the Green Line. And because my move to America was hasty, I didn’t process that I was leaving this land. Now, I’m back and I understand that while I’m here, I’m also gone. I have both the energy and the time to say my goodbyes. But I feel stuck in Tel Aviv, unable again to visit my loved ones on the “other side.”

We talk about the current situation and draw the same inarticulate, crudely phrased conclusion: fuck the Israeli government, the PA, all of the useless Israeli political parties and the Palestinian ones, too. Fuck the violent settlers and the shebab who are stabbing civilians and the police who shoot the shebab and fuck the soldiers, too, who are killing boys who are armed with nothing but rocks.

Palestinian youth clash with Israeli troops in Bethlehem following the funeral of a 13-year-old Palestinian boy who was killed by an IDF sniper during clashes, October 6, 2015. (Muhannad Saleem/Activestills.org)

Palestinian youth clash with Israeli troops in Bethlehem following the funeral of a 13-year-old Palestinian boy who was killed by an IDF sniper during clashes, October 6, 2015. (Muhannad Saleem/Activestills.org)

It’s all wrong. And it’s wrong that we can spend the weekend together neither in the land that is hers nor in the country the Israeli government and international community claim to be mine.

Still, regardless of what’s happening around us, we end the conversation the same way Mohammad and I end every call:

“I love you.”

“I love you, too.”


Friday: I decide to attend an anti-occupation protest. On the way there, I indulge myself in a naïve fantasy that it will be massive. I arrive to find a handful of people; the numbers grow to about 150.

That’s it?

Members of Israeli communist party Hadash attend an anti-violence protest in Tel Aviv, October 9, 2015. (Photo by A. Daniel Roth)

Members of Israeli communist party Hadash attend an anti-violence protest in Tel Aviv, October 9, 2015. (Photo by A. Daniel Roth) Most of the Hebrew signs read ‘Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies.’

The slogans are nice, though. They’re catchy and, in Hebrew, most of them rhyme. The protesters chant things like: “No, no, to escalation, we don’t want another war,” “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies,” and “We can’t build peace on the bodies of children.”

But they’re just words. And though I’m not surprised that only 150 people are here, I’m upset by the Israeli public’s seeming apathy.

Still, I stay until the end of the protest. When it’s over, I pick up some groceries at the shuk, and then head back toward my apartment.

The corner where the protest was held just an hour before is empty, it looks like nothing ever happened here. As I pass, I catch a line from two men’s conversation, “You know, leftists aren’t really Jews,” one tells the other.

In the evening, a friend texts me to ask what I’m up to.

“Trying to write,” I answer, “but mostly checking the news.”

“Stop,” he says. “You’ll drive yourself crazy.”

I go to bed.


Saturday morning: Seven dead in Gaza; three rockets fired from the Strip; a stabbing in Jerusalem.

As I sit hunched over my computer, alternating between Ynet, Ma’an, and my Twitter feed, I realize that I haven’t driven myself crazy. But I’ve fallen behind on everything. I make a mental list:

On Wednesday, I was supposed to speak with a lawyer who represents a Sudanese refugee. But I was so preoccupied with my brother-in-law making it in from the territories safely to visit me in Tel Aviv that the interview slipped my mind. This is the first time in nearly a decade of working as a journalist that I’ve stood someone up. Granted, we didn’t have a firm appointment. It was a casual thing — I was supposed to drop by his office sometime in the late afternoon. But, still.

My brother-in-law has a permit. And I insist to my husband that the police aren’t just shooting random Palestinians in cold blood. But if I really believe that, why did I spend Wednesday afternoon concerned that something would happen?

I worried because, at the end of the day, my brother-in-law is a young Arab man. And according to the body count, he’s more vulnerable than anyone right now.

I jot down a note to call the lawyer and I start composing a profuse apology in my head. No excuses—the lawyer and I have enough of a rapport that I can tell him exactly what happened: I was worried to distraction.

And there’s the Sudanese refugee, who is now in Ethiopia, whom I’m supposed to call.

And there’s the interview I need to finish transcribing — a Darfuri’s horrible account of torture in the Sinai, his discussion of what he has faced in Israel since arriving here. I sit at computer, put on my headphones, try to get started, but find myself checking the news instead. Another stabbing, another Palestinian shot to death. Senselessly. When an Israeli stabs Palestinians, the police can manage to detain him without using lethal force. The same protocol can and should be used for Palestinian suspects, as well.

I can’t concentrate. I go out for a walk. I decide to make use of the time away from my desk — I head toward a book store that is open on Saturdays to pick up a collection of academic essays about African refugees. I vow to come straight back my apartment and get down to work when I return.

I navigate the streets without thinking. After all, I lived here for years. But as I pass not one but two apartments I lived in — places that hold so many memories — I’m surprised that I feel nothing. No pangs of nostalgia. I walk by cafes where I sat with this or that beloved friend; I see street corners where I had a conversation with so-and-so as we were on our way to such-and-such. And though I remember it all well, the images that come to mind feel like someone else’s. The memories don’t feel like mine anymore.

Women sit on a bench on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard. (Illustrative photo by Activestills.org)

Women sit on a bench on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard. (Illustrative photo by Activestills.org)

I look at the crumbling buildings, the cracks in their sagging faces filled with grey spackle. The sidewalks are littered with dog shit and the streets smell of cat piss. The neglected animals — starving and mangy — mill about.

What did I ever see in this city in the first place? I wonder. Why did I stay for so long?

I pass one full cafe after another. I remember how, once upon a time, I loved sitting in Tel Aviv’s cafes myself. Today, I find myself mentally counting the people sitting there in the sun, chatting over their coffee, beer, or wine. They can spend hours sitting out here on a Saturday, I think, but they couldn’t be bothered to spend an hour at the protest yesterday. If all these people crowded into cafes today, on Shabbat, had come yesterday, maybe something would change here.

But change is exactly what Israelis don’t want. The status quo suits them. Right now, they think they can have security — that is, quiet — without peace. At some point they will have to understand that’s impossible.

When I arrive at the bookstore, I discover that they have sold out of the title I’ve come for. I wander about, reading synopses on back covers, trying out the first page or two of several different novels, skimming through some poems.

As I flip through the books, I remember the days when I cared so much about improving my Hebrew — I went everywhere with a notebook and, anytime I encountered a new word, I jotted it down. I read online, I read the newspaper, I read books with my notebook next to me; I watched Israeli TV with Hebrew subtitles, my notebook in one hand, a pen in the other. I wanted to speak more fluidly, too, I wanted to get rid of my American accent.

I remember the days that I argued that Hebrew wasn’t Israel’s alone, that those in the diaspora needed to own the language. That all Jews—  regardless of political affiliation — could participate in a Hebrew culture.  I remember the days of hoarding Hebrew books; I remember hiding them in my apartment in Bethlehem, packing them up, shipping them to Florida.

I want to feel that way again. I want to buy a book. I pick up title after title, trying to let something grab me.

I leave the store empty-handed.

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The people behind the numbers: ‘Palestine Speaks’ http://972mag.com/the-people-behind-the-numbers-palestine-speaks/111530/ http://972mag.com/the-people-behind-the-numbers-palestine-speaks/111530/#comments Tue, 08 Sep 2015 19:52:43 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=111530 A collection of oral histories offers a penetrating look at life in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. 

Gaza could be uninhabitable by 2020. More than 2,000 Palestinians were killed in 2014 and more than 17,000 were injured. Israel arrests and detains between 500 and 700 Palestinian children every year. In August of 2015 alone, Israeli forces demolished nearly 150 Palestinian structures.

palestinespeaks_cover_PR_STORE_lores-(1)When it comes to the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, there’s no shortage of statistics. But while numbers may tell, it’s the stories that show the deep impact the occupation makes on Palestinians’ lives. Enter Palestine Speaks: Narratives of Life under Occupation, a moving collection of interviews compiled and edited by Cate Malek and Mateo Hoke and published by Voice of Witness in the U.S. and Verso in the U.K..

The detailed oral histories offer the reader more than a look at life under Israeli military rule. By including voices from a wide range of backgrounds, they also offer an intimate look at Palestinian society itself: from a lawyer from Dheisheh refugee camp who spent nearly 20 years in Israeli prisons to a young female journalist in Gaza to a West Bank farmer to a middle-aged housewife. Too often the media represents Palestinians as a monolithic group, relying on convenient stereotypes like the humble villager or the freedom fighter with an indomitable spirit, the martyr hero. Palestine Speaks breaks such Orientalist depictions by bringing us individuals rather than a faceless, fetishized mass.

The reader also gets a glimpse of history through Palestinian eyes. Recalling the Six Day War, Ghassan Andoni, a founder of the International Solidarity Movement, says:

I saw the soldiers coming into Beit Sahour with their weapons. Everybody was scared. Some people were saying the Israelis would kill us, we should leave, and others were saying we shold stay. But it was over in a week. I still remember an injured bird that had been trapped in my relatives’ house after the bombing ended. I caught it and cared for it while I was waiting to go home. After a couple of weeks, the Red Cross arranged a bus ride for me and others back to Jordan. I tried to take the bird with me back home. I held it in my hands on the trip back, but it died on the way.

The editors could have ended the passage at “But it was over in a week”—indeed, those who are focused more on the story of the conflict rather than the stories of the people who live the conflict would have stopped there. Instead, Malek and Hoke give the narrators room to express themselves fully; the inclusion of details like Andoni’s attempt to rescue the bird bring nuance and complexity to the stories, helping readers better see and understand the people behind the statistics—their desires, hopes, fears. Their struggles. Their heartbreaks. This collection is revelatory for those who have neither the resources to travel to the occupied Palestinian Territories nor access to the people who live there.


Each chapter is compelling but, in addition to Andoni’s narrative, I was particularly taken with two stories—that of Muhanned al Azzah, an artist from Al Azzah refugee camp who joined the PFLP when he was a teenager, and Nader al Masri, a runner in Gaza. Both offer viewpoints rarely heard in the current discussion about the conflict and Palestinian society. While much has been written about administrative detention—perhaps because it’s a relatively straightforward example of injustice—the media rarely addresses stories of political repression like al Azzah’s, who was imprisoned because of his PFLP membership. Al Azzah’s story offers a look at how jailing one son puts the whole family behind psychological bars; he also speaks about the lasting impact of his imprisonment. Further, the image of a rising artist who exhibits in London might upend some readers’ ideas about the PFLP and who is attracted to the party.

Al Masri’s story speaks of a man who quietly defies multiple layers of oppression—the Israeli occupation and blockade as well as the expectations of Palestinian society. The feeling of freedom al Masri has while running points to the limits that Israel puts on Palestinian life. That he persists—“When I was young, before I had a family, I’d even run when there was an Israeli invasion or bombing in Gaza City,” al Masri says—also reminds that there are many means of resistance, including the simple act of focusing on and following one’s dreams.

Of the 16 oral histories in the book, two belong to Israelis—one a settler, the other a radical leftist who lives in Ramallah. In the introduction, the editors explain the decision to include these Israeli voices: “We share their stories partly because Israeli citizens living in the West Bank make up a substantial portion—perhaps as much as 10 percent—of the total population of Palestine. And because many of our narrators often refer to settlers throughout this book, we felt it journalistically responsible to include Amiad’s narrative in order to offer readers a look at life within a settlement…”

There’s still something vaguely uncomfortable about seeing Israeli stories behind a cover that reads Narratives of Life under Occupation. And it’s worth noting that predecessors to Palestine Speaks, similar books composed of Palestinians’ narratives—namely Arthur Neslen’s In Your Eyes a Sandstorm: Ways of Being Palestinian and Wendy Pearlman’s Occupied Voices—did not include Israelis.

However, I could argue against myself and say that the discomfort I felt about their inclusion is representative of life in the West Bank. One can’t move without seeing the settlements and the Jewish Israelis who live in them—their presence is inescapable.

I also felt unsure about the editors’ decision to focus on Palestinian voices from the West Bank and Gaza only. I could imagine the criticism this choice might draw: the editors might be accused of failing to acknowledge the Palestinian claim to all of historic Palestine, an area some consider every bit as occupied as the West Bank and Gaza. Some might also take issue with the absence of narratives from the Palestinian diaspora.

But Malek and Hoke were damned if they do and damned if they don’t, as is often the case when discussing Israel/Palestine. Had they included Palestinian citizens of Israel in the book, they ran the risk of drawing the ire of the pro-Israel right who would have taken issue with the title Palestine Speaks, asking if the editors (and, by extension, the publisher) consider UN and internationally recognized Israel to be Palestine.

And my quibbles are small. Palestine Speaks is an indispensable text. By presenting the personal stories of Palestinians, this book complicates what the media often depicts as a black and white, bilateral conflict between equals. The narratives presented in Palestine Speaks also remind that those who live under occupation want something breathtakingly simple: freedom and human rights.

Full disclosure: Editor Cate Malek is both a friend and colleague; my name is listed in the acknowledgments.

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The Long Road to Bethlehem: Part Three http://972mag.com/the-long-road-to-bethlehem-part-three/109276/ http://972mag.com/the-long-road-to-bethlehem-part-three/109276/#comments Mon, 27 Jul 2015 11:27:55 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=109276 Click here to read parts one and two.

The New Year comes and passes. It’s January 2014 and I’ve been living in the territories for almost a year. But rather than becoming more comfortable in my new surroundings and feeling like my usual curious and adventurous self—I am the woman, after all, who has traveled some 20 countries, mostly alone—I find myself turning inwards. I prefer to stay in Bethlehem, close to home.

This is not me.

The occupation and the checkpoints, particularly the flying checkpoints, have something to do with the change: on my way back to Bethlehem from Ramallah one afternoon, a flying checkpoint pops up near Jabaa’. As the soldiers take the IDs of everyone in the service taxi, I don’t know what to do—do I give them my American passport or my Israeli teudat zehut?

In theory, I could be headed from Qalandia—which is technically part of East Jerusalem—to Hizme, which is in Area B. I’m legal here, I tell myself. Or am I? I try to picture myself on the map that shows the zones: A, B, C.

Where is Jabaa’?

Where am I?

Who am I supposed to be right now?

It happens again as I’m driving back to Bethlehem from Jerusalem one afternoon. I’m on the little, rolling two-lane road that takes me to Beit Jala. Usually, I glide by the small army base on the edge of Beit Jala and from there, it’s a short drive to Bethlehem and I’m home. But today: when I bank the hill, I see soldiers standing in the middle of the road—a road I’ve never seen them on—checking IDs as Palestinians drive into Beit Jala. But why? If checkpoints are about security, then why would they be scrutinizing Palestinians headed into a Palestinian area? Are they looking for someone? Are they making sure that no Jewish Israelis are headed into Area A? Are they enforcing segregation?

Flying checkpoints can show up without any warning, and often times separate Palestinians cities and towns. (Photo by Activestills.org)

Flying checkpoints can show up without any warning, and often times separate Palestinians cities and towns. (Photo by Activestills.org)

Whatever the army’s doing there, I panic, slam on my brakes, and make a U-turn in the middle of the road, just meters from a soldier. As I speed away and he grows smaller in my rearview mirror, I realize the stupidity of what I’ve just done. I realize how suspicious it must have looked.

I also realize that I’m not sure how I’m going to get home. If there’s a flying checkpoint outside of Beit Jala, surely things will be tight at Checkpoint 300, too. There’s one more way in—a settler’s checkpoint that leads to a road that eventually splits and takes me to Beit Sahour, which neighbors Bethlehem.

But what if there are soldiers at that fork in the road, too?

I call Mohammad and ask him what I should do.

“Go back to Jerusalem, have a coffee, and try again.”

“What if the soldiers are still there?”

“They won’t be—they won’t stay forever. By the time you get back, they’ll be gone.”

Intellectually, I know that this is true. I’ve seen flying checkpoints many times before and I’ve seen them disappear as quickly as they appear. But something inside of me has changed and I find myself less able to use my head and reason through things. All I know is what I feel and I feel like the soldiers are everywhere.

If checkpoints are about security, why do they scrutinize Palestinians headed into Palestinian areas?

Indeed, they showed up at a neighbor’s house recently—even though we live deep in Area A—asking about another neighbor’s rifle. Not only do they seem to be everywhere, they seem to know everything, even what people have in their private homes.

No, under occupation, even homes aren’t private.

I feel like the soldiers will never go away, they’ll stand there on the road between Jerusalem and Beit Jala forever and that’s the route I always take, that’s my “safe” road, and now they’re there and I’ll never get home.


But the incident at the container, the flying checkpoints—these aren’t the things that make me think that maybe it’s time to move back to Jerusalem.

It’s the undercover policeman at Qalandiya that makes me start to question reality and my place in it. After that moment, I no longer trust my own eyes. I’ll become suspicious about everyone around me. I will catch myself peering into cars at red lights, wondering if the woman in the hijab next to me is really a woman in hijab. Or is she undercover? Or some sort of collaborator? That “vendor” on the side of the road—is he selling cauliflower or collecting intelligence?

I will wonder if my colleagues are actually Shin Bet agents. I will recall the time a journalist interviewed me; he was accompanied by a friend. I’ll think of another similar interview. And another.

Why was I always being questioned in pairs?

And I’ll think of acquaintances living unaffordable lifestyles on tiny, freelance incomes. Eating out, traveling. Where are they getting their money from? Who are they, really? What are they doing here?

I’ll catch myself, realize how absurd my thoughts are, and laugh it off. I’ll understand that it’s some sort of aftershock from the jarring experience at Qalandiya, from being certain that I was going to be pulled out of my car and shot dead.

But, no matter how much I’ll try to reason my way out of it, I won’t be able to shake the feelings that stay with me after that January afternoon:

I’m on my way to Ramallah via Jerusalem and I’m next to the wall, on the “Israeli” side. It’s a two lane road, full of speed bumps, and traffic is crawling towards the Qalandiya checkpoint. A young man springs out of the passenger side of an old, battered white car that’s coming from the opposite direction—away from Qalandiya. He is tall and thin with black hair. He looks Palestinian and he dresses like someone from the territories.

Cars wait to cross the Qalandiya checkpoint separating Jerusalem and Ramallah. (Photo by Activestills.org)

Cars wait to cross the Qalandiya checkpoint separating Jerusalem and Ramallah. (Photo by Activestills.org)

He starts to “direct” the cars. He stands in the middle of the road, puts a hand out to stop traffic coming from one direction and then gestures to cars coming from the other direction to move forward—essentially turning a two-lane, two-way road into a two-lane, one-way road. But they just have to merge back into one lane further up the road. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s not easing the congestion at all.

Wallahi, I swear to God, he’s just making it worse. What is he doing? I think. It’s like he’s creating the traffic jam.

I remind myself to have patience. But after 15 minutes of standstill, I get to thinking about the hours upon hours that I’ve lost making the trip between Bethlehem and Ramallah—a trip that, Palestinians tell me, used to take about half an hour, before the checkpoints and settler-only roads and bypass roads that are routed around settlements. I’ve heard one variation or another of the same sentence come from countless Palestinians: we can get our land back, but we can never get our time back.

I feel my frustration and anger rising. I’m clenching my teeth, breathing fast. I try to slow my breath down. Inhale. Exhale. I picture, in my mind’s eye, a fellow I often see on the service taxi.

From eavesdropping, I’ve gathered that he works in Ramallah and lives in Bethlehem. He speaks Arabic, English, and French fluently. Whenever I take the last service taxi from Ramallah to Bethlehem in the evening, he’s there in the back, tapping away on his computer, completely engrossed in his work. He is resistance. He refuses to let the occupation steal his time, productivity, or composure—not even when we passed the man hogtied on the side of the road.

I’ve heard the same sentence come from countless Palestinians: we can get our land back, but we can never get our time back.

I try to summon this man whose name I don’t know, to channel this person I admire. But I can’t. I’m not a Palestinian keeping my cool under occupation. Staying dignified and calm is not my resistance. No, I’m an impatient, pissed off Israeli—the traffic jam is irritating, the wall enrages me and the checkpoint does, too. Not to mention the bullshit laws that prevent Mohammad and me from having a normal relationship. If it weren’t for those bullshit laws, I wouldn’t be sitting here in this traffic jam. Or maybe there wouldn’t be a traffic jam in the first place. This would all be open and free.

So I honk.

I honk at the young guy, the man I’ve mistaken for a shebab, who is snarling traffic. I honk at him and he turns and looks at me with such anger and hatred and disgust that I’m scared even before he starts moving toward my car.

He reaches my window before I have a chance to lock my doors. He quickly looks to his left and right—presumably to make sure no one can see what he’s doing—before he snakes his Israeli police ID out of his pocket and pushes it up against the glass just long enough for me to read it. I realize that he’s a Jew and an undercover cop.

He glances to his left and right as he slides his ID down my window and back into his pocket. His eyes move towards my door handle. My hands move faster than his, though, and hit the lock a split second before he lifts up on the handle.

Finding my door locked seems to upset him even more than my honking. He’s banging on my window and shouting at me in Arabic to get out of the car. As he’s pounding on the glass, I become certain he’s going to shoot me. I realize that he’s mistaken me for a Palestinian and I know that anything can happen to any Palestinian anywhere between the river and the sea. And I’m not sure how much my protection my Israeli ID would afford me right now—if this policeman is so angry that a “Palestinian woman” would dare honk at him, then imagine how he would react to discovering that I’m a Jew and a “traitor.”

Before I can decide which language to use to beg for my life, I hear myself screaming over and over again—at a level that shocks me, at an inhuman pitch I didn’t know I could produce— in Arabic: “I didn’t know you were police, I didn’t know you were police, I didn’t know you were police” screaming and screaming until he finally moves away from my car and goes back to fucking up the traffic.

The scream has taken over my body. My body is a scream and I shake as I pass Qalandiya checkpoint. I shake as I drive through the refugee camp. I shake the whole way to Ramallah. Not a tremor, but a full-on shake, my body rattling, shivering, my words echoing in my ears “I didn’t know you were police, I didn’t know you were police!”

My vocal cords are sore for days.


I don’t give Mohammad an ultimatum. I simply say: either we move forward or I go back to Jerusalem. Because I could handle all of this if we were really together. But I come home to an empty house. I go to bed alone and I wake up alone. I eat dinner alone. I eat breakfast alone. I drink my morning coffee alone. I have no one to say good morning to, other than the people I pass on the street and my landlady, who by the way, is spending more and more time snooping in my apartment. Not only have I caught her in my place, I’ve come home to find my closet ajar, contents spilling out. It’s only a matter of time before she finds something or puts all the clues together—surely, by now, she’s heard me speaking Hebrew on the phone or has found the hannukiah and Hebrew books I hid as best I could. It’s only a matter of time until I come home and, worst case scenario, find PA people waiting to arrest me and hand me over to the Israelis. Best case—she puts me and my cat out on the street.

I tell my love: I can’t go on like this. If we lived under the same roof, this would all be worth it. But, alone, there’s no reason for me to continue here in the territories.

He agrees that it’s time to move forward. But if there’s no open dating before marriage in the territories, there’s certainly no living together. So moving forward means getting engaged and that means that it’s time for me to meet his family. That includes, of course, his father—who was in the PLO, back before it went soft, and whom Israel deported from the West Bank in the early 1970s. (He returned with and worked for the PA, of which he says, “The best thing I ever did was retire.”)

Mohammad wants this meeting but he also dreads it. He’s excited for me to become part of the family but he’s worried about how they will react to my background, which we can’t hide. We’ll have to tell them eventually but, he decides, it will be better not to tell his parents right away.

“Let them meet you a few times, get to know you, accept the match, fall in love with you, and then we’ll tell them,” he says.


Our first meeting will take place at the end of January. I’m excited and tell my girlfriends, who help me brainstorm possible outfits. I’m still studying Arabic, squeezing in classes before and after work. Now that I’m going to meet Mohammad’s parents—who don’t speak English—I take my studies more seriously. I labor over my homework and sometimes do extra exercises; I practice my embarrassingly bad Arabic with Mohammad and my landlady.

I pester my best friend, who I’ll call Dima, for new words and phrases and write them down in the little notebook I keep me with at all times. Dima is, technically, a refugee—like my landlady, her father’s family fled to the West Bank from Jaffa in 1948. And, unintentionally, Dima is picking Hebrew up from me; when we’re alone in the car or on our long distance runs in empty parts of Beit Sahour, she teases me by peppering her language with “ma?” and “ken.”

Despite her suspicions, my landlady and I still share a close relationship. I tell her about the upcoming meeting, too. As the end of the month draws near, she opens the door that divides the upstairs from down and pops her head in to my apartment every day: “Are you engaged yet?” she calls down the stairs. “When is the meeting?”

“Tomorrow!” I tell her one afternoon late in January as I put my purse and satchel full of student papers down. I’ve just gotten back from work. “I’ll go to Ramallah after I teach my morning class and we’ll have lunch.”

My landlady is so excited she giggles and claps before closing the door.

I make myself a cup of tea, sit down on the couch, and call Mohammad to hammer out the details about tomorrow. Where will we meet? What should I wear?

“Actually,” he begins, “I have something to tell you.”

I stop breathing. I already know what he’s going to say, even before he’s begun.

“My father was excited that his eldest son is finally getting married. So, this morning, he started asking me questions about you. He asked about your religion.”

“You didn’t tell him that I’m Jewish, did you?”

“No. I told him you’re American. But he insisted—”

“And what did you say?”

“That you’re secular. But he asked, ‘What is her family?’ And I said, ‘Well, her mother is Jewish.’”

And Mohammad’s father called our lunch date off. The match, he says, is unacceptable.

So there will be no engagement. There will be no marriage. I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach—I’m crying and gasping for breath at the same time. I can’t talk. I hang up the phone and slide off the couch. I’m on the floor, on my hands and knees, trying to get some air.

‘You didn’t tell him that I’m Jewish, did you?’ — The match, he says, is unacceptable. I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach.

Mohammad calls back.

“What do we do now?” I ask.

“We continue.”

“I can’t go on like this.”

“So we move forward.”

“How? How?” I ask. “It’s impossible without your family.” We can’t just openly defy them by moving in together. Palestine is a small place and word would spread fast—we would shame his parents. We need their support.

And with the economy the way it is, we also can’t afford to go against their will. His parents are building a traditional Palestinian house—a floor for each son—and as Mohammad feels that it’s his duty to “open a house” for us, we need that apartment. The occupation plays a role in all this, too. It crushes the economy, which means that people are more dependent on their family networks, which has the effect of making society more tribal and clan-oriented, more traditional and conservative. Maybe, in better financial times, we could defy Mohammad’s parents. But not now, in a non-state with low wages and high unemployment.

“We’ll find a way,” Mohammad says.

I’m sure that we won’t. And I know that I can’t continue alone.

I text Dima and our other best friend, an American writer who lives in Bethlehem, that the meeting is off. They come straight over and use the keys I’ve given them to let themselves in. I’m still lying on the rug. Dima presents me with ice cream. It melts on the floor.

I spend that night—and many nights to come—on the couch. The bed feels too big. And something about staying in the bedroom strikes me as absurd, like I’m playing house, like I’m deluding myself into thinking I could have a normal life here. Like I’m pretending Palestine is or could someday be my real home.

Illustration by Bruniewska/Shutterstock.com

Illustration by Bruniewska/Shutterstock.com

I drift off with satellite radio on, a station that plays Arabic classics, mostly love songs. I wake in the middle of the night to Baeed Anak (Away From You). Umm Kulthoum sings: “I’ve forgotten sleep and its dreams. I’ve forgotten its nights and its days…”


Was my landlady eavesdropping? Did she hear the conversation with Mohammad? Or Dima? Or was it the sudden change—the sad music going all night long when there’d once been silence? Or was  she waiting for me to come to her with the good news?

Either way, she doesn’t stick her head in the following day or the day after that. Finally, on the third day, she comes into my apartment.

“Well? How did it go with Mohammad’s parents? Are you engaged yet?”

“No,” I answer. “They refuse to meet me.”


“Because I’m not Muslim.”

She nods.

I continue, explaining that, really, it’s Mohammad’s father who is refusing to meet me. Mohammad’s mother is still open to the idea.

“So we’ll have her over,” says my landlady. She explains that she likes Mohammad. And she loves me. She wants to see us happy together. She wants us to get married and she’s determined to help.

Before my landlady heads back upstairs, she gestures to my apartment and adds that Mohammad doesn’t need to worry about opening a house. “The house is already open. You two can always live here.”

I’m humbled. This woman is a refugee who, despite what she suspects or knows, is willing to defy another Palestinian family and give us shelter.

I talk it over with Dima and our other friends and everyone agrees—maybe having Mohammad’s mother over isn’t a bad idea. Traditionally, the man’s parents come to the woman’s house to meet her family and to discuss the prospect of marriage. And while I don’t have a family for Mohammad’s mother to meet, my girlfriends say they’ll come to stand as my people. They’ll vouch for me and my reputation, thus putting their own on the line.

Their reasoning: if we can get Mohammad’s mother on board, she’ll persuade her husband to agree to the match.

‘We’ll find a way,’ Mohammad says. I’m sure that we won’t. And I know that I can’t continue alone.

In the meantime, to comfort me, my girlfriends offer stories of matches that were initially rejected by families but that worked out fine. “Lina,” from East Jerusalem, tells me that her father’s family didn’t want him to get engaged to her mother. She’s Muslim and Palestinian but because she didn’t come from their village, they considered her a “foreigner.” To this day, Lina laughs, some people still call her mom “the foreigner.”

An acquaintance tells me how her Palestinian parents—one Christian and the other Muslim—eloped in London. Their families came around eventually. “They always do,” she assures me. “You’ll be fine.”

Objections start to seem so common that I begin to wonder if they’re like a rite of passage—a test of the lovers’ commitment to one another.

I’m feeling hopeful again. That is, until Mohammad admits to his parents that, yes, I have an Israeli ID. His mother no longer wants to meet me. It’s done.


There’s no place for me in Palestine.

I keep going to work, of course, but find myself less concerned about the container, in part because I’m exhausted from not-really-sleeping on the couch. Whenever the service taxi bounces over those spikes and I peer out the window at the soldiers, I think: arrest me. Don’t arrest me. Whatever.

It occurs to me that perhaps, subconsciously, I actually want to be caught and hauled out of the territories. Then I wouldn’t have to make the decision to break up with Mohammad—who refuses to end our relationship and still spends every weekend with me in Bethlehem as though nothing has changed. But if the army would impose an answer on me and I could offer it up as proof to Mohammad that I just couldn’t live in the West Bank.

I continue to attend Arabic classes—I paid for them, after all—but I find myself avoiding the homework. And, as my Arabic grows weaker, Hebrew reasserts itself. For a while, I’d gotten better at separating the two. But something’s changed and my brain begins to behave as it did when I first started studying: if I can’t find a word in Arabic, my Hebrew jumps “to the rescue,” filling in the gaps, elbowing the Arabic out of its way.

And as much as I hate the checkpoints, I feel a new, surprising emotion whenever I drive to Jerusalem and see them on the horizon: relief. Because I know that, once I pass the checkpoint, I won’t end up on the side of the road in a hot van, thirsty and trying not to shit my pants. Once I pass the checkpoint, I can speak Hebrew without worrying about who is listening. I can wear whatever I want and no one will call me a “sharmouta,” a whore—as a man did on the street one day in Ramallah, never mind that I was in a long-sleeved turtleneck and pants.

Jerusalem: my relief disturbs me. It goes against my politics and morals. And I know how dangerous my feeling is. I know this sense of freedom I feel when I cross into Jerusalem is exactly what the state is based on. It’s what keeps Israelis going to the army and it’s what keeps them voting right wing.

But as I move through Jerusalem, this feeling never lasts. The inequality is too glaring. I could rattle off a list of all the indicators—tax funds collected but not spent, building permits not issued, classroom shortages, infrastructure issues—but it’s not what I think about when I’m in East Jerusalem. I don’t think of the stories I’ve written about this blighted side of the city; no, I think about the girlfriend I’ve lost touch with, the one who lives in Shuafat refugee camp. One of the last times I saw her, she told me that she finds life there so unbearable that her children are the only thing that are keeping her from killing herself.

Little by little, she slipped away, her calls, texts, and emails becoming less frequent. Alarmed, a mutual friend and I spent months trying to get in touch with her. But to no avail. When I still lived in Jerusalem, headed home one afternoon, I looked into the passing train and was certain that I saw her. My heart leapt the tracks and into that East Jerusalem-bound car.

There she is!

I call the last number I have for her but it’s disconnected.

Jerusalem: I find myself looking for her. I scan crowds, looking for her familiar pink or Burberry-pattern hijab. As I pass women on the street, I look at their faces, waiting to see her green eyes. I drop by her work and her colleagues tell me she’s no longer employed there.

‘I find myself looking for her. I scan crowds, looking for her familiar pink or Burberry-pattern hijab. As I pass women on the street, I look at their faces, waiting to see her green eyes.’ (Photo by Activestills.org)

‘I find myself looking for her. I scan crowds, looking for her familiar pink or Burberry-pattern hijab. As I pass women on the street, I look at their faces, waiting to see her green eyes.’ (Photo by Activestills.org)

“But everything’s okay?” I ask, not wanting to sound too worried, lest I embarrass her.

“Hamdulillah,” is the reply.

At least I know she is still alive.

On several occasions, I drive Mohammad or Dima to Jerusalem, breezing through checkpoints. It’s shockingly easy:

1) Slow down, of course, but not too much—as though you expect to be stopped—because then you’re giving the soldiers a cue to stop you.

2) Act like you’re supposed to be there, doing exactly what you’re doing; no, believe that you’re supposed to be doing what you doing. Remind yourself that separation is bullshit and that it didn’t exist before Oslo. Remember that the checkpoints themselves are, arguably, illegal according to international law. Remember your landlady’s and others’ stories of the days they were free to drive to Jerusalem; pretend that you’re living in those days or in the future, when the inevitable one-state has finally materialized.

3) Show some skin.

4) Stay relaxed, drive with one hand on the wheel, your other elbow propped oh-so-casually on the windowsill.

5) If the soldiers bother to look your way, don’t lift your one hand from the wheel. Give them a quick, curt nod and flash them a victory sign as you bounce over the speed bumps or spikes. An Israeli friend who used to drive Palestinians in from the territories taught me this last bit—she was convinced that such body language signals authority to the soldiers and tells them to “stand down.”

And they always do. They stand down and we roll by. Once we clear the checkpoint, there’s that familiar feeling: relief. But as we park the car and begin to walk through Jerusalem, I start to wonder: Will Mohammad be beaten for daring to go out with a Jewish girl, as other Palestinian men have? Will Dima be hassled or, worse, arrested?

I also worry about my own reaction in any of those situations. I’ve always been fiercely protective of my friends. In the fourth grade, when my best friend was waiting to use a swing at recess and someone cut her, I said, “Hey! It’s Christy’s turn.” The girl got off the swing—only to come sock me in the stomach.

I know if anything ever happened to Mohammad or Dima, I wouldn’t be able to stay out of the fray. Will I end up in the hospital or in jail, too?

If the soldiers bother to look your way, give them a quick, curt nod and flash them a victory sign. This last bit tells them to ‘stand down.’ And they always do. (Photo by Activestills.org)

If the soldiers bother to look your way, give them a quick, curt nod and flash them a victory sign. This last bit tells them to ‘stand down.’ And they always do. (Photo by Activestills.org)

Jerusalem: One evening, Mohammad needs me to pick up a DVD from an Israeli colleague. The man asks me to meet him at Mamilla mall, at the Aroma, to make the exchange. We greet each other, make small talk and—when he realizes that Mohammad is not just my colleague but my boyfriend—he invites me to coffee. I have some time to kill before I meet a girlfriend for dinner, so I accept.

This older fellow says that he is fond of Mohammad. “He’s a good man. But, excuse me for asking,” he begins, “aren’t you a Jew?”


He explains then that he volunteers with an organization that “rescues” Jewish women from Arab men. “They’re all nice before the marriage and then they stick you in the house and put a hijab on your head. Mohammad might be different…”

He shrugs.

“He likes that I have a career,” I say. “And he doesn’t want me to wear the hijab.”

“But what about his family? His family might want you to convert to Islam and cover your head.”

Nu, az?” So what?

As though covering one’s head is a tragedy. As though it’s the worst thing that could happen to a woman. As though scantily-clad Western women aren’t oppressed, too. Feeling pressured to show skin and be sexy is just the flip side of feeling pressured to cover and hide one’s sexuality.

He’s tells me that, even though he doesn’t know me, he’s concerned for me because I’m a fellow Jew, part of the “Jewish people.” This man who doesn’t know me calls me “sister.” Rather than urging me to find a Jewish husband, he tells me about the time he got engaged to a Chinese woman he met during his post-army travels. His mother objected to the match and so he broke up with her and, eventually, settled down with a nice, Jewish girl.

But I don’t want to settle.

And what’s the parallel here? That this fellow, as an older man who is also part of the “Jewish people,” is like a father? And that, as he listened to his mother, I’m supposed to listen to him?

Jerusalem: Another stranger—introduced to me by an American friend who makes a point of telling the guy that I’m “the one who has a Palestinian boyfriend”—will give me a similar lecture. He will add that if it’s marriage I want, he’s certain he could find at least 10 wonderful Jewish guys who would be thrilled to marry me.

“My brother’s available, and he’s about your age,” he says, offering to arrange a date. He opens his phone and scrolls through his address book, looking for other potential matches.

It reminds me of my childhood in the American South, when strangers and friends alike tried to get me to convert to Christianity, lest my soul burn in hell.

Then there’s my Meretz-voting friend who’s angry with me for having a relationship with Mohammad. She doesn’t admit that her feeling is racism—she calls it concern. She tells me it’s one thing to marry a Palestinian but, “Do you two plan on having a family?” When I tell her yes, she says that having a child with an Arab would be “irresponsible.”

There’s no place for me in Israel.

Then there’s my Meretz-voting friend. she says that having a child with an Arab would be ‘irresponsible.’ There’s no place for me in Israel.

And even if there was, Mohammad would not be able to live here with me legally. There’s no place for us anywhere, not on any side of the Green Line.

Whenever I drive back to Bethlehem, that same relief that I feel when I enter Jerusalem washes over me again. I’m relieved to pass the checkpoint and enter the territories. I feel my body relax as I bank the hill and follow the sign that reads, in Hebrew, “Beit Jala.” When I glide past the army base, I exhale. From here, it’s a short downhill ride to Bethlehem. The car rolls the gentle slopes, carrying me home.


Months go by. In late March, there’s a family emergency and Mohammad has to go to South Florida to help his brother handle some business affairs. I was born and raised five hours north, relatively close to the Georgia border. And while these parts of Florida are very different—really, they’re like different countries—it still strikes me as ironic that Mohammad ends up spending five weeks in my native state.

My landlady tells me to give up. “He’s in America? He’s not coming back for you,” she advises me. “You’re wasting your time. Move on.” She’s fond of a friend of mine who came to visit me from Tel Aviv—a man I introduced as my cousin because, otherwise, I wouldn’t be allowed to have him in the house.

“You should marry him,” my landlady says.

“But he’s my cousin!” I protest, staying in role.

My landlady waves her hand dismissively.

“I know that people around here still do that,” I say, “and if that’s what they want to do, fine. But, in my family, we stopped marrying our cousins about 100 years ago.”

“But he’s so nice,” she insists. “You should marry him.”

And we start the conversation over again.

Despite my landlady’s reservations, Mohammad and I talk on the phone every day. He marvels at how, in America, the road is just open, how you can drive forever without seeing a checkpoint or a soldier. He loves the anonymity. When he visited me in Abu Dis one afternoon, a group of concerned men stopped us on the street, “Professor, professor! Are you okay? What are you doing with this strange man?” But, in Florida, Mohammad says, no one hassles you, no one asks who you are, what your family name is, and what you’re doing here.

When he’s not waxing poetic about America, I’m trying to convince him that, khalas, we should just break up already. Not because I want to marry “my cousin” but because I can’t live in limbo anymore.

No, Mohammad says, we should move in together when he gets back to the West Bank, family concerns be damned. It would make them understand that we’re serious about each other and that they have no choice but to accept the match.

Mohammad marvels at how, in America, you can drive forever without seeing a checkpoint or a soldier.

The next time we talk, he backpedals. Moving in together would throw fuel on the fire and would reflect poorly on me. Then his parents will never accept the match. And we can’t get married without his family’s blessing. That’s what he really wants to do—to get married, to have children, to spend our lives together.

It’s three AM and I can’t sleep. I take my phone outside and sit in the garden. Dheisheh refugee camp lies on the horizon and its lights look like stars. The wind blows through the lemon, almond, and apricot trees. The grape leaves—still young on the vine—rustle.

I remember lying in the courtyard outside my apartment in Kiryat Yovel and listening to the wind lace itself between leaves. I remember picking fresh passion fruit from the vine, tasting honeysuckle from the dewy flowers in the alley. I remember hiking the trails that led from Kiryat Yovel to Ein Kerem and stopping to pluck figs and green almonds from trees.

I can’t leave either place. But I know that I can’t remain, either.

I call Mohammed and tell him that it’s 3 a.m. and I can’t sleep. I describe the view to him—it’s a view he knows well but still, I tell him that I can’t tell where the stars stop and Dheisheh begins. I tell him about the wind and how it smells the same in Jerusalem.

I ask him what we’re going to do.

He says that sometimes, in life, we have to make a “radical revision,” an unexpected turn. And then he asks: “What if we moved to Florida?”

“You mean quit my job, just like that, and just,” I pause. The words are so simple yet they seem unbelievable. The idea seems absurd. “Move to Florida?”

“Yes.” Mohammad’s already talked to his brother about it; his brother will be happy to host us until we get on our feet.

“Did you tell him that I have a cat? Because I won’t come without my cat. We’re a package deal.”

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The Long Road to Bethlehem: Part two http://972mag.com/the-long-road-to-bethlehem-part-two/105860/ http://972mag.com/the-long-road-to-bethlehem-part-two/105860/#comments Sun, 26 Apr 2015 14:22:59 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=105860 Click here to read part one.

I was sold on the apartment. But my landlady wasn’t sold on me yet.

We went upstairs and sat in her salon. Once a porch, it had been closed in with glass windows and offered a view of the hills surrounding Bethlehem. It was one of the few vistas that wasn’t ruined by the occupation. There was no wall, no checkpoints, no military bases, no settlements.

As my landlady took her seat across from me, she handed me a small, wrapped hard candy. She apologized for not offering me coffee. I realized how much she needed to rent the first floor out.

“You aren’t the first to come see the place,” she began, adding that she’d turned the last applicant down because she suspected that he was a Jew. Under no circumstances would she rent to a Jew.

She looked at me, her gaze shifting from one of my eyes to the other, as though she was trying to read what was behind them. I understood that she was waiting for some sort of a reaction. I smiled.

“Happiness is more important than money,” she continued, explaining that it was important to her to find the right person for the apartment. The house was special to her—not only because she’d grown up in it but also because it had witnessed so much of Bethlehem’s history.

The cornerstone was laid in 1808 when someone built a tiny, stand-alone room next to the well. Several other one-room houses followed, making a half-moon around the well, creating an open-air courtyard. In the early 1900s, the cluster of rooms was turned into one large home. The courtyard was closed and the second story was built. New floors were laid with the hand-painted tiles common to the Levant—a reminder of the years when trains connected Beirut and Damascus to Jerusalem and Jaffa.

But those days didn’t last. The Middle East was carved up, including Palestine. During the Nakba, my landlady’s family left Jaffa empty-handed: her father lost his business; they lost their money, home, and belongings. Christians, they fled to Bethlehem where they had roots and family. A few years later, in the early 1950s, they moved into the first floor of this house, a once-wealthy family of seven crammed into two bedrooms.

But the place emptied as her brothers left to find work abroad—the West Bank’s economy wasn’t great and it only got worse under the occupation. Thanks in large part to the remittances her brothers sent back to Palestine, her family scraped together enough money to buy the whole house. Eventually, my landlady followed in the previous owners’ footsteps, moving upstairs and renting out the space beneath her. In the beginning, many of her tenants were students who came from other Palestinian cities and villages to attend Bethlehem University. But as the occupation deepened—a process that was facilitated by the Oslo Accords and the creation of the Palestinian Authority—the economy all but ground to a halt and Palestinian tenants were increasingly unreliable.

During the hard days of the Second Intifada, when Bethlehem was under siege, the first floor was full of stranded students who couldn’t pay rent. After that, my landlady decided only to rent to ajanib, foreigners. She began to rattle off the list of recent tenants, telling me their names, their jobs, where they’d come from, and why they’d left Palestine. Most of her renters had had cushy NGO gigs. I didn’t tell my landlady that I wasn’t collecting a foreigner’s income; that my wage was set by the PA’s scale and that I was making the same as a Palestinian professor would. Another reason to leave Jerusalem—I couldn’t afford it on a West Bank salary.

An olive tree in front of the Israeli separation barrier in Bethlehem. (Activestills.org)

An olive tree in front of the Israeli separation barrier in Bethlehem. (Activestills.org)

“I must ask you,” she said. “What is your religion?”

“I don’t see how that’s really relevant.”

“What is your religion?” she insisted.

“I’m secular,” I said.

“Because, me, I’m Catholic.”

“That’s nice.”

“And I’m from Palestine,” she continued. “Where are you from?”

“America,” I said.

“No one’s really from America—” she began.

“—except the Native Americans,” I interrupted. “You know, the Indians.”

“But, clearly, you’re not Indian,” she smiled. “So where did your people come from?”

“My people?” Since I was young, I’d always answered such questions by saying “I’m Jewish.” Clearly, I couldn’t say that now. I unwrapped the candy, put it in my mouth, and smoothed the wrapper out on my knee. I imagined the square before me as a map; I mentally traced the circuitous route my Sephardic and Ashkenazi ancestors made.

I realized she was waiting for an answer. But all the countries my people had passed through seemed loaded. As I went through the list in my head, I became more and more convinced that naming any of them would reveal my Jewish background.

“My people—oh, you know, they’re from here and there. Everywhere, really. I’m very mixed.”

She glanced at the wrapper on my knee. I crumpled it up, used my fingers to push it into the palm of my hand.

“Part of my family came from Italy,” I said. “Guarnieri.” Though I was usually annoyed by it, in that moment I was glad for this remnant of my first marriage—an Italian last name. Different from the one my Italian ancestors on my mother’s side had carried, but Italian nonetheless.

“Now I have a question for you,” I said. “My husband will be spending part of the week with me. Is that okay?”

Some Palestinian landlords forbid female renters from having men over—it was best to check in advance. My partner and I had also decided to say that we were married as few people date openly in Palestine.

“Is he really your husband?” my landlady asked. “Or your boyfriend?”

“Well, we’re planning to get married,” I answered, mentally adding to the end of the sentence: if his family will approve.

“So he’s your boyfriend.”

“Yes,” I said, in Arabic.

“How many boyfriends do you have?”

Both the feminist and the old-fashioned lady who live uncomfortably together inside of me balked at the question. But I knew that I had to answer it. “Just one,” I said.

“Some of these foreign women have a different man coming over every day,” my landlady said, shaking her head. “I can’t have that here. The neighbors will talk. But if it’s just one boyfriend—and your relationship is serious—ahlan wa sahlan.”

Welcome. I’d passed the interview. The place was mine if I wanted it and provided I would stay for at least a year. Could I promise her that? How long had I been here? What was my visa situation?

I told my landlady that I’d just signed a two-year contract at the university and that I wasn’t too concerned about the bureaucratic issues.

“The Jews don’t like foreigners, you know. Four, five years and no more visa,” she wiped one palm with the other. “You’re done.”

I nodded.

“How long have you been in Palestine?”

“Over six years,” I answered, wishing I were a better liar, rushing to add that I’d been working as a journalist.

That seemed to satisfy her curiosity. But, in the months that followed, she would put things together. And later, during the 2014 war—after we’d lived in the same house for almost a year, after a visitor mistook us for mother and daughter, remarking on our similar features and frame and coloring, and after we’d felt our shared home shake when rockets hit the earth—my landlady would come into my apartment and ask: “You’re Jewish?”


My daily commute from Bethlehem to Abu Dis meant that I had to pass through a checkpoint referred to as “the container.” Deep in the West Bank, it is one of many internal checkpoints that divide one Palestinian area from another, contradicting the Israeli argument that the checkpoints are about security. They’re about crowd control and the container offers a prime example: it stands in the middle of the only road that links Ramallah to Bethlehem, or the center of the West Bank to the south. If the army closes the container—and it does on rare occasions, like during Israel’s 2012 attack on Gaza—it effectively cuts the West Bank into two, separating the south from the central West Bank.

Checkpoints also make the occupation more efficient. A relatively small number of soldiers can control a large population when that population is being slowed down, funneled through checkpoints, and surrounded momentarily by guns. Because once you’re through, you don’t forget about what’s behind you.

Israeli soldiers man an ‘internal checkpoint’ separating Palestinian cities, West Bank. (Activestills.org)

Israeli soldiers man an ‘internal checkpoint’ separating Palestinian cities, West Bank. (Activestills.org)

You carry the images with you: the guns, the sight of the olive green uniforms, the sound of tires bouncing over spikes. They’re like the kind of spikes you find in a parking garage that you wouldn’t pay any mind to as you rolled over them but here, you feel them—ca-duk, ca-duk—the sharp sound of metal on metal, like a gun being cocked, like a lock being turned around you. From your seat you imagine their sharp metal teeth behind you and underneath you, and you know that there is no throwing the car into reverse and going back to that open stretch of road. You’re locked inside the checkpoint now and you’re surrounded.

You carry the images with you: the night you were in a service taxi and you saw a human being hogtied and blindfolded on the shoulder of a road, surrounded by soldiers, his car idling empty nearby, the driver’s door still open. The sounds of gasps rippling through the service taxi.

The checkpoint was so off-limits to Israelis that there wasn’t even a sign saying it was off-limits.

Even once you’ve passed, you feel like you’re always surrounded by guns and gasps. The sights and sounds might come back to you at any time, for no good reason. You could be having lunch with a colleague, you could be helping a student with the rough draft of her essay, you could even be laughing, and suddenly you hear the ca-duk, ca-duk of tires rolling over the spikes, you hear the gasps. You see arms stretched behind a back, hands bound, a blindfold.

No need to send more soldiers to the West Bank when they live deep in everyone’s subconscious.


I came to find internal checkpoints much more frightening than the one I’d passed when I lived in Jerusalem for another simple reason: in the West Bank, anything could happen. Anywhere. At any time. Especially at the checkpoints.

I knew this intellectually before I moved to Bethlehem. But I didn’t understand it fully—with my insides, in my heart and in my gut—until one hot afternoon at the tail end of summer.

I was headed to Ramallah to attend a former student’s wedding. I shouldn’t have been going. I’d been sick for over a week with a horrible stomach flu. I couldn’t keep anything in my system and had survived the past 10 days on little more than chicken broth, pita, and water. Eating sent my digestive system into spasms, causing excruciating pain. Drinking wasn’t much better.

I shouldn’t have been going, but this was no ordinary student. She was one of my smartest, most hardworking, and most moral. She was at once opinionated and open-minded. She was also unswerving in her faith, not in a dogmatic way but in a spiritual sense. Her total trust in God gave her the serenity and self-confidence of the enlightened.

Even though she was only 19 years old, I looked to this former student as a role model. When she hand-delivered an invitation to her wedding, I was so touched and honored to be invited that tears came to my eyes. I’d told her I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

She’d emailed in the days before the wedding to strategize about how to get her conservative family to allow my partner, Mohammad, to accompany me. It wasn’t acceptable to bring a boyfriend to the wedding. There was no dating in the West Bank. And she couldn’t tell them that we were married. She would have to say that we were engaged.

Is that okay? She wrote.

Mohammad and I decided it was.

I’m so happy you’ll be a part of my special day! She responded.

Sick or not, I intended to honor my word.

Already exhausted and dehydrated, I’d deliberately dehydrated myself a little more for the service ride to Ramallah. Otherwise, I ran the risk of having a bout of diarrhea on the way. I figured I’d catch up on my fluids once I got to the wedding, where there would also be a bathroom.

You carry the images with you — the night you saw a human being hogtied and blindfolded on the shoulder of the road.

It wasn’t appropriate to ride public transportation in an evening gown and high heels so I put my dress and shoes in a shopping bag and placed it by the front door. Despite my condition and the searing heat—the last gasp of summer—I dressed for the West Bank. Donning long sleeves and jeans, I headed to the bus station.

My head was already throbbing by the time the service taxi rounded the last curve above Wadi Nar and approached the container. Even though the soldiers usually waved the services through or ignored them altogether, I was nervous. If they checked IDs, I could be arrested. The container was so off-limits to Israelis—that is, Israelis other than the soldiers that manned the checkpoint—that there wasn’t even a sign saying that it was off-limits.

An arrest would threaten the life I’d built in the territories. And I certainly wouldn’t be able to make it to the wedding if I was detained.

A Palestinian service taxi passes through an Israeli army checkpoint in the West Bank. (Activestills.org)

A Palestinian service taxi passes through an Israeli army checkpoint in the West Bank. (Activestills.org)

But the soldiers didn’t even look when we entered the checkpoint. We rolled through the container. As the service taxi bounced over the second set of spikes, ca-duk, ca-duk, I relaxed—enough to realize that I’d left the bag with my dress and shoes by the front door.

I couldn’t go to the wedding dressed in jeans. But going back to Bethlehem meant that I would be late. And I was sick. I wasn’t sure my body could handle the additional time on the road. Meanwhile, the service taxi was moving, taking me further and further away from Bethlehem and my dress.

Unsure of what to do, I texted Mohammad who confirmed what I already knew—I had to go back for my clothes.

I cursed aloud then explained in Arabic, “I forgot something, my dress, at home. I have to go back to Bethlehem.”

The driver stuck his arm out the window and flagged down a van headed our way. It wasn’t a standard service taxi. It wasn’t yellow, with the registration and the driver’s information posted inside the vehicle but, rather, an old, unmarked white van, a gypsy cab. These are common in the territories, where there aren’t enough service taxis to provide for everyone’s transportation needs. The unregistered, uninsured vans are also a symptom of the West Bank’s depressed economy. The unemployment rate hovers around 20 percent; van drivers are trying to eke out a living.

Palestinian workers enter an unlicensed service taxi in the West Bank. (Activestills.org)

Palestinian workers enter an unlicensed service taxi in the West Bank. (Activestills.org)

I was in luck—the van was indeed headed to Bethlehem. I got out of the service taxi, the driver telling me “ma salaama,” go in peace, and boarded the van. It roared through the village with the windows down, music blasting. I was the only woman in the van and the men, who all seemed to know each other, made shouted conversation over the noise.

As we neared the container, the men stopped talking and the driver turned the music down. The van slowed. We were all silent, as though we were holding our breath. The tires rumbled over the first set of spikes. Ca-duk, ca-duk.

We were inside the checkpoint again, the same one I’d gone through just a few minutes earlier. But now we were being pulled over. How can this be? I wondered. I was just here and the soldiers weren’t checking anyone.

It was arbitrary. And that’s one of the most fearsome, unsettling aspects of the occupation—the arbitrariness of everything.

When the van stopped, a soldier opened the door and sized everyone up.

“Min wen?” From where? He asked the driver in Arabic.

“Abu Dis.”

“A wen?” To where?


The soldier asked, in Arabic, for IDs. I didn’t bother taking mine out—every other time soldiers had asked for IDs at the container, they’d only wanted the men’s. Sometimes they said “shebab” (young men) only; most of the time they didn’t bother to specify as it was understood that they weren’t concerned about the women. Sexism usually worked to my advantage at the checkpoints.

The man nearest the door collected the IDs from the other passengers and handed them over. The soldier flipped one open and then put it in the bottom of the pile. Again.

He was halfway through the stack when he said, in Hebrew, “You, too.”

“Me?” I asked, in English. I wasn’t playing dumb American—I didn’t know if the soldier was, indeed, talking to me. He hadn’t taken his eyes off the IDs.

“Ken,” yes, he said. Again, without looking up.

As I opened the front pocket of my black leather backpack, I noticed that my hands were shaking. Worried that this would make the soldier suspicious, I willed them still as I pulled my passport out and handed the document over.

He flipped to the page with my name and photo.

I prayed he wouldn’t look any further than that.

He didn’t. He closed the passport and returned it to me. I relaxed, thinking that I’d passed the test and that, when the soldier finished looking at the other IDs, he’d hand them back and we’d be on our way. Instead, he held the stack.

“Close your windows,” he said. He shut the door and walked away, towards the booth and the shade, where several other soldiers stood.

The driver rolled up his window and the passengers shut theirs, as well. I did, too. The sun beat down on the van. The air thickened around us, smothering me. I retched, my stomach clutching at nothing and bringing up nothing. The throbbing in my head intensified. I needed water, air, shade.

Years before, in Florida, I’d once had a heat stroke when I’d exercised too much during the wrong time of day and I was certain I would have one now if we didn’t move soon or at least roll down the windows. I realized that, if I did have a heat stroke, the soldiers were unlikely to call an ambulance. If they did, it would take a long time to get to the checkpoint and then to a hospital. And, in the meantime, I would still be in the heat.

The thought came to me: I could die here, in this van. I laughed aloud. The stupidity of it all—to be going anywhere in this state, with this flu, that I’d intentionally dehydrated myself even more, that I’d forgotten my dress, that I was in the middle of the West Bank at a checkpoint manned by soldiers of a country that didn’t exist 100 years ago. What a ridiculous way to go, I thought.

I laughed until I gagged and then I retched until there was bile in the back of my throat. I swallowed it back down. From the closed window, I could see a water cooler and plastic cups on the soldiers’ shaded benches. I got out of the van and asked, in English, if I could have some water.

“You can have a little if you have a cup,” the soldier said, in Hebrew.

“Of course I don’t have a cup,” I argued, switching to his language. “Please. I’m sick and I’m going to be very sick if I don’t drink something.”

“Find a cup,” he insisted.

“It’s not possible.” I stood there. Even if they wouldn’t give me water, at least out here I had air and could cool off a bit.

“Get into the van,” the soldier ordered me.


He jerked his rifle towards the van. “Go!”

I went. I climbed in, closed the door. I sat and asked my companions, in Arabic, if anyone had a cup. No one did.

“I need to drink something. I’m sick and it’s very hot and my head hurts and I think I will die.” The sentence was overly dramatic because my vocabulary was limited—I didn’t know how to say “dehydrated” or “heat stroke” in Arabic. Still, the driver turned around and looked at me. How did I appear? Pale or flushed? Was my face sunken? The bags under my eyes black?

Whatever the driver saw, it was enough to make him get out of the van and argue with the soldier until he managed to secure me a cup of water. He got back into the service and handed it to me. I choked back tears as I thanked him and thanked him and thanked him. I sipped the cup of water slowly for fear that I would vomit if I drank too fast.

Forty-five excruciating minutes passed. A soldier approached the van. He opened the door and tossed the men’s IDs in. He didn’t say a word. None of us said a word. The driver started the engine and, as the van began to roll and we bounced over the next set of spikes, we all opened the windows.

And just like that, we were moving again, and I was gulping the air.


When we arrived in Bethlehem, I tried to pay the driver. He refused to take my money. He called me an “angel” and explained that he and the other men were certain that things would have been worse at the container if I hadn’t been with them. As though making us sit inside a closed van in the heat for an hour hadn’t been enough. As though exhausting us and stealing our time hadn’t been enough.

I tried to run home but couldn’t—my head hurt worse with every step. I moved as fast as I could while trying to keep my head as still as possible. I went inside, got sick in the bathroom, grabbed the bag, and headed back to the bus station where I boarded another Ramallah-bound service.

I looked for some sort of sign or evidence that we’d been there, that something horrible had just happened to us.

The container again. The soldiers didn’t even look at the service. I knew it was irrational, but I stared out the window at the spot where the van had just sat for nearly an hour, baking in the heat. I looked for some sort of sign or evidence that we’d been there, that we’d been held for no reason, that something horrible and inhumane had just happened to us.

But there was nothing. It was like we’d never been there. I realized that the people who had come through the container after we’d left would have no idea that we’d been forced, on a soldier’s whim, to sit in a van with the windows rolled up. All of the checkpoints, I realized, were littered with the invisible remnants of others’ stories.

Several months later, a Palestinian from Hebron—Anas al-Atrash—would be shot and killed at the container. In the days that followed, when I would go through the checkpoint, I would look for some sort of trace of the incident, a mark upon the land, some sort of change, a sign that the earth had absorbed a human being’s blood, that the occupation had taken another life. Right here.

But there was nothing. Just soldiers waving service taxis through, ignoring them altogether or stopping drivers and searching cars. Business as usual. Ca-duk, ca-duk.


Ramallah at last. I couldn’t feel my legs as I propelled myself toward Mohammad’s office, walking as fast I could without running. I felt weak, my body diminished, my head heavy and bobbing with each step. I gripped the shopping bag and focused on the way the paper felt in my hand and the crinkling sound it made when I moved my fingers. I didn’t hear the traffic or the vendors or the conversations on the street.

We were late to the wedding. I spent much of the reception in the bathroom, sick. But when it was time for all of the guests to put their gifts of gold jewelry on the bride and to pose with her and the groom for a picture, I pulled it together.

I didn’t have gold with me but, rather, cash. At every wedding I’d attended in Israel, there’d been envelopes and a box. I searched for one now and was surprised that couldn’t find it at this posh reception in one of Ramallah’s nicest hotels. I realized how out of place I was here in the West Bank. Sure, I might have Palestinian friends and a Palestinian boyfriend and a job at a Palestinian university. I might speak a little Arabic and soldiers might occasionally mistake me for an Arab at a checkpoint. But I would never be Palestinian and I would never really belong here.

We mounted the stairs to the small stage the bride and groom sat on. I leaned in toward the bride, handed her the rumbled wad of cash, and apologized for being so late. “I forgot my dress. And then there was a problem at the checkpoint,” I said.

She nodded.

I put my arm around her and whispered my love and congratulations. Mohammad stood next to the groom. We all smiled for the photographer.

As Mohammad and I got off the stage and took our seats at one of the round tables, I imagined what that photo would look like. I thought of how strange it would look next to an image of the van at the container, how strange that I could be suffocating and retching at a checkpoint one moment and then smiling at a wedding just hours later.

My life felt at once raw and real and removed from reality. My head swam as I tried to make sense of it all. I shouldn’t have touched Mohammad in public, but I took his hand and squeezed it to remind myself that this—us—was the biggest reason I was in the West Bank. And that our love couldn’t survive with a wall between us.

But could it survive like this?

Later my former student wrote to me: So, are you sure that you and Mohammad will get married? Because many men asked my family about you after the wedding…

[Top photo: A view of olive trees and a stone home near Bethlehem. By: Mariait/Shutterstock.com]

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The long road to Bethlehem http://972mag.com/the-long-road-to-bethlehem/104862/ http://972mag.com/the-long-road-to-bethlehem/104862/#comments Sat, 28 Mar 2015 12:38:54 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=104862 It wasn’t the soaring arches or the elegant windows, with their curved caps. It wasn’t that the first room of the house was built in 1808. It wasn’t the jasmine that, like a woman letting down her hair, released its heavy perfume at night. It wasn’t the olive, loquat, lemon, almond, and apricot trees that filled the garden. Nor was it that the fruit from that garden seemed sweeter here in Bethlehem than it was in Jerusalem.

The apartment’s biggest selling point, in my landlady’s opinion?

The well.

She showed it to me the first time I saw the place, before I’d decided to rent the apartment. The well was hidden behind a curtain in the kitchen. She pushed the fabric back, revealing a deep recess in the wall. Inside the nook stood a pump and, on the floor, a large stone with a wrought iron handle. My landlady, who was in her seventies, gave the handle a tug. The rock lifted. There was a clunk as she placed it on the kitchen floor.

My landlady got on her knees and peered into the hole, a spot of night surrounded by chiseled white.

“See?” she tapped my calf, signaling that I should get on the floor, too. I obliged her.

I peered into the well. I didn’t see anything. But I could smell the collected rainwater below us.

My landlady put her hands on my back and pushed herself up. As she brushed the dirt off her knees, she explained to me that, if I were to take the apartment, we would share the well. And while our neighbors’ taps would run dry—as they always do here, eventually—we would never go without.

A view of Bethlehem. (Activestills.org)

A view of Bethlehem. (Activestills.org)

I remembered a long, waterless weekend I’d spent in Bethlehem in 2010. An American friend who lived and worked there had invited me to come celebrate his birthday. I was living in Tel Aviv then and had only been to Bethlehem once before, to work on an article for The National. The photographer who’d been assigned to the story also had Israeli citizenship. Unlike me, however, he had a car. That day, we’d left the Bethlehem area via the settler checkpoint outside the tunnels—a checkpoint we should have breezed through as two Jews riding in a yellow-plated vehicle. But the female soldier stopped us and asked for my ID. Nervous about the fact that I’d been in Bethlehem, which is off-limits to Jews who hold Israeli IDs, I gave the solider my American passport. She rifled through it looking for my visa. When she didn’t find it, she rolled her eyes at me, sighed, and asked me in Hebrew, “Where is your identity card?”

The photographer and I talked our way out of trouble. But I was rattled by the experience and feared that I’d be arrested the next time I was caught. Still, when my American friend asked me to come out to the West Bank for his birthday, I said yes. I told myself that I didn’t need to think too far ahead—I’d worry about leaving when it was time to leave.

When I got there, I found my friend’s house filthy; his kitchen sink overflowing with dirty dishes. “The water’s out,” he explained. He showed me how we could flush the toilet and brush our teeth using the water he’d saved in plastic bottles ahead of time. I would learn later that other friends keep buckets in their showers to collect the grey water. Because this is what you do in the West Bank, where you’re always waiting for the taps to go dry, where the Jewish settlements you can see from your window or that you pass on the road—the nice, neat, clean settlements that are locked away behind fences and surrounded by security—have green lawns and full swimming pools.

Despite the water shortage, what was supposed to be an overnight trip to Bethlehem turned into three nights of sleeping on my friend’s couch. Every time I thought about leaving, I remembered my confrontation with the female soldier. There are checkpoints on every side of Bethlehem: how could I get out of here without getting caught? And this time I was without a car: wouldn’t it be even more difficult on public transportation? Because I’d be coming out of a Palestinian area, I’d be on a Palestinian bus. And while settlers’ buses just roll through the checkpoints, Palestinian buses are always stopped, passengers IDs are always checked.

The ‘Tunnels’ checkpoint near Bethlehem. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

The ‘Tunnels’ checkpoint near Bethlehem. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

I couldn’t figure it out, and I dreaded the soldiers, so I just stayed. And stayed. I joked with my American friend that it would be easier for me to go to Jordan and take a flight from Amman to Tel Aviv than it would be to just take the bus home.

Finally, on the fourth day, I realized that I couldn’t just wait out the occupation. The checkpoints and soldiers weren’t going to disappear. And I needed to take a shower. I had to get back to Tel Aviv somehow.

When I left my friend’s apartment that day, I had no idea how I’d get home. Nor did I know that Bethlehem would soon be my home; that I’d end up moving here less than three years later, into a house—a house with a well—owned by refugees from Jaffa.


It happened in steps. First I left Tel Aviv and moved to Jerusalem. Comfortable enough in Hebrew, I started studying Arabic. I began writing less about migrant workers and African refugees—my old south Tel Aviv beat—and more about the occupation. I started teaching at a university in the West Bank.

The commute from my apartment in the West Jerusalem neighborhood of Kiryat Yovel was long, sometimes taking as much as two hours door to door. First I’d walk to the light rail. Then I would take the light rail to Damascus Gate, get down, and walk to the Palestinian bus station in East Jerusalem. The territories aren’t just under occupation, they’re also under separation—separation from each other, separation from the Jews. After waiting for the segregated bus to fill, I would ride it to Abu Dis.

I wept — out of shame for the things I said; because I meant them in the moment; because I didn’t mean them now.

To arrive on time for my 8 a.m. class, I had to wake up at five and leave the house around 5:30. I needed the half-hour cushion for delays, like when the light rail was stopped because somebody reported a suspicious package. It was during Israel’s 2012 pummeling of Gaza, “Operation Pillar of Defense.” With the light rail at a standstill and time racing ahead, I had no choice but to hail a taxi.

I got in and told the driver that I was going to Damascus Gate.

Shaar Shkhem?” He repeated in Hebrew, sounding surprised.


He glanced at me in the rearview mirror, giving me a weary look, sizing me up. I worried that he might refuse the ride. Once, on my way from Ben-Gurion Airport to Tel Aviv, a cab driver had threatened to dump me on the side of the highway when, in the course of our conversation, I mentioned that I wrote for Al Jazeera.

But the driver continued. As we neared the city center, however, he insisted on dropping me off there.

“No,” I pushed back. “I need to get to Damascus Gate.”

An Israeli Border Police officer stands guard above Damascus Gate in East Jerusalem. The area often sees demonstrations and clashes between Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem and Israeli police. (Activestills.org)

An Israeli Border Police officer stands guard above Damascus Gate in East Jerusalem. The area often sees demonstrations and clashes between Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem and Israeli police. (Activestills.org)

“But,” he began, “are you Jewish? Because, if you are, it’s not safe for you there. Especially not now.”

What, when we’re pummeling Gaza for no good reason? I thought. Instead, I just said, “It’s fine. I’m safe.”

The driver argued that I was putting myself at risk. He asked why I was getting out at Damascus Gate anyways.

I explained that I worked in the West Bank.

And thus began the political conversation I’d been trying to avoid. Because I knew where the discussion would go. Because it was early in the morning and I’d already read the bad news coming out of Gaza and because I’d dealt with the light rail stopping because of a suspicious package. Because I just wanted to get to work.

Things went exactly where I expected them to, with the cab driver telling me that Operation Pillar of Defense was necessary, that the Palestinians were getting what they deserved, that we needed to obliterate Gaza and re-occupy it.

A face flashed before my mind’s eye: one of my favorite students. Born and raised in a refugee camp near Hebron, she was hardworking, curious, sensitive, gentle, compassionate, and smart. Kind. Open-minded. Non-judgmental. In Arabic, she would be described as having a “white heart.” This student was in my Monday/Wednesday eight a.m. class and on those mornings, she was the reason I got out of bed at five. Knowing she would be there in Abu Dis, waiting for me, was what got me moving.

And the cab driver thought the Palestinians were getting what they deserved. Did my beloved student—did any of my students—deserve this?

I didn’t realize I was speaking until I heard my voice. I was shrieking at the driver, cursing him, ya ben zona, you son of a bitch, wishing death—“No, not just death. Death full of pain”—upon him and all of his family.

“You and all of your family!” I repeated as I hurled the cab fare at him and exploded out of the taxi. I turned my back to the street and faced the Old City so he wouldn’t be able to see my face as he rounded the traffic circle and headed back toward West Jerusalem.

I wept.

Out of shame for the horrible things I’d said to him; because I’d meant them in the moment; because I didn’t mean them now, because I wanted to take them back; because I knew my favorite student would never wish death on anyone, because she would be disappointed in me, because she would no longer look up to me. Because I was disappointed in myself, because I was disappointed in the cab driver, a fellow Jew, because I was disappointed in the Jewish state.

I cried for the driver and the hatred he lugged around, for the life he was trapped in. Because he was brainwashed by the state that kept him poor, by the government that pitted him against Palestinian workers and stoked the flames of racism.

I cried for Gaza.

And then, with my 8 a.m. class drawing ever closer and my student waiting for me there in Abu Dis—her face round and innocent and full of expectations and hope, even in the middle of a war, even though her brother, in a matter of months, would be detained by the same army that had already arrested so many of her uncles and cousins—I pulled myself together and continued on my way.

On my way to the Palestinian bus station, I stopped to buy a tea from a street vendor. He saw my puffy eyes and noticed me wiping my nose with the back of my hand like a child. “What happened?” he asked me in Arabic. I told him that I was upset about what Israel was doing to Gaza.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “Hezbollah will join the war soon, inshallah.”

I would have burst into tears again if I’d had any left.


There was another reason I headed out from my apartment in Kiryat Yovel at 5:30 a.m.: I needed the half-hour cushion because the Palestinian buses don’t run according to a schedule; they only leave the station when they are full. Another reminder of Israeli privilege. You can count on Jewish buses, the green Egged buses, which are subsidized by the state. In general, you can plan around the Egged buses, you can arrive on time. These little things end up making an impact on bigger things, like morale and productivity and the economy.

Passengers board a bus to Ramallah at the Palestinian bus station in East Jerusalem. (Photo: Anthony Baratier/CC)

Passengers board a bus to Ramallah at the Palestinian bus station in East Jerusalem. (Photo: Anthony Baratier/CC)

But it wasn’t just the five a.m. wake-up and the two hour commute that wore me out. It was also what happened during the trip. Leaving East Jerusalem, the bus would roll through the checkpoint like all the other cars entering the West Bank. Coming back in to the city, however, the Palestinian buses were singled out and pulled over. The Egged buses full of Jewish Israelis headed to and from settlements—which are illegal according to international law—were free to pass.

(Stop and think about this for a second: the settlers, the people whose presence is illegal in the territories, are free to leave the West Bank and enter Jerusalem as they wish while the Palestinians are treated like criminals. Under occupation, everything is hafuch al hafuch al hafuch—the reverse of the inverse of the reverse. Down is up and up is down and down is up. And as you struggle to make sense of it all—as you try to figure out which way is indeed up and which is down and if it even matters anymore—everything starts to seem senseless all over again.)

Coming from Abu Dis, a Palestinian area, meant that I was on a Palestinian bus. As other cars and Egged buses drove through the checkpoint, our bus would ease over to the side and slow to a stop. The driver would open the door. Everyone would get off and file into a walkway lined with chicken wire—what can only be described as a cattle chute. A soldier would stand at the front, between us and the now-empty bus. One by one, we would present him with our IDs so we could get back on the bus and continue to Jerusalem.

Because it was going directly to and from the university, almost all of the passengers on my bus were students, professors, or other administrative staff. Almost all were East Jerusalemites, meaning that they held an Israeli ID card that, from more than a foot away, looked nearly identical to mine. So, most of the time, nothing looked amiss to the soldiers. They see what they want to see—or what they expect to see. And because I’d gotten off a Palestinian bus and was surrounded by Palestinians and because I was holding up a blue ID, just like everyone else, and maybe because I look ambiguously ethnic, they waved me through, assuming that I, too, was Palestinian.

But every once in a while, the difference in my ID would catch a soldier’s eye. The reaction was the same every time. First, a double take. Second, they’d take my ID out of my hand. Next: a long look at the ID, a glance at me, back to the ID.

And then the question, sometimes whispered, sometimes barked. Sometimes asked in awe, sometimes anger.

Mah at osah po? What are you doing here?

I work at the university in Abu Dis, I’d answer in Hebrew.

The awe or anger invariably gave way to disbelief as they asked: Mah at osah sham? What do you do there?

I teach there.

Sometimes that was it and I was free to get back on the bus. Sometimes the soldier would call a second soldier and they’d puzzle over my ID together and ask me more questions, questions designed to ask without asking. Where do you live? Which neighborhood? How long have you lived there? Where did you live before that?

But sometimes they would just ask: are you Jewish?

On more than one occasion, I had to explain to the soldier that, yes, it’s legal for me to be in Abu Dis and it’s legal for me to be on this bus. Irritated, I also pointed out the irony that I, a civilian, was explaining the laws to him, the soldier. If anyone should know the laws here, it’s him, not me, right?

Another time, a concerned girl soldier took me aside to ask me if everything was okay, if I was safe, had I been hurt?

On more than one occasion, I had to explain to the soldier that, yes, it’s legal for me to be on this bus.

Once, a soldier didn’t believe that I was, indeed, the person in the ID. He thought I was using someone else’s to try to sneak into Jerusalem and he asked me to produce another form of identification with a picture. I had not yet bothered to get an Israeli driver’s license—I didn’t have a car—so I gave him my old Florida driver’s license. He was skeptical about that ID, too: At b’emet mi’Florida? You’re really from Florida? Asked as though I don’t speak Hebrew with a heavy American accent.

I started to panic. A Kafkaesque scenario flashed before my eyes—what if I can never prove to him that I’m me? What if he locks me up and no one believes that I’m me? And I’m arbitrarily detained forever?

I realized, of course, that my fears were absurd. But the occupation is an absurdity. Hafuch al hafuch al hafuch.

As was the soldiers’ inability to wrap their heads around my presence at the checkpoint. Was it that hard for them to believe that a Jew worked at a Palestinian university? That a Jew could ride a Palestinian bus? And that I could do all these things without being harmed?

Every trip through the checkpoint—whether I was waved through or whether I had trouble with the soldiers—was distressing. I was upset, of course, at the checkpoint’s mere presence and all that it implied for Palestinians’ human rights and freedom of movement (or, rather, the lack thereof). The checkpoint was a reminder of segregation, of people’s inability to reach their friends, family, work, schools, and medical care.

And then there was my reaction to the soldiers who manned the checkpoint. I would see a Star of David dangling from a soldier’s neck and remember the chai necklace that my mother made me wear when I was a child. The thought would pop into my head: these are my people.

No. I would push back. These are not my people.

Who are my people?


After a semester of commuting, I was exhausted, so I took a room in Abu Dis. I’d spend the weekdays there and head back to Jerusalem for the weekend. I thought this would simplify my life. I quickly found out that it would just make things more complicated.

I realized this one bright spring morning, after I’d lived in Abu Dis for a few months. I’d just finished teaching my eight a.m. class and was headed to the hummus joint 100 meters or so from the university when a line of Israeli army jeeps came roaring up the street. They looked absurdly out of place: the ugly military green clashed with the stone buildings rendered warm and mellow by the rising sun. Their boxy shape was an affront to the rolling hills and soft edges of the olive trees that shimmered silver in the wind; their uniformity strange before the patchwork of stores and restaurants and houses, before the colorful blankets and rugs that housewives hung from their balconies. Even the jeeps’ sound didn’t fit the place, the engines drowning out the village’s morning murmurings of sabah al-kheir and sabah al-noor and Fairuz’s songs drifting from an open window and the birds’ gossipy chatter.

Entering Abu Dis, which lies beyond the wall, is a provocation in and of itself. It’s a reminder that the occupier is always near. And when he isn’t near, he’s inside: inside your village, raiding your house, demolishing your home, arresting your children, shooting unarmed civilians to death, confiscating your land for settlements, manning the checkpoints that rob you of your time and dignity. But first, before the occupier gets out of the jeep and does any of that, he drives.

The separation barrier isn’t just about keeping ‘them,’ the Palestinians, out. It’s also to keep ‘us,’ the Jews, ‘in.’

He drives up the street, the street I walk down every day. The one that leads to the produce shop where I buy my fruit and vegetables and the stand that sells olives from the neighboring village, the market where I buy fresh shrak and labaneh and eggs and meat. The street that takes me to another road that takes me home, to the place where I cook and eat and laugh, where I sleep at night, where I wake in the morning to hear birds chirping outside my window. My friend and her husband and her three kids don’t live off this street but they live in that house over there, that house where in the winter, during the rain, I leave my wet boots by the door and she gives me a pair of nice, clean socks and after lunch I help her with the dishes as though I’m not a guest but part of her family, and I speak broken Arabic with her three children. The house where—when I’ve already been there for four hours and I need to get home—my friend says badri, badri, telling me it’s too early for me to go. Stay, stay. Haliki, haliki, ya Mya.

This is the street where, when I walk alone, colleagues and acquaintances stop to offer me a ride home. They know that I’m Jewish; they know that I have an Israeli ID. One sees a parallel to his own life—he’s really PFLP, he confides in me, but pretends to be Fatah so he can keep his job at the university. This is the street where we keep each other’s secrets. This is the street that keeps me safe.

And with the jeeps headed straight toward us, the street moved as one. The boys around me picked up rocks. I didn’t think, my body mimicked those around me.

I bent over and reached for a stone.

Wait, wait! a voice inside of me said in Hebrew. I saw them in my mind’s eye: the baby-faced boys in the jeeps, child-soldiers who had started learning about the Holocaust in preschool, who believed that Palestinians pose a mortal threat, human beings who had been brainwashed and believed that they were doing something good for am hayehudi, the Jewish people.

My people.

No, no, I argued with myself. These are not my people.

The spell was broken. I was no longer moving with the street. Feeling something heavy in my hand, I looked down and was shocked to see that I was holding a rock. I dropped it just as the boys around me began to pelt the jeeps with stones and the soldiers began to fire tear gas.

The jeeps stopped and the soldiers got out, guns in hand. I heard a pop I recognized from protests—rubber-coated bullets. Caught between rocks and guns, I ducked and looked for a way out of the mess. A store owner who’d come outside to close his steel shutters waved at me. He pointed at a line of parked cars and then himself. I understood. I should get behind the cars, run alongside them and then into the store.

I did and I was safe. But the moment I bent over and picked up a stone was something that I would return to over and over in my head—how I’d lost myself in my surroundings, how confused I’d felt when I thought of the soldiers, how I felt at once connected to them and the village. How mortified I’d felt when I looked down and found a rock in my hand.

A Palestinian youth is caught in clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian stone throwers. (Activestills.org)

A Palestinian youth is caught in clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian stone throwers. (Activestills.org)


Finding it increasingly difficult to relate to Jewish Israelis, even those who weren’t in uniform, I began dating a Palestinian journalist I’d met in Ramallah. He was a West Banker with a green ID. This meant that he wasn’t supposed to visit me in Jerusalem—where I spent most of my weekends—without an Israeli army issued permit.

But he came anyway. There are a number of places where the separation barrier isn’t finished, where there are gaps in the chain-link and barbed wire fence. One is within sight of a checkpoint; my partner arrived to that particular hole in one afternoon, on his way to Jerusalem to see me, only to find soldiers on the other side. They’d closed the fence and were admonishing the crowd of Palestinians that had gathered and were waiting to cross, tut-tutting them, warning that they’d better not even try it.

“Then the soldiers got in their jeep and drove away and one of the men took out some wire cutters,” my partner laughed as he recounted the story, using the air and his fingers to show me how the fellow had cut the fence and held it open.

The hole, my partner explained, leads to the checkpoint.


“The parking lot,” he clarified. “I caught the Jerusalem bus from there. First they take the people who have come through the checkpoint with permits. Then they pick us up.”

“No way. Really?” I asked him, in Hebrew.

He answered in Hebrew in kind, ken, yes, and showed me the pictures he’d taken on his phone. There was the guard tower, just meters away. There was the group that had gathered as soldiers attempted to enforce the new closure in the fence; there was the fellow holding the hole open; there were men helping an elderly woman and a young lady through. The parking lot; the bus. I was struck again by the absurdity of it all. Hafuch al hafuch al hafuch.

That’s not to downplay Israeli-imposed restrictions on Palestinian freedom of movement. It’s more to point out that if someone wants to slip into Israel without a permit, they can. In fact, approximately thirty thousand Palestinian workers do it every day. But, in doing so, they risk injury, arrest, and death. In July of 2012, a Palestinian day laborer was killed when soldiers opened fire on a car full of workers that tried to pass a checkpoint without permits.

Despite the danger, we managed to see a lot of each other. But it’s impossible to have a proper relationship—to unite, to become one—when there’s a wall dividing you, making certain that you remain two. Which is, of course, the point. The separation barrier isn’t just about keeping “them,” the Palestinians, out. It’s also to keep “us,” the Jews, “in.”

Moving to the West Bank started to make sense. Though I could be arrested if I was caught in the “wrong” area—that is, Area A, the pockets of the West Bank that Oslo largely put under Palestinian rule—the consequences were far less severe for me than they were for my partner. We thought it very unlikely that a Palestinian would hurt me; conversely, inside of Israel, Palestinians have been attacked in public places on numerous occasions.

The center of my life had—slowly, unintentionally—shifted to the area beyond the wall, to a place I called “outside.” It was natural that my body would follow.


In May of 2013, I made a trial move to Bethlehem, staying in a friend’s apartment while she was in Gaza researching a book. Still without a car, I left the city only once that month. Bethlehem is hemmed in by checkpoints—every road out leads, eventually, to a checkpoint, two of which are off-limits to me as a Jewish citizen of Israel.

There’s the one known as “300”—the massive complex of cement and spikes and barbed-wire and turnstiles and booths and bullet-proof glass and guns and bullet-proof vests and the child-soldiers who wear them—that stands between Bethlehem and its big sister, Jerusalem. Leaving Jerusalem and entering Bethlehem via 300 isn’t difficult for people like me: Jewish citizens of Israel who hold a second passport. If you’re driving through, you flash a smile and the outside of your foreign passport to the guard in the booth, who presses the button that lifts the arm ahead. And that’s it, despite the two signs outside of the checkpoint warning that it is illegal for Israelis to enter Area A and that doing so puts their lives in danger.

On foot, the soldiers don’t even look at you as you enter Bethlehem via 300—yet another reminder that the army isn’t there to protect the occupied, as it is obligated to do according to international law.

Palestinians enter the main checkpoint separating Bethlehem and Jerusalem. (Activestills.org)

Palestinians enter the main checkpoint separating Bethlehem and Jerusalem. (Activestills.org)

But turn around and try to enter Jerusalem—which the state considers “the eternal capital of the Jewish people”—and you’ll fast remember why the Israeli military is there. Those who are driving in have to pop the trunk of their car so that the soldiers can inspect whatever is inside. Those who pass on foot are subject to metal detectors and humiliating searches. A friend once saw soldiers ask an elderly woman to remove her shirt.

And, coming in to Jerusalem via 300, every ID is scrutinized.

I can’t chance it. I’m too likely to be arrested. So, via public transportation, there is only one other way to get in to Jerusalem: the Beit Jala bus. As the name suggests, the bus exits the Bethlehem area via Beit Jala, a Bethlehem suburb where, technically, Israelis are allowed to be. It then passes through Area C, using the same road that leads to the Har Homa settlement. When the bus arrives to the checkpoint outside of the tunnels that lead to Jerusalem, it’s pulled to the side. Meanwhile, the settlers roll on through.

And then it’s the same routine I knew from my Jerusalem-Abu Dis commute: everyone gets off, stands in line, presents their ID to a soldier, and then gets back on the bus that continues to Jerusalem.

While, technically, I was allowed to be at that checkpoint, being on the Beit Jala bus could arouse some suspicion because the line begins in Area A. But because Palestinian buses will stop to pick up people on the side of the road—a bit like taxis—I could have, in theory, boarded in Areas C or B. I’d memorized the names of restaurants and businesses that were on the strip of the road that was in Area C so, if need be, I could say I’d been somewhere legit. But I hate lying. And I’m such a terrible liar that I was once detained at the Qalandia checkpoint for answering the question “where are you coming from?” honestly: Ramallah.

The easiest way out of Bethlehem, for a Jewish citizen of Israel, was via a yellow-plate (Israeli) car. But because I was carless in May of 2013, I only left Bethlehem once. I didn’t move for the rest of the month. And it was fine. So fine that I ended up subleasing another apartment in Bethlehem in August. And that was fine, too. So I looked for something a little more permanent—a search that would lead me to the house with the well.

Click here to read part two.

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Does Israel have a place in Jewish identity? http://972mag.com/does-israel-have-a-place-in-jewish-identity/99450/ http://972mag.com/does-israel-have-a-place-in-jewish-identity/99450/#comments Mon, 01 Dec 2014 17:53:17 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=99450 The proposed ‘Nation-State Law’ and a wave of violence point to the urgency of questioning Israel’s place in Jewish identity. Shlomo Sand’s latest book, ‘How I Stopped Being a Jew,’ offers a starting point for such a discussion.

Illustrative photo of a man wearing an Israeli flag at the Western Wall. (By Shutterstock.com / Robert Hoetink)

Illustrative photo of a man wearing an Israeli flag at the Western Wall. (By Shutterstock.com / Robert Hoetink)

When I left Palestine this summer, I was relieved to leave the Israeli flag behind. No more blue and white snapping at everyone who passes military checkpoints. No more Star of David standing high over the army bases. Saying goodbye to the Israeli flag, or so I thought, would also mean an end to my ambivalence about it.

Upon seeing the flag, there was always a moment of recognition, familiarity. After all, it bears the Star of David and I grew up with this symbol in my home. I grew up with it dangling from my neck in the form of the Hebrew pendant — passed down from my great-grandmother — that my mother made me wear when I was a child.

But the same thing that would bring me a split second of comfort would enrage me. How dare Zionism appropriate my religion and my culture and my family and the Hebrew language? The language is not theirs alone. It also belonged to another one of my great-grandmothers, who lived in Eastern Europe and recorded all of the family’s deaths and births — not in Yiddish but in poetic Hebrew. (The sentences that noted a death, including those of her own children, begin, “I’m crying, I’m crying, the tears drip from my face”; births start with, “Luck, luck! Happiness and luck.”) She marked all these events on a piece of paper that she folded and carried to the New World with her, Hebrew pressed to her bosom as she crossed an ocean. The language belonged to her, it belonged to all of us.

How dare Zionism put the Star of David — which existed long before it and which will outlast its project — on their flag? How dare it, under the false pretense of ensuring the safety of my people, occupy another?

Not only has Zionism occupied Palestine, it has occupied Jewish identity.

Shlomo Sand’s latest book, How I Stopped Being a Jew, could be understood as a reaction to both of those occupations.

Sand, an Israeli professor at Tel Aviv University, is a historian and the author of The Invention of the Jewish People. In How I Stopped Being a Jew, which is not nearly as narrative or personal as the title suggests, Sand notes a number of moments that made him question his secular Jewish identity as well as the privilege that comes with that identity. Two particular experiences stand out.

The first: his daughter’s thoughtful and difficult questions about a Jewish holiday that celebrates, among other things, the death of non-Jews and Sand’s struggle to answer her.

The second: witnessing discrimination at Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport. As Sand breezes through security, he sees a Palestinian citizen of Israel sidelined; as a non-Jew, she is automatically suspect.

In the pages that follow this recollection, Sand writes: “What is the meaning, then, of being ‘Jewish’ in the State of Israel? There is no doubt about it: being Jewish in Israel means, first and foremost, being a privileged citizen who enjoys prerogatives refused to those who are not Jews, and particularly those who are Arabs.”

This seems to be the heart of the book; it’s also an apt description of the conflict. But it doesn’t come until Chapter 10. Rather than using his personal experiences to tease out the inherent contradiction of the “Jewish and democratic” state — which seems the most powerful way to question the status quo — he spends most of the book engaged in an odd and counter-productive attempt to prove that there is no such thing as a secular Jewish identity.

I get his reasoning. Sand is hitting at the very foundation of the Zionist project. The early Zionists — who had arguably internalized anti-Semitic stereotypes prevalent in Europe at the time — wanted to shake off the yoke of the diaspora Jew. The diaspora Jew, or the image of him, was that of a frail figure, pale and weak, hunched over his books, flinching when intimidated; in Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, the new Jew would stand strong. He would be tanned, muscular and connected not to his religious books but, rather, the earth. And he would be secular.

The logic underpinning Sand’s argument is thus: Zionism and its secular Judaism gave rise to Israel; Israel gives Jews rights that it does not give to the native population, the Palestinians; secular Judaism itself must be interrogated.

I should be an easy sell for Sand’s argument. The easiest sell. I’m an anti-Zionist (or non-Zionist, whichever you prefer) who taught at a Palestinian university, left Israel to live in Bethlehem, and who has a Palestinian partner. And should we be blessed someday with children, we will do our best to raise them to be proud Palestinians.

Sand, however, doesn’t manage to convince even me that there is no such thing as secular Judaism. In part because, as he acknowledges, secular Jewish identity is amorphous and hard to define, thus making it equally hard to disprove. He runs through a list of things that might be considered secular Judaism, shooting them all down, one by one. However, the list is by no means exhaustive and, because identity today is often self-defined and intensely personal, Sand can’t possibly anticipate the many ways individuals construct their secular Jewish selves.

In some places, rather than making a solid argument, Sand resorts to assertions that go something like: you might think that lighting a few Hanukah candles makes you Jewish but it doesn’t count. Those who self-define as secular Jews won’t simply say, “Oh, okay, thanks for clearing that up for me, Shlomo. I hereby renounce my identity.” They’re more likely to say something like, “What gives you the right?” They will most likely react to Sand just as I react to the Israeli flag.

Unintentionally, Sand is playing into Zionism’s hands. Although he takes care to say that he is not conflating Judaism with Zionism, because his rejection of secular Judaism stems, in part, from his reaction to Zionism, he’s acknowledging and tacitly agreeing to Zionism’s claim on Jewish identity. Wouldn’t it be so much more powerful to stand as a Jew and reject Israel’s policies simply because they’re inhumane? Because they’re discriminatory? Because they’re undemocratic? Because they have no place in this day and age?

Sand’s reaction is, in a word, reactionary.

The book is at its most confusing — and most honest and most personal and most powerful — in the final two pages when Sand describes his attachment to Tel Aviv and the Hebrew language. “I inhabit a deep contradiction,” Sand admits. “My deep attachment to the place serves only to fuel the pessimism I feel towards it. And so I often plunge into a melancholy that is despondent about the present and fearful for the future.”

But I’d venture to say that many readers won’t make it to the end of his book because he spends the first 11 chapters alienating exactly the people who most need to be a part of this conversation: the self-defined secular Jews.

Some secular Jews, because they see Judaism as enlightened and humanistic, are increasingly concerned about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Of course, Sand has already taken them to task, accurately pointing out that the Judaism itself is not actually enlightened and humanistic. But most Jews — secular or otherwise — don’t follow the religion to the letter anyways. This is the case with most practitioners of any tradition. How many Muslims follow the Quran to the letter? How many Christians live their lives according to a literal interpretation of the bible? Telling Jews that Judaism is not what they think it is and that, to take it a step further, they are not really Jews is unlikely to create the groundswell that will bring about meaningful change in Israel/Palestine. Rather, it’s more likely to persuade people to cling more tightly to their identities.

What needs to be interrogated is Israel’s claim on our identity and the ongoing attempts to conflate our identity with a piece of land that doesn’t actually belong to us. We, the Jews, had a wide range of identities long before the State of Israel existed. We did not need land to shore up our sense of selves.

But if we confuse our sense of selves with a piece of land — which is currently administered by a dangerous, racist regime — we risk losing our identities. Because we will, eventually, lose that land just as the Crusaders, Ottomans, and British did. Rather than rejecting secular Judaism and engaging in the counterproductive business of attempting to delegitimize others’ identity, secular Jewish identity should be detached from Israel, revitalized, and understood as something that has and can transcend time and place.

An alternate version of this article appeared in The National.

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Family life forbidden for migrant workers in Israel http://972mag.com/family-life-forbidden-for-migrant-workers-in-israel/97483/ http://972mag.com/family-life-forbidden-for-migrant-workers-in-israel/97483/#comments Wed, 15 Oct 2014 08:15:52 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=97483 Legal advocates decry Israeli policies toward migrant workers as inhumane and claim that they violate the laborers’ human right to family.

Maris Delusong, a 36-year-old caregiver from the Philippines, is alone at Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station. She stops at a sale rack outside a clothing store. She looks at the baby clothes, pulls a pink onesie off the rack and runs her fingers over the soft fabric. Her face is sad as she puts the outfit back and moves along.

“It’s hard to be alone,” Delusong says. She found herself drawn to the baby clothes, she says, because “I remember my children. She’s four, the youngest. The eldest is 12.”

Delusong is five months into a five year “deployment”—the term Filipino migrants use to describe working overseas. Delusong takes care of an elderly woman in Kfar Saba. In Israel, wages are much higher than they are in the Philippines and, here, Delusong can save for her family’s future.

But while Delusong can work legally in Israel to earn for her husband and four children, Israeli law does not allow her or other migrants to bring their immediate family with them to the country. This puts tremendous stress on workers, their marriages, and their relationships with their children. The damage to the family can last long after a laborer has returned home.

“If I had a chance to bring them [my husband and children to Israel], I would,” Delusong says.

However, there is no a blanket prohibition preventing all foreigners from bringing family members to Israel. Diplomats, embassy workers, “experts” and such—in other words, white collar workers—can carry spouses and children on their Israeli visas.

Rotem Ilan, Director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel’s (ACRI) Israeli Children project explains that migrants’ inability to bring their children with them “stems from the [Israeli government’s] fear that they will ‘put down roots’ in Israel… the state’s goal is to prevent them [non-Jewish migrant workers] from ‘putting down roots’ in Israel.” So, to the state, family life becomes a “threat,” Ilan says.

Not only are laborers prevented from bringing their families to Israel, once foreign workers are in the country, the state puts various restrictions on their ability to have children here. If a migrant gives birth when she is four and a half years or more into the 63-month visa Israel issues to most foreign laborers, she may not remain in the country with her child. This means that she must choose between keeping her baby with her in Israel or keeping her legal status and job.

If a woman whose husband is also working in the country gets pregnant before the four-and-a-half-year mark she must “choose between her husband and her baby,” Ilan says. “One of them has to go.”

Israeli authorities arrest a migrant worker and her small child [file]. (Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Israeli authorities arrest a migrant worker and her small child [file]. (Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Ilan and other critics of Israeli policy towards migrants say that the state’s treatment of foreign workers and their families is inhumane and violates the workers’ human rights, including the right to family. And while recent years have seen small victories for workers and their children, including the naturalization of hundreds of youth who were facing deportation, the state has essentially reversed those gains by coming up with even stiffer regulations.

In 2006, the Israeli High Court struck down a policy known as the “binding arrangement,” which tied caregivers to their Israeli employers, who had the power their legal status. In their ruling against the binding arrangement, the Supreme Court justices likened it to “modern day slavery.”

But in 2011 the Knesset passed a new piece of legislation that human rights organizations refer to as the “Slavery Law.” It limits caregivers’ ability to leave employers by restricting them to three job changes before they lose their visa. It also confines caregivers to pre-determined areas of the country, impinging on their freedom of movement.

Ilan points out that, like the binding arrangement, the “Slavery Law” sometimes prevents workers from leaving abusive employers. “Binding a worker to an employer does not respect [the worker’s] human rights,” Ilan says. Regarding the geographic restrictions placed on workers, she adds, “If we wanted more Israeli teachers in the south of Israel, we wouldn’t say if you don’t teach there, we’ll put you in jail.”

Migrant workers’ children also face imprisonment and deportation. Even though they’re born and raised in Israel, they are denied legal status. “There’s no way to get citizenship or residency if you’re not Jewish,” Ilan remarks.

Although Israel has twice opened “one-time windows” to naturalize “illegal” children, the state lacks a cohesive policy about how to deal with these non-Jews, many of whom speak Hebrew and have never visited their parents’ home countries. At the same time, Israel continues to bring migrants to the country and those workers continue to have babies that the state refuses to recognize. In 2013 alone, some 200 children were arrested and imprisoned before being deported along with their mothers.

Michelle Trinanis, 18, was one of 1,200 children threatened with expulsion in 2009 when Israel announced its intention to deport migrant families. Although the state opened a “one-time window” in 2010 that will lead to the naturalization of 700 of those children — 600 have already received status and, according to Ilan another 100 will receive their IDs — Trinanis was one of the many whose applications were initially denied despite meeting all of the criteria.

After a protracted legal battle, which went all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court, Trinanis finally has an Israeli identity card. In December, she will begin mandatory service in the army — the road to acceptance in mainstream Israeli society.

Although she doesn’t know yet what she will be requested to do in the military, Trinanis is happy and excited to join. “I already fought to stay in the country, so I will fight for the country,” she says.

But she admits that it’s “unfair” that other migrants’ children are not getting legal status. And Trinanis says that she remains conflicted about the issue. She has friends who were not naturalized; she tries to give them the same support and encouragement that others gave her when she was struggling with the threat of deportation.

On the other hand, Trinanis says she understands the state’s reasoning.  “When I was young, I thought ‘why can’t they give anyone a teudat zehut (Israeli ID)?’ I understand now that it’s a big problem [because of] the laws.”

“Israelis,” she explains, “are loyal to themselves.”

Trinanis’s words reflect the government line: for years, Israeli officials have claimed that its policies towards migrants and their families stem from concern about maintaining the country’s demographics and preserving a Jewish state.

Responding to officials’ claims that foreign workers and their children pose a “demographic threat,” Ilan says, “Then the country can’t bring new people. [Israel] can’t have it both ways—the state can’t bring people that are good enough to work for us but not good enough to be a part of us. If you bring human beings to the country, you have to give them human rights.”

When it comes to migrant workers, Israel’s High Court is all High-Level Babble
Forgotten deportees: Israeli-born children of migrant workers

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