+972 Magazine » Life & Culture http://972mag.com Independent commentary and news from Israel & Palestine Mon, 02 May 2016 21:57:14 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8 The Long Road to Bethlehem: Part six http://972mag.com/the-long-road-to-bethlehem-part-six/118510/ http://972mag.com/the-long-road-to-bethlehem-part-six/118510/#comments Fri, 22 Apr 2016 08:10:22 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=118510 Read the previous chapters of The Long Road to Bethlehem here.

We live with Mohammad’s brother for the first two months as I look for an apartment—a difficult thing to find in America when you’re both living off of your meager savings, your ex-husband has successfully wrecked your credit (long story), your foreign partner doesn’t have a social security number, and neither of you have proof of current employment.

In early October I see an advertisement on Craigslist for a house with three small bedrooms and hardwood floors. The pictures show a tidy, clapboard, whitewashed home, edged with mango and avocado trees. It’s located in a historic neighborhood. Best of all, it fits our modest budget of less than $1,000 a month—criteria that has only yielded, thus far, section eight housing in the ghetto. And there’s an option to buy from the owner—no money down, no banks—the right tenants can simply take over the mortgage. It seems too good to be true.

In South Florida, rentals can go within minutes of being listed—and some are snapped up “site unseen” meaning that the renter hasn’t seen the property in person—so I call right away. The landlord tells me to drive by the place first. If I’m still interested, he’ll show me the inside of the house.

“The neighborhood is,” he pauses and clears his throat, “eclectic.”

Mohammad and I go that evening. As we pull up at the address, we notice the rundown cars lining the other side of the street. A man is sitting in one of them, his parking lights on. Another man approaches the passenger side and leans in the open window. The two talk. Money and baggies change hands. A drug deal.

I notice the house in the background then. One of the windows is broken; some wooden two-by-fours have been hammered across the hole. The other windows are covered with heavy black fabric. It’s impossible to see what’s going on inside. A smashed TV is in the middle of the yard. Nearby, a man takes a shit next to some overgrown bushes. I wonder, for a moment, why he isn’t going behind the shrubbery. He stands and stumbles about. And then I realize:

“It’s a crack house,” I say to Mohammad. “That’s why this place is so cheap. It’s across the street from an active crack house.”

Still, I’m not ready to give up on the three-bedroom cottage with hardwood floors. I point towards the tidy white place. “But look. Our house is perfect. And if the neighborhood comes up, it’ll be a hell of an investment.”

Mohammad shakes his head. “I didn’t leave one war zone to move to another.”

“Maybe it’s not as bad during the day,” I push. “Let’s come back and see what the neighborhood looks like in the morning.”

We do. And, in the daylight, the crack house looks even worse.

I realize I’ve crossed the globe only to end up in a place that, in some ways, isn’t so different than the one I left.

“Okay,” I say, as we stand in the front yard of the rental home. “But if you put your back to the crack house and just look at our house…” I raise my arms and open them, gesturing towards the trees. “Look how green! It’s like we’re in the Caribbean. And there’s the mangoes and avocadoes—”

“Are you going to feel safe here alone while I’m at work?” Mohammad asks. “Are you going to want to go for a run in this neighborhood?”

“I ran in the West Bank.”

“It was safer there.”

I’m not ready to admit that yet. “Let’s walk around a bit and get a feel for the area.”

Mohammad obliges me. We link arms and move deeper into the neighborhood. The houses’ architectural details mark most of the houses as historic but many are boarded up. I admit to myself that this is a bad sign. Good things don’t happen in abandoned buildings. That the owners can’t rent or sell their properties doesn’t say anything too promising about the neighborhood.

“These houses would be a great long term investment, I’m sure,” I say.

Mohammad nods.

At the end of the street, we see a woman picking litter out of her yard. I approach her; she doesn’t speak any English. Spanish only—my long-neglected second language. I sweat and blush as I stumble my way through a clumsy conversation. Still, we manage to communicate: she lives in the neighborhood with her husband and children. I ask her if she feels safe here. She bends over to pick up a faded soda can. She stands up, puts the garbage a plastic grocery bag and offers me a weak smile and a wane “sí,” yes.

“You see?” I say to Mohammad as we walk away and I offer a literal translation. He didn’t understand our words but he picked up on the nuance of her movements and facial expressions; he offers me a skeptical “huh.”

The next block seems a little nicer and we see a house for sale. Just for fun, I call. The real estate agent cuts to the chase, “Look, I can find you a house on that part of the neighborhood—the west side of the main road—for thirty thousand dollars. But you won’t want to live there. Check out the east side. It’s much nicer.”

You know something’s wrong when a real estate agent is steering you away from his own listing.

I close the phone and report back to Mohammad. He interrupts before I can repeat the whole conversation. “And he said we should look on the other side of the main street.”

“How did you know?”

He smiles. “I did my research, dear.”

Mohammad leads me out of the west side, to the busy main road. We stand next to an empty lot, waiting for a break in traffic. I see liquor stores, parked taco vans, and storefront churches, including one named the Mount of Olives. English signs proclaim “We take EBT [food stamps] here!” The Spanish ones advertise “Money transfers to every country.”

On the other side of the vacant lot, I notice dozens of Hispanic men milling about. From their clothes and heavy work boots, I guess that they’re day laborers, waiting for potential employers to pull up. I think of south Tel Aviv’s parks, where African asylum seekers sometimes stand in wait of work. I remember the human rights worker who told me, in 2010, that the scene resembled “a slave market.”

I realize I’ve crossed the globe only to end up in a place that, in some ways, isn’t so different than the one I left.

There’s a pause in the flow of cars. Mohammad and I dart across the street. Just steps into the east side, I see the difference. There’s no litter in the lawns here, no crack houses, no boarded up windows, no chain link fences.

“How do you feel here?” Mohammad asks.

I have to admit that I’m more relaxed.

“Can you imagine yourself running in this neighborhood?”

I can.

“You see, dear? This is where we want to live,” he says.


A week later, I find a tiny studio in the “good part,” the east side, of the neighborhood. The landlady, Rebecca, tells me that she’s on her way out of town but Ada, a woman who lives across the street, has a key and will show me the place.

Ada lives in a one-story quadruplex less than a block from the Intracoastal Waterway. A wooden carving of the word “Love” hangs next to the door. Indian music and incense streams from her open windows. A post it note on the doorbell tells me that the buzzer doesn’t work. So I knock.

A tiny woman—she can’t be taller than 4’10”—with a shock of curly white hair opens the door. She wears jeans and a blue spaghetti strap top, revealing bone thin but toned arms. She lights a cigarette, takes a drag, and sizes me up.

“You here to see the place across the street?”

“Yes,” I say and introduce myself.

“Rebecca’s my friend,” Ada begins, pausing to take a pull off her cigarette. “So if you talk to her again, don’t tell her I said this, but it’s a shithole. And she’s asking too much. But let’s go.”

She closes the door behind her, locks it, and we head across the street, the Indian music fading as we move away from Ada’s apartment.

Rebecca’s house is surrounded by palm and banana trees; the plants are so dense it’s hard to see the building. Ada cracks open a side gate but it sticks as she pushes. We peer around it and see random things—a mildewed chair, some milk crates, empty Tupperware containers—piled on the other side. Together, we push the gate open enough to squeeze through and follow a sidewalk to a door. Ada unlocks it and we step inside.

“Look at this. You don’t want to live here,” Ada says. She’s like the anti-real estate agent.

The room is about 15 feet by 15 feet with a kitchen counter and a sink. There’s a small bathroom. A sliding glass door that leads to the back yard. I look up at the ceiling fan—there’s no AC—and notice the pitched ceiling and dark wood beams.

“I like the exposed beams,” I say.

Ada snorts as she lights another cigarette. “A month in this place and you’ll hang yourself from one. Trust me. You’re two—“

“And a cat.”

“Two and a cat. You need more room than this.”

“But the price is right,” I insist.

“She’s asking too much for this small a space,” Ada pushes back. “You’ll find something else.”

“But we’ve looked and looked.”

“So keep looking.”

I sigh.

As we leave, Ada invites me over for a coffee. She drinks Café Bustelo, the Cuban-style espresso that got me through graduate school. When I spy its trademark yellow can in her kitchen, I feel at home in a way I haven’t in months. But the feeling passes as quickly as it came.


The building is surrounded by a wall, there’s a guard and a gate—it reminds, a bit, of a settlement.

The apartment hunt continues. I find a couple of decent places but the next step is always a lengthy application—including a credit check, bank statements and pay stubs from the past three months, and local references. We have none of those things.

I feel like we’ll live in Mohammad’s brother’s guest room forever.

And then Ada calls, “Some neighbors just moved out. The place is perfect for you.” She doesn’t have the landlord’s number so she gives me the super’s instead.

When I arrive, I find a large two-story house that’s been subdivided into four apartments. The super, an older African American man named Robin, shows me the place: a galley kitchen, a space that can double as a living and dining room, a small bedroom, and a tiny bathroom with a stand-up shower. A park and the Intracoastal Waterway are, catty-corner, across the street. When the wind blows, I smell the saltwater.

It’s perfect.

Robin gives me the landlord’s wife’s number. Her accent is so heavy I have a hard time understanding her—I’ll learn from her husband, later, that they’re from Guyana, which he still refers to as “British Guiana”—but I make out that they’re in New York City visiting family and that they’ll be back in a week. “We get in Monday night,” she says. “Call me again on Tuesday morning.”

Before we hang up, I ask if there’s a rental application.

“No,” she laughs.

I’m thrilled.

The backyard of the house. (Photo by Mya Guarnieri)

The backyard of the house. (Photo by Mya Guarnieri)

The neighborhood is full of green spaces. While it’s a little rough—prostitutes congregate on the main road just a few blocks away, a few homeless people camp out in our park, burglaries are a problem, and I often find empty nickel bags and used needles on the ground—it’s relatively quiet and safe. Especially compared to the neighborhood on the other side of the main road.

We decide to get married in one of the many parks near our house and to have a small reception at home. Mohammad’s brother, my parents, and grandmother will come. Some friends from Gainesville will join us, too, and they generously offer to contribute a wedding cake. Mohammad and I will do the cooking. Excited, we start planning the menu.

I call the landlady back on Tuesday morning and tell her about Mohammad and myself. I’m honest and admit that he doesn’t have a social security number and I don’t have a job. As she and her husband were immigrants themselves, the woman is sympathetic. I’ll pay her cash every month and we’ll meet that afternoon for me to give her our first month’s rent and get the key in return.

A few hours before we’re supposed to meet, she calls me back.

“I’m very sorry but there was some sort of confusion with my husband,” she begins. “I didn’t know that he’d listed the place with a real estate agent.”

The agent already promised the apartment to someone; it’s not available after all.

There’s nothing to say. I thank her and hang up. Where will we get married? And forget about the wedding, where will we live?

The phone rings again later that afternoon. It’s the landlady.

“We went to meet the real estate agent and I didn’t like the way he looked. He had bad energy,” she says. “The place is yours.”

We seal the deal the following day with a handshake—the arrangement feels more West Bank than West Palm Beach.


As I spend the next three weeks getting the apartment ready, other minor miracles occur. Ada supplements her social security by cleaning apartments in what we call “the tower”—expensive condos that sit directly across the street from us, next to the park, perched on the Intracoastal Waterway. The building is surrounded by a wall, there’s a guard and a gate—it reminds, a bit, of a settlement.

One of Ada’s clients there has just bought a second condo in the building and it came completely furnished. But the new owners are gutting the place and dumping everything in it. Ada tells them about me and they say that I’m welcome to come by and take a look. I score some furniture, pots and pans, sheets and towels.

I find a great couch at Goodwill for 50 dollars. We paint. Our new home is ready before the wedding, as is the custom in Palestine.

We get married in another park a little further up the road. Smaller than the one by our house, it’s a long, thin stripe of green, edged by palm trees, running all the way to the water. We sign our Florida marriage license, a Muslim wedding document called a katib al ktab, and a Hebrew ketubah. We take our vows under a blue veranda, with my family, Mohammad’s brother, and a few dear friends from Gainesville looking on.

At home, during our little ten-person reception, I make a toast. I tell our guests that everything feels like a miracle: that we stayed together through the difficult year in the West Bank of crossing checkpoints and spending hours on the road; that we found this place; that we lost it and got it back; that we got the apartment ready in time; that we pulled together a wedding in three weeks. Our love—and our life together—feels like a miracle.


I’ll feel stupid that I didn’t put it all together sooner: the empty dime bags and needles I’d noticed in their yard.

Our new home—which is in a black and Latin neighborhood—reminds Mohammad of a refugee camp. Something about the place reminds me of south Tel Aviv. With a neighbor next to us and neighbors on top of us—and with our building wedged in between over-crowded duplexes and quadruplexes—we have little privacy. Because we don’t have proper AC, we keep our back door propped open. Our neighbors often appear in our doorway to borrow-some-sugar-borrow-some-milk-borrow-some-aluminum-foil-borrow-twenty-dollars-offer-some-pie-give-us-some-mangoes-from-a-brother’s-yard, mangoes-that-are-sweeter-than-the-ones-we-have-on-our-lot-and-here’s-a-pineapple-that-was-growing-in-the-yard-of-this-place-where-I-cut-the-grass-the-other-day-and-oh-did-you-hear-about-what-happened-with-our-other-neighbors-and-oh-I-heard-you’ve-got-shingles-here’s-something-for-your-skin.

My upstairs neighbor, Tania, drops the tube of medicine over the railing into my waiting hand.

They show up in our doorway to comment on our relationship, “So,” Ada begins, sucking on a cigarette. “You guys had an argument the other night…?”

“It’s been quiet lately,” Tania says on another occasion. “Things are going good, huh?”

I’m making jerk chicken one night on the stove, which is right by the backdoor, and the smell of the spices drifts up to Tania’s balcony.

She and her guest—a male visitor—lean over the railing.

“Girl, what you cookin’?”

“Let me guess,” her friend shouts. “That’s some jerk chicken.”

“That’s right,” I yell from the kitchen.

“Damn, smells good.”

When Robin, the super, passes our doorway he often remarks on my food. “You got it smellin’ good up in here, girl.”

Our back porch faces the parking lot. One afternoon, Clyde, our other upstairs neighbor, pulls in. When he gets out of the car he tells me, “Hey, I have an interview on Monday. What color tie do you think I should wear?”

“Blue?” I offer.

“My daughter says burgundy,” he says.

“Burgundy’s nice, too.”

When Monday comes, I ask Clyde how his interview went and what color tie he wore. He went with blue, he says, and he fills me in on the details of his day. On other occasions, he shares the local news about shootings on the west side of the neighborhood. In the summer of 2015, there’s a spate of them—gang violence—and Clyde gives the grim updates.

Still, we all feel safe over here.

I realize, though, that the neighborhood could tip in either direction. One spring night, I’m jerked out of sleep by gunshots—TAK TAK TAK—three in a row, one right after another. I don’t know where they’re coming from but I know they’re close; without thinking, I jump out of bed and lie flat on my stomach on the tile floor, below the windows.

“Mohammad!” I shout at him to get down, too. A heavy sleeper, he doesn’t wake up. I’m too scared to get back on the bed and shake him. I stay on the floor until I feel certain that it was just those three gunshots, that whatever happened outside is over.

One of our neighbors in the quadruplex next to us—not Ada’s building but the one that’s painted a cheerful Tweety-bird-yellow—is a drug dealer. I’ll discover this during one of the many screaming matches he has with his baby’s mother, when she’ll shriek that she’s tired of people coming round all the time to buy from him. I’ll feel stupid that I didn’t put it all together sooner: the empty dime bags and needles I’d noticed in their yard, that strange white couple that lingered on the man’s back porch one afternoon. They took turns ducking down behind the low wall that runs along the steps while the other one kept watch, round eyes peering out from gaunt, sweaty faces.

So the five of us in our building—we watch out for each other and the friends among us. When Ada’s dog dies, we all pay our sympathies. When Robin falls into a depression after the landlord threatens to kick him out—locking himself in the apartment for days, only to emerge to ride his bike to the liquor store and back—Ada and Tania get worried. Via phone, we conspire as to who will check on Robin and what we should do if things get worse.

Fortunately, the fog lifts. Robin returns to our shared back porch, where he spends most of the mornings and evenings drinking. Robin stays on top of the weather updates and shares the daily and weekly forecasts with me almost every morning. We talk about music (Motown, Curtis Mayfield), life, love—Robin has never been married but he has loved. Three times. He tells me about each of the women. We talk about my cat. We talk about gardening. Robin admires our plants and gives me tips. I marvel at the mango and guava trees he plants; they seem to shoot up overnight.

Robin tells me about growing up in West Palm Beach, about what things used to be like here, about how the first black people here were runaway slaves who joined the Indians to fight the white settlers. Robin tells me about his regrets—the days he sold drugs. He tells me how he’s one of seven boys and how out of all of them only his littlest brother made it. The youngest is a software engineer who owns a home; he’s the pride of the family.

We talk about God. Robin has a lot to say about Jesus.

Robin tells me all of this in an accent that I remember from my childhood—his mother grew up in Gainesville, where she lives today. The music in Robin’s voice reminds me of the kids on the bus, only he doesn’t call me “white girl,” he calls me by my name.

Clyde drives a school bus during the week and a tourist trolley on the weekend. During a cold snap, a petite woman forgets her denim jacket on the trolley. Clyde brings it to me.

Six months later, during the summer mango season, our landlord will steal milk crates off of Clyde’s porch to hold the fruit he’s stripped from our tree. It’s scandalous and we all stand outside by our respective apartments talking about it—Tania and Clyde hollering from upstairs, Robin and Mohammad and I shouting up to them from below. But our shared indignation gives way to laughter—this man owns over a dozen properties in West Palm Beach and New York City and God knows where else and here he is taking our mangoes and using Clyde’s milk crates. He’s so stingy it’s funny.

As Mohammad and I take our seats on the porch, he smiles and shakes his head. “It’s like Dheisheh here,” he says. “We can’t escape Palestine.”


But it’s not Palestine.

Sometimes, I fall into memories from the places I lived. My footsteps on the stairs as I walked up to my old, fourth-floor apartment on Sheinken and Allenby. The sound of the key in the lock, the door shutting behind me. The smell of the basil plants I grew in discarded olive tins from the shuk. Sudden winter rain, the sound the latches made as I closed the windows. Music, conversation, and laughter floating up from the wine bar on King George, a tiny place I can see from my balcony.

The ding-ding of the Jerusalem light rail. Wind in the pine trees. The cold walk from the train stop—the last on the line—to my apartment, the gate squeaking open, the door sliding across the wood laminate floor. Sitting on the wall next to my apartment on Friday evening, watching the sun fall into the Jerusalem forest. Shabbat’s curtain of quiet. Jackal’s mournful cries, drifting over the hills at night.

Those flocks of tiny black birds that put on aerial shows in Tel Aviv in the late afternoon. Their swoops and dives, their excited chatter.

I realize I must leave Israel and Palestine behind. Or at least find a way to contain them. My life literally depends on it.

Having tea with Mohammad on the roof of my apartment building in Abu Dis. Watching children play in the streets below. Bethlehem’s stones. The smell of the wood-burning oven at the bakery across my second sublease there; the sounds of the family who lived across the small, narrow street. The call of those same birds I heard in Tel Aviv.

Mohammad’s key in the lock on Fridays, the door closing behind him as he entered. The sound of wedding in the surrounding neighborhoods—horns honking, the music, the celebratory gunshots. The musaharati.

I say I “fall” into these memories because that’s what it feels like. I stumble upon them and am pulled into a hole where I am completely surrounded, where I see nothing but the world around me, the maps inside my head. I trace my route from my apartment in Bethlehem to the bus station where I would board the service to Abu Dis. Or I follow the stones to the dukkan down the street, where I would buy al-Juneidi white cheese. I’m entering the store, saying “kif halak?” to the owner, walking to the cooler. I’m taking a container out and heading towards the counter. I’m paying, stepping out onto the sidewalk. Home is just up the street.

This happens once as I’m driving towards a red light. I don’t see the intersection or the cars ahead. I don’t see the grassy median on my left or the lane on my right. I’m overcome by a memory—Bethlehem’s stones. I see them and the deep yellow they take on in the late afternoon. The long shadows in the garden. The almond tree. My bench. Dheisheh.

“Red light,” a voice whispers in my ear.

The trance is broken. I look up and gasp as I realize I’m flying towards an intersection and that the light, is indeed, red. I slam on the brakes. Tires squeal to a halt.

Later, I wonder about that voice. Was it my subconscious or something divine? Whatever it was, I understand it as a wake-up call. I realize I must leave Israel and Palestine behind. Or at least find a way to contain them. My life literally depends on it.


Mohammad seems to adapt better than I do, maybe because, as a Palestinian, his life was much harder under occupation than mine was as an American-Israeli who chose to live in the West Bank. Sure, we both lost time and productivity on the road moving between cities. We both went through checkpoints. But, unlike Mohammad, a soldier never pointed at me and asked me to get out of the service so they could search me. Unlike Mohammad, a soldier never held a gun to my face and threated to put a “bullet in the head.” Policemen from the Palestinian Authority never beat me. I didn’t carry a green ID; I could go to the sea whenever I wanted.

Mohammad carries even less here—after years of making sure that he didn’t leave the house without his wallet, which always included his green ID, he doesn’t carry a wallet anymore. He no longer wears a belt, either. He often has to hike his pants up as he walks but he doesn’t want anything that will add even an ounce to his body. He says he likes feeling light.

I find myself carrying more since we left: I keep my teudat zehut in the same pocket it was in every time I went through the container checkpoint. In my wallet, I still keep my Israeli driving license, my Israeli health insurance card, my bus pass, an expired Tel Aviv Cinematheque subscription card, and the 90 shekel credit for the bookstore in Jerusalem.

On the best days, I feel optimistic. Though we’ve been in the States for over a year now and I have yet to find gainful employment in either of my professional fields—and have blown through most of my meager savings—on these days, I’m certain that something will work out eventually. I’ll find my place, I’ll make friends, I’ll build a life here.

On the worst days, tears come for no reason. Evenings tend to be difficult. I realize it’s another day that I didn’t run with Dima and I didn’t go to the university where I would have spent the morning with my students, helping them hone their writing skills. Nights are hard when I realize a whole day has passed and I haven’t spoken any Hebrew or Arabic. I think about the time I invested in both languages, the years I spent building a life there. Almost a decade, tossed out the window on the way to Ben Gurion Airport.

I’m angry about a political situation that made it impossible for us to have a normal life there in the West Bank. I’m angry about the impact that the political situation has made on the Palestinian economy, making it hard for Mohammad to find decent, steady work that would afford us a modest, simple existence. I’m angry that his family has suffered under the occupation—that his father was deported from the West Bank, that cousins have gone to Israeli jails, that Jewish soldiers have raided uncles’ homes, that a cousin died while he was in an Israeli prison, that two cousins have been shot to death by soldiers during the most recent wave of violence. I’m angry that all of this happened and I’m angry that we’re paying a price for their suffering. I’m angry that we had no choice but to leave.

I’m lonely. And because I’m lonely, I join Facebook, something I’d resisted for years. But it doesn’t help. I scroll through it and see both Palestinians and Israelis with foreign partners— foreigners who can live legally on visas or permanent residency with their spouses in the land while my Palestinian husband and I, a citizen of Israel, cannot remain together on either side of the Green Line. Hafuch alhafuch alhafuch.

On one of the worst nights, Mohammad and I lie on our 50-dollar-Goodwill couch, head to foot.

“Close your eyes,” I say. “We’re in the garden again, in Bethlehem.”

He smiles.

“The wind is blowing and we smell the jasmine and the lemon tree and the mishmish baladi,” I say. “We pick mishmish and we don’t bother to wash it, we just bite right into it. The juice drips off our chins. We wipe it off with the back of our hands. We sit on the bench and look out over the orchard.”

I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and I swear—just for a second—I can feel the wind coming up from the valley, I can smell the earth from the freshly-tilled orchard below, I can hear the grape leaves stirring above.

“We’re home.”

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The diaspora is an integral part of Hebrew literature http://972mag.com/the-diaspora-is-an-integral-part-of-hebrew-literature/118757/ http://972mag.com/the-diaspora-is-an-integral-part-of-hebrew-literature/118757/#comments Fri, 22 Apr 2016 07:11:00 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=118757 There is a ceaseless movement of Israeli culture — and the diaspora experience is just waking up and testing its global limits.

By Mati Shemoelof

Illustrative photo by Shutterstock.com

Illustrative photo by Shutterstock.com

BERLIN — There is no such thing as “Hebrew literature written outside Israel” because the definition of “outside Israel” cannot address art in general or literature in particular.

Literature is created in a space that is not a state or a country. The categorization of literature that is written outside or inside a country is problematic.

As such, we should understand that Hebrew literature from the get-go belongs to every country in which there are writers writing in Hebrew, or Israelis whose experience with the Hebrew language has shaped their memory, or citizens of the world who consume Israeli literature in one way or another.

So forgive me, but I will instead use the term “diasporic literature” — that which is written at times from a place of exile; sometimes from a small space that exists between our Jewish life and our life within the local culture written in the various different languages.

Diasporic literature detaches the Hebrew language, Judaism and Israeli identity from national boundaries, sharpens the weight of exposure to new cultures and transforms it from a majority language to a minority language.

Sapir Prize Winner Reuven Namdar, who writes in Hebrew in New York; or the Israeli author Ayelet Tsabari, who writes in Canadian English about her experience growing up in Petah Tikva, and whose first book made it to the New York Times Editor’s Choice list; or Hanno Haustein from Germany, who edits “Aviv,” a Hebrew-German journal; Yousef Sweid, who writes a column in Hebrew in the Berlin magazine Spitz; and of course Sayed Kashua, the Palestinian Israeli who writes in Hebrew from the U.S.

They are all part of this diasporic culture. You don’t have to be Jewish, Hebrew, or Israeli to be part of this diasporic culture. It is one’s consciousness, not one’s origin, that decides.

Diasporic literature certainly has its own language because it is created within a set of values and terms that is entirely distinct from Israeli culture, yet remains associated with it and with the local culture. For example, the third part of my first book of short stories, “Remnants of the Cursed Book,” published by Zmora Bitan, is certainly connected to Berlin culture and constitutes an integral part of Israeli society, like all the stories of all the other immigrants in the city, who are part of Berlin culture even if they are not read there.

In my first year and a half in Berlin, literarily speaking, I wanted to celebrate my life in the multi-cultural metropolis – which is why I published an e-book of farewell poems, full of emotion and a first set of immigration poems called “Last Tango in Berlin.” On the other hand, I had a desire to document my new life, and that’s why I wrote the weekly Haaretz column, “An Israeli in Berlin.” But today I don’t celebrate emigration.

The continuation of diasporic literature is sometimes dependent on the next generation, which doesn’t usually continue writing in Hebrew. But there is a ceaseless movement of Israeli culture — and the diaspora experience is just waking up and testing its global limits.

My first full novel, which I have been working on the last few years, was written in the belly of an airplane of homesickness, with a passport of longing, en route to yearning. It reflects my gum-like soul, being stretched between Germany and Israel, and shows the way in which two cultures cannot be simply disconnected.

Something interesting happened to me recently, when I was among the organizers of multi-language performance and poetry “Hafla” slams in the city. I noticed that the poems I wrote in Hebrew were addressed to a Hebrew-speaking audience, not the local audience. For the first time in my life I decided to write one spoken-word poem in English for the next event. We’ll see how it works.

I don’t miss those who are exclusionary. Like closing off the Sapir Prize to those who live outside Israel. Is that the same Zionism that wants one nation, with one language in one land? Are we really located in just one place in this age of Internet and globalization? Can we really reduce Israeli identity to its physical borders (whatever those may be)? Do we want to shed all the books written throughout time outside Israel?

Literature should be judged by its beauty, its power to imagine new life, and not the passport of its creators. That is how it has always been, and how it will always be.

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COMIC: The Haggadah’s evolution from generation to generation http://972mag.com/comic-the-haggadahs-evolution-from-generation-to-generation/118694/ http://972mag.com/comic-the-haggadahs-evolution-from-generation-to-generation/118694/#comments Tue, 19 Apr 2016 13:51:48 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=118694 Haggadot have historically evolved to reflect the needs and aspirations of their respective communities. Eli Valley envisions an American Jewish Haggadah for presidential primary season.

Eli Valley Passover 2016

Eli Valley is a writer and artist whose work has appeared in The New Republic, The Nation, The Daily Beast, Gawker and elsewhere. A collection of his comics will be released later this year by OR Books. His website is www.elivalley.com and he tweets @elivalley.

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A different kind of café in East Jerusalem http://972mag.com/a-different-kind-of-cafe-in-east-jerusalem/118603/ http://972mag.com/a-different-kind-of-cafe-in-east-jerusalem/118603/#comments Fri, 15 Apr 2016 13:42:47 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=118603 The Tahhan brothers refuse to give up on their neighborhood, or their city.

By Laura Selz

Owner Muhannad Tahhan (right) and German manager of Cafe Sarwa, Ron Kutzner. (Photo by Laura Selz/+972 Magazine

Owner Muhannad Tahhan (right) and German manager of Cafe Sarwa, Ron Kutzner. (Photo by Laura Selz/+972 Magazine)

Opening a café is a risky endeavor anywhere. Doing so in East Jerusalem is even riskier. Just as Café Sarwa opened its doors for the first time in October 2015 the current wave of violence was starting on the streets of East Jerusalem, not that there was a shortage of political and economic challenges development in the occupied part of the city before that. The story of Café Sarwa is the story of a couple of young entrepreneurs fighting the cultural and economic abandonment of their neighborhood, and refusing to give up on their city.


When it comes to gastronomy, the East Jerusalem neighborhoods of Sheikh Jarrah and the Old City mostly offer hotel restaurants, shisha bars and plenty of street food like falafel, and kebab places that mostly target tourists. There’s not much in the direction of urban, hip places to hang out. Only a few, like the Educational Bookshop in Sheikh Jarrah refuse to fit that pattern. Since 2009 the bookstore and café has attracted young internationals, Palestinians and Israelis who come to read a book, work on their laptops, have a coffee or meet up with colleagues. Now, just up the road on Salah e-Din Street, the Sarwa Café is trying something similar, but with more of a focus on food, atmosphere and interior design.

Muhannad Tahhan’s vision for the Sarwa is a mix of Western and Middle Eastern influences, creating a modern café, you are more likely to imagine in Berlin or Tel Aviv. Huge and bright windows illuminate the entire place, velvet lounge sofas sit opposite a dark wooden bar, and temporary exhibitions of local and international art hang on the walls. The place offers Wi-Fi, pretty good coffee, selected wines and beers and a variety of Western and Palestinian dishes. And because it’s 2016, the food comes also in vegan and organic varieties. Tahhan makes his idea sound simple: “I wanted to create a relaxed and cozy space for locals and internationals, where they can spend a few hours and forget about the things that separate us.” Nothing could be more difficult.

“The situation can change every day,” Tahhan says. “It’s unpredictable. No one can say what will happen next week.” The political situation and economic pressure go hand in hand, Tahhan’s neighbor and friend Stelios Ode explains: “People say Israel is the start-up nation, but that doesn’t apply to East Jerusalem. For us it´s hard to find investors, to get permits, to attract customers.”

To say that creating something new in East Jerusalem is challenging for Palestinians would be an understatement. Land prices keep increasing, available space is constantly shrinking, and getting permits for new construction and extensions on existing structures is almost impossible. New businesses in old buildings must install a backdoor, handicapped bathrooms, and meet a minimum of square meters. Most places cannot fulfill those requirements, not to mention being able to afford the required permits if they are even approved. The lack of infrastructure makes it even harder. The Jerusalem municipality spends only about 10 percent of its budget on the Palestinian neighborhoods both inside and outside the Old City that comprise East Jerusalem.

The story of the Café Sarwa is also the story of the Tahhan family. The parents were born inside the Old City, as were as Muhannad and his brothers. In 1962 his father, Khamis Tahhan, bought a huge corner-building outside of the Old City, on the corner of Salah e-Din Street and Ali Iben Abu Taleb Street, between the East Jerusalem neighborhoods of Wadi Joz and Sheikh Jarrah. He opened the “Kings Travel Agency” and for some decades it was quite a good business — until Palestinian travel agencies lost their customers during the Second Intifada in the early 2000s. Travel agencies across Israel suffered, but while Israeli travel agencies were compensated by the state, Palestinian-owned agencies were not. The brothers tried to save the family business by opening a café inside the travel agency, then only a café, but they had no real vision and failed a number of times.

When their father died in 2014, the Tahhan brothers started going through his belongings. An old typewriter. His books. Old maps, travel pamphlets and other artifacts of his business travels through Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. “He was an old school cosmopolite,” Tahhan says, “and a political idealist.” It was in his memory and ideals that the brothers found the concept for their new café.

At that time the Tahhans’ crossed paths with German bar manager and interior designer Ron Kutzner. Kutzner moved from Berlin to East Jerusalem to be with his partner, Tahhans neighbor Stelios Ode, four years ago. Ode introduced them and it didn’t take long before they joined forces to create the Sarwa, merging their ideas of what a modern fusion café could and should be. “We agreed that we wanted something environmental — like recycled materials along with antique furniture we found in Ramallah and Hebron,” Tahhan says. The furniture from Hebron didn’t work out, but they stuck with the idea of mixing old and new furniture and decorating it with the Tahhan father’s nostalgia-inducing belongings — books, maps and old pictures from the Middle East.

Berlin meets East-Jerusalem? Both would love seeing the neighborhood develop into a place where people want to hang out. But that takes time. A lot of time. Is it worth the effort? “We all were born in the Old City; we all work here in East Jerusalem. Elsewhere it might be easier but this is our hood,” Ode says. When Kutzner moved to East Jerusalem a few years ago, he had no idea what awaited him, he admits. “I just followed my partner to live with him. And then I got excited about getting the chance to design the Sarwa Café and to create a modern, hip place,” Kutzner says. But today, six after months after the café opened its doors, he exudes at least a little disappointment that the impact sought is still elusive. “Maybe I was naïve,” he says. “It takes time,” Tahhan shoots back.

Still, not too many people find their way to the new café these days. Most young Palestinians looking to have a drink or two still prefer going to West Jerusalem’s downtown. “Let´s face it. East Jerusalem is still a very conservative neighborhood. Most of the young people here don’t want to be seen by their neighbors hanging out,” Ode explains. The other reason is of course the political situation. The intermittent violence at Damascus Gate has slowed the flow of international visitors  and Jewish Israelis who might otherwise venture into the Palestinian half of the city.

“It’s hard to get the locals here into their own neighborhood. But there are also plenty of young Arabs and also Israelis who would love to see this neighborhood become ‘cool’,” Ode says. “When I was a teenager,” the 35-year-old Palestinian man continues, “this neighborhood was boring. When I wanted to go out, I went to Tel Aviv. Also we were told not to hang out with Jews. But today the 20-somethings are more open and intercultural, although the current situation threatens to ruin that development.”

But even with the current violence and the invisible — and visible — divides that normally keep people from West and East Jerusalem apart, Sarwa has also had encouraging moments. This January they hosted an exhibition of Palestinian artists from across Palestine, including East Jerusalem. The event attracted attention. “Suddenly I saw people here I didn’t even know existed. Arab Hipsters from around, sitting with their laptops having a coffee,” Kutzner says.

Of course, some young people sitting in a café typing away on their laptops probably doesn’t represent momentum toward peace. But still, something is changing on one corner in East Jerusalem. And next year Tahan wants to reopen the Kings Travel Agency — once run by his father —in hope that better days are still to come. Because for the Tahhan brothers, giving up on their neighborhood is not an option.

Laura Selz is a radio and print journalist based in Germany, covering society and zeitgeist. She is currently reporting from Israel as a scholar of the Herbert-Quandt Foundation.

A previous version of this article mistakenly stated that Israeli artists took part in an exhibition at Cafe Sarwa, and that the exhibition was affiliated with the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. A majority of the Palestinian artists, in fact, were not permitted to attend their own exhibition, the organizers say. We apologize for the mistake.

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100 percent human: Five years without Juliano Mer-Khamis http://972mag.com/100-percent-human-five-years-without-juliano-mer-khamis/118520/ http://972mag.com/100-percent-human-five-years-without-juliano-mer-khamis/118520/#comments Mon, 11 Apr 2016 11:51:41 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=118520 In a small cafe in Berlin, I found myself surrounded by Palestinian refugees from Yarmouk who knew and loved my friend Juliano — a man who was 100 percent Palestinian and 100 percent Jewish.

By Udi Aloni

Juliano Mer Khamis. (Photo: Vera Reider)

Juliano Mer Khamis. (Photo: Vera Reider)

When I landed in Berlin on April 4th, I realized that it was the first time since the murder of Juliano Mer Khamis that I wouldn’t be holding a memorial service for him. I thought that I would buy a bottle of Black Label on the plane, Jul’s favorite whiskey, and down it that same night with Mariam Abu Khaled, his wonderful student who today is a successful actress in Berlin’s Maxim Gorki Theater. We would bring up our favorite memories, then cry, and then laugh.


Juliano’s murder five years ago in front of the Freedom Theater in Jenin refugee camp, which he established with love and endless talent, changed our life completely. The sound of those five bullets piercing through the air and hitting his body still echoes in my head today — its ripples inform my political and artistic work today.

Fate, however, has its own plans. As I landed in Berlin, a Palestinian friend of mine invited us to an event in honor of Juliano.

Before I go on, let me first introduce Mariam Abu Khaled, an Afro-Palestinian actress from Jenin refugee camp. A wonderful person whom Juliano took under his wing when she was just 17. Mariam conquered the stage from the very first moment. I first met her when I moved in with Jul at the refugee camp, while we worked on “Alice in Wonderland,” in which Mariam played the evil Red Queen.

When Juliano was murdered, we were left traumatized and orphaned. The Arab Spring quickly turned into a cruel winter, and I moved with 12 students to Ramallah. They became refugees for a second time, and I was an Asheknazi Israeli Jew in a Palestinian city. Our tightly knit group brought “Waiting for Godot” to the stage, as well as our film “Art/Violence.”

The Freedom Theater performing for the residents of Al-Hadidiya. (Marta Fortunato)

Members of the Jenin Freedom Theater performing for the residents of Al-Hadidiya, West Bank. (photo: Marta Fortunato)

We felt Juliano was with us the entire time. Everywhere we went we discovered another community of artists who remember him and continue his legacy. If at first we thought we had to fight to commemorate him, now it is clear that there are many communities that remember him and continue making sure to maintain the connection between high quality art and radical politics. Or like we said in the Freedom Theater: quality is resistance.

Between Yarmouk and Berlin

Five years without Juliano. Mariam and I are sitting at the memorial event in Berlin. On the wall is a slide with a photo of Jul, we’re surrounded by Palestinians, most of whom we hadn’t met before (and we thought we knew most of the activist community). We were asked to say a few words. Mariam choked up and couldn’t speak, I said very little. Then we suddenly realized that the Palestinians sitting with us are from Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria, and that Germany had granted them asylum after fleeing the massacres at the hands of ISIS.

A Palestinian friend from Acre who was with us asked about her family members in Yarmouk. All of a sudden the history of the Nakba comes to life before us, after all they should have returned to Palestine, not fled to Berlin. A refugee from Yarmouk sings a beautiful rendition of an Umm Kulthum song accompanied by a keyboard, and we all sink into a deep sadness. We begin to experience the depth of our collective tragedy. The Yarmouk refugees sit around us and all of them tell us about which city or village they are from in Palestine, and how they heard about Juliano and came to show respect for the Jewish-Palestinian martyr.

A message was waiting for me from a Palestinian pianist from Yarmouk, whose piano was burned by ISIS and received a new one in Berlin. He asked that I join him for a meeting with the mayor, and I remembered my German Jewish neighbors from when I was growing up. They played piano every day at 4 p.m. out of a longing for their homeland, managing to flee right before the great darkness took over their country. Imagine how much hope and desire for forgiveness it must take for a Palestinian refugee from Yarmouk to invite a Jewish Israeli with him for an event in honor of the pianist with the mayor of Berlin. Mariam and I weep and smile that the refugees remember Juliano. A flash of optimism in a sea of despair.

All of a sudden the singer starts a dabke song, and a giant circle opens up in front of Jul’s photo. I, an Israeli Jew, start dancing dabke in Berlin with Palestinian refugees who were expelled to Lebanon and Syria and now fled to Berlin instead of returning home. They are teaching me the basic steps and holding my hands with care.

I remember that I once wrote that Edward Said taught me how to think bi-nationalism, but Juliano taught me my first dance steps, to feel bi-nationalism on my body. I was once asked by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) why we insist on the term “bi-nationalism” rather than one state — one person, one vote. We explained that bi-nationalism includes the universal values of PFLP, but also the values based in the particular identities of Jews and Palestinians who share this land.

Today the answer to that question is more relevant than ever for our ability to think about bi-nationalism and one state as two concepts that complete each other. Juliano was 100 percent Palestinian, 100 percent Jewish, and 100 percent human. I owe him so much, he taught me that another life is possible.

Udi Aloni is the director of ‘Junction 48.’ This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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Before Zionism: The shared life of Jews and Palestinians http://972mag.com/before-zionism-the-shared-life-of-jews-and-palestinians/118408/ http://972mag.com/before-zionism-the-shared-life-of-jews-and-palestinians/118408/#comments Mon, 04 Apr 2016 17:22:16 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=118408 Before the advent of Zionism and Arab nationalism, Jews and Palestinians lived in peace in the holy land. Menachem Klein’s new book maps out an oft-forgotten history of Israel/Palestine, and offers some guidance on how we may go back to that time.

By Noam Rotem

Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem's Old City, toward the end of the Ottoman Empire's control over Palestine.

Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City, toward the end of the Ottoman Empire’s control over Palestine.

Menachem Klein’s book, Lives in Common: Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Hebron, is a depressing one. Originally released in English, the book — which is being published in Hebrew  — paints a picture of a shared life between Palestinians and Jews at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, bringing us face to face with daily life, commerce, education, celebrations, and sadness. It shows that us this kind existence, despite everything we were taught by the Israeli education system, is possible. And then Klein goes on and destroys this delicate balance, burning everything left of it today.

As the Ottoman Empire, which ruled Palestine at the time, began losing its power toward the end of the 19th century, a new, local identity began developing out of the lived experiences of Jews and Arabs. This identity, which took precedence over religion, was shared by Muslims, Jews, and Christians.


Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, both the Zionist movement and the Palestinian national movement began trying to take control of that identity and define the people of the land as either Jewish Zionists or Palestinian Arabs. There were those who called for unity, such as Jerusalem Mayor Raghib al-Nashashibi, who wanted not to speak of Arabs and Jews, but of Palestinians. Klein debunks the myth according to which the residents of the country before the advent Zionism or the Arab national movement lacked all identity. Instead, he describes a lively and vivacious community with its own traditions and customs, bringing testimonies from Jews, Muslims and foreigners as proof.

Both Zionism and Arab nationalism came to Palestine from outside the country. The two movements developed in the diaspora but both saw the territory between the river and the sea as part of their war for control; they drew borders in a place that had been borderless at the expense of those who lived here. Palestinian residents distinguished between “Arab Jews” — a common identity of Jews who were either born here or in other Arab countries — and Jewish immigrants from Europe who arrived to redefine the land. Klein quotes several journal entries penned by Palestinians at the beginning of the 20th century, according to which non-Ashkenazi Jews were seen as awlad al-balad (“sons of the land”) and yahud awlad al-arab (“Jewish Arabs”).

‘The Bolsheviks from Moscow’

The idealistic reality described by Klein seems almost like a dream today. He quotes the memoirs of Ya’akov Elazar from Jerusalem, who remembers how “the Muslim women cooperated respectfully with the customs of the Jewish religion…the Muslim neighbors allowed the Jewish women to pump water necessary before the Sabbath.” Klein also describes how some Muslims even joined their Jewish neighbors in reciting religious prayers. He describes the cheder (a traditional elementary school where the basics of Judaism and the Hebrew language were taught) run by Hacham Gershon in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where Arab parents brought their children so that they would learn how to behave properly. Klein also writes that sexual relations and marriages between Jews and Arabs were not unheard of, even if they were not considered legitimate.

The European foreigners who came here were the ones to form a wedged between the partners to this quasi-utopia. Yeshayahu Peres, who put together the historical-geographical encyclopedia of the Land of Israel, complained that when the Ashkenazi Jews immigrated they brought with them their customs, clothing, and lifestyle, and did not adapt to the cultures of Palestine: “They speak Yiddish and maintain the Jewish street accent of their home countries. They are different from their Sephardic brothers not only in language and appearance but also in their worldview.” Or take Palestinian activist Ghada Karmi, who says: “We knew they were different from ‘our Jews,’ I am talking about the Arab Jews. We saw them as foreigners who came from Europe more than as Jews.”

Yohanan Ben Zakai's Sephardic Synagogue, Jerusalem, 1893.

Yohanan Ben Zakai’s Sephardic Synagogue, Jerusalem, 1893.

Klein writes that the Zionist establishment invented and nurtured the idealistic image of the Jews as Hebrew-speaking tzabars — as opposed to the Arab Jew. The myth of the tzabar was formed by a culture of immigrants who wanted to see themselves as natives. Maps were redrawn and Arab names of places were ignored or changed to Hebrew names. This was done not only to transform the immigrants into natives, but also to inherit the place of those who were here before. When Yosef Shlush, one of the founders of Tel Aviv, complained that he was attacked by Arabs, the heads of Jaffa’s Arab clans responded: “Who is at fault for all these incidents if not the Bolsheviks you brought from Moscow?”

The first part of the book, which describes life before the Nakba and the 1967 War, is full of historical anecdotes on how Zionism was viewed by the Palestinian leadership. Salim al-Husseini, the mayor of Jerusalem at the end of the 19th century, is quoted: “This is not a political movement as much as it is a settler movement, and I am sure that not a single intelligent, wise Zionist does not imagine the idea of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine.” Najib Azuri, a Maronite Christian from Lebanon who served in the Ottoman administration in Jerusalem and was one of the harbingers of Arab nationalism, said this in 1905: “Both these movements will be resigned to continually struggle until one wins out, the fate of the entire world rests on the results of this struggle between two nations who represent two opposing principles.”

Jamil al-Husseini said in 1914 that Zionism must be fought since its success may bring about the dispossession of Palestinians from their land, while Musa Kazim Pasha al-Husayni, who briefly served as Jerusalem’s mayor and became a famous Palestinian leader, said that, “the Arabs or their leaders do not hate the Jews as Jews. On the contrary, they want Jews present in the framework of an Arab federation… but the Arabs do not agree in any way that a minority of residents say that… they are the lords of the land… we believe that the Jews need to enjoy the rights they deserve relative to their numbers.”

It is not that the first part of the book is bereft of violence, riots, murder, and clashes between groups — but there is some kind of balance. One group kills, the other responds, then they reconcile and go back to living together. Until the next time.

Beyond history

IDF soldiers expel the residents of Imwas from their village during the 1967 Six Day War. (photo: www.palestineremembered.com)

IDF soldiers expel the residents of Imwas from their village during the 1967 Six Day War. (photo: www.palestineremembered.com)

The second half of the book describes what happened after the Nakba, and it is far more pessimistic. Klein claims that 1948 and 1967 were not two separate wars, but rather two rounds of the same war, basing his theory on a convincing comparison and many testimonies from both Jews and Palestinians. He writes about the expulsion of Palestinian from their homes, which were then re-populated by Jews — both in ’48 and ’67.

He describes the stories of refugees who returned to visit their homes and properties that were taken in 1947, and the meetings with the new residents who weren’t always happy to see the refugees. Supreme Court Justice Zvi Berenson, who lived in a Palestinian home, refused to show the house to its former owners, claiming that he had invested much money in renovations. A different refugee who arrived at her old home ran into a Jewish immigrant from Poland who argued that the Poles took her old home, in an attempt to justify the fact that she has done the same thing to the Palestinian standing before her.

Even the personal relationships between Jews and Muslims were disrupted by the wars, such as the one between Ishak Musa al-Husseini and his childhood friend Yaacov Yehoshua. Both studied together and remained friends until they were separated by the 1948 war. After ’67, Yehoshua became a top Israeli clerk, while al-Husseini, whose family lived in the West Bank, came to his Jewish friend to ask for help in retrieving his family’s property. Yehoshua decided not to help him, writing in is journal: “It turns out that you have yet to come to terms with the new Jew — the same one you scorned in the past has now become a brave soldier, a tank crewman, a pilot.”

The old church in Kfer Bir'im. (photo: Activestills.org)

The old church in Kafr Bir’im. The Palestinian villagers were expelled from their homes two years after the founding of the State of Israel. (photo: Activestills.org)

Klein moves along the years, looking at various failed co-existence initiatives, at the activities of settler organization Elad, until the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers in 2014 and consequences it had on the residents of the West Bank.

This is where Klein goes from being a historian to being a journalist. “History” is traditionally thought of as something that happened over 30 years ago. Klein takes a dangerous step and tries to connect history to current events. I am of the opinion that the two ought to be separated, while the thorough understanding of the beginning of the last century is replaced by a clouded look at recent events. This creates a feeling in which the reader becomes immersed in the current worldview of the author.

Lives in Common is not a history book, for better or for worse. It is full of lost anecdotes, moving journal entries and memories by the author himself from his childhood in Jerusalem. Klein, a professor of political science at Bar Ilan University, walks the line between being a historian and a writer with a clear, formulated worldview that he has no intention of hiding. He is able to open a door to a time that was purposefully forgotten by the Israeli education system, and show a different reality that existed before the rise of Zionism and Palestinian nationalism.

Despite the wars and passage of time, Klein is able to show that, just maybe, there is hope for a shared life in this land — after all, that reality already existed. He proposes that the two nations, which have been fighting over the same piece of land for the past 100 years, may just be able to go back to living together.

Noam Rotem is an Israeli activist, high-tech executive and author of the blog o139.org, subtitled “Godwin doesn’t live here any more.” This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call, where he is also a blogger.

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Blurring the lines between Palestine and Baltimore http://972mag.com/blurring-the-lines-between-palestine-and-baltimore/118349/ http://972mag.com/blurring-the-lines-between-palestine-and-baltimore/118349/#comments Sun, 03 Apr 2016 14:18:39 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=118349 A new play tells the story of Aseel Asleh, one of the 13 Palestinians killed by police inside Israel at the start of the Second Intifada. Playwright Jen Marlowe is bringing it to black colleges in the U.S. in the hopes of connecting two struggles.

Amel Khalil and Kesav Wable as Nardeen and Aseel in "There Is a Field."

Amel Khalil and Kesav Wable as Nardeen and Aseel in “There Is a Field.”

Before his death, Palestinian teenager Aseel Asleh dedicated himself to his Jewish Israeli friends. As a loyal alumnus of Seeds of Peace, a coexistence summer camp, he was convinced that the promise of peace lay in forgiveness and reconciliation.


More than 15 years after he was killed at the age of 17 by Israeli police, a play about his life and death is being used to foster a very different dialogue. “There Is a Field” explicitly aims to build connections between movements for Palestinian rights and racial justice in America. It is presently on a tour that focuses on historically black colleges and universities in the eastern United States.

Aseel was shot to death in his hometown of Arrabe in the early days of the Second Intifada, while demonstrating in solidarity with Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza. He was one of 13 Palestinians – including 12 citizens of Israel – killed inside Israel in a single week in the notorious “October events” of 2000. He was killed and buried in a Seeds of Peace t-shirt.

Jen Marlowe had been the boy’s camp counselor. In search of a way to honor Aseel’s memory and cope with the grief that shook her community, she set out to write a play about his life. “There Is a Field” took shape over the next 15 years, finally premiering last month in New York. The play is styled as a documentary, comprised of artful transitions between family members’ reflections, materials from the investigation into Aseel’s death, and emails he left behind. (An early digital native, he spent hours online corresponding with his fellow “Seeds.”)

Much changed over the course of the play’s 15-year journey to fruition. Investigations into the killings closed without a single indictment, despite damning findings of excessive police violence by the government-established Or Commission. Relations between Israelis and Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line devolved to their all-time present low. As hopes for peace dwindled, so did the credibility of dialogue-based programs like Seeds of Peace. And a new protagonist took Aseel’s place in “There Is a Field.”

Aseel and Nardeen as small children.

Aseel and Nardeen as children.

Marlowe hadn’t planned for Nardeen, Aseel’s sister, to become the lead character, but her journey through grief and politics took center state as the play came together. We learn about the siblings’ relationship through email exchanges, phone conversations, and Nardeen’s memories. The script beautifully renders both their attachment to one another and the fundamental differences in their personalities, political identities, and relationships to the Jewish state.

In one scene, Nardeen remembers childhood visits to a pool located in a nearby Jewish community. Aseel is typically adaptive and warm, easily mingling with the Jewish children, while she can’t overcome her sense of alienation and her anger over the bus that wouldn’t enter the Palestinian village to pick them up. This difference persists – Aseel is thrilled by the relationships he forges through Seeds of Peace; Nardeen, by now a medical student at Hebrew University, believes his time would be better spent fighting for Palestinian rights than playing pretend peace with teenagers on the cusp of taking up arms against his people. Her experience is one of dashed hopes; when she finds herself on the verge of friendship with a colleague named Yael, she is quickly disappointed when Yael expresses horror to learn she won’t be celebrating Israel’s Independence Day. (A bit more on Nardeen’s evolution in this New Yorker profile about her husband, Joint Arab List head Ayman Odeh.)

After Aseel’s death, many (though not all) of his fellow campers indeed became soldiers, at a time of peak violence in the region. This both vindicates Nardeen and speaks to Marlowe’s own evolution. She speaks of her Seeds of Peace days as “political lifetimes ago.” Today, she says she doesn’t believe in the power of dialogue programs to subvert a status quo of state violence.

Nardeen at her brother's funeral in October 2000.

Nardeen at her brother’s funeral in October 2000.

Instead, she wants “There is a Field” to be a vehicle for activists against structural racism, from Palestine to Ferguson, to join in a shared struggle. The growing influence of Black Lives Matter and the popularization of intersectionality discourse – which presumes connections between different struggles for equality – frames the play’s long-awaited entry to the world. This timing is no coincidence. Marlowe returned to the play in earnest as demonstrations raged across the U.S. against the police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and a string of other unarmed black men.

Marlowe seems to be succeeding in her goal, thanks to her own network as a longtime activist for criminal justice reform, and partnerships with groups already working on building ties between racial justice activists in both contexts. Dream Defenders, an American anti-racism group that led a delegation to Israel and Palestine last year, has helped arrange showings. Among its sponsors, the play has counted the African American Policy Center (founded by Kimberle Crenshaw, who coined the term “intersectionality”) alongside more traditional partners like Jewish Voice for Peace and Adalah, the Palestinian human rights group that led the legal struggle on behalf of the families of the October 2000 victims.

Audience members haven’t needed much prompting to locate their own experiences in this story of killing and impunity. It has shown to packed rooms at a number of universities, including historically black schools like Howard University and Bowie State University. At the end of each performance, audience members are asked to share words that come to mind. At one show, Marlowe told me that the first three words shared were “familiarity,” “Ferguson,” and “Baltimore.” (The latter two being the sites of high profile recent police killings.) “They weren’t just responding to themes of state violence and impunity,” she said. They experienced “very specific resonances of their lived experiences.”

The play depicts Nardeen as a reluctant spokesperson for justice in the years following Aseel’s death. While her heartbroken parents hold onto their son’s memory by throwing themselves into an ultimately failed fight for legal accountability, Nardeen prefers to remember privately. It is partially this reluctance that makes her such a relatable protagonist. Aseel’s zeal for reconciliation seems tragically quaint from the vantage point of history; his burial in a Seeds of Peace t-shirt would seem too obvious in its symbolism if it didn’t actually happen.

At a time when coexistence projects can seem a futile endeavor, perhaps it is this vision – of unity between disparate movements for racial equality – where an elusive hope lies.

“There Is a Field,” written by Jen Marlowe and directed by Noelle Ghoussaini, is presently on tour. It returns to New York for two performances on April 13 and 14. Information about dates can be found here.

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How Palestinian women are enlisting traditional dresses into the struggle http://972mag.com/how-palestinian-women-are-enlisting-traditional-dresses-into-the-struggle/117802/ http://972mag.com/how-palestinian-women-are-enlisting-traditional-dresses-into-the-struggle/117802/#comments Fri, 11 Mar 2016 12:03:45 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=117802 The keffiyeh has long been the dominant symbol of the Palestinian struggle. In honor of International Women’s Day, we brought together women to give the traditional embroidered Palestinian dress the respect it deserves.

Photos by Oren Ziv/Activestills.org

Samah Palestinian embroidered dresses project

A woman is prettier, more feminine and more attractive when wearing a dress. That’s what they taught us, and I won’t get into the question of who is behind this theory and whom or what it serves. What is certain is that women have always held in special regard this specific article of clothing, which in some cultures represents hiding the beautiful body of a woman, and in other cultures to highlight and accentuate that glorious body. In both cases dresses represent the social status, economic status, strength and taste of the woman wearing them.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that just like in all of society, in the world of clothing (not fashion) women’s clothing fight for their place in the closet of public consciousness. That is the unique situation that occurs when said society is in a fight for survival, as a national collective fighting for national recognition and national liberation. In such a situation, what is thought of as more patriotic: the masculine or the feminine?

That is the situation in Palestinian society. Masculine items of clothing, like the black and white keffiyeh, have become symbols of popular struggle, of nationalism and Palestinian identity, which has taken its place on the world stage. Young women, too, have adopted the keffiyeh, worn around their necks as scarves at demonstrations, marches and public events. But the need for an authentic feminine Palestinian symbol has quickly risen, which has led the traditional embroidered Palestinian dress, “Fustan,” to be liberated from the back of the closet to its current rebirth among Arab women. Slowly slowly the long and heavy “thoub” dress has become a symbol of female pride and liberating creativity.

Samah Palestinian embroidered dresses project

Samah Palestinian embroidered dresses project

The natural and seemingly engineered shapes, embroidered with silk thread and with the patience possessed by only women, turn any black or white fabric into a piece of art. A cross-stitch and another cross-stitch, one next to another, long nights, line after line and the dress is covered in embroidery that tells a local story.

Once the embroidered dress indicated the personal status of a woman: married, single, widowed or divorced. Over time the dress began to speak politics. Dresses included designs against the evil eye and colors from nature and the embroiderer’s environment.

A form of feminist activism

As far back as I can remember I have been enchanted by this embroidery and I have no idea why. For 20 years I have been collecting embroidery, and I have spent hours on end choosing fabrics and designs for dresses, which with the opening of the NGO Na’am (supporting Arab women in Lod, Ramle and Jaffa against gender violence) also became an initiative to support the embroiderers financially. We quickly put on our first exhibition under the banner, “embroidering for change,” an exhibition that started as a response to the ban on women without legal status working in Israel. In order to embroider you only need good taste, needle and thread, and that’s still legal — so let’s get to work, I told a few of them.

Within five years more than 40 women joined the project, Jewish and Arab friends began buying gifts from the embroiderer women as an act of female solidarity and struggle. Women from small villages and other regions started sending their work, and we even have two young women from Gaza who create breathtaking Palestinian designs. All are working women who make do with a little and want to make a living with dignity. As Umm Yousef, an embroiderer from Bil’in, once told me: “One piece of gravel strengthens a building.”

Samah Palestinian embroidered dresses project

Samah Palestinian embroidered dresses project

A dress is indeed more than just a piece of clothing, it seems, especially if it is antique and carries the history and struggle of an entire nation, the hard work of women, and great happiness. With that consortium of forces, my friends and I decided to create a collage of amazing women, traditional embroidered Palestinian dresses, and to let each woman choose a special place in their city to be photographed. For most of them it wasn’t hard to choose: Khan el-Hilu in Lod, the white tower in the old city of Ramle — two sites at the heart of the old city and the ghetto compound in which the city’s residents were imprisoned at the start of Israel’s military rule over its Arab citizens in 1948. We wanted to send a single, strong message, that there was once life here: women are the life of the city, and together they can make this place so much better.

I contacted all of the women I know in the area, all of whom are activists in their own field, and each of whom works on one dimension or another of feminist activism — the murder of women, home demolitions, the war on poverty or political activism. Groundbreaking school administrators, Muslims and Christians, with head coverings (hijab) or without, young women and older women — everyone would be together.

Samah Palestinian embroidered dresses project

Dresses on the kids’ Facebook

I gathered my own and my friends’ dresses for the project, found a (volunteer) professional photographer — our very own Oren Ziv who happily joined the project. During the photo shoot day I must have said dozens of times, “you’re so pretty like that,” to each woman who hesitated to be photographed, I reconciled with women who didn’t exactly support me in the past, and I buried my ego in the furthest possible place in honor of International Women’s Day. I heard interesting life stories from our models: one told us that at her wedding the photographer never showed up and that she has never felt so important as during our photo shoot. Another barely convinced her husband to let a man photograph her, and that only on the condition that the photo be a group photo. Another one was in pain from the murder of her young neighbor the day before. Yet another brought a famous dress belonging to her step-mother, a dress that came out of the closet only for celebratory occasions, and another woman brought out a dress that she had not worked on since her partner passed away.

Samah Palestinian embroidered dresses project

Like any project that I get myself into I started questioning what I’m doing and why. Each woman who came to contribute her photo made me happy, I took advantage of Oren’s generosity by documenting the process and moments for the organization. Why not, right?

We all decided that everyone would change their Facebook profile photo at 10 p.m. the night of International Women’ Day to their photo in the dress. Except we realized that some of the older women in the group didn’t have Facebook. So we conscripted their offspring to the campaign.

And so it was, on Women’s Day earlier this week, at 10 p.m. exactly, we decorated our pages with our group presentation of the dresses, and our profile photos became especially colorful. Lots of excitement, great pride and a lot of likes and shares filled our hearts with happiness and collective strength like I have not experienced in a long time.

I know that I often write of difficult stories and with lots of anger and criticism about this world, in which women still need a special day of the year in order to emphasize to mankind that our struggle for liberation is still incomplete. I see each of you, Arab or Jew, Palestinian or Israeli, man or woman or anything in between, as true partners, just like in embroidery each thread is important and every color has a role — that’s how I see our struggle for women’s rights, freedom, self definition and the right to life. That is what International Women’s Day is for me: sometimes it pokes like a needle and sometimes it’s as beautiful as a dress.

The author, Samah Salaime.

The author, Samah Salaime.

This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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From Haifa to Beirut: ’48 Palestinians challenge regional isolation http://972mag.com/from-haifa-to-beirut-48-palestinians-challenge-regional-isolation/117210/ http://972mag.com/from-haifa-to-beirut-48-palestinians-challenge-regional-isolation/117210/#comments Sat, 20 Feb 2016 07:17:43 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=117210 For Palestinian citizens of Israel, especially those from the Haifa area, Beirut holds near mythical stature. The two cities share near-identical Arabic dialects, cuisine and the cultural elements, and just a few decades ago traveling between them would have been a mere two-hour drive. Today that is almost unimaginable

That disconnection between the Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel, or “’48 Palestinians” as they are sometimes called, and the wider Arab world has been a source of pain and resentment ever since the borders slammed shut in 1948. The majority of Palestinians were locked outside, but over 1 million live in Israel today.

“Who gave anyone permission to separate us from our natural environment,” Maisan Hamdan poses to me when we meet in Haifa a few weeks after she made a rare, and seemingly impossible visit to Beirut. Hamdan, a 24-year-old activist against the conscription of Druze and others Arabs into the Israeli army, had been invited to take part in a series of workshops at the American University of Beirut.

And while the trip may seem impossible and unlikely to many, a small but growing number of Arab citizens of Israel have been quietly traveling to Lebanon in recent years — from journalists like Majd Kayyal to two contestants in the Arab Idol singing competition last year to academics and others.

Israeli citizens are forbidden from traveling to enemy states, Lebanon does not accept Israeli travel documents, and the vast majority of Palestinian citizens of Israel have only an Israeli passport. But, it turns out,’48 Palestinians who have an official invitation from a Lebanese institution can obtain a special travel document from the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, which can then be used to visit Lebanon via Jordan. (All Israelis, Jewish and Arab alike can legally travel to Jordan and Egypt.)

Hamdan had been invited by the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship to speak about her activism in Urfud (“refuse” in Arabic) a movement that encourages and supports Druze citizens of Israel who refuse or resist mandatory conscription into the Israeli army.

We meet on a cold, quiet morning at a Palestinian-owned café in Haifa to talk about her still-fresh visit to Beirut, the city’s striking similarities to Haifa, how it’s different for a Jew and an Arab to refuse conscription into the Israeli army, and why recent stabbing attacks might be increasing the rate of refusal in the Druze community.


How did you end up to Lebanon? And why?

I was in Tunisia for the World Social Forum in March 2015, as part of my activism with Urfud. We ended up meeting Lebanese members of civil society and academia who wanted to invite Urfud to visit Lebanon. I never expected it to happen so I didn’t take it seriously. Lebanon, for me — for many Palestinians and for many Arabs — is an emotional place.

But then I got an invitation from the American University for a week of academic workshops discussing the overall Arab Middle East region, and specifically civil society in each country. We took part in two panels: one about the civil and political aspects of what’s happening in East Jerusalem, and one about Urfud.

Maisan Hamdan speaks on a panel hosted by the Asfari Institute at the American University of Beirut, October 20, 2015. (Courtesy photo)

Maisan Hamdan speaks on a panel hosted by the Asfari Institute at the American University of Beirut, October 20, 2015. (Courtesy photo)

It used to be that ’48 Palestinians had a hard time in the Arab world because there was very little knowledge of the issues Palestinians face inside Israel. Did you find you had to explain very basic things about your status and position in society? Was there any hostility?

I can’t really say about the whole of Lebanese society but the people I encountered and those who invited me had very broad knowledge. The people who participated in the panels were thirsty, they really wanted to know more about what is going on and they were very interested in just listening.

They were very, very sympathetic and supportive and even asked, in an ironic way: are you really here? You exist? Random people we met knew about Urfud, said they had heard a lot about us, and that they supported us.

But to address your question, I didn’t feel afraid. It wasn’t a feeling of fear or alienation. It also didn’t even feel like it was my first time there. The culture was very similar to the Palestinians’ in Haifa, for instance. Even the food is much more similar to ours than even in the Naqab…

Haifa is actually closer to Beirut than it is to the Negev. What were your expectations before going there, about the place itself or connecting to the wider Arab world?

We are very deprived of a lot of the Arab region and our ability to go there; we are deprived of Lebanon. Who gave anyone permission to separate us from our natural environment in the Middle East? Why did I have to feel the whole time that this would be the first and last time [I go to Beirut]? It was the most natural place for me to be, and a natural environment, talking to people, having discussions. Why would anybody deprive me of that?

With everything I imagined, it was even more beautiful when I went there. And I know the political situation in Lebanon is very bad, and yet, you still can’t criticize me for having a romantic view of it.

A view of the lighthouse off the coast of Sidon (Saida), Lebanon. (Photo by Maisan Hamdan)

A view of the lighthouse off the coast of Sidon (Saida), Lebanon. (Photo by Maisan Hamdan)

You have described your activism with Urfud as focusing on Israel’s divide-and-conquer tactics of ruling over Palestinians. Lebanon has seen even worse — as far as divisions, how society and politics are divided along ethnic and religious lines. Is that something that you discussed with other activists — in a comparative way?

I encountered activism that is similar to what is taking place here, opposing the divide and conquer policies like here.

The discussions in the American University workshops were about political activism in the West Bank, about Palestinians in ’48, by refugees in Jordan, refugees in Syria, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, and also local Lebanese activism. It was really important for us Palestinians to look at local Lebanese activism vis-a-vis their government, and to get perspective about how it works in other places.

What was the most unexpected thing that happened to you?

Seeing these people, not somewhere overseas, but in their natural place — in their homes. That was the most amazing moment. And however hard I try, I can’t even imagine things being reversed, that they might see me in my natural place, in my home. I can’t even imagine that they could visit my natural place, here. Because it’s unnatural.

Stop asking me before I start to cry.

What happened when you got back? When Majd Kayyal returned from Lebanon the Shin Bet held him incommunicado for a week. (More on that here.)

I had a three-hour interrogation at the King Hussein Bridge crossing (between Israel and Jordan). They asked me about everything. Where did you go? What did you do?

You told them where you were?

Yes. I also published it on Facebook. The point was to not hide where I was, even specific places. I published everything on Facebook and I also told the interrogator everything. I was honest about every question he asked because I had been in my natural place, meeting with people in a very similar culture with a similar ethnic identity.

An Israeli soldier locks a fence at the border with Lebanon. (Shutterstock.com/Maxmacs)

An Israeli soldier locks a fence at the border with Lebanon. (Shutterstock.com/Maxmacs)

Were you surprised that you didn’t get into any trouble?

Before coming back, I called my mom and told her if you don’t hear from me for a few hours just know that I am crossing the border. But yes, I was surprised that nothing happened.


We shift gears. Imposed divisions among Palestinian citizens of Israel have been a hot topic in recent years, as the government has launched public campaign to increase Palestinian Christian enlistment into the army. Pulling in the other direction has been a slowly resurgent Palestinian national identity among Arab citizens of Israel, largely in response to discriminatory policies that highlight and amplify cleavages between Jewish and Arab society.

“As Israeli politics and society shift rightward Palestinian citizens grasp onto their Palestinian heritage and nationality ever more tightly,” Henriette Chacar wrote in +972 last year in her profile of the new generation of Palestinian activists in Israel. “Even those who wouldn’t otherwise be drawn to Palestinian nationalism embrace it as a defense against the parallel radicalization and intensification of Zionist nationalism.”

Most Jewish Israelis have trouble accepting or even acknowledging that Arab citizens of Israel are also Palestinians, however, or that Bedouin Arabs, Christian Arabs and Druze Arabs might also consider themselves to be Palestinian just like their Muslim countrymen. According to Hamdan, that attitude and understanding is the byproduct of Israeli divide-and-conquer tactics of control.

In recent years there have also been a small but growing number of Druze young men who have openly refused to join the Israeli military for reasons of conscientious or political objection and served time in prison. The most famous was Omar Sa’ad, who was sentenced to military prison six times and served 150 days before contracting a serious liver infection and being released.

Omar Sa'ad, a Palestinian-Druze conscientious objector, walks into the Tiberias induction base, where he will state his refusal to be drafted to the Israeli army, December 4, 2013. Over 100 family members, friends and activists protested on Wednesday morning to support Omar, who is expected to sent to military prison after refusing the draft. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Omar Sa’ad, a Palestinian-Druze conscientious objector, walks into the Tiberias induction base, where stated his refusal to be drafted to the Israeli army, December 4, 2013. Sa’ad would go on to serve 150 days in prison before being released on medical grounds related to a liver infection he contracted in military prison. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)


How do you identify the differences between the Druze communities here and the Christian and Muslim Palestinians?

The Druze community is divided from the rest [of the Palestinians] because the Israeli system approaches it differently, and the Druze feel they are more special in the eyes of the Israelis.

The Israeli government imposed military service on them in 1956. The Druze education system was separated from the rest of the Palestinian community in 1976, and the local municipalities were also separated from the rest of the Arabs’. Not only that, Israel identified the Druze as a separate ethnic group as well. So there became Arabs, Jews and Druze.

If you go to a community and you want to rule it, you have to divide it into separate groups in order to strengthen your rule.

Tell me about your activism. Describe what Urfud is and what it does as an organization?

There are two aspects. Firstly, we are a young and inclusive feminist refusal movement that isn’t affiliated with any political party, geographic religion or religious group. Secondly, we don’t see refusal as a Druze issue: Urfud concerns the Palestinian community as a whole. That is why our activists are Palestinians from all geographic regions and from all religions.

There’s a lot of talk in Israel these days about creating divisions between Muslim and Christian Palestinians, while trying to get Christian Palestinians to join the army. What is your group’s success rate? How many Druze who would otherwise go to the army do you think are not going?

In the past year and a half since the campaign started, more and more people refused. We have over 70 Druze who approached us, who told us they want to refuse.

Not all of them go to prison. The army gives young Druze options for not serving: medical and mental issues, conscientious objection (which is rarely granted, especially not for men, m.s.o), and for socio-economic reasons. So when a young man sees all of these options, he often prefers to take a psychiatric exemption instead of going to prison. Unless he really wants to make a statement and say I don’t want to do the service because of x, y or z — then that’s a different issue.

We give these options to all of the youths and they can choose whatever option they want. But in the end, we prefer that they refuse by statement, on principle.

The difference between Jews refusing to enlist in the army and Urfud’s activism is that the Jewish Israelis are refusing to serve in their own country’s military. Urfud is refusing to serve in the occupying country’s army.

(Top photo: The Beirut skyline, by Shutterstock.com)

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Classified: Politicizing the Nakba in Israel’s state archives http://972mag.com/classified-politicizing-the-nakba-in-israels-state-archives/117216/ http://972mag.com/classified-politicizing-the-nakba-in-israels-state-archives/117216/#comments Fri, 19 Feb 2016 17:54:13 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=117216 Documents that have already been cited in history books are being re-classified in the State Archives.

Israeli state archive documents that were de-classified in the 1980s have been re-classified in recent years, according to a recently hired assistant professor at the University of Maryland’s Center for Jewish Studies.

Shay Hazkani, who was Israel Channel 10′s military correspondent from 2004-8 and will soon complete his doctorate at New York University, discusses the background and politics of the state’s decision to re-classify various documents in an interview for the Ottoman History Podcast.

In the interview, which was recorded in July 2014 (I came across it recently by chance), Hazkani estimates that about one-third of documents that were de-classified in the 1980s have been re-classified starting from the late 1990s, when the archives were digitized.


These reclassified documents were used extensively by prominent “new historians” like Benny Morris (“Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem”), Avi Shlaim (“The Iron Wall”), Hillel Cohen (“Good Arabs” and “1929″) and Ilan Pappe (“Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine”) and cited in their books.


But even though these books certainly exist in the public domain, and they do cite original documents in the Israeli state archives that note orders given to the nascent Israeli army to expel Palestinians during the 1948 war, the government of Israel continues to promote its official narrative — that the Palestinians left of their own accord. Hence the government and, more specifically, the security establishment attempts to control the discourse by re-classifying these documents.

The 25-minute interview is embedded below and well worth your time. Among other things, Hazkani explains that Israel adopted a law in 1955 that specified documents could be kept classified for a maximum of 50 years. But the Mossad, the army and the Shin Bet, which control very large archives, refused to comply with the law. Petitions to declassify specific documents have been brought before the higher courts, with some pending now.

Toward the end of the interview, Hazkani recounts a fascinating anecdote involving his own experience with re-classified documents, this time connected with an incident reported by Joe Sacco in his graphic novel “Footnotes in Gaza.” Sacco traveled to Gaza in 2002 and 2003 to research the book, which was published in 2009. The “footnote” refers to an incident that occurred during the Israeli army’s three-month occupation of Gaza during 1956-7, during the Suez War.

For the book, Sacco interviews several Palestinian eyewitnesses who describe having seen the Israeli army shoot and kill at least 100 civilians out of the hundreds that were rounded up and herded into a schoolyard in Rafah. According to the witnesses, the event took place on November 12, 1956. The details, as drawn and described in Sacco’s book, are quite harrowing, which explains why articles about the book published in Haaretz caused a furore. In the podcast, Hazkani recounts having followed the online discussions and debates about the claims in Sacco’s book.

One blogger, recounts Hazkani, writes in a post about having seen a specific document that confirms some of Sacco’s account. Hazkani happened to be on his way to the archive when he read that post; and since the blogger cited a specific file number, he asked to see it. But when he received the file, it contained a note that indicated the document had been reclassified the previous day — the same day the blogger had published his post.

There is obviously an inherent contradiction in Israeli authorities so clumsily trying to reclassify damning documents that have already been cited by well-known historians, even as it invests so much money and effort in promoting its image abroad as a transparent democracy. Israel is obviously not the only country that tries to shape its image by keeping documents classified for extended periods or even indefinitely. Hazkani mentions colonial archives recently uncovered in Britain, and Turkey’s still-classified archives from the Ottoman era. But Israel’s attempts to redact or classify documents after they have been extensively cited seems counter-productive at best.

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