Welcome to Normalization

In February, I spent ten days in the West Bank, the region of Israel/Palestine that is officially off-limits to Israelis and — theoretically, maybe, roughly — intended to become an independent Palestinian state if some version of the “two-state solution” becomes a reality.

When I mentioned to friends in the United States that I was headed there, many warned me to be careful — the West Bank is only mentioned in the US media when there is violence, so we associate it with violence. When I mentioned my plans to Jewish Israelis, the reactions were more varied: some were concerned about my safety, some puzzled why I wanted to go, some curious to hear what it is like, some irritated that I would expect to learn something about the region on a short visit — with the assumption I would come away more critical of Israeli policies — some encouraging me and saying they wished they could go there as well.

As it turned out, the West Bank matched neither the warnings nor my expectations. First of all, I had not realized how many young tourists are traveling there, and was startled to find the words they frequently used to describe the occupied territories, as compared with official Israel, were “relaxed” and “laid back.”

I was staying in hostels full of young backpackers from Europe, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Latin America, Japan, and China. Some were there specifically to explore the political/military situation and experience the occupation: some expected to write about it, to bring back pictures, to make films. But many were just traveling between Jordan and Israel, seeing someplace new, having a vacation. The Lonely Planet guidebook to Israel and the Palestinian Territories begins the relevant section on cheerful note:

“Welcome” is a word you hear a lot in the West Bank. Whether it is shouted by a street trader in a bustling souk, expressed with a smile over a plate of falafel, or roared from a taxi over booming Arabic music, Palestinians are forever wanting to make tourists feel appreciated.

I heard that word constantly, from children, young adults, and elders, along with “What is your name?” and “Where are you from?” When I answered, “America,” I got a range of responses, from “Good!” to “You like Trump?” But always accompanied by smiles and “Welcome.”

I recommend any traveler visiting Israel spend some time on the West Bank — not just a day-trip to Bethlehem, but staying a while, going to nightclubs in Ramallah, exploring the old city of Nablus, visiting the Freedom Theater in Jenin, or hiking around the Jordan Valley — and be assured, there are plenty of other travelers making those trips (women as well as men, often on their own), and having a wonderful time.

None of which belies the realities of the political situation. The Lonely Planet guide continues: “it is true that dirt-poor refugee camps, barbed-wire checkpoints and the towering separation wall are rarely far from the eye…” Indeed, that wall has itself become a tourist attraction, thanks to the British artist Banksy and an international horde of graffiti taggers. I was there during a relatively quiet time, but there were daily stories in the media about military raids and arrests, and the friendly conversations with locals never went for long without touching on the occupation.

My first night in Ramallah, I got in a long discussion with Nidal Abu Maria, who owns the Habibi Hostel, where I was staying. Nidal speaks perfect English and is active in organizing tours, informational programs, and other forms of cultural exchange between Palestinians and foreign visitors. In the past he was also involved in dialogs with Israeli groups, but says he stopped taking part in those interchanges because, “I like connections between people, but I don’t want to normalize occupation.”

That word, “normalization,” has become increasingly common due to the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement, but it has a long history in Israel. Since the dream of an Israeli state began to seem a possibility in the early twentieth century, Zionist leaders have regularly expressed the wish that this state could simply be considered a “normal” nation like France — almost always France;1 sometimes Britain; never like Egypt, Lebanon, Nigeria, Mexico, or Japan. That choice is notable because France is not “normal” in the sense of being typical; on the contrary, it has long been held up as an ideal, particularly for German-speaking Central Europeans who dreamed of living wie Gott in Frankreich (like God in France), and more particularly for Central European Jews: Joseph Roth, arriving in France via Vienna and Berlin in the interwar years, wrote, “Paris is where the Eastern Jew begins to become a Western European.”

The tricky thing about Israel becoming “normal” in this sense is that it is not in Europe and most of its population is not European — or at least no more European than the population of neighboring Lebanon, which has a prior claim: Beirut was already hailed in the mid-nineteenth century as “the Paris of the Middle East.” Which could be my cue to digress and note that what is commonly traced as “European” culture is more accurately Mediterranean, that Judeo-Christian culture is specifically from this part of the Mediterranean, and that the Islamic Mediterranean preserved classical “European” culture while Europe was enduring its “Dark Ages…”

…but for now I want to get back to the West Bank and “normalization.” Because the Israeli dream of normalcy is very much alive, and these days is very much dependent on not thinking about what is happening on the West Bank and Gaza, much less in the refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan.

That was another thing I didn’t understand before visiting the region: Like the West Bank, Israel tends to make international news when there is violence, or the threat of violence, or at least the ominous specter of violence. So we tend to think of Israel as trapped in a conflict that needs to get resolved, whether through a two-state solution, a one-state solution, or even a nasty war — but, in any case, resolved. A lot of conversations in Israel reinforce that impression, but after a while I realized that if I didn’t steer the talk in that direction it needn’t go there and most Israelis could probably go for days without mentioning the Occupied Territories or any Palestinian conflict. Because, quite simply, it doesn’t affect their day-to-day life. Yes, they see soldiers all around, often carrying automatic rifles, but being in the army is a basic part of growing up for most Israelis, so they’re used to that. And it is easy to live within a few minutes walk of the wall that blocks off the West Bank and never see it, or ever talk to a Palestinian — or to talk to Palestinians, but not about that.

I was in the region to learn about the Israeli/Palestinian situation, so I kept asking people where they thought things were headed, and most of the conversations went more or less as expected–a range of responses, some guarded optimism, a lot of pessimism — but one evening during the first week I was talking with a young man in a bookstore in Jerusalem and he said, “I don’t see why things can’t just stay the way they are.”

That was a new idea to me. I had never considered the possibility that anyone could be comfortable with the current situation. But the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. Indeed, when I mentioned that response to Palestinians, their standard reaction was, “Of course that’s what they think — this has been working for them for fifty years. Why would they want to change?”

Once I absorbed that point of view, other discussions began to feel completely different. For example, when Israelis talked optimistically about projects that bring together Jews and Arabs or young people from Israel and the West Bank, or that bus groups of children from the West Bank to Israeli beaches in the summer. Because if you frame those projects as steps toward a solution they seem positive, but if you frame them as ways to reduce tension and let off steam while extending the wall, maintaining the checkpoints, expanding the settlements, ensuring the refugees in Lebanon and Jordan do not return, and carrying out daily raids, arrests, and frequently killings on the West Bank — that is, while keeping things the way they are — they feel not like progress but like ways of normalizing the status quo.

Though the details are unique to Israel/Palestine, the process is increasingly familiar around the world. It is the process by which the United States’ invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were framed as emergency actions, in the interests of national security, and because the situation was temporary the US could not be held responsible for creating longterm solutions, and yet we must maintain security… so, after a while, we’re just there, because we have to be there… and we are tightening our immigration laws and border controls to prevent people from those regions from entering the United States, because we live in an increasingly dangerous world, the proof being that we have to keep the troops over there, and those people over there.

Meanwhile we go on with our lives, and the rising paranoia is belied by the lowest domestic murder rate in the last half-century.2 And although “illegal” Mexican immigration is also lower than it has been in decades, we are building a wall on the border…

…and I’m not just making an analogy: Israeli companies are exporting their well-tested technology around the world, so, for example, Elbit Systems has provided Arizona with the same electronic detection fence system used to separate Israelis from Palestinians and now boasts on its website that “recent… activities in the homeland security area include initiation of the first phase of the Integrated Fixed Towers program for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency and the award of contracts for homeland security solutions for Latin American customers.”3

All of which inevitably leads to the question: if this is a global situation, where do the tourists visiting the West Bank fit in, and why are we “welcome”? I asked various Palestinians, and the usual answer was they want to be open to the world, with fewer walls, fewer borders, and more communication. People said they want outsiders to come and meet them,  talk with them, see the situation, experience the occupation, learn that they are not terrorists, not the problem…

…and, for the moment, speaking for myself, I will argue that this not just another form of normalization, because despite the tourist tips in the Lonely Planet guide, visiting the West Bank is not viewed by most non-Palestinians as normal. The Separation Wall and security checkpoints are not there only — or maybe even primarily — to control and limit Palestinians, but also to make them invisible, seen only as nameless extras in news stories from a distant, foreign, frightening place. By going there we can do at least a little to counter that narrative. So although it is not fair that we can cross that wall and pass those checkpoints so much more easily than they can, for the moment we can, and as long as we remain welcome, we should.



Remembering Eqbal Ahmad

April 20, 2018:

As I watch tens of thousands of Palestinians mass along the militarized zone separating Gaza from Israel, I keep thinking of my friend Eqbal Ahmad. Edward Said described Eqbal as “a man of enormous personal charisma, incorruptible ideals, unfailing generosity and sympathy towards others” — to all of which I can testify — as well as “perhaps the shrewdest and most original anti-imperialist analyst of the post-war world.”1

Though Eqbal was Pakistani, he had been a leading fighter in the Algerian rebellion against France, and the story I’m thinking of took place in 1968. The PLO had just surfaced as a military force and Eqbal was asked to keynote a meeting in the US for an audience of Arab students and activists excited at the prospect of an armed confrontation with the state of Israel. Eqbal spoke as a hardened revolutionary fighter, but not in the way his listeners expected:

After seeing what I saw in Algeria, I couldn’t romanticize armed struggle. The costs to the people of Algeria were very high. OK, they agreed to pay the cost, but it was high. Also, I knew what many people would not recognize even today, which is that the Algerians lost the war militarily, but won it politically. They were successful in isolating France morally. So the primary task of revolutionary struggle is to achieve the moral isolation of the adversary in his own eyes and in the eyes of the world.

I argued that a successful armed struggle proceeds to out-administer the adversary and not out-fight him. And that the task of out-administration was a task of out-legitimizing the enemy. Finally, I argued that this out-administration occurs when you identify the primary contradiction of your adversary and expose that contradiction…. Israel’s fundamental contradiction was that it was founded as a symbol of the suffering of humanity… at the expense of another people who were innocent of guilt. It’s this contradiction that you have to bring out. And you don’t bring it out by armed struggle. In fact, you suppress this contradiction by armed struggle. The Israeli Zionist organizations continue to portray the Jews as victims of Arab violence….

I said, “This is a moment to fit ships in Cyprus, fit boats in Lebanon and say, ‘We’re not going to destroy Israel. That is not our intent. We just want to go home.’ Reverse the symbols of Exodus. See if the Israelis are in a mood to sink some ships. They probably will. Let them do so. Some of us will die. Let us die….” 2

Said, who met Eqbal at that event, was impressed, arranged for Eqbal to make this proposal to the leaders of the PLO and forever recalled it as a missed opportunity. Maybe now, fifty years later, some version of this plan is coming to fruition.

I encourage everyone to check out Eqbal’s writing and speeches on other sites, in books, and on video. Meanwhile, here are a few personal stories:

I’m pretty sure I first met Eqbal in Woods Hole, when he came to talk about his arrest and upcoming trial as a member of the Harrisburg 7, one of the famous conspiracy trials of the Vietnam War era. His fellow defendants were all Catholic clergy, including Phillip Berrigan, and Eqbal often told how his mother called him when she heard the news, saying: “I can understand you being against the Vietnam war. I can even understand you being arrested for this. But what are you doing  being arrested with a group of priests and nuns?!”

After that meeting, Eqbal and his wife Julie were fairly frequent visitors, along with their baby daughter Dora. But the evening I remember best he came alone, fresh off a plane from Europe. The in-flight movie had been The Man Would Be King, and Eqbal was bubbling with enthusiasm: “It was wonderful, a great, old-fashioned action movie — fascist, of course, but wonderful!”

There was wine with dinner, and Eqbal had a few glasses and soon was telling stories of his youth — that was the only time I heard him talk about seeing his father killed when he was a small boy, hiding behind his father’s legs as the killers attacked, and about fighting in Kashmir. My parents eventually drifted off to bed, but I stayed up, sixteen years old and enthralled. He talked about his student days in Paris, meeting young revolutionaries from around the world.  He was particularly struck by the Algerian students who were going home to fight with the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) against French colonialism. He decided he had to get involved, went to Tunis, where he had been given an address on a back street, knocked, and the door was answered by a slim black man who spoke French with a Caribbean accent — Frantz Fanon. The stories went on and on and I remember very little beyond the pleasure of sitting late into the night, listening…

…and then there was his food. Eqbal was an astonishing cook — my understanding is that he was arrested with the Catholic leftists because they had gathered for one of his famous meals — and he appreciated my appreciation of his talents. I remember one evening at his apartment on the edge of Harlem when he invited me to dinner and spent the whole evening whispering apologies because a dear friend had arrived in town unexpectedly and was an observant Hindu, so the planned feast had to be sidelined for a vegetarian substitute — still delicious, and I was mostly there for the company, but Eqbal was inconsolable.

There are other stories, but at the moment I keep coming back to that image of Exodus. Partly because I watched the movie in preparation for my trip to Israel/Palestine and recently wrote about the inescapable parallels between Jewish immigrants fighting to enter Palestine and current Palestinians facing Israeli troops at the Gaza fence. Partly because the proliferating images of blonde, blue-eyed Ahed Tamimi as an image of Palestinian resistance recall the choice of Paul Newman to represent the archetypal Israeli fighter. And partly because I remember Eqbal’s enthusiasm for The Man Who Would Be King, and now realize his delight in a good action film was not an apolitical quirk, but on the contrary was integral to his sense of how popular images could be harnessed and redirected to effect change.

I saw Eqbal more rarely in later years. He founded a university in Pakistan and was there much of the time, while I was touring as a musician and writing for the Boston Globe, so one way and another our paths didn’t cross. Our last meeting was at his retirement from Hampshire College, where he had taught for some years. Edward Said and Howard Zinn were there, among many others, and I spoke briefly about Eqbal’s cooking. At the party afterwards he asked me to come to Pakistan and work with him, and I’ll always wonder if he was serious about that, and how my life might have been different if he was and I’d gone.


Mary Antin: Idealist of Immigration

“What terms of entry may we impose on the immigrant without infringing on his inalienable rights, as defined in our national charter?” Mary Antin asked in 1914. Her answer:

Just such as we would impose on our own citizens if they proposed to move about the country in companies numbering thousands, with their families and portable belongings…. Whatever limits to our personal liberty we are ourselves willing to endure for the sake of the public welfare, we have a right to impose on the stranger from abroad; these, and no others.

Antin had become a best-selling author two years earlier with The Promised Land, a memoir of her migration to the United States from the Russian Pale of Settlement (the region to which Jews were restricted) in the 1890s. Written on the prompting of Josephine Lazarus — sister of Emma Lazarus, the poet who wrote the poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty — it is a charming book, exploring the experience of immigration and the way her understanding of the world shifted as her circumstances changed:

When I was a little girl, the world was divided into two parts; namely, Polotzk, the place where I lived, and a strange land called Russia. All the little girls I knew lived in Polotzk, with their fathers and mothers and friends. Russia was the place where one’s father went on business. It was so far off, and so many bad things happened there, that one’s mother and grandmother and grown-up aunts cried at the railroad station…

I learned, as I grew older, that much as Polotzk disliked to go to Russia, even more did Russia object to letting Polotzk come. People from Polotzk were sometimes turned back before they had finished their business, and often they were cruelly treated on the way…

Antin’s father often went away to Russia, and she writes that when he emigrated to the United States the word “America” meant little more to her than “Odessa.” She was ten years old when he left, and it was three more years before he could earn the money to bring his wife and daughters. Their journey through Russia and Germany gave Antin a sense of the bureaucratic traps and barriers faced by poor travelers, and her experience in the Boston public schools opened up a new world of possibilities. She had her first story published in English less than a year after arriving and her first book, From Plotzk to Boston,  in 1899, when she was eighteen.

Antin was an ardent believer in the ideals exemplified by Lazarus’s poem and The Declaration of Independence,  and as an activist for women’s education and immigrant rights she fought to make her fellow citizens live up to them. When her memoir became a best-seller, she followed with a book-length polemic: They Who Knock at Our Gates: A Complete Gospel of Immigration.

Antin began this book by asking “a question of principle”: “Have we any right to regulate immigration?” Her response was that it was meaningful simply to ask that question, and that the answer should not be taken for granted. She then got down to particulars, concluding that some limits make sense for reasons of public health or safety, but only the sort that could equitably be placed on the movement of US citizens within the country:

Has, then, the newest arrival the same rights as the established citizen? According to the Declaration, yes; the same right to live, to move, to try his luck. More than this he does not claim at the gate of entrance; with less than this we are not authorized to put him off.

I have rarely heard that idea expressed in recent years, but in 1914 it was still relatively common. The concepts of rights and controls based on citizenship and solid nation-state borders were still in their infancy, and modern readers will find her next passage surprising:

We do not question the right of an individual foreigner to enter our country on any peaceable errand; why, then, question the rights of a shipload of foreigners? Lumping a thousand men together under the title of immigrants does not deprive them of their humanity and the rights inherent in humanity; or can it be demonstrated that the sum of the rights of a million men is less than the rights of one individual?

Before World War I, people routinely crossed national and imperial borders without identification documents — hence all the stories of family names that were changed in the process. The crossings could be fraught: Antin’s family was stopped at the Russian-German border by an official who insisted they would have to upgrade their transatlantic ship tickets or pay a heavy indemnity, and it took a long day’s finagling before they made it through. But the modern world of passports and national identities was still being formed, and Antin was fighting not only to prevent the imposition of new limitations but the normalization of new ideas we now take for granted.

She had some notable blind spots: while staunchly defending the rights and virtues of Jews, Italians, Hungarians, and Greeks, she seemed unaware that Asians had been barred from entering the US either en masse or individually since 1882. She wrote a few passages about race that still resonate:

Some people see no indication of the future in the fact that race-blending has been going on here from the beginning of our history, because the elements we now get are said to differ from us more radically than the elements we assimilated in the past. To allay our anxiety on this point, we have only to remind ourselves that none of the great nations of Europe that present such a homogeneous front to-day arose from a single stock…

But what Antin meant by “different races” was the varied European stocks, with perhaps some leavening from the Middle East — none of her books mentions African Americans, and a contemporary reviewer in the African Methodist Episcopal Church Review described her memoir as “a paean of triumph not only of Mary Antin, but of the many other millions (provided they be not black) who have poured into the country from its foundation.”1

Antin did take note of the continent’s original inhabitants, writing that Anglo-American descendants of early settlers cannot “lay claim to the land on the ground of priority of occupation, as long as there is a red man left on the Indian reservations. If it comes to calling names, usurper is an uglier name than alien…” But that passage was directed at white nativists, and the Indians appeared only momentarily as a rhetorical flourish.

Antin was writing from a particular experience, in a particular time, and her limitations reinforce her central argument: Americans have never lived up to the ideals of universal equality or “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but those phrases have nonetheless inspired generations of people around the world to try to make them a reality. Though they were written by a slaveholder who was not thinking of women when he wrote “men,” Antin was insisting they applied to her, and we can similarly assert the relevance of her arguments today. Her books are available on-line, as are tidbits like a newspaper article quoting her upbraiding immigrant bosses for forgetting their roots and mistreating striking garment workers.

And, sad to say, much of what Antin wrote over a hundred years ago remains very relevant. When I hear anti-immigrant politicians argue that newcomers will take jobs away from American workers, and pro-immigrant politicians counter that we need immigrants “to do jobs Americans won’t do,” I recall another passage from They Who Knock at Our Gates:

Those who, like the labor-union lobbyists, point to the empty dinner-pails of American workingmen as a reason for keeping out foreign labor, are no more at fault than the lobbyists of the opposite side, who offer in support of the open-door policy statistics showing the need of rough laborers in various branches of our current material development. All of them are wrong in that they would treat our foreign brothers as pawns on the chessboard of our selfish needs.

Antin was an idealist, and if her prose was sometimes stilted, I still find her writing a valuable tonic. When she called the United States  her “Promised Land,” she did not excuse its failings, but neither would she relinquish that promise:

Show me a million American workingmen out of work, and I fail to see a justification for the exclusion of a million men from other lands who are also looking for a job…. Those who are teaching the American workingman to demand the protection of his job against legitimate alien competition are trampling out the embers of popular idealism, instead of fanning it into a blaze that should transfigure the life of the nation.



Celebrating Illegal Immigration

“Every time you see a cop on the beat, ask yourself what he is protecting, and from who.”
— Malcolm X1

Traveling in Israel, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Haifa’s tourist sites include a museum celebrating illegal immigration. It’s actually called the Clandestine Immigration and Naval Museum, but they aren’t fussy about the nomenclature: the book they sell in the gift shop, published by the Israeli Ministry of Defense, constantly uses the term “illegal immigration” and refers to the people who arrived that way as “illegals.” It describes how some paid sailors to land them surreptitiously, some snuck over the Lebanese border, some arranged fictitious marriages, some overstayed tourist visas… in sum, all the current methods by which people continue to make their way to new countries in defiance of various authorities.

In light of recent headlines I was particularly struck by the museum’s film of illegal immigrants throwing metal cans at British soldiers who were trying to keep them from landing in Palestine (from which I shot a photo sequence):

I’ve written about the similar exhibit and film at the Atlit Detention Center museum, and welcome the reminder that not long ago my relatives were not only sneaking across borders, but facing uniformed soldiers with nothing but what they could throw, and exulting in making at least that show of resistance. That reminder is particularly relevant today, when descendants of those brave “illegals” have elected a government that is increasingly notorious for building walls, policing borders, and violently repelling anguished refugees who want to come home to Palestine.

This sort of turnabout is often described as ironic… but the sad fact is it’s normal. When people get a taste of power or put on uniforms, they tend to behave like people with power and uniforms. When people have a nation-state, they tend to assume the right — and often the necessity — to guard its borders. And, by contrast, when people don’t and are desperate they throw whatever they can throw and damn the consequences.

So I’m not calling it ironic, but it is an obvious reminder that what seems heroic when you’re on one side can seem very different when you’re on the other, and vice-versa. And I’m glad all the museums  and historical sites use the word “illegal,” because although I understand why some people prefer euphemisms like “undocumented” and “unauthorized,” the reality is that governments make laws to protect some people from other people — and when you argue that the people you support are not criminals, you are arguing that other people can justifiably be labeled that way.

History and fiction are full of stories of brave outlaws and we all can think of actions, past and present, that have been both heroic and illegal – as well as arguably pointless, like throwing tin cans at a destroyer full of British soldiers or boxes of tea into Boston Harbor.  When it comes to border-crossers, the judgment of history and myth is identical and clear: there are no heroic narratives of repelling migrants – when anti-immigrant pundits  compare their country to a crowded lifeboat, the metaphor emphasizes at least a feigned  regret and no one pretends there is anything heroic about beating back drowning swimmers.

Myths of heroic outlawry often founder on close examination — the rebels and outlaws celebrated in song and story turn out to have killed, raped, abused, and behaved horrifically not only to oppressors but to innocent unfortunates who happened to cross their paths. But the same can be said of every army and most governments — no rebel band has ever racked up a toll of victims that matches the worst horrors of official troops and police –- and the fact that myths are idealizations does not make them meaningless.

The Israeli contrast –narratives of desperate Jewish refugees throwing cans at soldiers seventy years ago, told to rally support for Jewish soldiers shooting desperate refugees throwing stones today – is particularly striking because the time and space are so compressed. But the essential contrast is so familiar as to be almost universal: virtually all national narratives include brave struggles against oppressive governments, and few governments maintain their power for long with clean hands.

There are many possible morals here, and I’m not pretending the answers are easy or uncomplicated. But one cannot simultaneously stand up for the oppressed and defend the rule of law, because the oppressors are almost always lawmakers and all of us can come up with examples of unjust laws and people who have heroically resisted them.

There are also whole classes of laws that are inherently unjust, including the many laws that trap people in desperate situations because of accidents of birth or nationality. Regarding the Israel-Palestine situation, I have spoken with Israelis who think I am hopelessly naive, or accuse me of switching sides, or argue it is so complicated that the the sides are hard to define. I likewise know Americans and Europeans who feel they can’t choose sides, and don’t see a direct parallel to their own countries. But I keep coming back to those overlapping images from past and present, and thinking the people guarding borders against desperate immigrants are always on the same side, whoever and wherever they may be.



Ironies of Illegal Immigration

As I write, Israeli troops are massed on the no man’s land separating Israel from Gaza, shooting tear gas grenades and live ammunition at Palestinian refugees who are gathered on the other side, throwing rocks, burning tires, and seeking to breech the barriers and send thousands of men, women and children across.

The pictures and news reports are eerily reminiscent of films, photographs, and personal testimonies displayed and celebrated in Israeli museums and on historical markers like the one on the hill above Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, which honors the 85,000 “illegal immigrants” who “attempted to enter the country, breaking through the maritime and land blockade,” making “a vital contribution to the growth of the Jewish Yishuv, and to its struggle for an independent state.”

In Tel Aviv, the museum of the Hagganah, the Jewish army that faced British and Arab forces in the late 1940s, has a display honoring “Ha’apala – Clandestine (Illegal) Immigration, 1934-1944,” and two museums of the Etzel, the more radical Jewish underground, likewise celebrate the brave men and women who smuggled Jewish refugees into Palestine, defying the British army and even the Haggana, which in some periods helped the British, much as the Palestinian Authority’s police now work with Israeli forces to control illegal migration from the West Bank.

The most striking celebrations of illegal Jewish immigration are further north: the Atlit Detention Camp south of Haifa has been turned into an outdoor museum where tourists can learn about the Ha’apala or Aliya BetAliya being the Hebrew word for Jewish immigration to Palestine, and Bet the first letter of bilti-legalit, “illegal” – and Haifa has a Museum of Clandestine Immigration run by the Israeli Ministry of Defense.

The guidebook sold in the museum shop describes the various ways Jewish immigrants made their way into Palestine in the 1920s and ’30s — some paying sailors to land them surreptitiously, some sneaking over the Lebanese border, some arranging fictitious marriages, some overstaying tourist visas. The central exhibit space is a ship that was used to bring more than 400 Jewish refugees from Europe in 1947. A documentary film, screened in the bowels of the ship, tells how it almost made it to Palestine without being detected, but eventually was spotted by a British plane, then overtaken by a destroyer.

Itzak Belfer, one of the passengers, describes how the British troops were massed on the deck of the destroyer, and someone brought up boxes of tin cans to throw at the soldiers. One of the men commanding the ship for the Palyam, the Jewish rebel navy, recalls: “We told them to give the British a hard time — to resist, to throw things, not let them board the ship, and maybe we could make it to the shore.”

The British soldiers began to board, and Belfer, his voice thrilling at the memory, recalls throwing the cans of food at them: “That kind of can, when someone throws it, it can do a lot of damage.” Then the Palyam man on the ship’s bridge angrily turned the wheel and rammed their boat into the destroyer. “We were all knocked down,” Belfer says, but “We all felt like… ‘We did it! We showed them!’”

At the Atlit refugee camp, in a similar ship, a more theatrical film shows actors recreating a nighttime shipboard battle, throwing cans and fighting hand-to-hand as a brave young woman climbs the mast to wave the flag of the potential Israeli state:

Leaving the ship, I had a brief conversation with the young Israeli woman who was serving as a guide in lieu of her regular military service. I was curious if she made the same connection I did, and prompted her with a leading comment:

“I have to say those films of the Jews throwing things at soldiers remind me of what I’m seeing in the newspapers now.”

“Yes,” she replied, smiling. “It’s amusing that history does repeat itself.”


“I find the irony amusing, that we keep doing the same.”

“I’d like to think we could do better.”

“Yes, me too. But apparently we can’t.”