Category Archives: travels in Israel/Palestine

An Incident in Hebron

I spent my second day in Hebron walking around, taking pictures, getting a better sense of where everything was. I went through a couple of full-scale checkpoints with turnstiles and metal detectors, and others with just a couple of soldiers with automatic rifles, and wherever I went they waved me through with a smile, even when I set off the metal detectors — I was asked my nationality a couple of times and once asked for my passport, but just to see I had one, not to open it and check my photo… because I was obviously a tourist and everybody wants more of those.

So, as I say, I was wandering all over, getting lost, retracing the same streets multiple times, exploring the old city, the Jewish settler area, the hills above… it’s  weird and fascinating, because these inimical populations are completely intertwined, sometimes on different floors of the same house. And no one was bothering me — some people didn’t return my hellos, but the soldiers were consistently polite and cheerful, and when I asked if I could take their picture they said, “Sure, you can do anything you want…”

So then I was up on the hillside above the old city and noticed, walking ahead of me, a couple of white-haired women whom a life in Cambridge, Massachusetts, had equipped me to instantly recognize as committed social activists — in another context I would have asked if they knew my mom. So I went over, said hello, and asked if they could help me understand what I was looking at. They turned out to be Israelis from a group called Machsom Watch (Checkpoint Watch) who had been coming to Hebron a few times a year for 15 years, acting as observers and writing reports on how the situation was changing.

They were very helpful, telling me how things were different in various periods, and we gradually made our way down the hill and back to the street in front of the Ibrahimi Mosque, which I had already walked up and down at least three times. They introduced me to a Palestinian man who runs a souvenir shop there, and while we were chatting the Israeli soldiers who were guarding that end of the street came over from the checkpoint and asked the women who they were and what they were doing. Then the women left to catch their ride back to Tel Aviv, and I had a coffee in the souvenir shop and headed back towards that street in front of the mosque, which was also the street to the hostel where I was staying…

…but this time, the soldiers didn’t just wave me past. They asked where I was from, and took my passport, and told me to stand back while they first examined the identification of a young Muslim woman and asked her a lot of questions. Then they waved her past and asked if I was with those two women they’d seen me with. I said no, and they asked where I was going. I said I was going back to my hostel. They asked, “You are a Jew?” I said yes. They said, “You cannot go here.”

Now, the division of Hebron is complicated even by Israeli/Palestinian standards: the soldiers are very clearly protecting the Israeli settlers from the Palestinian locals, but the current separation followed the killing of 29 Muslims by a Jewish/American/Israeli settler in that very mosque 24 years ago, and since then the mosque part of the building has been kept separate from a smaller section that functions as a synagogue — which is what it was back in Herod’s day, and it has also been a Christian Church, and basically it’s holy to everybody and is the city’s main tourist attraction and I’d already visited it earlier that morning… but for religious purposes, it is firmly divided into Muslim and Jewish sections, with separate entrances on opposite sides to prevent any possible clashes. So OK, there was a logical reason to prevent me, as a Jew, from entering the Muslim side… but, as I say, I’d already walked back and forth down this same street several times, passing this same checkpoint, and had already visited the mosque, and no one had shown the slightest interest in my religious or ethnic identity.

So I explained that I wasn’t going to the mosque, and anyway was not religiously Jewish, and had been wandering back and forth through this same checkpoint for two days, and was just going to my hostel. One of them called their superior on their field phone, chatted briefly, then came back and said, “You are a Jew, you can’t go here.”

I said, “Suppose I say I’m just an American tourist, and not a Jew?”

By now the taller soldier was getting annoyed. Leaning forward, he aggressively  snapped: “Are you a Jew?!”

I said, “My great-grandparents were Jewish, but I’ve never been religious… so if I say I’m not Jewish can I go through?”

He called again to ask his superior, then said, “If you are Muslim or Christian, you can go here, but Jews have to go there…” gesturing to the other entrance.

I said, “But I’m not going in this building at all, I’m just walking back down the street to the old city.”

He said, louder than ever, “Are you a Jew? If you are a Jew you can’t go here.”

The conversation was obviously not going to change, I had no particular reason to go back the same way I’d come, and I was not accomplishing anything by continuing to argue. So I decided to explore the alternatives: “OK, how else can I get back to the old city?” The taller soldier gestured that I could go around through the Jewish area, or around the back of the mosque.

I walked up the dirt road that led behind the mosque, into a thoroughly Arab neighborhood, wandered up dirt roads and down alleys, asked a couple of people for directions, and eventually wound my way down to the other end of the same street in front of the mosque… where another pair of soldiers who hadn’t seen me consorting with elderly Israeli peace observers waved me through with a smile. So that was that. I walked back through the market, bought a handful of almonds and a falafel sandwich with roast eggplant, hot pepper sauce, and pickled vegetables, retrieved my guitar and pack from the hostel, and caught a minibus to Bethlehem.

Make of it what you will.

Walls, Terrorism, and Theater of Fear

Most  people who oppose building a wall on the US-Mexico border think it is  unnecessary, harmful to wildlife, and sends a terrible, xenophobic message about what the United States has become. All of which is true, but also beside the point—which is that it will not have much effect on migration or drug trafficking, but will make Americans less aware and more frightened of the world outside.

I didn’t understand that until I spent a month traveling in Israel and the West Bank. I had heard about the wall there, both from supporters of the Israeli government who credit it with ending terrorist bombings and from supporters of the Palestinians who see it as an instrument for grabbing Palestinian land, dividing Palestinian farmers from their fields, making life difficult for Palestinians who need to cross into Israel, and reminding Palestinians that they are trapped and isolated.

Indeed, I had heard so much about the wall as a hardship and barrier that I was startled when I got to the West Bank and found young men constantly telling stories of climbing over it—to visit friends and family, find jobs, or just go to a party or a concert. Many of them laughed and talked about it like a teenage rite of passage. Not all had made the trip themselves, but all had friends who had, and some had done it multiple times. “It just costs twenty dollars,” one told me. “You pay a guy, and he puts a ladder up on this side and throws a rope to climb down the other side.” Returning is no problem, because there are no controls in the other direction.

Of course, the wall does keep most Palestinians from crossing easily: families, older people, women, children—anyone who doesn’t want to climb a wall and take a chance on being arrested, who just wants to go shopping or take their kids to the beach or commute to work. And, of course, it’s a problem for anyone carrying luggage or goods, any drivers, ambulances, buses. The only people for whom it’s not a real problem are young, adventurous guys…

…which is to say, the only people for whom it’s not a problem are  the most likely  soldiers, fighters, or troublemakers.

The ease of wall-crossing is not just popular hearsay. Estimates of how many Palestinians enter Israel without going through official checkpoints vary, but all are impressively high—an LA Times story cites the Israeli state comptroller’s guess that “more than 50,000 Palestinian laborers… work in Israel illegally on a daily basis.” (It adds that along with climbing over the wall, many use drainage ditches to get under it or find unfinished or damaged sections.)1 So much for the wall’s function as a “security fence”—the official Israeli term, and the function most Israeli Jews seem genuinely to think it serves.

I want to underline the genuine belief of Jewish Israelis—including those who describe themselves as liberal and sympathetic to the Palestinians—that the wall is protecting them from terrorist attacks. Even a lot of people who think the wall is harmful and counterproductive in the long term believe this. Excepting an exceptional few who have spent time on the West Bank—something most Israeli Jews believe is terribly dangerous—none I met had heard of young men crossing illegally by the thousands, or met Palestinians who talked about their adventures making that trip. Since Israeli Jews tend to be very knowledgeable about their country’s history and politics, and to think a lot about how they might possibly, eventually come to some kind of stable situation regarding the Palestinians, this at first surprised me. But then it occurred to me that I had not understood why the wall is there.

My revelation came on a bus from Ramallah to Bethlehem: leaving one city and entering the other, the wall was a towering cement barrier, two stories high. But out in the countryside it gave way to a much less imposing fence of razor wire punctuated with cameras and motion sensors. Given all the stories of Palestinian climbers, I would not be surprised if these less imposing stretches are actually a more effective barrier—but the towering concrete wall is far more impressive, and it struck me that its massive ugliness is no accident. Its size and weight are a constant reminder to Israeli Jews of the horrors lurking on the other side, the enemies so fearsome that mere wire cannot keep them out. It is theater; theater of fear.

It is also a theater curtain, making the stage invisible to the audience. The media carry stories every day of confrontations, raids, attacks, and killings in the West Bank, and most Israeli Jews see only that news and the wall—so it is easy to think of the wall as protecting them from what is on the news, rather than from busy markets, crowded streets, children playing, people going to and from work, and all the normal bustle of normal Palestinian life.

This is not just a Middle Eastern story. Europe and the United States are being swept by a wave of what is broadly mischaracterized as “populism,” but more accurately is politics of fear. Leaders who have nothing positive to offer the mass of voters are relying on paranoia—deflecting worries about declining incomes and a deteriorating planet towards threats from the less fortunate, the foreign, the different. The standard name for this tactic is “divide and conquer,” and what better way to divide than with a towering wall?

Opponents of the US-Mexico wall sometimes point out that it is less popular with voters who actually live near the border than with those further away, as if that was odd or ironic—but in fact, it’s normal. People in border towns are constantly interacting with people across the border, so know that they are people, not monsters. But suppose, instead of seeing people on the other side, one just sees a towering wall and terrifying news stories of the mayhem it hides?

Moving back and forth between Israel and the West Bank, it was astonishing how little Israeli Jews knew about daily life on the other side of the wall—I’ve written about some of that in previous posts, but the short version is that although I made no secret of being Jewish I met lots of nice people, made friends, and would strongly recommend that anyone interested in understanding the situation spend some time there. (And I keep specifying “Israeli Jews” because none of this is news to Israeli Muslims and Christians, many of whom cross to the West Bank regularly to shop, visit, or attend university.)

We live in a world of airplanes, drones, rockets, and mass communication. Walls do not protect anybody from serious threats, but they do prevent normal daily interactions—which is to say their function is not to protect us or make us feel safer; it is to increase ignorance and make us more frightened.

Yes, walls built by powerful countries make life somewhat more difficult for people trapped on the other side, but it is a mistake for citizens of those powerful countries who oppose the walls to focus only on the harm they do to others. Building a wall on the US-Mexico border will not actually have much effect on Mexicans or Central Americans, nor is it intended to. It is not a wall around Mexico—it is a wall around the United States. It is not primarily intended to keep “them” out; it is primarily intended to keep “us” ignorant and frightened.

That is the real terrorist threat: not the few fanatics who might potentially hurt some of us, but the powerful people on our side of the walls who want to control us all with a politics of fear.


The German Colony of Haifa: A Parable

This is a parable about history, which is constantly reimagined to fit an evolving present.

In Palestinian memory, Haifa holds a central place as the beautiful coastal city from which thousands of families were exiled in 1948. The precise numbers vary depending on one’s source, but roughly 95 percent of the city’s 60-70,000 Muslim and Christian residents fled or were forced from their homes, expecting to return when the fighting ended. Instead, they were barred from reentering what was now the state of Israel, and the survivors and their descendants have been forced to make new lives as best they can in the West Bank, in Jordan, in refugee camps, and in a global diaspora. Some have famously kept the keys to the houses they or their grandparents left – the key has become a symbol of Palestinian return; some tell stories of visiting Haifa in later years, knocking on the doors of their houses and asking the Jewish owners if they could walk through the rooms, see if their family pictures were still on the walls, their rugs still on the floors; others have never set foot in Israel and talk longingly of visiting the places they heard of from their parents or grand-parents.

At the Jenin Freedom Theater, the set designer told me: “My family is from Haifa, but I have seen the ocean only in Australia.” Different people have different narratives, different hopes, different dreams and nightmares, but all Palestinians agree that the Haifans should have the right to return to Haifa, even if not to a particular house; that the Israelis should acknowledge the theft of their homes and land; and that some form of reparation should be paid for the properties that were expropriated, appropriated, stolen, settled…

This Palestinian narrative is familiar to anyone who knows anything about the birth of the Israeli state – including Israelis who tell it quite differently, as a narrative of liberation and homecoming, of Arab treachery and flight, and of empty homes justifiably used to settle survivors of the Nazi holocaust. Which is why I was startled by an informational sign on Ben Gurion Avenue in Haifa telling “Die Geschichte der deutschen Kolonie/The German Colony Story,” and in particular about the Templars, a German Protestant group that settled there in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

The sign tells the Templars’ story in Hebrew, German, English, and Arabic, and I was struck by two details: First, it describes young members of the Haifa colony “being recruited into the German army” in World War II and others “expelled to Australia and Germany, some of them in exchange for Jews who were trapped in wartorn Europe.” Second, “through a reparations agreement between the State of Israel and the Federal Republic, the German colonists were compensated for their loss of property.”

That second detail caught me completely off-guard: of all the people who left Haifa in the 1940s – voluntarily and not – and had their property expropriated, the only ones compensated for their loss were Germans who in many case supported and fought for the Third Reich. It isn’t even a secret; it’s explained on a tourist marker in four languages, including Arabic – which remains a standard language for local signage.1

I had recently been traveling on the West Bank, so was particularly attuned to the issue of expropriation without compensation, and only later was struck by the weirdness of detail number one: the descriptions of the local Germans as “being recruited,” suggesting it was not their own idea to go home and fight for the Nazis; the lack of any reference to Nazis; and the mention of Jews who “were trapped” (in passive voice, with no one doing the trapping) in “wartorn Europe” – which could presumably mean anyplace from Leningrad to London, though these particular Jews were trapped in the German concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen.2

A little research establishes that the Templars were closely connected to the National Socialists (Nazis) and their role was far from passive. In Nazis in the Holy Land 1933-1948, Heidemarie Wawrzyn writes that with only two exceptions “the entire NS leadership in Palestine was recruited from the Temple Society.” 3 Karl Ruff, an architect born to Templar parents in Haifa in 1904, made contact with the German Nazis in 1931, two years before Hitler came to power, and helped form a core of support that grew into a full-blown Palestinian branch by 1933. A year later, Ludwig Buchhalter, a teacher at the Templar school in Jerusalem, was active in getting the German consul removed from office for having a Jewish wife, arguing “a person who has relations with Jewish circles cannot be loyal to German interests…”4 There are numerous reports of joint Nazi-Templar events, including marches in uniform through Jerusalem carrying swastika flags. Some historians try to downplay this by noting that only 20-30 percent of Templars became members of the NS, but that is at least double the highest rate of Nazi party membership in Germany.

Exploring this story, I was increasingly puzzled by the euphemistic wording of that sign — in Israel, of all places — and  the idea that Israel compensated a substantially Nazi population for lost property in a city famous for the mass seizure of homes and refusal to even discuss compensation.

The official logic of the compensation was that it was a relatively minor detail in the agreement for much larger monetary reparations being paid by Germany to Israel. That larger project was ferociously opposed by many people – not only Germans hesitant to pay but also Israelis irate at the idea of taking money from Germany and non-Israeli Jews irate at the idea of Israel accepting money in the name of world Jewry. Nonetheless a reparations agreement was signed in 1952 and included a side deal to compensate the Templars, though that part remained a touchy subject and only in 1965 did Israel agree to pay them $14,400,000. The final agreement was signed in Sydney, the Australian government having labored assiduously on behalf of the Germans who had been resettled there.5

Obviously, the Arab exiles from Haifa were in a very different situation: they had no government making a major reparations deal to which they could be a footnote; there were far more of them, meaning any compensation agreement would put Israel on the hook for far more money; and they had no major Western power on the level of Australia or Germany backing their claim. (There is a report of one Palestinian-American, Khalil Totah, appealing to the US government to help him get compensation for his seized lands, but I have not been able to confirm the details and in any case it led nowhere.)6

More to the point, history is written in the present: the Arab exiles are still regarded by Israeli officialdom as the enemy, and remembering them as legitimate residents of Haifa would make problems both for a government that regards their claims as a continuing threat and for all the people now living in their houses. By contrast, it is easy to understand why many current residents would like to think of Haifa as a city that was always European.

There has always been a deep cultural affinity between Ashkenazi Jews and their fellow Europeans, and before the Nazi period a particular affinity for German culture. Ashkenazi was the medieval Hebrew word for “German,” and Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, famously proposed German as the national language of Israel. 7 The Templar colony of Sarona, established in 1871 just north of the Arab city of Jaffa, preceded the first Jewish settlement in what is now Tel Aviv and pioneered the export of Jaffa oranges. Now a thriving, upscale neighborhood, Sarona has a museum tracing the history of the German settlement, which includes a room devoted to the Nazi period, but also photos and memorabilia of the early German colonists, their lovely houses, and their fertile farms.

Searching for more information on the Haifa story, I found another historical marker in “The German Colony Story,” which – again in all four languages – presents “The Contribution of the Templar’s Generation of Founders” in terms that strikingly mimic the Zionist settler narrative:

In the middle of a sparsely populated and largely barren land, laboring under deficient rule, hundreds of German settlers characterized by great energy, resourcefulness, religious fervor and a variety of professional backgrounds, established a garden city unlike any that existed in the country until then. Outside the Haifa city walls, a boulevard sprang up stretching from the foot of the hills to the sea. It was lined with gardens and homes, remarkable for their beauty.

In 1869 Haifa still trailed Akko (Acre) as a regional port, and the Templars made key contributions to the city’s development, bringing modern machinery and agricultural techniques. Nonetheless, they were never more than a tiny fraction of the local population: by the mid-1880s Haifa was home to about 300 Germans and 6,000 Arabs – variously called “Syrians” or “natives” in contemporary reports – including a substantial class of “wealthy merchants or large landed proprietors,” notable for their fluency in French or Italian and their Parisian furniture and fashions (albeit wearing the fez rather than European hats).8 Which is to say the Germans helped establish Haifa as a large and beautiful “garden city,” but that city was overwhelmingly populated by Arab/Palestinians, who built and owned many of the lovely homes and maintained much of the commercial life.

By the turn of the twentieth century Haifa’s population had expanded to 20,000, now including about a thousand Jews, mostly from Morocco and Algeria. It became a major site of European Jewish immigration after World War I, and by the mid-1940s slightly over half the city’s 128,000 residents were Jews. The rest were still mostly Arab/Palestinians — and would shortly be gone. By the end of the fighting in 1948 the total population had shrunk by a quarter, and 96 percent were Jewish.9

Today, Haifa’s population is about 80 percent Jewish and 11 percent Arab/Palestinian,10 which, depending on one’s perspective, can be framed as pleasantly diverse or the enduring result of ethnic cleansing. And that brings me back to those German Colony historical markers.

Israel and Germany are now allies, Haifa is celebrated as a model of multicultural coexistence, and those markers in the heart of the old port provide a nice history to match its current image: once largely barren and sparsely populated, Haifa was settled by industrious Germans who founded a unique garden city, planted vineyards and olive groves, created new industries, and built a power station and a regional transport system. In 1902 Theodor Herzl’s utopian novel, Altneuland, envisioned this European outpost as the economic center of a future land of Israel, and it soon became a magnet for Jewish settlement. Eventually global politics forced the Germans to leave, but they were paid proper compensation and Haifa today is a lovely, cosmopolitan center, a perfect blend of European civilization and Middle Eastern charm. The Arab population remains relatively sparse numerically, but continues to thrive, a vibrant community with popular nightclubs, restaurants, and a rich arts scene.

It is a pleasant history and reasonably accurate, as long as one sticks to a particular perspective, is careful about one’s language, and ignores unpleasant details.



A Tale of Two Signs

In the Jewish settler area of Hebron, an apparent ghost town of closed shops, houses populated by Palestinians who are forbidden to use their front doors or drive on the streets, and Israelis who seem to live almost entirely indoors or in walled courtyards, a series of informative signs trace the history and current situation of “Jews” in Hebron.

I put the word “Jews” in quotation marks because in this instance I’m quoting a particular sign I photographed, which describes the city’s “large, thriving commercial and shopping centers, off-limits to Jews…” The stress on “large” and “thriving” underlines the point that, although 3% of Hebron’s physical area — the urban center of the southern West Bank — is off-limits to the city’s 200,000 Palestinian residents (both Muslim and Christian), with checkpoints manned by soldiers to enforce that prohibition, the remaining 97% of the city is open to Palestinians and off-limits to Jews…

…except, in fact, it isn’t off-limits to Jews. Like all the other Palestinian cities, which are classified as “Area A,”1 most of Hebron is off-limits to Israelis, but open to Jews of all other nationalities — along with Muslims, Christians, Samaritans, atheists, and people of any other faith, or lack of faith. I was staying in a hotel in the thriving city center, eating in crowded restaurants, wandering the bustling streets, being importuned by eager merchants — and no one ever suggested that my being Jewish was an issue.

Even when a pair of Israeli soldiers stopped me at a checkpoint, asked my religion, and refused to let me pass because I was Jewish, they were preventing me from walking down the one-block, non-commercial street in front of the Ibrahimi mosque and directing me to go around by side streets to the city center.

The misleading wordplay is not the only problem with this sign — the elision of the city’s most famous terrorist attack, by a Jewish gunman at the mosque, might take precedence there2 — but I found it particularly striking because it so clearly conflicted with my own experience. By the time I reached Hebron I’d been on the West Bank for a week, talking with lots of people, including ardent Palestinian nationalists, and routinely identifying myself as Jewish (because I didn’t want anyone to think I was hiding that detail). Without exception, everyone responded that their problem was with Israelis or with Zionists, but not with Jews – as always in Muslim countries, I was treated to explanations of how Muslims, Jews, and Christians are all “people of the book,” and since this region has a particularly strong consciousness of the three religions’ historical coexistence, I was regaled with stories of Jewish friends and neighbors and in a couple of cases of Jewish relatives. So I was intensely aware that simply being Jewish does not get anyone barred from Palestinian cities.

There’s plenty more to be said about all of that, but for a start it got me thinking about the ubiquitous signs marking entrances to “Area A.” For people unfamiliar with the region’s odd divisions: the West Bank is often described as Palestinian territory, but only the urban areas, comprising a bit less than 20% of the total land, are under direct Palestinian control. Those are the scattered pockets classified as Area A, which Israelis are forbidden to enter (except soldiers, who enter them daily to conduct raids and arrests). Area B, accounting for another 20% of the West Bank, includes smaller Palestinian towns and villages, and is under Palestinian civil control with joint Palestinian/Israeli police/military control, and likewise barred to Israelis. The remaining 60% (actually, a bit more) is under full Israeli civil and military control; this includes the settlements, virtually all the unsettled countryside, and most of the main roads, all of which are open to Israelis – hence the signs at highway exits leading to any Palestinian city, town, or village warning Israeli drivers it is dangerous and illegal to go there.

Or maybe that should be “Israeli” drivers…

As I rode buses around the West Bank, I noticed that highway exits routinely have these signs warning Israelis that entering Area A is “dangerous to your lives” and “against the Israeli law” and many exits have checkpoints manned by soldiers controlling who can pass – but they are rarely if ever the same exits. The military checkpoints are at exits leading to Jewish settlements, to prevent Palestinians from taking those roads, while nothing but the signs prevents Israelis from entering areas A and B.

Since anyone could simply drive past the signs and no one ever checked my identification papers while traveling in the West Bank, I began asking Israelis if they bothered to follow the rules. At first I was asking Jewish Israelis, and overwhelmingly they said they did. Even the activists of Machsom [Checkpoint] Watch said they tended to stay in the areas allowed to them, and I was given to understand that only the most radical leftists traverse the boundaries…

…but then I was in Nazareth, a city of non-Jewish Israelis (variously identifying as Arab Israelis or Palestinian Israelis), and got to talking with a young woman who mentioned that everyone goes shopping in Jenin, the northernmost West Bank city, which is less than thirty kilometers away, because prices are much lower than in Israel.

Now, Israel prides itself on being  a democracy with the same laws for all citizens, whatever their religion. And yes, I’d always taken that with several grains of salt, but I still assumed the official signs saying it was illegal for Israelis to go into Area A meant it was illegal for Israelis to go there – not just Israeli Jews. So I asked, “Isn’t it illegal for Israelis to go to the West Bank?”

“Oh, they don’t care if we go there,” the young woman replied.  Then she laughed, and added: “They’d prefer if we’d all go there and stay.”

I took this to mean the laws were enforced selectively or capriciously – a familiar concept, by no means only in Israel – and the signs saying it is illegal for Israelis to enter Area A were routinely flouted by Arab/Palestinian Israelis… until I was doing some background research for this post and stumbled on B’Tselem’s checkpoint page, which includes the regulations for Jalameh checkpoint between Nazareth and Jenin – and read that crossing at Jalameh is forbidden “to Israelis, with the exception of Palestinians who are Israeli citizens.”

So… that suggests Israeli Arabs/Palestinians are in fact allowed into the areas where Israeli Jews are barred. And indeed, that’s the de facto situation… which shouldn’t be confused with de jure. A recent article in Haaretz says Israeli Arabs make up more than half the enrollment at the Arab American University of Jenin (among some 8,000 studying in West Bank universities) and there is a regular bus system between the campus and their homes in northern Israel. Which seems pretty official, until a note confirms what the young woman told me in Nazareth:  “Officially, Israelis are prohibited from entering Area A, but the Israel Defense Forces does not enforce the ban when it comes to Arab citizens.”

Hence, the tale of two signs in the looking-glass world of the West Bank: one saying “Jews,” though in practice it only means Israelis; the other saying “Israelis,” though in practice it only means Jews.


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.



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.”