Friday, August 21, 2009

Israel, First Thoughts

I just got back from a trip to Israel and the West Bank and I am finding myself afraid to write anything on my blog. When it comes to Israel all rational debate seems to evaporate and emotion takes over. I'm afraid to write about anything, knowing the issues that govern all of society there are based on a complicated history that I only know a little bit about. I am afraid to make sweeping generalizations and be wrong about some aspect of what I say and have someone jump on me for it.

I HATE this feeling. Its why I have avoided this area for so long. I generally try to be a rational observer of places I visit. I go on trips where I meet many different voices and sides of an issue and then I try to share what I hear with all of you. Of course I come at issues from a certain point of view, but I enjoy reasoned debate and frank conversations. I don't like feeling bullied to be quiet. I have observed many people before me make a comment or two and been verbally beaten into submission by voices that don't necessarily make sense but definitely are louder and block others out.

I know many of you enjoy my observations so it would not be fair to not write them down and for those who don't like what I have to say, please go easy on me. Some of my best friends are Jewish (wink wink). Really. Gosh, even my dad and step dad and just about all my neighbors... I don't want to be written off as anti-semetic. Perhaps its because I see the wonderful liberal Jews on the Upper West Side who have spent their lives working for justice and I know Israel could be a different place if those were the ideals that formed the basis of the Israeli government's philosophy.

So now I will speak...

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Photos from Israel and the West Bank

Photos from Israel and the West Bank
Click above link

Photos of Faces from the West Bank

Photos of Faces of the West Bank
Click above link

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Images from the Jerusalem

The Wailing Wall or Western Wall in Old City Jerusalem. The holiest site for Jews

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is built around what is believed to be the site of Christ's crucifiction, burial and resurrection
Dome of the Rock, an important Muslim holy site in Old City Jerusalem

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Thoughts from the West Bank

I just got back from a two week study tour of the West Bank. During the trip we spent our days traveling around the West Bank to all the major cities including Bethlehem, Ramallah, Nablus, Hebron, Jenin as well as a few small villages whose livelihood has been affected by the Wall... We met with human rights organizations, advocacy groups, as well as other groups that work to bring Israelis and Palestinians together to find mutual interests and understanding. We visited and even stayed overnight in a refugee camp in Bethlehem, stayed with a Palestinian family and generally immersed ourselves in the deep complicated issues of this conflict.

Prior to this I was someone who sort of ignored this conflict. It was too complicated and emotional and I just didn't dare have much of an opinion. As is my way, if I am going to start exploring an issue I like to do it first hand. I find it amazing how much information my brain is able to absorb when I am on the ground in a country. Trips like this one make a participant face directly the cold hard facts of war and, in this case, ongoing occupation.

No matter how many news stories I have probably seen about war, (and even other conflicts I have seen first hand Nicaragua in the 80s, Afghanistan in 2006, the fading oppression of the Soviet Empire in the 80s...) Nothing hit me like a walk through Hebron in the southern West Bank. Sites like military checkpoints in the middle of the city, military guard posts on the top on buildings, barbed wire blocking corridors in the market area, Jewish settlers walking through with big guns strapped on their backs, graffiti of Jewish stars hostily painted across shuttered Palestinian shops (reminding me of the swastikas that were used against Jews in the past.), spray paint covering Arabic wording on signs in the Arabic part of town
(Perhaps part of a larger effort by Jewish settlers to stop the use of Arabic in all signs in the West Bank), an empty road guarded by Israeli military with yellow lines down the center that guides the Jewish settlers to their settlements so that they don't have to stray into the Palestinian streets. And the worst was that the alleys of the market have to have wire mesh over them so that Palestinian shoppers below don't get hit with the garbage, 2x4s, and anything else the Jewish settlers on the above floors can find to throw. (I honestly can't even begin to express the horror of this sight.)

And then there were the stories we heard first hand of harassment by patrolling Israeli Defense Force soldiers, a random killing of the brother of a Palestinian women we met when he came into the city for milk for his child and was shot right through the door of his car, forced curfews that lasted days without letting Palestinians leave their house. People prevented from attending school, going to work and basically living.

I've been trying to figure out why this felt so much worse than other places. All I can think of is that this is not really a time of war that will come to an end, instead this is the reality of daily life that Palestinians face. Walking in Hebron brought me straight to the images of Jewish ghettos during the holocaust. And although Hebron felt more directly painful, all Palestinians live with varying degrees of these harassments. This daily oppression, humiliation and persecution affects every aspect of their lives. In the first days of my trip I kept thinking that although walls and check points are terrible and that reducing the freedom of movement for a whole sector of society is not right, I believed people would eventually get used to it. After seeing Hebron, I felt the roots of anger. I can definitely see where the defiance comes from. You just can't take people's freedom and dignity away and not expect to feel a lasting terrible price and the insecurity Israeli's feel is that price.

All of this made me really sad. I have spent many days visiting the sights of empty ghettos in Europe and the grounds of Auschwitz and gone to many holocaust museums. I have heard over and over about the wrongs that have been done to Jews. I have seen the damage from antisemitism over and over and I really want to believe Israel is a possible dream. But what I can't wrap my head around is how people who have been so wronged could turn around and do the same thing to the people who lived in Palestine in the early 1900's when the Zionist dream began to become a reality? After being forced to live in ghettos, how could Jews come in and move Palestinians into ghettos and take their property? After being so persecuted for their beliefs how could they then do that to others?

As with all these types of issues, the reasons are deep and hard to understand. The roots can't be pinpointed easily, but the reality of today is NOT right and it is not right to tolerate it. The part that troubles me the most is that the USA is an active participant in this conflict. Our hands are covered with blood from both sides as we play the middleman ineffectively. We have a history of saying one thing and doing another. Last year, Parade Magazine (as neutral a source as I could think of) says we gave Israel $2.4 billion, almost 10% of our entire foreign aid budget. We supply aid for weapons and pay for the some of the ugliest parts of the occupation. Currently we are funding the building of roads all over the West Bank that connect the Jewish settlements to the Green Zone, the Jewish Israeli borders and to Jerusalem. Often they are built under the idea they will also help Jews and Palestinians get around the increasingly overcrowded the West Bank and are paid for under the allocated Palestinian aid and then when they are complete, access is closed to Palestinians by blocking the Palestinian access roads with piles of rocks, gates and even with walls. Systematically Israel has let 305,000 settlers move into the West Bank even though its been deemed illegal under international law and condemned by the UN. The US closes its eyes as every hilltop is developed into settlements, making a two state solution impossible, since all those Jewish settlers won't live under Palestinian rule even though they have decided to move into Palestinian land as defined by international law. The US watched as Israel built the "separation barrier" that directly annexed 28% of the land previously defined as the West Bank. The wall cuts Palestinian farmers off from their lands. It separates families. It cuts off communities. And from my opinion this wall is the thing that will spell Israel's demise. Its one step too unreasonable. No unbiased person can look at it and not see its unjustness.

So in the end, I believe that Israel's security excesses will spell its end. The world will not tolerate these injustices forever and eventually Israel will have to find a better way to deal with the Palestinians. I only wish I could visualize what that end might be.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Taking Portraits of Girls - My New Plan

As most of my readers know, I love taking portraits when I travel. The desire started after six weeks traveling around Europe. I found that when I looked back at my pictures there were lots of pretty buildings but the thing that differentiated each country were the faces and I had no pictures of them. So now I boldly engage with as many people as I can when I travel so I can bring the richness of those faces back to you.

Unfortunately on my recent trip to Israel I felt like I was not allowed to take any pictures of people. Every ask was denied. Its not that there aren't wonderful faces there. Gosh, I could spend a lifetime looking at the peyos on small Hasidic children and the long beards on some of their men. And as you probably have noticed I have and admiration and fascination with the Islamic veil. In the West Bank, women wear colorful, decorated and gracefully wrapped veils, that were different from the other places I have been.

Usually I can always count on children to let me photograph them. Boys love to ham around and make funny faces, but on the West Bank, even many of those faces evaded me. While some boys allowed it, girls always said no.
Because of this, I tried a new tactic: how about giving girls my camera to take pictures of me with them or for them to take pictures of each other? At first they were reticent and then the magic clicked. Somehow when girls were taking pictures of girls the shyness fell away. And thankfully I have these photos of beautiful Palestinian girls in the Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem and the Jenin refugee camp to share with you.

As always I wish I could bring all these bright girls back home with me and expose them to the opportunities I've had, but in lieu of that at least I hope you can see the sparkle in their eyes and think of them when you hear about Palestinians and the painful world they live in.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The story of photos continues...

The night we took most of the pictures in my previous post, we stayed in the Dneisha Refugee Camp in Bethlehem. While we were eating dinner suddenly the air filled with wild party music and fireworks started popping into the nearby sky. It seemed clear that something was going on and that clearly meant I should go try to enjoy the action. Sue, my travel roommate, and I promptly set out to find the party. We walked about a block and when we turned the corner to follow the lights and sounds, we found a huge party in the street. As I looked around and sized up the situation I noticed we were the only women among hundreds of dancing men. A quick thought went through my mind about whether it was appropriate for us to be there, but luckily before I had to think much about it I was approached by a kind looking gentleman. He pointed towards a building with a blowing sheet over the entrance and asked if we would like to go in the woman's tent. Before we knew it we were swept into a room with hundreds of Palestinian women dancing, chatting and celebrating a wedding. As you can imagine, our entrance made a splash. At first I fingered the small bag of candies I had been handed right away as a party favor and wondered what I had gotten myself into. Luckily right there in the back of the room was my little budding photographer friend and her family. Within moments they cleared seats for us and invited us into their little circle. Between dances, of which there were many!, we sat with our friends.

As soon as we sat down, our friend asked if she could see my camera and look at the pictures she had taken and show the rest of her family. Quickly the story changed to something much more substantial in the spirit of the occupation. After they looked at the photos they had taken they started flipping through all my shots. In that digital card I had all my photos from the last few days of the my trip (about 300 shots) These included all the shots I had taken on our walking tour of Old City Jerusalem. Under the current occupation travel to Jerusalem is wildly restricted for Palestinians without work permits or residential permits for Jerusalem. Although Bethlehem is only about 15 minutes driving distance from Jerusalem, the Wall, check points and the harassment they bring makes the trip hours long even if you are granted a permit, something you must plan months ahead to try to get. This means that most Palestinians have never been to Jerusalem to see the historical and religious sites there, including the Dome of the Rock, the third most holy place for Muslims. So as they clicked through my pictures they got very excited. I watched the mom point and explain to the kids what things were. Along the way they stopped and asked who people were and what places were.

At that moment, even in a very joyous party that had transported me far from the disturbing issues I had been seeing first hand on this trip, I felt very sad for a group of people who are being forcibly separated from their land, history and culture.

P.S. Unfortunately photo taking was strictly forbidden so I will have to live with the memories of hundreds of women dancing and reveling only being in my head.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Faces from Palestine