Saturday, November 24, 2007

Marty Federman's 2007 Visit Journal - Entry # 2

Marty Federman, the co-chair of the Boston Chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, is traveling in Israel and the West Bank. On his trips, he always keeps a journal of what he sees as well as his observations. I have asked for his permission to post each entry on this blog and he gave his approval. For some reason I did not receive Journal 1, but when I do, I will post it.

Journal Entry #2

Wednesday, Nov, 21st, 2007 – The Grand Hotel, Bethlehem (Old City of Jerusalem) ??:?? p.m.

Began our day with an Armenian guide led walking tour of the Old City of Jerusalem.

No matter how often I come back to the Old City I never get tired of exploring it. As soon as we went through the gate I was once again overcome by the transcendent combination of sights, sounds and, especially, smells of this amazing place. The Old City represents a unique conglomeration of tourist site and living neighborhood. I sometime think that people respond to the Old City as if it was some sort of recreation tourist site like Plimouth Plantation or Sturbridge village – and, indeed, there are streets and whole sections that are totally focused on tourists and pilgrims, with shop after shop devoted to an astounding mix of wonderful and totally “touristi” wares. One cannot miss the kind of shops that are filled with mass-produced Christian “icons,” olive wood carvings of every quality and camouflage-patterned Yarmulkes! But then you can turn through one twisted street and suddenly find yourself in the bustling market attend by the people who actually live in the Old City. Shops are teeming with clothes, cosmetics, house wares, home goods, their merchandise spilling out into the narrow pathways. And, of course, there are the endless food shops, since this claustrophobic maze is the supermarket of the Old City. Stall after stall of spices (oh, the color and smell of those spices piled high to be scooped into little plastic bags!), produce of every kind, butchers butchering whole animals just off the street, colorful mounds of every kind of candy imaginable, mountains of exotic baked goods and on and on. Interspersed with all these shops are the other businesses necessary for life in a community like this: computer/internet stores, lawyers, doctors, etc. And, up even narrower streets, winding behind the commercial avenues are the homes and courtyards that have evolved over the centuries to make life in this amazingly limited space livable and comfortable.

Certainly, there is the dissonant presence of individual buildings that have been purchased by Israeli (and American) Jews (most prominently the Israeli flag draped home that Ariel Sharon bought many years ago in order to imprint Israel’s ownership of this place) who project a time when the entire Old City will be the Jewish “Quarter.” That, it seems to me, despite the way things seem to be going is something that will never happen – there is a wonderfully determined life that has existed for millennia here and it is impossible for me to believe that it will be pushed out. But . . . . I should also note that we did not walk through the actual Jewish Quarter, something that I will do after the Bethlehem delegation leaves.

After this walk through the past, we were taken on a bus tour of the all too current East Jerusalem. Our guide was Abu Hassan who has a tour-guide business he calls “Alternative Tours.” This was no objective sight-seeing tour, AbuHassan clearly has an agenda for his trips through the city. As we drove through the hills our guide gave us a continuous commentary about how Israeli policy has expanded the very definition of “Jerusalem” while absorbing land and compressing the Arab Palestinian population into smaller, lesser desirable places. Like elsewhere in the country, there is an incremental process that takes place whose purpose is to slowly – and I think the Israeli government would like to think unnoticed – absorb more and more land while divesting Israel of its non-Jewish population. Large areas were (and apparently continue to be) designated at “Green Spaces,” park-like areas that cannot be developed. After a while, in the context of a conflating of laws taken from Ottoman, British Mandate, Jordanian and Israeli law, the land is designated as abandoned and, what Abu Hassan calls “colonies” are created. Now large areas that were once Palestinian villages and districts have become beautiful neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Pisgat Ze’ev, for instance, is a lovely suburb that is built on what had been the land of the villages of Shefat, Beit Hanoun and Anata. Israelis are encouraged to move to neighborhoods like this with a variety of incentives: An apartment that would call $300,000 in West Jerusalem costs about $100,000 in Pisgat with 30 year mortgages, new buyers are forgiven taxes for five years. Thanks to these incentives there are now almost 200,000 settlers living in 13 “colonies in East Jerusalem. Conversely, while there were 520,000 Palestinians living in East Jerusalem there are now around 260,000. Now, added to this ongoing appropriation of land, the Wall is delineating where people can and can’t be, putting historically Palestine tracts on the “wrong’ side of the Wall. In some places we could see how the Wall has runs through the middle of some villages, sometimes almost touching the homes that are left on the Palestinian side. At one place the Wall actually goes down the middle of the road from Bethlehem to Ramallah and Beit Hanina. It’s difficult to see what it is that the wall is supposed to do when both sides of it are the Palestinian “side” – unless you see it in the context of all the places where more land has been appropriated to build housing for Jewish Israelis

It’s the Wall, stupid
Everywhere one goes around the Jerusalem area the overwhelming presence, physically and psychologically, is “The Wall.” Those who defend and/or justify it will often tell you “well, first of all, only a small percentage is a ‘wall,’ most of it just a ‘fence.’” I will leave a description of what the “fence” sections really are for another time. In and around Jerusalem, however, “it” is unquestionably a “Wall” – 30 foot high slabs of ugly gray concrete cutting off districts, dividing neighborhoods, imprisoning people, squeezing and strangling whole communities. The other justification for this monstrosity is that it is for “security.” It is totally impossible to see the route of the Wall, how it snakes around villages, neighborhoods, even individual houses and not understand that this Wall is not primarily for security. Over and over one hears Palestinians say “OK, Israel wants to build a wall, build a wall – just put it on the Green Line and leave us alone!” It has also been pointed out that when Israel began building the Wall its leaders claimed that it was only to stop terrorists and suicide bombers, and, when that stopped, the Barrier could – and would – be dismantled. Even before that various Palestinian factions (including Hamas) had called a moratorium on attacks against civilians and, now that there have been virtually no suicide attacks Israeli leaders have stopped their earlier statements and now claim that they must continue building the Barrier because we now have the proof that it works! (They fail to point out that there are huge un-walled sections where suicide bombers could easily cross the border if they wanted to.)

Like everything else, the situation around Jerusalem is similar to other places but more so. Given how tight things are and how valuable, not to mention how disputed land is throughout this area, Israel’s relentless push to encircle settlements and “neighborhoods,” squeeze existing Palestinian communities and separate people from people and people from their land is undeniable evidence of a very different – and very well planned and thought out – agenda here. There is, in fact, an open long-range plan for Jerusalem whose projected goal is that, by 2017 there will be no more than 50,000 Palestinians living in “Greater Jerusalem.”

In 2003 I wrote about Robert Frost having written that “there is something that hates a wall.” The situation now is significantly worse – the Wall has gotten longer, gone into more places, has taken more land and disrupted more lives than ever before. Just as with the scores of internal checkpoints, roadblocks and concrete barriers it is impossible to explain what this “barrier” means to the daily lives of children trying to go to school, workers trying to get to there jobs and families trying to visit one another. The “bottom line,” of course, is that the Wall is – and is meant to be - squeezing people out of their neighborhoods and emptying prime areas for other uses.

Thursday, Nov, 22, 2007 – Grand Hotel (Bethlehem) 7:00 p.m.
Got back to the hotel around 6:00 p.m. and I was very surprised because I thought it was around 10:00. This was another one of “those” days.

Bethlehem Municipal City Council
Began this morning after a lovely buffet breakfast, at the Bethlehem City Hall, meeting with the Deputy Mayor George Sa’adeh (the mayor is in Europe) and three of the other 14 councilors (including Duha, the daughter of the Grand Hotel’s owner). After introducing our group Deputy Mayor Sa’adeh gave us an over view of Bethlehem’s current situation. Some of the highlights: Unemployment is over 55% and poverty something over 60%; Life has deteriorated significantly since the Wall went up, effecting all aspects of life in ‘Bethlehem. Travel restrictions have gotten much more difficult – Bethlehemites are only allowed to go to Jerusalem with special passes, city can’t collect taxes, people don’t have any money to spend, etc., etc. We also received a short history of modern Bethlehem with some insights into how things have changed – the relative Christian/Muslim population,

One of the most unsettling terms that was mentioned (and you hear this other places) is the idea of “voluntary transfer,” the euphemistic term used for those who are being squeezed (as the entire population is) and have the means to leave Palestine.

A Local Joke: It’s certain that Palestinians will be able to go to heaven – after figuring out how to get around the West Bank, they can manage to get anywhere! (Shared by our host at the hotel)

Terra Sancta School
The next stop was the Terra Sancta School, a Franciscan school for boys from pre-school through 18 years old (there is an associated girls school near by). Fra. M, the principal, a Franciscan priest, spoke about the school (which has over 1,000 students from all parts of the community around here, Christian and Muslim, well-off and most poor) and its philosophy, which is to “help students grow up in the right way.” He presents himself (and the school) as basically being a-political, which it seems is pretty sincere although he did spend a little time talking about the effect the Wall is having on the school, checkpoints, and the need to find a resolution with Israel. He clearly makes a distinction between “Zionists” and “Jews” and I felt that was very clear and sincere. Interestingly, he stressed the need to define terms and have a common language – and to understand that certain terms (e.g., curfew, closure, etc.) have very different meanings to Palestinians from most Americans. The student body is made up of Christians and Muslims, all of whom are treated the same, both receiving simultaneous “religious classes” separately. The school tries to instill a sense of the “privilege” of coming from Bethlehem in order to help encourage students to stay here. Asked about Christians leaving the Bethlehem area and suggested that this is because of economic reasons, “not because Christians have more money but because “they seek more money.”

The school does a number of “twinnings” with schools in German and italy and is developing one in Sweden. They are very open to developing some relationship with Cambridge – at St. Peter’s or with a public school

Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce
The next meeting raised some very interesting – and somewhat perplexing questions (see “Nothing comes between” below). This was with the head of the Chamber of Commerce for the district around Bethlehem. They are doing a tremendous amount of economic development, especially in light of the decline in tourism which has been devastating for the area. They are producing a wide variety of products – stone and marble (provided the marble for the Chicago Airport), textiles, traditional crafts (mother-of-pearl, olive wood carving) etc. We were told that many of the products that are produced or assembled in the area has to be exported as “Made in Israel” either to make it possible to get through the Israeli system which is the only way to get things out or because they know that they would have trouble marketing “Made in Palestine” overseas (especially in the U.S.). The Chamber is working on a philosophy of “Trade not Aid” trying to let people know that “aid” helps in the sort run, but what Bethlehem needs if for foreign sources to invest in the future of Bethlehem. I was impressed with the capabilities that the Bethlehem has, including some rather sophisticated electronic/tech products.

As always the issues of the wall, checkpoints and “security” are the ever-present factor – it is very difficult to get products to neighboring communities (and Gaza is completely cut off), much less to Israel or out of the country. The hope is to be able to partner with foreign firms who can navigate the complex procedures that Israel has set up. In addition, certain industries have been closed down for security-related reasons: There was a thriving acid factory that had to be closed down because it used chemicals that Israel said could be used for making bombs. The area can’t get most kinds of fertilizer for the same reason.

Another interesting point he made was the fact that Israel has stopped using much of the Palestinian labor it used to rely on and has been importing labor from Asia and Eastern Europe. His observation is that this is doubly self-defeating: it undermines the Palestinian economy and much of the money paid to Asian workers is being taken out of the region while Palestinian workers would be spending much of their money on Israeli products and services. He didn’t address the question of whether there was another agenda here that transcends any benefit Israel would get from employing Palestinians instead of people from ouside the region.

It was clear today that we were speaking to “official” people – City Council, Chamber of Commerce types – so one has to be careful about how one hears what they say. But despite – and to some extent because of – that there were some important – and troubling – questions raised. The Deputy Mayor, for instance, invited us, and those that come after us, to “explore the city,” not just the churches and “sites” but also the people to see that they are very “hospitable,” not terrorists. Also – and this reminded me of what Eyyad El Saraj (Gaza Mental Health Center) said six years ago about the psychological effects of the Occupation on children The Deputy Mayor talked about the psychological effects that the situation is having on the people of Bethlehem, specifically a growing sense of personal tension which is coming out in places like an increase in family violence. We tend to be good at thinking – and especially talking – about macro geopolitical issues, but not so good at remembering how this whole situation effects real live people!

Nothing comes between me and my (Israeli) Calvin Kleins (or at least the label)!
At the Chamber of Commerce we learnedthat Palestinians from the Bethlehem area are involved in assembling apparel for a major multi-national designer label that shall go un-named. We were told, among other things, that the Palestinians who produce these clothes are paid very little, that they are sold in Germany, Italy, Canada – but not the U. S. – that it is very difficult to get materials in or product out of Palestine and, everything exported under this label has to note that it is “Made in Israel.” I asked our host whether, if there were a group in the U. S. that would be willing to lobby the designer to market the Palestinian-made clothing in the U.S. and/or pressure him to use “Made in Palestine” labels, would that be helpful to him – or problematic. He was clearly hesitant to answer – happy not to pursue the question, and we didn’t. Later, however, it stimulated a conversation among some of us that led us into a disconcerting morass of observations. Those of us who have historically worked against sweatshops and the abuse of workers by multi-national U.S. corporations in third world countries are inclined to want to advocate for poorly paid Palestinian laborers – laborers who themselves are defending their jobs given the almost total break down of the Palestinian economy. And, if we succeeded in lobbying Ritzy McCohen to put “Made in Palestine” labels in his clothes and got him to market them in the U.S., we would feel very proud of our successful defense of an important long-term principle – while undoubtedly inspiring a well organized boycott of RM clothes and bankrupting him in a matter of months, Palestinians would then lose their jobs and only source of income. And then, just to confuse our addled brains a little bit more, one of our group observed that she has been trying to personally keep from buying any products made in Israel and now wonders, if she has been unwittingly boycotting products that are actually made in Palestine?!?!

So, what’s a well-intentioned activist to do?

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