Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Marty Federman's 2007 Visit Journal - Entry # 9B

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.

As I said Journal Entry #9 was longer than usual so I divided it into two installments. The previous one was #9A and this one is #9B

Journal Entry #9B

Friday, Dec. 14, 2007

Trip to Ramallah

Left Beit Sahour and came to Ramallah today – this time to stay for a few days.

Can’t write this without saying something about the landscape between Bethlehem and Ramallah again. It’s simply incredible – much of it is stark and the hills are daunting – and yet for millennia people have found their way here and built their homes – and lives – as if emerging organically from the hard earth. The olive trees here are a metaphor for the people who have relied on them for all these centuries: there is no explanation for why they survive, much less thrive, in this harsh environment, and yet they flourish with their bushy, pale green foliage shouting across the awesomely deep valleys, “we’re here and we’re not going anywhere!”
It occurred to me today part of why the settlements are not only politically and emotionally offensive but why, despite – or in part because of – their modern, architecturally (some think) pure excellence. Just like the very idea of the “neighborhoods,” they create, these buildings are imposed on the top of hills from which they have not emerged naturally like the villages they overlook and, in many cases, replaced. It makes me think – or perhaps only hope in some vengeful way – that, despite their conviction that this is “their” land, the settlers will never feel that they are part of it, because, of course, they’re not. Unlike the olive trees that declare their resolve, the red-roofed homes of the settlements shout out their invasiveness, declaring only how much they do not belong in these hills. Earlier I said that I could understand why so many people want this land. I realize now that the Palestinians (and perhaps some of the idealistic, hope-filled Jewish “pioneers” a century ago) love this place – the settlers, I think, only want it.

In Ramallah

Settled into the hotel (not great and overpriced, but it will keep me for a couple of days) and went out to explore. Walking through the city is very different than driving through in a Service Taxi. Ramallah is not quite as impressive as I thought last week now that I have seen Hebron, but it is quite the city none-the-less. There is a remarkable conglomeration of the traditional (i.e., old) and the modern. Many stores were closed since today is Friday, the traditional day off for Muslims, but there was plenty of bustle – I’m told it will be like this through Christmas (even many Muslim shopkeepers take advantage of the season) and the New Yorker in me is looking forward to what it will be like in the coming days.

Had an interesting lunch. Walking down one of the “spokes” (the five main streets that emanate from the central “Manata” literally, someone told me, “lighthouse” but generically a central circle/”round-about”) a voice called from above me. I looked up and, on a second floor terrace two young men in fast-food uniforms were asking whether I wanted to eat the “best food in Ramallah.” When I indicated that I would be curious to know where one would find the best food in Ramallah they motioned to a large sign for “Authentic Chicago Cheese Steaks” and told me that this is where I would find “real American food.” I explained that I had not traveled half way around the world to eat food I could get at home. Very good naturedly they acknowledged that they understood, but if I wanted some good American food I should come back.

After exploring a couple of the “spokes” and the smaller streets and alleys that run between them, something told me that I needed to, at very least, have a diet coke at “Chicago Cheese Steaks,” so I found my way back and climbed the stairs inside to a shiny, spotless fast-food restaurant that one might find in any American City. The young owner, Eshan (“everyone just calls me Sam”) sat and, after some questions about what a Chicago fast food joint was doing in the center of Ramallah, Sam’s story emerged. Born in a suburb of Ramallah, he grew up in Chicago, moved back and forth, ran a Cheese Steak place in Cicero and recently returned to Ramallah with his wife and, four days ago, opened this restaurant. Sam’s father, came in and sat with us. Bob was born in the same village as Sam. His father had lived in Chicago at the beginning of the 20th century, served in the U.S. Army during World War I, moved back to Ramallah where he was born and lived for many years before going to Chicago and joining the Marines with whom he served during the Korean War period.

But nothing in this place is as simple as that. As we talked, I asked Sam about what passport he had and how he continued to come back and forth between the States and Palestine. Although born here, by virtue of his father’s status, Sam is an American citizen and has both an American passport and Palestinian ID. The last time he came into Ben Gurion he showed only his American passport (as he had in the past), expecting to be able to go through and go home. This time, however, they checked the computer and found that he also possessed a Palestinian ID. They asked him why he had lied to them, told him that he could only come into Palestine by the Jordan/Allenby Bridge route, and sent him back to Chicago! I needn’t spend any time sharing my feelings about this.

Saturday, Dec. 15th – Ramallah

Spent the better part of Saturday with CB, a Mennonite from Canada who has been back and forth to Palestine, mostly with the Friends (Quakers) since 1982, has been in Ramallah for a the last few years on a series of six month visas and the Ministry of the Interior has refused her last request for an extension. It would be totally impossible for me to try and summarize in a few words the draconian process involved for people to renew visas, get work permits, etc. Apparently more and more people working for NGO’s, humanitarian and church groups have been denied visas or work permits or are being denied entry into Israel. As to renewing visas (including for people who have been here for years) I have noted to a number of people that what is going on relative to people who want to stay is eerily like nothing as much as what the Jewish refusenicks in the Soviet Union went through when they applied to get out! CB has been sent from office to office, told that she needs documents that no one ever looks at, called any number of officials and semi-officials and, in some cases, treated incredibly rudely. And, of course, with each new requirement or denial the bureaucrats have no obligation to explain their decisions or explain the basis on which their decisions are made. As I write this her visa extension was denied from the Israeli Ministry of the Interior and has submitted a new request through the Palestinian Ministry which is being forwarded to the Israelis. (Once again an example of the Palestinian Authority’s non-existent “authority:” the Palestinian Authority can validate her application to stay in Palestine but only the Israeli authorities have the authority to authorize the validation!) KB is due to find out if the Ministry of the Interior has granted the extension on Sunday.

After a wonderfully restful day finding out all about KB and sharing information about my trip – and my work in the U.S., KB took me for the most wonderfully civilized meal I’ve had in a few weeks - at Darna (“my house”) not far from my hotel. Good food is not in short supply in Ramallah – in fact, walking around the city I’ve thought that I probably haven’t seen as many places to eat crowded into a space outside of Manhattan. And, in a place like Ramallah, the options and quality run the full gamut. Because of budget and schedule considerations my diet has tended overwhelmingly towards the falafel, hummus, salad at street stands and “cafes” as well as pita and cheese at the guest house or from little groceries. (There is no shortage of my particular addiction: diet coke – although caffeine-free is a concept that is about as evident as “no-smoking” signs.) Saturday night, however, i had the opportunity to eat at a “fine” Palestinian restaurant with food and service standards equal to the U.S. but without an attempt to be inauthentically “western” (except for a few touches like the hamburger and fries listed on the children’s menu). Refreshingly, this somewhat more upscale eatery had many diners, including a group that was celebrating one of it’s member’s birthday including a large chocolate cake with a huge, celebratory sparkling candle.

It’s difficult to know what to do with conflicting feelings: on the one hand it is reassuring to see that there is an ongoing “normal” life evident here, that there are people who still have both the means and the inclination to maintain and enjoy their way of life. At the same time, it is hard not to remember that (I wonder how conscious the diners at Darna are of this as they eat and talk and laugh) they cannot travel more than a few kilometers away from this restaurant, or that the people of Tuba barely subsist on what the settlers who have stolen their land have left for them. An then I wonder how many of us, while dining in the myriad of restaurants serving every possible kind of cuisine in the better neighborhoods of Boston, New York, LA or Chicago, think about those leaving in trailers outside of New Orleans or in the ghettos of those same cities. Raises some interesting – if troubling – questions.

Sunday, Dec. 16, 2007 – Ramallah

Went to the Friends Meeting House this morning with a small group of Ramallans and visitors. The Quaker presence in Ramallah goes back to the middle of the nineteenth century, and the meeting house (built primarily with the support of the Quaker Meetings in Baltimore and Philadelphia) is a wonderfully spare space with oddly soothing stone walls that, despite their innate coolness, seem to warm the space and the people in it. The plain white wooden benches are arranged around a simple wooden table, the only ornamentation four long, thin red candles set in a small arrangement of Christmassy greens. At first it was strange for a nice Jewish boy like me, used to the anarchy of davening (praying) in Conservative and Orthodox shuls (synagogues) to sit in silence waiting for people to be moved to share their thoughts with the meeting. In time, however, SC’s and JZ’s sharing moved me enough to share some thoughts of my own.

Each of them talked, in different ways and from different experiences, about a sense of “open-ness.” At Darna last night KB and I had talked, among many other things, about Yitzchak (Isaac) and his brother Ishmael, and the relationship of the two stories read on the two days of Rosh Hashannah (Ishmael’s exile with his mother, Hagar, and near-death on the first day and the binding of Yitzchak on the second). At dinner CB had spoken of these stories and what they reflected about the idea of chosen-ness, and its relation to the current situation in Israel and Palestine – and the significance of the brothers’ reconciliation in Hebron when they come together to bury their father, Abraham. This morning, however, “open-ness” roused a different memory for me: the midrash (commentary on and/or explanation of the text by the rabbis) on Ishmael and Hagar. The text tells us that Hagar put her son, dying of thirst, away from her so that she will not have to watch him die, but God speaks to her, telling her of her son’s chosen-ness and God’s promise to him and “Hagar’s eyes were opened and she saw a stream.” Where, the rabbis ask, did that stream come from? It was, they answer, always there, but only when Hagar was “open” to the experience were her eyes opened and she could see it.

In the midst of all of the horrible things I have seen and experienced the last few weeks I have felt depressingly closed. It is difficult to see the possibility of resolution, much less justice arising in this place – and it has, as I have spoken about with some frequency, seriously challenged the beliefs and traditions that have been the foundation of my Judaism/Jewishness. I have felt a very unnerving, in Kalman Resnick’s words, “estrangement from my Judaism” and a powerful sadness, even emptiness, at the thought of that. At the same time, I have seen and heard a variety of insistent examples of hope and optimism, mostly coming from people – and in places – that were jarring. Tubans with barely anything serving us tea and bread; Israelis who continue to defy Israeli law to stand with their Palestinians friends even though they know that their presence can only help for the moment, but feel that they have to keep coming partly because these people ask them to be there, partly because it is something they feel they have to do for themselves; Christians who manage, out of their outrage at the situation, to do everything they can to actively support Palestinians’ resistance to all the manifestations of Occupation without somehow dismissing or demonizing Israelis or Jews – even settlers. As I sat in “meeting” I realized how much I long to tap into that “higher” nature, an instinct that is at the core of the best in Judaism – and how difficult it is for me to be open to those yearnings. Among a strange and diverse assembly of people, over a long, uncommon Shabbat, I was able to identify some of those feelings. It will probably be a while, perhaps a long time, after the end of this particular journey before I am able to see if I can be open enough for the hope to return and settle inside me.

Monday, Dec. 17, 2007 - Ramallah

Had the opportunity to attend a planning meeting of the Right to Enter Campaign (see www.righttoenter.ps/). They are working on issues of entry, re-entry and family re-unification. The more I hear about these issues the clearer it is that Israeli policy in these areas can only be for the sake of two objectives: 1) to minimize the Palestinian population in both Israel and Palestine by keeping as many Palestinians from returning if they leave, or pressuring Palestinians to leave because their options relative to maintaining their families are so limited and untenable, and 2) to keep as many “internationals,” activists and humanitarian aid workers out of Israel and Palestine in order to make life more difficult for Palestinians (therefore aiding in objective #1) and to minimize the number of “witnesses” to the excesses and abuses of the Occupation. The stories – and the insidiousness of the stories – just grow in number and intensity. KB who for years has simply helped, in innumerable ways, to support Palestinians, having her visa extension denied, is just one example I’ve seen of humanitarian aid workers being pressured to leave – or not allowed to enter. But, as destructive as this is, the stories about Palestinians in any number of categories, being denied re-entry into their own country and homes or suddenly forced to leave for any of a seemingly infinite number of absurd justifications (or, often, no justification at all). Examples:

1. A Palestinian American (born here, had been living in the U.S., so carrying a U.S. passport and Palestinian ID) who returned to Palestine many years ago, married a Palestinian and had two children. For 14 years she has lived here on a series of renewed visas. She is currently entering her ninth month of a pregnancy and restricted to bed due to complications until the birth. According to the “law” – which she has followed for all these years – she is supposed to leave the country (which for most people means going to Amman, Jordan) and returning in order to get a new visa. Because of her condition she applied for a humanitarian exemption so that she could get a new visa without having to travel – and was denied!! Her options are to risk her pregnancy by traveling out of the country – and having no guarantee that she will get a new visa, or to stay where she, illegally, which means she can be deported at any time or, if she leaves Palestine at any point would almost certainly not be permitted to return.

2. A Palestinian businessman, born in the U. S., who chose, fourteen years ago, to return to Palestine and invest in the Palestinian economy. He has built housing, a modern mall, created hundreds, perhaps thousands of jobs and pumped a tremendous amount of capital into the economy. He, too, has renewed his visa every three months for as long as he has been living here, in his home. This month he was denied a visa extension and living here quasi-legally while he goes through the draconian process of applying for a different status in order to be able to remain here, where he has lived for years.

3. (From the right to enter web site: In a continuing demonstration of Israel's arbitrary denial of entry policy, and disregard for the Palestinian population’s right to practice their religion and worship freely, Father Faris Khaleifat, priest of Ramallah's Greek Catholic Melkite Church was barred entry to the West Bank on Friday, 14 September. Father Faris, a holder of both Vatican and Jordanian passports, commented: "For the past six years, I have been traveling regularly between the West Bank and Jordan on church affairs without any problems whatsoever." Just one week ago, Father Faris traveled to Amman for several days and returned without incident. However, on Friday, his multiple entry visa as a clergyman serving in the oPt, valid until February 2008, was canceled by Israeli authorities at the Al Sheikh Hussein Bridge without explanation and he was forced to return to Jordan. His de facto deportation has left the Ramallah parish without its sole clergyman.

The questions, of course, that these examples (which are only a couple out of tens of thousands) raise have to do with why the Israeli authorities would deny these requests. There is absolutely no way that they can be justified on grounds of “security” so there must be another agenda or agendas. It is difficult for me to see any explanation other than, as I noted above, a desire to minimize the number of Palestinians, not only in what is currently Israel, but in Palestine or any part of the country that might at some point be either Israel or Palestine, or an effort to exclude anyone who might be a witness to the situation and would carry that information back with them to the “outside world.”

The main topic of this evening’s meeting was planning for a meeting tomorrow in East Jerusalem with leaders of a couple of dozen church groups headquartered in and around Jerusalem. The goal is to begin creating a coalition that can speak out here and abroad to bring visibility to the issue. The frustrating part of the conversation centered around cautions that the group not move to quickly or assertively since many of the churches have already indicated a hesitation to go to “public” since they are afraid that each time they “rock the boat” the Israeli authorities respond by being even more harsh in administering permits and visas. As in the example above, many clergy and church-related lay people have recently be prohibited from entering or forced to leave. The reality is that as disgusting as Israel’s intimidation tactics are, they are also all too effective!

Tuesday, Dec. 18th – Jerusalem

Came to Jerusalem with KB early this morning so that she could go to the Ministry of the Interior to re-file her request for an extension. Were met there by an Israeli friend who was to accompany her. We had some coffee and a particularly good almond croissant in a cafe across the street from the ministry until they went in – only to find out that the office doesn’t open until 11:30 a.m. KB and her friend finally went in, and after something of a wait she was told that they could not even look at her situation since (although it was recommended by another office that she come in today) she did not have an appointment! She was given an appointment for next week (only because she was able to convince the person she spoke to that she should set this up as an “urgent” appointment). The good news is that, with this appointment, KB will be here for the next week more or less legally. If suggested to her that there may well be an office somewhere in Jerusalem who’s only purpose is to devise way to add to KB’s anxiety!

When KB set off for her meeting I had lunch and made my way to the ICAHD office to meet Jeff Halper who just returned early this morning from Europe. He and one of his colleagues helped me check a few possible places to stay and finally, based on the rates for even the cheapest places in West Jerusalem, I have ended up back here at the Faisal (which is now owned by different people than were here the last time I stayed here. The place is full and, since I need a “private” room in order to work and maintain my sanity (I’ve moved into the stage, and have to much “stuff,” where “dormitory” living for over a week just doesn’t cut it!!) I am spending the night in a tiny room with a mattress on a a kind of shelf at one end for which one needs to climb a rickety metal ladder – much like the beds over the cabs of Winnebago-type campers! They’ve promised to squeeze a bed in for the night and switch me to a real room tomorrow when some people are leaving. We’ll see. Meanwhile, I have a work surface, it cool and comfortable tonight and there’s free WiFi – not to mention a “free” dinner of a huge portion of rice (with small pieces of, I think, eggplant and plenty of salad. More interesting, the place is full of (amazingly young) people. I sat next to Jurgen (as in Yoor-gin), a young man who is cycling from Germany to Egypt and back. He left Munich sometime in September, cycled with a friend through Italy and, I think Albania, Syria, Jordan and into Israel. Somewhere in Europe his friend’s “holiday” ran out and he flew home and Jurgen is continuing on his own, averaging, he says, about 75 kms./day (but some days, like in the mountains of Albania, he could only do around 35 kms in an eight hour day since the mountains were so steep at some places he had to carry his bike! I’m exhausted – and my legs ache – just thinking about it all.

Have gone down the street and purchased a nice big bottle of Mitz Escholiot (Grapefruit Juice), will do as much e-mail as I have the stamina to attack, hope that my bed has arrived and go to sleep. I begin meeting with Israelis tomorrow.

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