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DRAIN THE SWAMP

My Sodastream appliance proffered the last portion of CO2 gas, this evening, to make me soda. Selzer, two-cents-plain. God’s most thirst-quenching drink, with a squeeze of lime. I walked to the supermarket with the empty gas canister, and by the time I will have drunk the present bottle, the full gas canister will be ready for making more refreshing soda on these sweltering Jerusalem days. The good life.

We Israelis are comfortable, our prime minister is celebrating his various triumphs, business rolls on, folks on my little lane are making supper, the kids are doing their homework. Like serving birthday cake in an old, leaky boat in the middle of an alligator-filled swamp. The plaque from my late father’s desk, now relocated on my shelf, says, “When you are up to your ass in alligators, it is difficult to remind yourself that your initial objective was to drain the swamp.”

A Palestinian dropped a marble slab on one of our soldiers, Thursday night, and today I visited his grave, smothered in flowers. Ronen Lubarsky, the latest Israeli victim of the occupation. Sadly, most Israelis are either indifferent to this event, or they let fly a couple of curses and.. “may they be erased from the earth,” referring both to his killers and to all Palestinians. How few of us look to the roots of this needless death. Who of us wonders what would drive a young Palestinian man to crouch on a roof until he could kill someone, knowing how likely it is that he too will be killed.

The source of this swamp we are in, swatting away the mosquitos of our restlessly dormant awareness. The source….the absence of a future-vision or leadership, the hardening of our hearts in daily interchanges, even with each other, the pushing in lines, on the roads, the smugness of people being sure they’re right, the down side of Israel. “Why are these people like this?” asked American Rapper Azealia Banks at the end of a recent concert tour here. “I don’t understand… the amount of times I’ve been purposefully coughed on, stepped on, cut in line is tooooo much . I need a strong drink….” Banks later tweeted: “I will never ever ever ever ever go to Israel again. I love my fans but y’all gonna have to fly out to come see me because y’all country is nuts.”

We are nuts, we live as though we are not poised at a precipice. We blind ourselves to the significance of the kinds of lives our neighbors are living. In the Palestinian neighborhood of Issaweeyah, 3 minutes from comfortable French Hill, it is the third world. Garbage everywhere, nearly unpassable streets, ragged children wandering the alleys during school hours, a grimness we Israelis don’t know.

We must awaken to the other. There is a deeply ethno-centric side to Israelis, and it is killing us. We can be warm, and kind, and sweet. But our existential reality is that we are controlling, violently, the lives of three million Palestinians, and we are prisoners in the jail we have created. Marketed to us as being for the sake of security. If we want security, we need to make peace. It’s really that simple. Not easy, simple.

Yoav Peck is director of the Sulha Peace Project, bringing Palestinians and Israelis together to build people-to-people solidarity

 

 

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DARK TIMES

This insane country! We killed 55 Palestinian demonstrators yesterday. 770 are wounded from today’s live fire. Yesterday afternoon we also celebrated the utterly superfluous relocation of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, and in the evening in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, Neta Barzilai entertained a crowd of thousands to celebrate her victory at Eurovision. At midnight I returned from a spontaneous demonstration at Netanyahu’s residence. 150 of us then  marched chanting to the American consulate down the street, where we managed to block traffic for a little while. All of us just felt we couldn’t stay home. The sign we hastily scribbled in Hebrew read, “We’re celebrating, they’re mourning.” It was good to march with a spirited, vocal crowd for a couple of hours, to see old friends. All of us are torn up, crazy over the abandon with which our soldiers are shooting people. It can’t be that we must kill in order to protect the border. We can’t watch the pictures of the human catastrophe we have created in Gaza. An eleven year siege, now culminating in horrid, avoidable violence. Hamas even extended a cautious feeler last week to see how all this could be curtailed. No response from our government. Today, Nakba Day, may be worse than today. Dark times here in the holy land…..

HOME

The shooting deaths, of Palestinians boys and young men, continue.

You can find, in a few moments, footage on-line of the picking off of a young man running with a tire in his hand, nowhere near the fence. He falls, the hit is in his upper body. Instantly 50 others are around him, and soon the stretcher will arrive. Is he wounded? Dead? This weekend’s reality TV.

We send our children to the army, and now some of them are lying on mounds of dirt, safer than on a firing range, receiving orders to shoot non-threatening young men demonstrating on the other side of the fence. After their army service, the snipers will try to live normal lives, carrying responsibility for what, by then, will have been denounced in every corner of the earth. Carrying it in their hearts.

And here, the outrageousness of this moment is driving a defensive wave of self-justification, furious loathing of Arabs that cannot cover the shame our underlying decency is feeling. And we who know that protecting Israel need not include atrocities, we were an island of 8,000 at the Palestinian-Israeli Memorial Day, and we heard David Grossman longing, in our names, for the home we have yet to build here. In the middle-east, “home” means taking someone in and making them feel comfortable, this is a long tradition here. We’re so far from home. Sending your kids out into the world to do God’s work, not to destroy it. That’s also home.

Israel must come to its senses. Natalie Portman did us a service by refusing to come here now. Being bold enough to name Netanyahu as the central inspiration for her boycotting us…. you go, girl! Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman served us by refusing the permits of 90 Palestinian attendees to the mixed Memorial, sparking a vigorous public debate about the equality of blood, of death. Forcing many Israelis to think for a moment about the mourning of Palestinians. Our Supreme Court rebuked Lieberman and reversed his order.

How do we carry on? The political scene is disgusting. There are nearly no islands of light there. The ongoing work is in the field, in civil society, in the peace organizations plodding forward. And in speaking to the public wherever we can reach them, discovering new ways to get through. It’s tough to get a right-winger to wear the shoes of a Palestinian for a moment, and to consider that a man does not seek to hurt us if he is content and secure in his life. But the human heart is big, and hate-filled folks would also like to feel at home.

                                             Yoav Peck is director of the Sulha Peace Project

 

PASSOVER, 2018

On Passover eve, the festival of freedom, Israel killed 15 young Palestinians in Gaza. 750 more were wounded by 100 snipers who were brought in to do the job. They lay on high walls of earth and opened fire, selecting their targets. There was no battle. It was like shooting ducks at an amusement park. Here in Jerusalem, across the political spectrum, any murmur of protest is denounced as a form of treason. No one in authority even feels pressed to justify the use of live rounds against a passionate but essentially non-violent demonstration that took place on the other side of the fence.

Israel closed the borders of Gaza in 2007. Unemployment in blockaded Gaza is 44%, among young adults, 58%. There are four hours of electricity each day. Southern Israeli beaches regularly close because of the raw sewage that pours across Gaza beaches and washes up the coast. No one enters the sea in Gaza. Drones fly overhead, and any provocation from Gaza is answered by artillery or tank fire into the Strip. Life there is intolerable, by any measure.

The government and army could not do this without popular support. The support of people, my neighbors, the folks I met in the supermarket today. My people, the Jewish people living in Israel, seventy years after ending 2,000 years of exile and building our state. What would it take for Israelis to remember their families’ history as holocaust survivors, or as North African refugees who fled with nothing, homeless and frightened? To remember in such a way as to know that we Israelis must not do to others what has been done to us…. What would it take?

While shattered by the images from Gaza, I am no less worried about what is becoming of us. Who are we, to continue going to war after useless war, to support a deeply corrupt prime minister, to serve in the reserves, policing the territories, perpetrating and allowing and condoning brutal norms and policies? Who have we become?

My explanation, for the fact that Netanyahu’s Likud party has suffered no loss of support in the polls, is this:  Netanyahu models a set of values that today are owned by increasing numbers of Israelis. He is their hero. Not because of his achievements, but because he is dark, clever and elusive, heartless and aggressive, disloyal except to his family and friends. And these values adorn the banner of many Israelis today.

This country is nothing if not surprising…..Two days after the Passover massacre, the Netanyahu government found it expedient to reverse its months-long insistence on driving 30,000 African refugees out of Israel. The victory belongs to the thousands of Israelis who marched and protested and wrote petitions and who ran expensive ads in the papers. Why this? Why now? An act of humanism or generosity this was not. Go figure.

The Gaza Palestinians, like the Vietnamese 40 years ago, have nothing to lose. Their resistance will continue, things may escalate, and we could find ourselves in yet another Gaza war. The opposition is in shambles, and even Meretz, the party I have supported, is burst asunder days after primaries, as the newly elected chairwoman is exposed, consulting with one of the most Machiavellian, left-hating PR men in the country and then lying about it. The left needed this?

Always in search of an up-beat finish, I scrape and scratch and find no purchase. But perhaps the triumph of the African refugees will give us the special lift that comes when you can see the link between the march you joined in Jerusalem a month ago and the result this evening. Direct action sometimes does work. We will now have to find a way to garner that same massive power in order to confront this 51 year occupation. For those of us who still love this country, there is no alternative.

As we celebrate Passover, and as we think of Gaza, let us remember that in the Talmud, God’s reaction to the Israelites’ celebrating the deaths of the Egyptian soldiers as the Red Sea closes over them: “How can you sing as the works of my hand are drowning in the sea?” Hard-heartedness has never gone over well in heaven.

Yoav Peck is Director of the Sulha Peace Project, bringing Israelis and Palestinians together for person-to-person contact

 

 

 

 

A Moment with Gamliel

Surgery ward at Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital, Jerusalem

I broke out of the hospital for two hours tonight. I’m in for another of my increasingly frequent bouts with a blocked intestine. Till now, each hospital drama lasts 3 days and ends happily as my guts straighten themselves out without intervention. I needed to handle something I couldn’t do from the hospital and, since I’m getting released tomorrow, the doc in charge didn’t mind my hopping home, 10 minutes from the hospital.  Spent some quality time with my wife, Frumit, had my first food in 72 hours as she threw a bowl of her soulful vegetable soup into the mixer to grind it for my sensitive gut, then I dealt with the errands on my computer, and got back in the car.

I was in no hurry to return to Hadassah, but Frumit was already gearing up for her last night at home alone, and the night nurse would feel betrayed if I didn’t come back to the ward when I said I would.  I drove off, glanced at the new moon above the streetlight, took a deep drag on my cigar and enjoyed the bracing air of a breezy Jerusalem winter’s evening.

As I pulled up to the stoplight at my local junction, I noticed a young Haredi guy (ultra-orthodox religious) trying unsuccessfully to catch a cab. On impulse, I shouted to him, “Where do you need to go?” And he answered, “Bait Vegan,” a religious neighborhood just beyond my home in the mixed secular-religious Kiryat Yovel neighborhood.  When the light turned green, I did a quick U-turn and pulled up beside him. Looking surprised, he opened the door and climbed in.

I had reversed direction, so I figured he might be wondering what I was up to. I told him I noticed he was having trouble hailing a cab, and I had some time and I could get where I’m going through his neighborhood as well. As that settled on him, I tried to put him at ease by adding, “If we don’t help each other out, who’s gonna do it?”  He was maybe 30 years old, with a delicate frame and auburn beard, in a black suit and fedora. He said something appreciative, and asked if I am from the neighborhood, and I said yes.

“It’s a nice neighborhood, Kiryat Yovel,” he offered. “I love it,” I replied, but you know, there are some conflicts here between Haredi people from Bait Vegan and secular folks here.” “Oh yes,” he replied, “I have heard of the conflicts.” “It’s too bad, because we are all going to have to work things out together, don’t you think?” I asked. “Of course,” he said.

Encouraged by his receptiveness, I pressed on….”Do you know, when I am driving down a street on the Sabbath, sometimes religious people walking home from the synagogue, in a group in the middle of the street, will deliberately slow their walk, when they see a Jew breaking the Sabbath by driving, reluctantly clearing the way to make sure I get their message before I can drive through.” What message is that?” he asked. “That it’s not ok for a Jew to drive on the Sabbath, that they would like to irritate him a little to get their point across.”

In genuine alarm, he immediately responded, “The folks I know in Bait Vegan would never do such a thing. It’s a small group of people with certain interests who do that.”

“Yes, I agree that most folks would not behave that way,” I said. “You’re right, I think, there is a cluster of people with agendas that may be looking for trouble.” I took him all the way to his door, but by now he was not wondering into whose car he had climbed. We had connected, just two guys, for a moment, both of us hoping for less rancor in our city. I said, “My name is Yoav,” and he said, “Gamliel” and hesitantly received my handshake.

As I approached his building, he asked, “You came from America?” My American accent in Hebrew is easily identifiable. “Yes, 45 years ago. But I’ll take the accent with me to the grave.” As I pulled to the curb, he chuckled and said, “To complete the picture, you’ve even got those expensive cigars!” He climbed out, smiling, and I shouted over to him, “No, these are the cheap ones.” We both laughed and I drove off.

As I headed toward the hospital, Gamliel’s presence was still in the car. I was touched by his indignation that I might think he would be aggressive toward secular folks. Did he not know that haredi-secular polarization is a major social issue in the country?  Or maybe he thought that I was some crazy secular guy looking to pick a fight with a Haredi guy, so he gave me compliant answers. But no, I prefer to take it as I felt it, and my five minutes with Gamliel evoked in me visions of small groups of secular and religious folks getting together in our neighborhoods to talk things over. In fact, I believe that Gamliel and I actually warmed up the neighborhood this evening. I think I would like hearing what he told his wife when he got home. Somehow, it felt like a small corner of the world had gotten a little healing for its wounds.

                                                                                 Yoav Peck

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHALLENGING THE ALMOST CERTAIN FUTURE

I was hospitalized in Jerusalem for a minor procedure and was placed in a small room with one other occupant, a young settler from the West Bank who was banged up in a bicycle accident. A long-time peace activist, my “already listening” instantly roared from within….He’s surely ultra-right-wing, a gobbler of others’ land, an uncaring, and likely hard-hearted young man….. It seemed clear that this guy represented the people with whom I had nothing in common, and who comprised the barrier to the future I sought. Settlers like Yossi would forever remain our adversary, I muttered in my mind. I grimly kept to myself as my room-mate’s settler friends came in to visit with him, joking and generally having a good time while I quietly seethed. On the second afternoon, waiting for the nurses to change our bandages, no one was around and, both of us bored, we got to talking. Yossi told me about his preparations for army service, a couple of months down the road. He spoke of life in his settlement, and soon revealed that his parents had been ambushed in their car, shot and killed by terrorists along with his young brother, when he was a young boy. The surviving siblings were raised by family and friends. Here was Yossi, 19, beside me in the next bed, calmly relating a personal history that I could not begin to fathom.

Yossi asked about me, and eventually I told him about Sulha, the project where I am active, bringing Israelis and Palestinians together for people-to-people contact. Yossi cautiously asked whether he could come along some time to one of our events. To my shame, it had not occurred to me to invite him to our coming gathering. A settler? This guy, whose home sits on stolen Palestinian land, is going to come to a Sulha evening? “Of course,” I said, and pulled an invitation out of my bag. “We’d love to have you there,” not believing for a moment that he would show up.

Two weeks later, as we gathered at Neve Shalom, the Jewish-Arab village near Latrun, I was amazed to see Yossi getting out of the ride he had hitched to the site. I greeted him happily, and some minutes later the bus bearing some thirty Palestinian participants pulled up. I approached Ahmed, an 18 year old from the Hebron hills who had been to previous Sulha events. Ahmed walks with a limp and his arm is scarred, the result of beatings and arrests he has endured during demonstrations in his village against the occupation. Ahmed learned some Hebrew in jail. I asked if I could introduce him to Yossi, and Ahmed was not thrilled. For him, Yossi was the enemy. But he agreed, and the two of them hesitantly sat off to one side and began to speak.

As the evening’s activities proceeded, the two young men refused to participate. They were deep into a dialogue that they did not want to interrupt. Part of the time they argued, but from the side I could see them rolling cigarettes for each other. Something warm and magical was happening between them. When we broke for supper, they continued talking over their soup. Finally the evening was winding down, and we needed the Palestinians to get back on the bus so they could return to the Bethlehem border crossing in time. I approached them and Ahmed reluctantly agreed to head for the bus. He turned to Yossi and the two of them hugged. Still grasping Yossi’s shoulder, Ahmed stepped back and said, “In a couple of months, Yossi, you’re going to be in uniform and armed, out at the roadblocks, and I will still be across the road, throwing stones at you soldiers. Please, man, be careful out there!

Yoav Peck, a Jerusalem organizational psychologist, is director of the Sulha Peace Project

JERUSALEM AFLAME

When I was born, a Palestinian family lived where my house now stands. My Jerusalem neighborhood, Kiryat Yovel, was built during the 1950’s on the lands of the Palestinian village Beit Mazmil. The residents of Beit Mazmil were driven from their homes during fighting in this part of Jerusalem during the war of ’48. Sometimes when I am weeding my garden, I wonder who was working this same ground until 70 years ago. Where are the residents of Beit Mazmil? Where did they go, and where are their children and grandchildren living today?

The Arab neighboring states rejected the UN Partition Agreement of ’47 and attacked us, and we fought to establish our country.  For most of the world, the borders established at the end of the ’48 war are not in dispute. In 1967, we fought another war, and sovereignty over the lands we conquered during that war is disputed to this day.

Seven U.S. presidents understood that non-interference in the delineation of Jerusalem’s neighborhoods was the best policy: Jerusalem’s borders and status would be determined as part of the comprehensive peace agreement, an agreement that has eluded us until now. All the presidents knew that the ’67 cease-fire lines would be the basis for any negotiation, and they wisely avoided creating facts that would jeopardize whatever agreement could be reached between Israel and the Palestinians.  Then here comes Donald Trump, promising the “Deal of the Century,” and weeks before his plan is revealed, he declares Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Netanyahu is celebrating, and even the cowardly “moderate” parties are pounding him on the back. In the speech he gave last night Trump declared, “We are not taking a position on any final-status issues….” Of course he has taken a position on final-status issues! Otherwise, would he not have mentioned the Palestinians’ claim on East Jerusalem? What did he expect the Palestinians’ response to be? Who needed this?

Jerusalem has been the capital of Israel since the State of Israel was declared. One third of the residents of Jerusalem are Palestinian, and they live in East Jerusalem. These Palestinians long for the day when, together with peace, East Jerusalem will become the capital of their new country, Palestine. One does not have to be an expert in systems-theory to understand that, in such an explosive situation, no one-sided “victory” can lead towards quiet. Ariel Sharon one-sidedly withdrew the settlers from Gaza, ignoring Palestinian offers to negotiate the terms of this withdrawal. This one-sided withdrawal, leaving control of Gaza’s borders in Israeli hands, led to years of bombardments and counter-bombardments, three Gaza wars and enormous loss of life. Now another one-sided move has been made, and this time the instigator lives elsewhere.

We tremble as we listen to the hourly news. Extremists on both sides are issuing fearsome declarations. Thousands of young Palestinians have taken to the streets. Ambulances are screaming through Issawiyeh, just below the French Hill neighborhood.

The mayor of Jerusalem wants to open the square at City Hall for celebrative dancing. There are no celebrations here in my house. This move is so short-sighted. Until we acknowledge the damage we have done to the people who lived here before we came, until we see to it that Palestinians can get up in the morning in their own land as free citizens, just as we do, there will be no respite, and things will go from bad to worse.

Yoav Peck