A Discussion with Palestinian Human Rights Activist Bassem Eid

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One of my first meetings in Israel was with the Palestinian Human Rights Activist and political commentator Bassem Eid. He began his career working with the watchdog group B’Tselem, and  worked as a researcher documenting violations by the Israeli army in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.  In 1996, he created a Palestinian human rights organization, the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group.  Eid was once arrested for his activism by Yasser Arafat, and was released after 25 hours, when U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, intervened.  Today he is a vocal critic of the corruption of the Palestinian Authority, a political commentator, and a harsh critic of the BDS or “Boycott Divest and Sanction” movement.

Bassem EidOur conversation began with a discussion of the current wave of violence that started with stabbings by young Palestinians in October. He was disturbed not only by the violence, but by the self-destruction it was causing to Palestinians themselves. “I just heard some statistics about how the Palestinian economy  has been affected since the first of October.  Billions of dollars. Imagine that the Palestinians have lost billions of dollars in the past  four months.   Take for example, Christmas. On Christmas, Bethlehem was totally empty. Not one room was booked. Imagine how much money you are losing, as a nation, as an authority, as a country on its way to being established.”  Tensions in Bethlehem had resulted in tourists avoiding the city recognized as where Jesus was born, and all this did was hurt the Palestinian economy.

This turned to the broader concern over what these attacks accomplish.  “Sometimes I get very nervous, what we are going to achieve if we stab another 1000 Jews, what are we going to achieve if another 2,000 Palestinians are going to be killed?  We know exactly what happened during the summer war in 2014 in Gaza.  What did we achieve in that?”  Since the first of October, 173 Palestinians are dead, and another 31 Jews.

I asked is this a third intifada? Bassem insisted that it wasn’t. It wasn’t organized, but was almost spontaneous, or emergent behavior of your people who appear to be motivated by their own economic despair rather than by organized political resistance.   He spoke about a lawyer’s interviews with some of the accused girls who are imprisoned in the Nizhan prison in Ramla for some of the attacks.  “When she talked to them about the motivation of their actions.  Not one of them mentioned Israeli aggression or oppression.”  Instead, the girl’s actions appeared to be motivated by family disputes.  “In one case, their family wanted them to get married to someone they didn’t like, the other fell in love with a guy, whothe family rejected..”

In another case, where two girls stabbed a 70 year old man on the street, Bassem asked,

What was the motivation?  The teenagers used to have a joint school breakfast, and in that morning when she asked her mom for 20 shekels to participate in the joint breakfast, the mother said she only had 2 shekels.  When the girl left her home, she found her friend, and it looks like the the friend had the same problem.  They felt so ashamed to go to the class without having money to participate in the joint breakfast, then they decided to come to Jerusalem,  I don’t know how they came to Jerusalem.  But they took the light rail and got out at Davidka station and stabbed a man with a pair of scissors. The guy they stabbed was a Palestinian.  They thought he was a Jew.

The telling thing here is the explicit lack of a political motivation, but instead economic despair that drove the girls to violence.  Yet, Bassem also pointed out that when his lawyer friend reported the interview on Palestinian tv, she told a very different story, claiming that they acted not because of personal reasons, but instead “the motivation was Israeli aggression.This is how things are working now.   She knew that the girls were motivated by personal reasons, but when she went public she said it was motivated by Israeli aggression.”

 

Criticizing the Palestinian Authority

I asked why would she change her story?  We spoke about how difficult it is to criticize the Palestinian Authority, and the risks that democratic advocates face.  Bassem spoke about a Palestinian professor who was arrested in Nablus the prior week for criticizing the government.

 I don’t like the professor’s ideology and his politics.  He became so extremist, that he tried to criticize without trying to present any kind of solution, but in the meantime, I said this is very healthy.  We need people like that to criticize us, to criticize the Israelis, to criticize the international community. Of course we need it.  I remember this professor from 1997 when someone from the security force shot him in his knees in the street.  He suffered a lot.  But arresting him doesn’t solve the problem.  Just as by stabbing Jews,  we are not going to solve the problem, just as shooting anther rocket from Gaza will not solve the problem,  What’s really going on?  In my opinion, the major tragedy of the Palestinian people is their own leadership, rather than the occupation.  The real problem is a lack of leadership.


On Mahmoud Abbas

Bassem had harsh words for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.   “He is the kind of president who is just waiting for his people to die and be declared as martyrs. I haven’t seen,  in the last four months, even one statement where Abbas has tried to calm the situation, or tried to advise his people that you are leading us to nowhere.  By stabbing Jews, that will never liberate the Palestinians; by stabbing Jews that will never create the Palestinian state. By stabbing Jews, that will never give us any liberty or independence.”   Abbas’ failure to call for non-violence has the opposite result.

“By not discouraging the stabbings,  he is encouraging it.  He is paying money to these people.  He is meeting with them.   He is paying money for what he calls ‘the martyrs,’to their families. He is paying money to the families. Why are the families are running to Ramallah, to meet with him? To get the checks.  This is how he succeeds in buying his popularity.  He is buying it by money rather than by any other political strategy.  And that is exactly what he learned from Arafat. Arafat did the same, but Arafat gave more money than Abbas, because there was more money coming to the PLO.”  \

Abbas’ failure to speak out against violence has created distrust among Israelis that the Palestinians want to find a peaceful solution.He pointed me to an essay he wrote on the subject just a few months ago.

 

Living under a coma… and “lovers of death instead of life”

Eid then used the metaphor of “living under a coma” to describe the state of mind in Palestine today.  It is as if “no one is trying to wake up and even see what is really going on around them.  What has really happened here?  Why are people so blind to their own situation?  This gives  me a very very bad feeling about our political future.  If you are looking today to what is surrounding us, I think that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the safest place in the Middle East today.   ISIS is in Syria, even in Jordan, even in Gaza.  This is what makes Abbas so popular right now.  He appears to be a moderate, even though he refuses to speak out against acts of terror.”

But the failure to speak out against the violence ponts to an even bigger problem. Somehow in the past several months, the Palestinians have become “lovers of death rather than life. I don’t ever remember, since 1967, how we the Palestinians, have come to love death rather than life. It  reminds me of an Israeli advertisement when they put out a boy, shouting “I am dying to life!  I am dying for life!” We the Palestinians today, are shouting, we are dying for death!    That makes me sad.  How have we shifted from life-lovers to death lovers?”

Bassem’s explanation turned philosophical.

What is really happening here?  I don’t think that for any kind of aggression or oppression, I have to kill myself.  To come and stab.  This is a suicide.  It is very clear in Islam, not to commit suicide.  It is very clear.  God said it.  So, with the such kind of the extremists who are saying that the suicide is a part of jihadism, that  this is what  God is commanding us to do.  Which God are you talking about?  Which God said it?  The God of Hamas? or The God of Hezbollah? The God of the Shia?  or the Sunni? It looks like we have several Gods here.  The God in Saudi is different than the God in Jordan, different from the God in Syria, different from the God in Libya.  So, that’s in my opinion, one of the major problems, you know, sometimes they said, that if the Israeli occupation will end, all of the problems of the world would be solved.  Who told you that?  That is rubbish.  I don’t believe that…   I used to say all the time, that in my opinion, and talking with the people in Refugee camps, in the cities in the West Bank, in my opinion, the majority of Palestinians these days are people looking for dignity rather than identity.  I have no problem wherever I am going saying “I am a Palestinian.  People recognize me. They know where I am from.

Dignity comes from economic prosperity, which he sees as the primary goal of the majority of the Palestinian people.  They are “a people seeking a better economic future.  And this is why I am always trying to encourage the Israeli government, that you should increase the number of working permits inside Israel.”  If there is more cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians, economic prosperity can only improve. “But the opposite, today’s politics, is keeping us far away from each other.  In my opinion, the biggest mistake of the international community is that they invest more in politics rather than in the economy.  We are at a time when we need to start building a strong economic prosperity for both sides.”

 

BDS and Economic Prosperity
Our conversation ended with a discussion of the BDS or Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement. Will a boycott of Israel help the cause of economic prosperity in Palestine?  Bassem strongly believes that an actual boycott of Israel would devastate the Palestinian economy.   He spoke first about the issue of the expansion of settlements.

When the international community talks about the settlements as the obstacle of peace, I think they forget how important the existing settlements are to the Palestinian economy.  Right now, we have 25,000 Palestinian workers who are entering into the settlements to go to work every day, plus another 92,000 workers who are entering to work inside Israel.”  What would happen if those workers were unable to work in the settlements, or to work within Israel?  If that were to happen, “what will happen to us?  We will starve tomorrow morning.  And no one will pay attention to us.

Recounting some of the recent terror attacks, Bassem described Israeli discussions about preventing Palestinian workers from entering the settlements.  The IDF (Israeli Defense Force) actually went to the government and said  “you couldn’t stop letting Palestinians work in the settlements. That will only escalate the situation.”

Compare this to the recent events in Ramallah, when three men stabbed a border police woman. “When the workers of Kabatia went to go to the check point to go to work, , all of their work permits were taken away.   Imagine the scandal that will create inside Kabatia, For 3 terrorists, we will punish 10,000 workers? Imagine that. And of course, the Palestinian Authority can’t produce one job right now.”  This plays right into his argument against the BDS movement.

“The BDS is calling for a boycott of Israel.  But they never provide any alternatives to improve the lives of Palestinians.  To continue obtaining medical insurance for our children.   I am so happy that haven’t seen any effect, for the BDS, except with what happened with Sodastream.  I think that the Palestinians are aware that a boycott will be counter-productive.  I haven’t seen the Palestinian leadership say ‘Boycott Israel,’ because that will really dismantle the Palestinian authority. BDS is symbolism.  What we need is investment and economic prosperity.  That can’t come from BDS.”

My time with Bassem Eid was extremely enlightening, and covered much more than I have written here.  The issues are complex.  His focus wasn’t on abuses by Israel, but on the problems within Palestine itself, and  how those problems serve as a stumbling block towards advancing a two state solution.  This is not to excuse Israel for its responsibilities.  Indeed, the relationship between Israel and Palestine is one in which the Israelis hold all the political power, it is not a level playing field. But for things to move forward, it is essential to find both new leadership in Palestine, and take steps to improve the economic situation of the average Palestinian.  The conditions have to be present for a Palestinian democracy if a two solution can ever succeed.  For Bassem Eid, economic prosperity and growth is the essential first step.

 

Musings on Tel Aviv

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I don’t think I knew what to make of Tel Aviv when I arrived here on Monday.  I had driven through the city (at least on the freeway) and then into Jaffa last year, when Roger and I went to the Peres Center.  But I really didn’t see Tel Aviv. Oh, I saw lots of buildings and skyscrapers.   This week I am staying in a hostel, a block from the beach.  Its not as nice as the Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem, but its pretty cool opening the windows and smelling the salty air of the ocean.     The area is filled with hotels, and a mix of shops and restaurants, but in the immediate vicinity it isn’t the nicest place.  Oh, its not dangerous (or doesn’t feel dangerous), but there are more upscale areas.

I have done a lot of walking, along Allenby Street, King George Street, Rothschild Blvd, Frischman Street, and Denzaghoff Street.   Each night exploring many of these areas, often just looking for the cafe or restaurant that I wanted to visit.  It is a city of young people.  A city of attractive young people.  A city where people ride bikes on the sidewalks.  A city where there are pets everywhere.  People walking dogs, usually on leashes, sometimes not.  A city where cats roam, but only some are feral.   There is something wild about seeing a little dog just walking the block, and then heading into the store where his owner is.

It is a city with shops everywhere.  Israelis really really like to buy boots apparently.  Between Jerusalem and here, I have seen more shoe stores than anywhere.  They also like cell phone accessories. These stores are everywhere.  Candy shops.  Ice cream and froyo shops.  And fruit stands.  There are large urban malls. The Derzgoff Center has a multiple, four or five story mall, with food carts spread out within it.   Tel Aviv is a city of book stores.  Lots of book stores, most appear to be independent private shops.  It is a city with lots of bike shops, and lots of music stores.

Tel Aviv is famous for its night-life.  I’ll admit I haven’t explored that aspect.  Hell, when the bars open (around 10) I am getting ready for bed.  I know, I know… old man.  It is also a city with a seedy side.  There is only one other city (Las Vegas) I have ever been to where the streets (all the streets) are littered with what in Vegas we jokingly called “porn cards” for female “escorts.”  This is not something you find in Jerusalem.  Definitely not.   There are strip clubs as well (including one on Allenby Street).

Tel Aviv is very very different from Jerusalem.  For one, it is the rare person you see wearing a kippa.  It is certainly secular Israel.  I have seen just one synagogue (“the great synagogue”).  In Jerusalem, you are surrounded by religious jews; in particular by Orthodox and utra-orthodox.  It is sometimes called “The state of Tel Aviv” and it is very different.  Its a fun city.  It lacks the history (other than Jaffa/Yafo) that Jerusalem has.  It is young, and it attracts the young, and business people.  In many ways, the neighborhoods remind me of Dupont Circle or Adams Morgan in Washington DC.   I like Tel Aviv, more so than I did when I arrived.  But it doesn’t have the magnetic appeal of Jerusalem.   It is also very different from Haifa, which while a big city, has a more sleepy feel.  But sleepy in a good way.  Don’t get me wrong, I loved Haifa.   Both cities are definitely worth visiting.   Together Jerusalem, Haifa, and Tel Aviv provide three really different aspects of Israel.

Co-existence and Tolerance in Yafo

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Today I had two very interesting meetings, one with the former deputy director of the Shimon Peres Center for Peace, Dr. Dan Shanit, and the other visiting with a staff member of the Arab-Jewish Community Center in Jaffa.  In fact, both meetings were in Jaffa (or what is known in Hebrew as Yafo), the oldest part of Tel Aviv, and a port that goes back more than 7000 years.    The morning meeting was very interesting, not only getting a clear picture of the co-existence project the Rotary clubs in Jerusalem are working on starting, as well as learning about another project in Jerusalem (Middle East Entrepreneurs of Tomorrow) that uses technology as the tool that brings Jews and Arabs together, with dialogue a side effect.  I’ll be writing about it, and comparing the model to the dialogue first programs.   We also talked about some of the criticisms of the life-raft style programs.  It was a very interesting hour.

This afternoon I traveled back to Yafo, after having started on a bus, but not only the bus was delayed, but then it broke down and I had to walks a bit and then hail a cab.  I was a couple minutes late, but made it to the Arab-Jewish Community Center, a beautiful modern facility overlooking the Med.  This was a co-existence project unlike any I have encountered.  The municipality of Yafo covers about 55,000 people, with about 35,000 Jews, and 20,000 Arabs.  The community center is just that – a place for the community to gather: after school programs, dance programs, martial arts, a library, a gymnasium, and workout gym for women, and a focus on tolerance programs.   The Center works with the Citizens Accord Forum for Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem (I met them last week), and sponsors a youth parliament for high school students (a similar program has existed in Haifa, under the same umbrella).   There is also a classroom exchange program in 3-4th grade, between Jewish and Arab public schools, where the kids do joint programs twice a month at the Community Center (and visit each other’s school at the end of the year).   There is a youth camp organized by the teenagers as well.  There are also programs aimed for women in the community, and a lot more, which I will explore in greater depth.   I was really impressed by the look and feel of the place.  Some of the programs – focused on dance – reminded me of the Netflix documentary “Dancing in Jaffa,” which I need to re-watch.

The day also included time for a run along the beach.  Oh that was fun.  A walk to Rabin Square (not worth it), and exploring some more Tel Aviv neighborhoods.  Tomorrow I have two meetings in the most commercial areas of the city —  Breaking the Impasse, and Eco Peace (Friends of the Earth Middle East).  That will wrap up my formal meetings for the trip.  I had to cancel the Abraham Fund meetings due to a conflict on their side, but Eco Peace was added.  I will also have a skype interview in a week or so with The Shades Negotiation Project.     And next week the hard work of digesting all of the materials and trying to make sense of what I experienced will begin.

I’m going to miss this incredible weather too.  Oh, it topped out at 84 today.  Totally atypical for February, but no one is complaining!

Ancient sites, medieval cities, and a natural wonder

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The second half of my trip has been a bit more laid back, although there are a slew of meetings tomorrow and Thursday. Of course, I accomplished so much in the first eight days, I have far more source material for my work.   Today I decided I wanted an opportunity to see a bit more of Israel – of places that were on my “Israel bucket-list.” So, I took a tour visiting the ancient Herodian port and palace at Caesaria (I went last year, one of my favorites, so a repeat visit was truly enjoyable). I think I enjoyed it even more today.  But someday I want to go without being on a clock, and just spend hours poking around the various ruins.

We then drove up the coast, made a drive through Haifa (which I had just left) and stopped at the top of the Baha’i Gardens (where I think I knew more about them, than the guide), That was still kind of cool.  I truly love that city, so even another 45 minutes there was enoyable.

Next we drove north along the coast to  Rosh Hanikra, and its ocean grottos at the Lebanese border. We took a tram to the bottom, and then walked through the caves/grottos.  This was the highlight of the day. Absolutely gorgeous, and the water was crystal clear. If I could have ridden a kayak through them! We were right on the Lebanese border, and there was an Israeli naval ship patrolling the area off-shore.  I first learned of them in the travel documentary,  Israel: The Royal Tour, and have wanted to see them ever since.  They did not disappoint.   Its hard to imagine soldiers fighting in those grottos in prior wars.

 
The day then ended in the Crusader-era city of Acco (also known as Akko, or Acre), where we had lunch and visited the old city. This ended up being much more interesting than I expected. About 40 years ago excavations began and the crusader-era city under the Ottoman empire buildings was uncovered. This was truly impressive. I took a ton of photos, and some are on Facebook, most were taken with my good camera, and will be processed when I get home. A good 11 hour day.
 
Then I walked around Tel Aviv and enjoyed a fun dinner at “The Chocolate Bar.” Yeah, how could I not? All in all a good day.   8am breakfast meeting with the former deputy director general of the Peres Peace Center in Jaffa.  

Thoughts on Haifa

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Later this morning I leave Haifa, and will take a train (which runs every half-hour) to Tel Aviv, the most modern of Israeli cities, and the youngest. Haifa is not an ancient city, but it is unlike any place I have seen in Israel so far. It is built on the base, on the side, and on the top of Mount Carmel, and extends on both the harbor side and the ocean (or sea) side. It is an integrated city. It is impossible to tell which neighborhoods are Jewish or Arab.  Many many neighborhoods are mixed.   There is a large Russian Jewish population, and you are likely to hear Russian on the streets as much as Hebrew.  And far less English — although as is always true, there is never a problem communicating.

Being built on a mountain, the city is reminiscent of San Francisco, but with a much nicer climate.  You can pretty much see the Mediterranean sea wherever you are.   The harbor side is dominated by the spectacular Baha’i Gardens, and the “Shrine of the Baab.”  The Baha’i is one of the youngest religions in the world, beginning in Iran (Persia) in the 19th century.  Yet, other than Baha’i volunteers who work their properties, there is no actual Baha’i community in Haifa, or indeed, in Israel.

The German Colony was built by the “Templers”  (no, not the Knights Templar, of Dan Brown Davinci Code fame), but the Templers — a group of Christians who came to Palestine in the late 1800s.   The German Colony is small, but all the buildings have distinctive looks.  And the street is filled with restaurants and cafes, from the entrance to the port, to the base of the Baha’i Gardens.  Some restaurants are Jewish, some Arab.  There are several “Hookah” cafes.   The place is teeming with people all day long.   Even on Shabbat.   The buses run on Saturdays from 10am – 6pm, once an hour (a far cry from Jerusalem).    Most of the stores are open.

There are far more neighborhoods and regions of the city than I can describe.  To the south of the German Colony is the Wadi Nisma, a mostly (but not exclusively) Arab old downtown, with produce markets, shops, and a lot of life.  Then further south is a more modern downtown with tall office buildings.    There is a highway that cuts from the Galilee side through the mountain in a tunnel, and comes out on the Haifa Coast.  The “beach side” has its share of large buildings as well.     The “Carmel” is the business district on the top of the mountain, mostly Jewish.     The far northern edge of the mountain is where the Carmelite monastery Stelle Maris (Mary Star of the Sea) is located.  The carmelite monks date back to the 12th century.

Haifa is home to two world class universities, the Technion (Israel’s MIT) and the University of Haifa.  I didn’t see either of them, as they are on the south side of the city, one on the mountain, the other in the plain.  It has public and private schools, like Leo Baeck Educational Center and Sisters of Nazareth School.    I visited Leo Baeck last year, and walked past Sisters of Nazareth (the two schools of last year’s Friends Forever delegation) a few times.

I am sure my descriptions are incomplete, probably inaccurate in some places, but Haifa is a lovely place to visit.  I am glad I was able to spend 3 days here exploring and visiting with my Friends Forever family.   I visited two homes, went to restaurants, even had coffee and dessert at a beach cafe at night.  It is a vibrant place.  I don’t get the sense that as many American tourists spend time here – except for a quick tour bus ride up the mountain to look at the overlook for the Baha’i Gardens, but that is a mistake.

Ok, time to pack my stuff up, take one last walk around, and then head to Tel Aviv.   I would highly recommend people visit Haifa.

From simplicity to luxury

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I opted to stay in Jerusalem at a hostel.  The Abraham Hostel was a place I visited on my first trip, as it was the departing point for two tours I took.  I rented a private room, and stayed for 8 nights.  It was very simple, but full of life.   The room looked like a dorm room (Julie said it looked like a convent room), there was a huge kitchen, bar, and common area.  The common area was filled with people throughout the day and night.  There was much activity in the evening.  Breakfast was free every morning.  Simple fare, but it did the trick.  You were expected to wash your own dishes.  Ok, that worked.  I’ll probably stay there again.  It met all my needs, and the price was pretty much unbelievably reasonable.  I loved it.  Easy access to everything.

My three days in Haifa are completely different.  I am staying at a luxurious boutique hotel in the German Colony,  – a hotel that dates back to the British Mandate.  The Colony Hotel has tile floors, marble bathroom floor, a balcony to the street,  every bit of the hotel is beautiful.   The room comes with free breakfast – a spread as good as any I have had in Israel, in a beautiful dining room.  It is simply luxurious, yet still even without the negotiated rate from the Friends Forever partner school, very reasonably priced.  I am very glad I am staying here.  I am equally glad, I stayed first at the hostel.   I am sure when I am at Hayarkon 48 hostel in Tel Aviv-Yafo, that it will be back to simplicity.  But I’m equally confident that the location a block from the beach will more than make up for it.

Ok, back to enjoying a slow Saturday.

Welcome to Haifa

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Today I began the second part of my trip.  I got up early, checked out of the hostel (which, while incredibly simple, met all of my needs for a week), and took the light-rail to Central Bus Station.  Took me a few minutes to figure out where to buy the bus ticket, but I got the ticket, and settled in to wait for the 9 am bus to Haifa.  The ride ended up taking about 1h40 minutes.  Very easy.  Only two stops.  I will say this – I was proud of myself, graduating from intra-city buses in Jerusalem, to inter-city buses to Haifa.

I arrived in Haifa and was met at the bus Carmel Beach bus station by Rolla Dalal, the mom of one of the friends forever teens from last summer.  Rolla and I had friended each other during the life-raft.  She drove me to the German Colony on the other side of Mt. Carmel, at the bottom of the Baha’i Gardens.  A gorgeous hotel, on an incredible strip of property, at the base of the Baha’i gardens.

I visited Haifa briefly last year, but stayed to the south in Ein Hod, and really only drove through the city quickly.   Today, I was able to get a much better perspective, if only a small part of it.  Rolla helped me get checked-in, and then we went on a walk to the base of the Gardens, and then took a ride up the hill side, to the second level, where the temple is, and then to the far top of the mountain.   She then dropped me off in a commercial area called “Carmel Center,” a downtown area on the top of the mountain, where I met two of the Friends Forever alums (Ido, from this summer, and his brother Daniel, who I met briefly last year).  Their mom Eti joined us, and we had a great lunch at a hummus restaurant, then walked to their apartment where we spent a few hours socializing.  Just a fun time.

Ido then walked me down the hill to the bus stop where I took a Haifa city bus back to the German Colony.  Damn, I’m getting good with these Israeli buses.   Had an hour at the room, and then met Rolla, her husband Solel, and Luna in the lobby and we walked to a restaurant where we had a great dinner, outside.  YES, I SAID OUTSIDE. #sorrynotsorry.    But more important, just a wonder conversation. We were were there for almost 3 hours.

The day did not have intense meetings. Yet, it was as memorable and enjoyable as any day I have spent here.   And in many ways, I learned just as much about perceptions of the issues today (from different perspectives) than I did the first week.  I can’t really put it into words, and perhaps I don’t need to, but I guess the main idea is that the discussions that have dominated my first week went from the abstract or academic or professional to the very personal level.   It was a great day.

And I’ll end with this.  Haifa is a gorgeous city.  It is unlike anyplace I have seen in Israel. Indeed, once can argue that Haifa, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv-Yafo are completely different cities, with different feels.  Geography dominates Haifa in a way different than Jerusalem.  It is on Mediterranean.  The ocean (or sea) surrounds it, to the west, and to the north.  The harbor curves north towards Acco and all the way to the Lebanese border.  I’m told on a clear day, you can sometimes see as far as Beirut.  It is a city in some ways like San Francisco, but tends to have streets that switch-back up and across the city.   There are tall buildings at the base, there are tall buildings on top, neighbors throughout. With stunning views, and on the harbor side, dominated by the beautiful grounds and structure of the Baha’i Gardens.  Its pretty impressive.

Farewell to Jerusalem

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Tomorrow morning, I will leave Jerusalem for the second time in less than 12 months.  The concept of that is hard to grapple.  The fact that I have been here twice in such a short time really is a testament to the pull that this city has.  In the seven days I have been here, it has been a whirlwind.  I was incredibly lucky, in that I was invited to join along on 3 1/2 days of programs organized by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which had organized a world class, extremely fair and balanced, trip for a group of evangelical thought leaders, designed to explore the different dynamics of the conflict; to see the deeper narratives; and get a small taste of Israel.

In the last week, I have met with, or listened to a long list of people, in reverse order, including:

  • Professor Moshe Halbertal, senior fellow, Shalom Hartman Institute
  • David Horivitz, editor in chief of the Times of Israel
  • Salim Munayer, director of Musahala: a reconciliation program
  • Kids 4 Peace
  • Deborah Applebaum
  • PLO chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat
  • Dr. Kahlil Shikaki, Director, Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research
  • Mr. Amir Dajani, Managing Director, Rawabi, a new Palestinian planned city
  • Gal Berger, Israeli Journalist
  • Avi Melamed, Fellow of Intelligence and Middle East Affairs, Eisinhower Institute
  • Udi Cohen, director, Citizens Accord Forum for Jews and Arabs in Israel
  • Rabbi Arik Aschermann, senior rabbi, Rabbis for Human Rights
  • Professor Yossi Klein Halevi, senior fellow, Shalom Hartman Institute
  • Eliyahu McLean, Abrahamic Reunion
  • Bassem Eid, Palestinian Human Rights Activist and Political Commentator
  • Shaul Judelson and Jawad, Friends of Roots
  • Walid Issa, Shades Negotiation Project
  • Rabbi David Rosen, interfaith director for judaism outside of the US
  • Rev. Canon Hosan Naoum, dean of St. George’s Cathedral
  • Poet Rivka Miriam

Add to that, visiting Jerusalem’s Old City on Shabbat, the grave of Oskar Schindler, the tomb of David, the Tower of David museum, the Israel Museum, west jerusalem, Yad VaShem,  Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity, Ramallah, Rawabi, the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo, the Gush Etzion settlement bloc (ok, it was dark out, and we pretty much just went to the winery), and numerous neighborhoods in West Jerusalem.  I even learned how to navigate the public bus system.  And a wonderful dinner with a friend’s daughter.

I’ll admit my blogging has been sporadic.  Look at all those people and places.  An awful lot of material and ideas to think through. But there will be more to come, over the next week here in Israel, and in the month to come.

Tomorrow, phase two begins.  Light rail to Central Bus station, and then an express bus to Haifa, where I will spend the week in the German Colony, and will spend every possible minute reuiniting with the friends forever kids and their families.  Then a night in Nazareth to spend with Raed, and then the last four days in Tel Aviv, with more meetings, and some opportunity to explore a part of Israel I haven’t seem before.

Rabbinical Watch Dogs – Rabbis for Human Rights

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Today didn’t quite go as I hoped it would.  I had a 9am meeting with Rabbi Arik Aschermann, senior rabbi for Rabbis for Human Rights, a watch dog organization that serves to tie together all the various Jewish denominations, with a focus on curbing human rights violations by the Israeli government, and by Israeli security forces.   The meeting was at their offices in the Ha-Bankin area, several blocks west of Hebron Road.  I opted to take public transit, and took my first bus ride.  Not bad.  5.9 shekels each way, took about 20 minutes.  Would have cost me 30 or 40 shekels for a cab, given traffic maybe more.

I got there, and the rabbi was a bit late, but that was ok, it gave me time to arrange my thoughts.  It was an intriguing hour.   Rabbi Aschermann looks very much like a human rights activist.  A bit disheveled, a long beard, but incredibly passionate about the work he does.   RHR does a wide range of work, from using talmudic commentary to provide education about what judaism has to say about human rights, calling for economic justice, human rights, economic poverty, public housing, etc.   Its most famous work its work on behalf of Palestinians, to ensure they can safely access their lands.

RHR does its work through multiple tracks — grassroots activism (with members and volunteers( who will serve as human shields to stop the seizure of land by the IDF) to work in the cooridors of power, through the courts, media campaigns, and lobbying.    Their mandate is human rights, and they don’t take political positions on how to end the conflict, “whether it is one state, two state, or ten state.”   They don’t seek to stop the expansion of new settlement homes on the West Bank, but they  focus instead on preventing the expansion of settler appropriation of farm lands.  To them that is the big picture.  They believe that by definition, every settlement is illegal, but they maintain their focus, to prevent their work from being muddled.  As an Israeli organization- with ties to all Jewish religious entities, it does not focus much on Palestinian Authority Human Rights violations.  “As Israelis our mandate is to deal with the things that we – Israelis – are doing, and less what others are doing.”  But they condemn all terror attacks.

We talked about a lot more, and even about the “toxic” approach of the Presbyterian Church USA (his words, not as RHR but as an individual), and I’ll expound on that later.  But for now, he asked a question.  At the 221st General Assembly, the divestment resolution included language added to the floor for the church to call for positive investment, but he asks, has that happened?  It is the most important thing, in his mind, for improving the lot of Palestinians.  This does not surprise me.   And it fits with what I have heard from others, including Bassem Eid — who discussed  how the failure of the Palestinians to do anything to stop the stabbings and murders since last October, has resulted in a huge loss in economic terms.  Bethlehem was practically empty over the Christmas holidays.

But getting back to Rabbi Aschermann, I was impressed by his ability to bring the economic questions back to the talmud.   He referred me to a blog he wrote in the Times of Israel during the 2014 Gaza War.  “When Justice Blinds” provides an excellent overview of issues. He wrote, “As I said at the outset, Israel is absolutely justified in defending herself against rockets and tunnels, even though Pirke Avot 5:11 teaches that, “The sword comes into the world because of justice delayed and justice denied,” and even though a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is essential to protecting ourselves in the long run.”    But justice blinds in that while the Israelis were correct in that they had total justice in their claim to fight back against rockets being fired into Israel, they forgot that there are human beings on the other side.  And from the Palestinian side, they are absolutely correct that they have lived under occupation for 50 years, and the justification of their cause blinds them to the fact that there are human beings on the other side as well.

The meeting was very much enlightening, and there is much more to sort through.  When it ended, I had 3 hours before my next meeting, with the Citizens Accord Forum Between Jews and Arabs, which happened to be 2 blocks away.   I decided to walk through some Jerusalem neighborhoods and find a cafe to have a snack and try to catch up on my work.  Well, that’s when things went south.   I walked about 1/2 mile north into a beautiful neighborhood filled with shops, cafes, and restaurants, and even found a bakery shop called Marzipan, which was recommended by one of my students.  Alas, my stomach was acting up, and sweet treats were not in the cards.   I spent an hour, maybe 90 minutes, and started to walk back.  Dang, that’s when it all went south.  Lets just say, I had a full blown stomach bug.   I thought after an unfortunate incident (in which a very kind Israeli woman immediately came to my aid) I was ok, and I found a pharmacy in a mall to find some pepto.  I decided I thought I’d be ok for the second meeting. I was wrong.  I got about 10 minutes in, and had to excuse myself.  I returned, and managed to continue the meeting, but to be honest, I need to listen to the tape, as I am unclear exactly he said, but it was quite valuable, in terms of challenging some of the methods used for co-existence projects, but not rejecting the idea of co-existence or shared societies.   More on that later.

I managed to get back to the bus, and made it to the hotel, where I rested for about 4 hours, and then felt good enough to go out to dinner with my friend Rabbi Rebecca’s daughter Rachel, who is studying at Hebrew Union College, in a graduate program on jewish education.  We had a lovely conversation and a nice evening.  I had some soup.   Yeah, taking it slowly. But so far, I am feeling better, and I will do everything to go on the trip to Ramallah tomorrow.  That will be a highlight.     I can hardly believe I only have 2 more days in Jerusalem.    Ok,that’s it for today.

Two Days later… hard at work

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Somehow it is already Monday night.  I last wrote on Saturday.  Sunday was a long, good day.  Joined Ethan Felson’s JCPA/Christianity Today group on a day that began at St. George’s Cathedral in East Jerusalem, at 8am.   It was raining out, so instead of walking, I took light rail.   The day began with a 90 minute meeting with Rabbi David Rosen and Rev. Canon Hasan Naoum, Dean of St. George’s.  The discussion was about interfaith work.  Rabbi Rosen is the director of international interfaith work for all of judaism, outside of the United States.   Father Hasson, is  an Anglican priest, in charge of St. George’s, the only Anglican church in the old city area.  (it is directly north of the old city).

We then went to the morning service, which was interesting.  It was a high liturgy, with much similarity to roman catholic mass, but with about 75 percent in English the rest in Arabic.  That was interesting to participate in.

Then we were off to Bethlehem, but the weather was miserable – pouring rain by the bucket, so it wasn’t quite as fun as when I went last winter. We literally parked at the entrance to the Church of the Nativity, and went in.  The church has been under renovation for several years, and as a result, you coudn’t really get a good feel for what it actually looks like on the inside.  Lots of scaffolding.  But in addition, because it was Sunday, the Roman Catholic part was closed, as was the entrance to St Jerome’s cave.  The church actually has three parts,  Greek Orthodox, Armenian, and RC.   The metaphorical birthplace of Jesus is accessed through the Greek Orthodox part.   The words metaphorical are mine, as there is no way to tell where Jesus was born, assuming he was born in Bethlehem.  I know, stick to the day.

After the church we went to lunch at a Palestinian restaurant across from security barrier (the occupation wall) adjacent to the Jacir Palace hotel.  This was exactly where we were last year.  Lunch was great, with good conversation, and then it was off to a store for souvenirs.  I didn’t partake, nothing struck my fancy. I couldn’t see myself coming home with a baby Jesus doll or a wood manger (which interestingly enough, was not a cave!).   Then we were off heading south towards Hebron to Gush Etzion, a settlement about 20 minutes south.  We were there to meet with representatives of Roots or Shorashim.  This is a unique program that brings settlers and Palestinians together in not just co-existence efforts, but dialogue, and shared living.  They have a small plot of farm land which is the foundation for a wide variety of programs, including grassroots development, a local leader program, and ways to connect communities between settlers and local Palestinians.  The program was really quite impressive, and gave me a much better feel for the potential of positive interactions within the settlement blocs than when I was in Hebron last year.   We also met at a winery in Gush Etzion.

Then it was time to head back to Jerusalem, where we had some time off, before dinner at a nice restaurant, where we had what was one of the highlights of the day — a hour conversation — a lecture really – by Yossi Klein Halevi, a journalist and scholar at the Shalom Hartman Institute.  Yossi did an incredible job bringing together the evolution of the conflict since the 1980s, before the First Intifada, and really captured the challenges today.  This too demands much thought, and I will be writing up a summary of it.    That was the day.   8am to 10pm.

Today started early.  Really early.  4:30am early.  Why?  Well, I can’t seem to sleep past then, but this morning the Super Bowl was going on, so I turned on my iPad, and connected to my Hopper 3 receiver at home and managed to watch the Broncos bring home the first championship since 1999.  That was a nice start to the day.   My real work began at 9am, however, when I spent 70 minutes with Bassem Eid, a well known Palestinian human rights activist.  Bassem and I had an incredible conversation, grappling with the issues faced by Palestinians and the real failure of the Palestinian Authority to provide any sort of democratic leadership.   And yes, this too will be expounded on later.   I have a lot of work to do.

An hour later, I met my friend Eliyahu McLean.  I first met Eliyahu when he was my guide to Hebron, last February.  But he also  came to ISU this Fall, for the Abrahamic Reunion multi-faith event in October.  We went to a really neat local hummus restaurant in an orthodox neighborhood 5 or 10 minutes to the west, and just chatted for 2 hours.

Then this afternoon, I followed up on a promise I made, and headed on the light rail, to Yad VaShem, the World Holocaust Memorial/Museum, but this time went to the Holocaust (or Shoah) archives, where I spent an hour collecting materials from a community in Hungary for my friend Shamira Gelbman.  That was actually a lot of fun.  I then did a fairly quick walk through the museum, and visited the children’s memorial before returning to the hostel.

I took a few hours off, did some laundry, then walked the neighborhoods around the hostel, and in city center, and grabbed a bite to eat.   And now, I am back, describing my day.

Tomorrow I have two meetings, with Rabbis for Human Rights, and the Citizens Accord Forum Between Jews and Arabs.   This will also be my first foray onto the public bus system.   I’ll have some time off in the afternoon, and then am going to dinner with Rabbi Rebecca’s daughter, who is studying at Hebrew Union College.   I can hardly believe tomorrow will be my fourth day here.

I’ll end with this.  Jerusalem is one of the most incredible cities I have been to. It so diverse in many ways.  Its hard to put into words, but I just love the feel of the place.  And in many ways, I like West Jerusalem better than the Old City.  The neighborhoods and restaurants have such variety and an authentic feel.   It very much is a city where East meets West, and it is sometimes hard to imagine that we are in the Middle East, and not somewhere in Europe.  Yet, at other times, there is a completely Middle Eastern feel.  There are so many competing cultures, and foods, and smells, and everything that goes with it.

Ok, I’m done.  More tomorrow.  And I’ll begin to pull together my notes from the experience so far.  My last trip was about competing narratives.  This trip has already exceeded that in many ways.

 

 

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