The two separate worlds of Jerusalem
I can no longer see how the militaristic society of Israel will change, and I no longer know what it'll take to make this society less
militaristic and more humane.
by Dorit Naaman
April 12, 2007
Jerusalem — We've been here for two months now, and this is my first letter to you, my North American friends. This trip is obviously quite different from my past ones given that I have a child. My world has shrunk significantly and I operate in a small radius of home, Lily's day care, playgrounds, and the various archives I visit during the day.
The best thing about being here is that Lily — 14 months old — is in heaven. Watching her squeal in delight as soon as we reach my parents' building, and watching their outpouring of love and affection is
absolutely wonderful. Seeing her interact with my friends and relatives and their children is also heartwarming.
I no longer feel at home here, and yet, my entire family is here, and I want Lily to have some of the support and sense of belonging they still try to bestow on me.
I was born in Israel and raised here. I went to study in the U.S. and then to Canada in 1995. I had a teaching position in the U.S. and since 2002 have been living in Kingston and teaching at Queen's.
I am here in Israel on a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) grant to research the visual representation of Palestinian and Israeli women fighters. It is a joint project with Prof. Nahla Abdo (Carleton U.).
My work is going well, if much more slowly than I was hoping for. I visit numerous archives and libraries, am watching interesting films, reading material that's available only in Hebrew, and finding interesting stuff for my project on women fighters, although little of it is readily visible, but mostly it is buried in other contexts.
I am also studying spoken Arabic twice a week and have made quite a bit of progress in the last little while. For this course I travel to the eastern part of Jerusalem, or the Palestinian city, and while it is just 15 minutes away, it feels like another world altogether. I still ponder how two cities could exist so distinctly apart, and yet be part of one urban fabric. I understand how the political and administrative barriers are set, but still find it so difficult to believe people have so little to do with each other. There are no organized checkpoints between the two parts of Jerusalem, but heavy police presence, and I often feel I am being watched.
Obviously, I haven't been roaming the country as much as I used to, so my experience of Israel is much more localized. As always, I am devastated by the lack of interest the majority of Israelis show towards the Palestinian situation (and a catastrophic one at that). As always, I find it difficult to reconcile the internal contradictions; people are awfully nice to each other if there are any social ties, so for instance, all the neighbours I met offered help, one brought flowers and sweets on the first week we were here, and tried to help me find a day care for Lily.
But then on the street people are just aggressive, inconsiderate and violent to each other, and so the day-to-day life on the street is just unpleasant. Drivers in particular are scary, and every time I am on the road I have to contain my rage and fear. Since I have been here there's been not one week with fewer than ten people killed in car accidents — a recent week saw 18 casualties. In three of the cases people simply drove through red traffic lights.
With the complete collapse and evaporation of trust in the governmental, judicial and law systems, and with growing economic gaps between rich and poor, there are many other signs of lawlessness. Since I arrived the president and former justice minister have both been accused of rape and sexual assault respectively. The latter resigned and was found guilty. The chief of police was fired for major corruption, and there is an
investigation of corruption against the prime minister, already in proceedings for trial.
It may not be surprising that my overall conclusion is that this society is very very sick.
A couple of weeks ago I decided to join a large demonstration against the Apartheid fence in the village of Bil'in (in that area it is a set of wire fences and not the concrete wall more common around Jerusalem and in other places). In many villages there has been non-violent grassroot resistance to the confiscation of lands, uprooting of olive trees, and the fence itself, which not only locks Palestinians in small enclaves, but also kills their livelihood and chances of employment.
Some Israeli and international groups have joined these demonstrations and in Bil'in, that day marked two years of weekly demonstrations. By now, the fence there is complete, and the village's lands have been appropriated for a new settlement which is built on them illegally (illegal even in the minds of the Supreme Court).
Despite the lack of any results to such resistance, the demonstrations continue weekly. Because of the anniversary many organizations joined together, and that day there were close to a thousand people marching — Israelis, Palestinians and Internationals — plus quite a bit of media presence. I wanted to see for myself what this form of resistance looks like, and I wanted to support this (now hopeless, it seems) cause.
I knew that these demonstrations often end violently, with the army attacking with tear gas, shell bombs and rubber-coated bullets (those are mostly directed at Palestinians, but on occasion an Israeli or an
International were targeted as well). I also knew that at least in one event the army sent in soldiers dressed as Palestinians. They threw rocks at the soldiers, which then gave the soldiers an excuse to reply with their disproportionate forms of power.
But at that time the demonstrators caught those pretenders (a unit called MISTAREVIM), and exposed them, the whole event documented on video cameras. I was hoping that that particular Friday would be quiet, given the larger than usual event, and the heavy presence of the press. Well, I was wrong.
We (Israelis) had to sneak into the West Bank (Israelis are not supposed to be in certain parts of the West Bank, but the fence/wall makes it very difficult to enter any part of it). We came on four or five buses full of people, and some managed to arrive with their own vehicles as well.
At the village people socialized, drank coffee and ate together, and there was an exhibition of pictures from previous demonstrations. Finally, we started marching towards the fence, down from the village. The soldiers were waiting on the other side of the fence, covering a peninsula of about 270 degrees with their guns loaded and pointed at the crowd. The speeches lasted less than five minutes, before someone tried to climb the fence, and the soldiers started shooting. The majority of the thousand people backed up, but the soldiers blocked the retreat route with tear gas and shell bombs.
I started running through the terraces, barely seeing through the tears choking on the gas. Next to me, a guy ran straight into a shell bomb, which made awful burns on his legs. I ran and stopped, eventually made my way through the tear gas, back up the hill, and away from the “battle zone.” All the way up I was crying, cursing, and in my heart making promises to Lily that I will never ever knowingly risk myself like that again.
I knew I was not at risk of dying, and I was aware, even at the time, how privileged I am that I can make this promise to Lily. I mean, in Bil'in, for instance, the soldiers come in whenever they want, often in the middle of the night, terrorizing civilian families and invading their private lives, all in an attempt to crash this spirit of resistance.
When I finally reached the top of the hill I stood with others who tried to watch the events, but the tear gas got closer and closer and eventually I retreated to the village. There I ran into Osnat, an old friend from university, a film producer (among other films she produced the famous documentary Arna's Children). With other filmmakers we walked into a tiny little grocery store (the only one in the village) to see the “battle” raging live on the TV screen courtesy of Al Jazeera. The “battle”
continued for two or three hours with a few Palestinians wounded, but no arrests.
Going to Bil'in shattered my belief or hope that there could be
non-violent resistance to this occupation. On the one hand I saw how ineffective such an attempt is, how futile, and how, eventually, even the morally superior non-violent side is forced into acting its role in the cycle of violence.
But more fundamentally I realized the incredible violence that's enacted daily by the fence itself, and is magnified by the dozens of soldiers on their armed vehicles with their guns pointing towards us, who are there every Friday for these demonstrations. The local Palestinian leaders of the popular committees are committed both philosophically and practically to non-violence. But it is not easy to contain the anger of a young generation who has nothing, and I do mean nothing to look forward to — no prospects of education, work, income, or even access to their own lands.
The fence and the soldiers behind it symbolize this lack of hope, and so, even before (or if no) rocks are thrown, the situation is violent. Furthermore, it became so crystal clear that the heavy presence of the press was precisely because they knew they would have good (i.e. violent and volatile) footage, and not a calm non-violent demonstration.
I still don't know what to do with all this new awareness. I want to oppose the occupation, and I am not willing to be violent. I have the privilege of being able to choose not to be violent, so I do my work in education from afar. But I am not sure what to educate for, what to aspire to beyond the very abstract idea of a dignified existence, freedom, safety, independence, etc. How do we get there if we refuse the means of the occupier? I just don't know and find it difficult to find hopeful sights.
This is not to say that there isn't non-violent resistance worth enacting. I am in awe at what Tali Fahima has done, what many organizations (like Zochrot, Machsom Watch, Anarchists Against the Wall, and many others) do relentlessly, even when they see no hope for change. I've seen some excellent and brave documentaries by Israeli filmmakers who dare to look straight into the monster's face. I just don't know that these will ever be more than marginal sites of sanity and morality. I can no longer see how the militaristic society of Israel will change, and I no longer know what it'll take to make this society less militaristic and more humane.
To finish on a less depressing note I want to emphasize that I am not alone, and that my analysis is not that new either. In the films I've been watching recently, I should mention Hirbat Hizaa (by Ram Levy) from the 1970s and Avanti Popolo (by Rafi Bu'kai) from the mid 1980s, both
excellent films that provide insightful and poignant analysis to the militaristic core of this society.
There's also a new book by an Israeli sociologist, Orna Sasson Levy, a feminist reading of multiple identities inside the army, which stirs some discussion. I also want to mention a play/reading I went to hear, a theatrical adaptation to a book (Dionysus in the Mall) which excavates the history of the first big shopping mall in Israel, back to the migrant shanty town that preceded it, and further back to the Palestinian land owner from Jaffa.
So, for whatever it's worth, this culture is not completely lacking in self-awareness and criticism.
Dorit Naaman teaches at Queen's University in Kingston. She is in Israel to research the visual representation of Palestinian and Israeli women fighters.