Thursday, May 27, 2010


Posted by Harriet Malinowitz

May 27, 2010

I arrived at my cousin Yehudit’s house (I’m changing all the family names) late, but not too late for everyone to sit down to one of those Israeli evening meals featuring salad chopped up into tiny little pieces and a staggering array of dairy products. (Will Israel ultimately self-destruct on its own clogged arteries?)

A little background on Yehudit: though we’re technically fairly distant cousins (at least third—we never figured it out, exactly, because there were too many others and too many “removed” in the way), there has been a close connection between our families for over two generations. Her mother, Miriam, came to New York as a refugee from Austria and became integrated into my mother’s family in the Bronx before ultimately moving to Jerusalem. My maternal aunt, Libby, lived in Israel for a number of years in the 1960s, when Yehudit was a child, and stayed frequently with Miriam (then widowed) and Yehudit in their Talbia apartment. (Libby tried to set up a pen-pal relationship between Yehudit—who is just a year older than me—and myself, which I was very excited about, but Yehudit never responded to my enthusiastic missive.) Later, when I was a young and vacuous sojourner in Israel—picking grapefruit on kibbutzim and hitchhiking around the Golan Heights, all in an exuberant, oblivious daze—I, too, stayed frequently at Miriam’s apartment, while Yehudit, living in the U.S. for several years, moved in for a while with my mother (then widowed) in Queens and became very much a part of my whole family. When I returned to the U.S., Yehudit and I became good friends; when I visited Israel again in the summers of 1982 (yes, invasion of Lebanon) and 1984, I stayed at her apartment in Gilo, which I was told was a “new neighborhood” of Jerusalem (they were laying the Jerusalem stone for new buildings even as I visited) and which I had no idea, till someone mentioned it to me my last night there, was on occupied territory. (I was beginning to ask questions and visited a friend at the relatively progressive Keren Shalom kibbutz, located at the Gaza border, where my Gilo bubble was burst.)

Yehudit and I are very different. She’s always wanted a much more conventional life than I have, and she got it. She now has a husband, Yigal, who doesn’t speak much English (“He doesn’t speak much in any language” Yehudit assured me), and two daughters who are fairly fluent in English—Rahel, age 17 (primed to go into the army next year) and Esty, age 15. They live in a fairly new neighborhood (I think this one really is a “neighborhood,” though I wouldn’t swear to anything anymore) of Jerusalem, in an apartment built into a cliff with a huge, flower-filled balcony looking out over gorgeous hills and valleys and the non-defined border between “Israel” and the “West Bank.” (I put these in quotes because the very lack of specified borders renders them both quasi-fictional—at least from the vantage point of that balcony.) It also looks down over the Biblical Zoo—so-called because, apparently, it was created to house only animals that were mentioned in the bible (great fodder for my propaganda studies)—and so, over morning coffee, you can see giraffes and rhinoceroses walking around in the sun.

Yehudit describes herself as “an educated person who reads Haaretz.” This is accurate. She is highly intelligent, has a high-level job in a publishing house, loves art and classical music, and is one of the very few Israelis trained as a China scholar. (Years ago, she translated Chinese revolutionary poetry into Hebrew.) She has always been a Labor Party supporter, has grieved at the rightward electoral trends in the country from Begin in 1977 to Netanyahu now, disapproves of the Occupation, and believes in a “two-state solution.” In other words, she is in that category of Israelis, which I find hard to comprehend, that is “liberal” economically and socially (to a point) yet adheres to unfathomable segregationist positions, recites the old histories of Zionism as if they had never been refuted (or even challenged), and sees plans such as Barak’s “generous offer” at Camp David as a tenable solution to the conflict. (“They could have a state if they wanted it!” she says.)

Spending time with Yehudit interests me for several reasons. First, I care about her—yet this has become an increasingly schizophrenic experience for me as Palestine has loomed larger and larger in my life over the past decade. I have always felt forgiving of genuine ignorance—that state when one believes something because one has truly never been confronted with material that would prompt one to question it. In other words, I don’t think the words “I didn’t know” are necessarily hypocritical (though they can certainly be used that way), and I am happy to give people the benefit of the doubt when they say them—providing that they are clearly trying to know and desirous of knowing. It’s “I don’t want to know” that drives me crazy. And this is what’s so puzzling about “educated people who read Haaretz.” How can you read Amira Hass and Gideon Levy and real reportage of events that wouldn’t have a chance of appearing in The New York Times—how can you admire Tom Segev and have worked on publishing a book by Ilan Pappe—and not question the old narratives? How can you be a “compassionate,” “civilized” person and parrot the ludicrous justifications from Hasbara Central about last year’s massacres in Gaza? How can you stand on a balcony, pointing out various sites—“That’s the Cremisan winery outside Bethlehem—that’s theirs; that’s Gilo—that’s ours” –and not even concede that the latter is up for debate?

I don’t get it. But I believe there are explanations, and that’s one reason I’m so interested in the study of propaganda—which I see as hovering at the border between rhetoric (my field) and social psychology. (In fact, they blend together—like “Israel” and the “West Bank,” I don’t really know where the border is, or if I believe it exists.) And that’s why, though I visit Yehudit and her family because I do care about them—that really is the only reason I do go—I can’t help but capitalize on the opportunity to be a participant-observer in a fascinating anthropological setting. And fascinating it was—though it worked well only as long as I didn’t lose my cool—and I regret to say that there were indeed a few moments when I lost it.

I certainly found that the most useful thing to do was to ask questions and to listen. I’ve mentioned before to some of you reading this that last October, I had lunch with Yehudit and Esty in New York. Esty is a brilliant student who attends what I’ve been told is the top high school in Jerusalem and has already studied three years of Arabic. She is very thoughtful, inquisitive, and sensitive, and if she doesn’t start to see things differently some years down the line when she is exposed to more than her insular environment—I feel, perhaps naively, confident that she will—I think I’ll lose all hope in the human brain. But last October, in a coffee shop in lower Manhattan, when I asked her what they teach in her school about the occupation, she looked puzzled. “What’s the occupation?” she asked. Yehudit laughed, explaining to me that 1967 was so long before Esty’s birth that she couldn’t even comprehend it as reality. But, of course, the occupation very much continues now—a point which Yehudit somehow made irrelevant in the discussion. Nonetheless, when I returned from a visit to the rest room, Esty was questioning her mother intensely. I will definitely give Yehudit credit for this: she never—not last October, not this April—tried to shut me up when I said things to her daughters that seemed to represent otherwise unheard-of perspectives. In other words, she didn’t try to stop the conversation from taking turns that made her uncomfortable, and even helpfully translated words I used in English that her daughters didn’t understand. I really did appreciate that, and know that this is not the case with every “educated person who reads Haaretz.”

But another interesting dimension of “not wanting to know” emerged. When the subject of the academic and cultural boycott of Israel came up, Yehudit spoke derisively of it as a way to “punish people just because they happen to be born Israeli.” Not so, I said; the call for boycott is actually much more thoughtful and complex than that. Have you read it? It’s online. “No,” she admitted. Another time, I explained to Rahel and Esty about the New Historians—accompanied by a little discussion of the difference between primary and secondary documents and the ways history gets told. I told them that when the 30-year rule enshrouding documents from the 1948 era in secrecy had elapsed, and Israeli historians went into numerous official archives, they found documents—“primary sources”—high-ranking Zionists’ memos, letters, minutes of meetings, diaries, etc.—that directly contradicted the “secondary sources” found in Israeli textbooks, media, and myriad other vehicles of cultural narrative. (The “secondary sources” were all derived from the tales told by Israel’s Founding Fathers, the 1948 generation—hardly the perspectives of impartial researchers.) I explained that the “primary documents”—to the shock of the New Historians—validated what had always been dismissed as the “Arab version” of events. “How do you know this?” they asked. I mentioned Benny Morris’s The Birth of the Palestine Refugee Problem, 1947-49 as a gold mine of direct quotations from these documents. “Oh, Benny Morris!” Yehudit sneered. “Have you read it?” I asked. “No,” she said.

They also asked me about the conference I had come to attend in Bethlehem, called Sumud and the Wall. (Sumud means “resilience” or “steadfastness” in Arabic.) Why did they think the Wall was being built? I asked. “For security” replied Rahel promptly. “We need it to stop terrorist attacks.” Unexpectedly, Yehudit disagreed. “I don’t think so,” she said. Rahel, surprised, asked her what she thought. “I don’t like this Wall,” said Yehudit. First, she found it to be an eyesore—something really ugly. (Apparently, many Israelis think that. My first day there, there was a local demonstration against projected plans to build the Wall near Yehudit’s house by nature preservationists.) Besides that, she said, “There’s something inhuman about it. I don’t like walls.” A Jerusalem cab driver I spoke with—who called himself “Mr. English,” though I think that rather overstated the case—had a similar objection. “It’s rude!” he said vehemently. So, based on my extremely limited sample—which included inquiries of both these sources about how they thought other Israelis saw it—I very provisionally concluded that the Wall is not the most popular Zionist initiative going these days. (Interesting, though, that the Wall is “inhuman” and “rude”—but massacring Gazan civilians is not?) Nonetheless, they persist in crediting it with the dramatic reduction in terrorist attacks—despite all logic, as the Wall is not completely built (among the substantial remaining gaps is all that undefined space spread out beneath Yehudit’s balcony)—anyone who really wanted to could still cross over—and as Palestinian organizations have played a significant part in discouraging such attacks as counter-productive.

“Would you ever want to visit the West Bank?” I asked Rahel. “No. It’s much too dangerous,” she said. “What makes you think so?” I asked. She wasn’t sure—probably because virtually everything in her world made her think so, so that it was hard to isolate anything in particular. (It’s kind of like asking an American, “So, what makes you think America is so free?”—it’s just seamless, free-floating common knowledge.) I told her that I would report back on how dangerous it seemed to me after my four-day visit. “Anyway, Jewish Israelis aren’t allowed to go,” said Yehudit. This was news to me, but it turned out to be technically—though not practically—true. Yes, the Israeli government does ban Israeli Jewish travel to the West Bank—ostensibly for their own protection, but, it seems clear to me, as yet another way of keeping the mystique of the “dangerous” Palestinian alive in the Israeli imagination. At the same time, those Jewish Israelis who want to get through—for a demonstration, a conference, a house-building, an olive harvest, a visit to friends—do so whenever they wish, and can tell you where nobody’s checking. (Besides, remember those bypass roads for settlers and their guests?)
Yehudit had argued against my wish to stay in Bethlehem the night before the conference, which was to begin at 9am the next day. “It’s just fifteen minutes from here! You can go in the morning! I’ll drive you to the border!” she said. I, on the other hand, had heard enough about checkpoints to worry about being late. She admitted that she had never been past the checkpoint and really didn’t know how things would be from that point onwards. So she and Yigal dropped me on the Israeli side of the “Gilo” checkpoint—quite anxiously, I might add, requesting that I call them as soon as I arrived safely at my hotel in Bethlehem. (And yes, signs and soldiers at that checkpoint did explicitly intercept Israeli traffic.)

Now, I had always imagined these checkpoints as backed-up affairs, teeming with people waiting to get through. But clearly, my image was derived from checkpoints during working hours—as well as from the Palestinian experience of passing through. It was now about 10pm, and I was, eerily, the only person passing through this mammoth chamber. On the Israeli side there was a soldier—a woman—preoccupied with talking on the phone in a booth. She asked to see my passport, but barely glanced at it—she didn’t even touch it, once she saw it was American, and waved me through. I made my way through the maze—which reminded me a bit of the dank, echoey, prison-like stairwells of the junior high school I attended, and also of those creepy late-night subway stations where you scuttle through long underground corridors to get to another platform that is really not so far away, as the crow flies. I found the signage to be lacking, as when I finally emerged in a parking lot it turned out I was still on the Israeli side—and needed to go back through a particular pedestrian tunnel. Finally, I came to another booth with another Israeli woman soldier engrossed in talking on the phone (perhaps they were talking to each other?), who didn’t even look at my passport. (I’m sure security cameras watched me throughout, but they weren’t much company.) I went outside, looked up, and found that I was, at last, on the other side of the Wall.
I looked up at the West Bank side of the Wall for the first time, taking in the graffiti that I’d heard so much about and marveling that I was at last meeting it in person. A gaggle of cabdrivers vied for my business. I called Elias, one of the organizers of the conference who’d said he’d pick me up when I came through; as it was late, I told him to just get some sleep, and took a cab to the hotel. Every mundane activity—the cab ride, talking with the driver, looking out at the Bethlehem streets, checking into the hotel—felt, absurdly, like a source of excitement. What can I say? I’d obsessed about Palestine for so long—read so much, written so much, talked and argued so much, listserved so much, injected it into my professional life so much, attended so many meetings and demonstrations, engaged in so many ad hoc projects, froze at so many vigils—that actually being there felt as impossibly amazing as meeting the Beatles.


Monday, May 24, 2010


Posted by Harriet Malinowitz
May 23, 2010
I am writing this way after the fact; my trip to Palestine was April 27-May 6, but I had no time then (nor have I had any time since, flying back into the intensity of end-of-semester work) to sit down and write about it in any way that would feel meaningful to me. Hopefully, the most salient thoughts and memories will remain with me. And to facilitate matters, I’m going to do this in several installments.
First: the main purpose of my trip was to attend the Sumud and the Wall conference at Bethlehem University, April 30-May 2, where I was to give a paper. (More on that in due course, in a future installment.) It was a crazy time for me to be going: the end of the semester is chaotic, and because I’d have to be back for grading, meetings, etc., I couldn’t take more than a week. Even that was stretching it, especially because as of this year I have administrative responsibilities directing the Writing Center as well. But less than a week seemed insane, and I felt a huge need to go. Nobody at work has complained—not even the Provost who generously funded my flight. She’s great. Always has been. And a bunch of six wonderful Writing Center tutors—grad students in English—who I’ve been training all semester to lead student writing groups valiantly led my final classes. Praise be to all of them.
As always, given the far-flung nature of people in my life that I’m emotionally close to despite their utter lack of geographical proximity, I tried to creatively construct this trip to incorporate meetings with some old human relations. First, I flew Turkish Airlines, which promised to give me a seven-hour layover in Istanbul, where I could meet one of my all-time most beloved ex-grad students, Handan, for a brief visit between flights. We planned this carefully, but alas, my flight was delayed three hours. Nonetheless, Handan and her brother, Farooq, stayed informed and were there to whisk me into the Old City for a whirlwind visit to the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia before whisking me back for my connecting flight. The best part, of course, was just getting to talk to them in the car. I hadn’t seen Handan in four years, since she’d left LIU to go back to Istanbul, though we’ve emailed lots and lots over those years. (The worst part was looking out the window at the lovely shops we passed with gorgeous Turkish rugs and ceramics, and not being able to browse through them. Heartbreak!)
I have to take a detour from the main purpose of this blog to say something about Handan and one important thing she’s taught me. She is a very spiritual Muslim—albeit in her own special way, which includes having lots of gay friends, a love of American literature (especially Paul Auster), a penchant for attending NYC poetry slams, and a tendency to include some rather profane language in her own fabulous writing. She also has terrific politics and a very complicated, sometimes tormented way of looking at things, so that, even though I am quite blatantly an American Jewish lesbian atheist, it has always seemed quite natural to relate to each other as kindred spirits. (She is now 30, and is totally the daughter I would have wanted if I’d ever wanted to have kids. Unfortunately, you can’t have them fully grown, or it would be delightful.)
But back to that thing I learned from her: as some of the readers of this blog may know, though others may not, Turkey is not only a secular country, but is in many ways one that is rather coercively, repressively so. (This despite the election of the Muslim government that supposedly spelled doom for “Western values” and “freedom” there last year.) Handan—who bursts with far-ranging intellectual curiosity as well as literary acumen and creative passion—after getting her M.F.A. in creative writing at LIU in Brooklyn, hoped to go on for a Ph.D. But back in Turkey, in order to enter a university or get many sorts of jobs—especially interesting ones—one is required to remove one’s headscarf. This she refused to do. This is, sadly, also the state of affairs for many other bright, motivated, ambitious young women there. (Turkey is almost as bad as France at this juncture. The fact that much of this is justified in the name of “feminism” is especially infuriating. Of course, it’s considered perfectly fine to leave non-Western, non-Judeo-Christian feminists unconsulted on the matter—which makes sense, since many consider “Muslim feminist” to be an oxymoron, though it most definitely is not. But as with so many things in this world, ignorance tends to triumph over rationality, rationalizations over genuine explanations, and the pseudo-progressive over the carefully thought-out, reflected-upon progressive.)
Ironically—or perhaps not—Handan experienced her two years in New York as liberating, a hiatus from anti-headscarf and anti-religious discrimination. I do remember her telling me, with some amusement, when she lived here, that she was aware that, for many people, she functioned as a metaphor for conservatism. I’m sure that was true (though, knowing her, I also found it rather hilarious). At the same time, she is one of those people I think of as a true New Yorker—that is, that very intense sort that doesn’t really fit in anywhere else, and that revels in the sheer multiplicity of ways of being that exist, and are accepted in, and often manage to crazily meld together in, New York. She’s written some gorgeous stuff since then about NYC, and the ways that it is so radically different from the rest of the US—“a republic of its own.” (I totally agree. This is why I always feel that New York City is my “homeland.”) Still, there were family pressures to return to Istanbul, as well as an attachment to the familiarity of “home,” however much one may feel alienated from many of its elements. So back she went, back into the contradictions of life there. (There were, of course, contradictions to life here, too: NYC may be wonderful, but it is also very easy to feel lonely and unanchored and invisible in it). I think many of my expat NY people who have moved on to other places experience a visit with me as a fleeting interlude of New Yorkiness—the New Yorkiness that is always inside them, too, but that they have to keep mostly on the back burner as they live their lives in places like northern Michigan, southern California, Bogota—at least, that’s sort of what they convey.
Anyway, we did talk about this as we dashed into town and back. Farooq was also interested in my imminent trip to Palestine, and my views about the realities there. Handan wrote to me afterward that he was very surprised to hear an American espouse such ideas; he too, apparently, has strong feelings about Palestine. I think he was also a little startled at my carrying on—in my loudmouthed, New York Jewish way—about the stupidity of the headscarf laws, and the ways they completely misinterpret and skew the notion of “separation of church (or whatever) and state”—especially considering my rather flagrantly atheistic identity. But Handan seemed to feel it was good for him, since he’s not much of a traveler, and needs more direct contact with people beyond the Bosphorus. And she said he smiled more than he usually does, so that’s good.
Back at the airport, security was nothing special until I got to the gate for the flight to Tel Aviv. It seemed to be a specially outfitted gate, with its own rites of passage. That was where I first got the questions about the purpose of my trip (“To visit relatives in Israel!” I said perkily), how long I’d been in Istanbul (“Two hours!”), whether I’d been in Israel before (“Oh, yes!”), etc. As with all security gates, you had to empty your water bottle before going through, but unlike most security gates, there was no water on the other side to be had during your wait to board. Apparently, keeping the passengers thirsty is a worthwhile trade-off when weighed against the dangers of the anti-Israel potions one might concoct using the Turkish water supply.
Entering Israel, I found that all my well-rehearsed explanations for things were unneeded; I was just waved right through. I had emailed to myself my conference paper and all conference materials—as the conference organizers had advised against taking any of this through immigration and customs at Ben Gurion Airport, and against letting it be known in any way that I’d be visiting the West Bank—though they also acknowledged that “tourism” was a lame explanation for why one would fly there for just a few days—and I’d bought a concise guide to Hebrew to accompany my concise guide to Arabic (I’d slacked off with the latter and wanted to be able to practice on the flight over). However, I did have a bag bulging with children’s clothes that Noura (some of you know Noura, who teaches Arabic and lives in Kingston) had asked me to bring to East Jerusalem or the West Bank (this had been slashed by security back in NY, and arrived taped-up), and a planned story about how my US Jewish relatives had left this stuff for years in my attic at home, and now wanted me to bring it for the littlest relatives in Israel…..I even thought about what the little Israelis might be named, in case anybody asked, and had made inquiries about relatives I hadn’t seen in decades but now had under-five grandchildren. But thankfully, nobody asked me anything, as I’m not good at that sort of thing.
I was greeted quite rudely by the group taxi driver at the airport—I think you’re supposed to find this rudeness part of the Sabra charm—and after the taxi filled up, we drove to West Jerusalem (all the stops were in West Jerusalem) over roads that I found unrecognizable. (I’d last been there in 1984.) Despite all the well-worn truisms about globalization, it’s still always a shock to see how much of the world looks just like the place you’ve left. Once in Jerusalem, it did look more Jerusalemy—the white, chiseled limestone buildings, the hills—and finally, I was dropped at my cousin’s house.


Friday, May 14, 2010

Occupied Thoughts

Occupied Thoughts

Swooping, soaring, darting, diving;  

Swallows in the bright blue Hebron sky,

Celebrating being, celebrating being free.

Swooping above the gates, bars and guard booths,

Soaring above the Israeli soldiers and their checkpoints.

The contrast ever so vivid this morning, as three heavily armed Israeli soldiers surround a young boy on his way to school and rummage through his back-pack.

When will it end?  When will children and their teachers here be able to walk to school without having to pass through the military checkpoints of the occupying army every day?  When will people in the Old City feel secure in their homes, no longer worrying that soldiers will walk uninvited through their homes and across their rooftops?

When will the soldiers turn their eyes toward the morning sky, see the joyful swallows, connect the conscience dots and go back to Tel Aviv?