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.



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