Sometimes a nice latte in Jerusalem is just a nice latte in Jerusalem.

Maybe the most important thing to know about me is that I’m a procrastinator.  My cycle usually goes something like this: I write a blog post, and feel inordinately proud of myself for accomplishing this small task – I won’t even think about another update for two weeks.  This sense of accomplishment also extends into other aspects of my life, like schoolwork: “I really don’t need to finish my reading for class tomorrow because I wrote a blog post three days ago!”

As I begin to lose justifications for not writing another post, I tell myself that I’m really busy.  Maybe I’m traveling for the weekend, maybe I’m finishing all the schoolwork I neglected after the last post, maybe I have a headache, maybe I have an important TV show to watch.  The task of updating my blog becomes more and more overwhelming.  With each passing day, things happen that I could, hypothetically, write about – I reach a point where I have so much to say, I don’t even know where I would begin. Also, since my last post was Freshly Pressed, my readership has increased substantially, so I have been using the “you’d have to work really hard to impress all these people” and “you can’t do justice to all the interesting things you’ve heard in one blog post” procrastination arguments more often.

And here I am.  Am I only writing this now because I have a midterm coming up?  Yes.  Apparently my desire to procrastinate on studying for my midterm has finally outweighed my reluctance to blog.  So, in all its delayed, hastily-written glory (because that way I can convince myself that I’ll get this done quickly so I can study later), here is what I have to say about the last month.

I was recently telling one of my friends about my MA program, and she asked, “So, when do you get away from the conflict?”  I had never really thought about this before and my immediate reaction was, “Oh, all the time!”  She seemed skeptical, and I struggled to think of things I have done that aren’t directly conflict-related. The best answer I could stutter out was, “Well, I volunteer each week for an organization focused on empowering Palestinian youth in Israel.”  “And why do they need to be empowered?”  “Mrrrphhhhh.”

I’ve been dwelling on this for a while now, because my friend is right.  I have been thinking about and talking about the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab conflicts ALL THE TIME.  One part of this is just inherent to my MA program.  Obviously, Israel is the most common case study to come up in our classes and in our readings because we live here.  But outside of class, no matter where I’m at or whom I’m with, the conflict comes up.  I ran into somebody from Nablus the other night, and before I knew it we were talking about the lengthy process he went through to get a permit to visit his family in Haifa.  I went out to dinner with an Israeli friend last week, and our conversation led to how the rising political power of religious Judaism threatens the stability of Israel.  When I get together with people from my program, complaining about a particular assignment somehow turns into a debriefing session about the crazy thing we just read in the news.

I’m not saying that this is a bad thing: I chose to learn about conflict in Haifa because I knew it would permeate all aspects of my life, and I would be disappointed if it never came up in readings, or if my classmates weren’t every bit as interested in discussing the conflict as I am.  In all honesty, I learn something new and mind-blowing about Israel-Palestine every day, and from conversations with my classmates, I see that new lesson from so many different perspectives.  There are no words to describe how valuable this experience has been for me.

At the same time, I am secretly hoping as I write this that my Israeli and Palestinian friends won’t see this blog post, because I think they would be horrified if I told them that I never stop thinking about the conflict.   This might seem counterintuitive, since these are people who have grown up surrounded by conflict, but I think it makes perfect sense.  It’s a self-preservation thing: you can’t live your entire life always feeling angry and sad and guilty and bitter.  Or at least, I couldn’t – for my sanity, I’ve realized that I need to make a conscious effort to not feel this way, at least from time to time.

I was going to write this really long blog post about all the crazy things I’ve heard in the last month, ranging from “all the Zionists are plotting to knock down the Haram al-Sharif to build their next temple” to “Gazan children don’t really deserve to live because they’ll grow up to be terrorists.”  Instead, I’m going to end this post with pictures of really fun things I’ve done in the past month.  I’m not saying these experiences have nothing to do with conflict (I don’t believe that for a second – we live in an interconnected world in which everything can be related to something terrible somewhere else).  But as I’ve learned from my friends who grew up here, sometimes you just have to take nice things at face value, because otherwise you risk forgetting how wonderful life is.

DSC_0354My roommate and I kicked off the post-Thanksgiving holiday season by making Christmas cookies (complete with cookie cutters and sprinkles) while listening to Christmas music.

DSC_0403There is no better way to pass a crisp morning on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem than with a fancy latte and a good book.

DSC_0448Downtown Ramallah is possibly the most pleasant chaos I’ve ever experienced.  It always makes me feel like I’m headed to Times Square.

Beach

Hanging out at the beach in Tel Aviv while watching the sun set over the Old City of Jaffa was pretty awesome.

DSC_0505In one of the Arab neighborhoods in Haifa, the city hosts a month-long winter holiday festival.  I’m pretty sure the entire population of Haifa was there the day I visited – roasted chestnuts and chocolate Santas were particularly popular.

DSC_0546All of my equipment for a tri-lingual Christmas Eve service in Bethlehem.

XmasGetting to celebrate Christmas Eve in Bethlehem with so many friends was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done.  With that, here’s hoping we all get to have wonderful experiences like these throughout the new year – wishing you lots of fun and happiness in 2013!

With peace,

Nora

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Okay, so I noticed the conflict…

During my research methods class last Wednesday evening, we received news that Hamas’s military leader, Ahmed Jabari, had been assassinated by an Israeli air strike.   As the conflict between Gaza militants and Israel escalated over the next day, my friends and I decided to move ahead with our weekend plans to go to Jerusalem.  We reassured ourselves that we would be safe in the center of the country and reminded ourselves that, as all Israelis and Palestinians know, we couldn’t just stop living because of a remote threat.

After Friday afternoon prayers ended in Jerusalem’s Old City, I joined a huge mass of people moving out of Damascus Gate into East Jerusalem to see what kind of demonstration against Israeli action in Gaza might ensue.

I thought some kind of demonstration was in the works because riot police had been loitering outside the Old City for several hours.  Maybe 20 people were chanting, but most people – myself included – were just trying to move away from the demonstrators.   For a few minutes, Palestinians chanted, an IDF surveillance helicopter circled overhead, and Israeli riot police and members of the press observed from a distance.

I have no idea how the violence started.  All it takes is one person to feel physically threatened and shove someone else, and things begin to escalate.  There’s no way I can accurately interpret the actions of either side, so I’ll just stick to what I witnessed as objectively as I can.  Young, unarmed Palestinian men trying to run away from the demonstration were apprehended by police officers in full riot gear (helmets, body armor, batons, guns, sound grenades), usually three or four officers to a protester.

Many of the Palestinian women present got close to these scuffles to yell at the officers, and when they were knocked down, the crowd got angrier.  At one point, a girl a few feet away from me was elbowed in the face by a police officer wrestling with a protester; later, I saw an elderly Palestinian couple get knocked down by a crowd swarming toward a young man being arrested.

By the time the protest quieted down, I had seen probably four or five young men being frog-marched to the nearby jail.

I don’t think the behavior I observed was significantly different from riot police conduct anywhere else in the world, but I wonder about what contributed to the violence.  What would have happened if the riot police officer hadn’t been close enough to the crowd to get shoved – why couldn’t he watch from a distance?  What makes a teenage boy so blindly mad that he charges three or four fully armed soldiers who weren’t directly provoking him?  Why are nearly one hundred Israeli officers in riot gear so paranoid about twenty shouting Palestinians?

(On a more apolitical note, why are all Israeli police horses big, black, and Friesian-y?)

We returned to the Old City a couple hours later to see the Shabbat celebrations begin at the Western Wall.  A few minutes after sundown, we heard Jerusalem’s first air raid sirens since 1970, followed by several explosions in the distance.  (Rumor has it that I shouted some expletives at that point, but I can’t imagine myself ever using foul language).  My friends and I held hands and ran with the crowd of panicked tourists and worshippers to the closest form of shelter, which was a small cave on the opposite side of the plaza from the Western Wall.

We inadvertently picked the cave that was filled with hysterical teenage girls, but I can’t say I was more composed than any of them.  I clung to my friends and thought about what my mom would say if she could see me now, just a few hours after I had promised her there was no way a rocket could reach Jerusalem.  I thought about how completely vulnerable I was, and how the true terror came from having no clue what was going on.  Were there more rockets coming?  Had they been intercepted by Israel’s defense system?  Had they caused any casualties?  Were we in the right kind of shelter?

After a few minutes, everyone in our cave started to dash across the plaza to a more fortified tunnel, and we followed.  We crowded together in the tunnel waiting for information – at this point we learned that a rocket had landed near the Gush Etzion settlement in the West Bank, but there were no casualties.  Totally shaken, we decided to head for Bethlehem, which seemed as safe as anywhere else we could get to on Shabbat after Israeli transportation shuts down.

Our friends in Bethlehem told us that lots of young men were rushing to the Separation Wall to protest the Israeli operation in Gaza.  They were throwing rocks, and the IDF soldiers were responding with tear gas and rubber bullets.  Several times during the two days in Bethlehem, we heard Palestinian ambulances rushing injured protesters to hospitals.  I, however, had had enough of protests for a few days and spent my time in Bethlehem catching up with some dear friends.  If you’re reading this, please take a bit of time from reading news of Gaza and south Israel to learn about protests in the West Bank.  Hundreds have been arrested (including this unconscious young man in Nabi Saleh, who was simultaneously denied medical attention), and many Palestinians have been injured.

(Marian, Kate, Emma and I had quite the bonding experience this weekend).

I am now completely out of rocket distance in Haifa, but still find myself struggling to process my thoughts about this weekend (and now you, reader, have the great joy of watching me try and do it!).

One thing I know is that life is hard in Gaza.  From 2007 until 2010, Gaza was under such a strict blockade that the import of a ridiculous array of goods was forbidden.  It’s true that Israel eased the blockade in 2010, but this has done little to change the very low quality of life in Gaza.  Schools are overcrowded, freedom of movement is severely limited, unemployment is high, no building materials have been allowed in since Operation Cast Lead decimated infrastructure in 2009, and the process of getting permission to leave Gaza for medical treatment continues to be inefficient and deadly.  Israeli civilians and soldiers have the security of advanced military technology – a defense shield that stops nearly all missiles headed for populated areas and fortified shelters stocked with supplies in or near most homes – while Gazan civilians have none of these luxuries.  They are undeniably more vulnerable than their Israeli counterparts.  It’s hard to see how these conditions that are so closely linked to Israeli policies foster anything but animosity for Israel.

I wouldn’t have written this two months ago, but I do think that Israel has a dilemma here – on a different scale from the difficulties Gazans face just trying to live every day, but a dilemma nonetheless.  The Israeli government has made some peaceful overtures toward Gaza: it withdrew settlers in 2006, and eased its blockade in 2010.  As many Israelis see it, these concessions have been met with more and more rockets being launched into southern Israel.  I think many Israelis feel exasperated – they hate seeing Israel dragged through the mud in the international media, but they don’t know another way for the Israeli government to stop the rockets.  My Israeli friends aren’t warmongers, and they’re legitimately scared for their friends and family who have been called to active duty near the Gaza border.

The conversations I’ve had about these issues since returning to Haifa have been emotional, to say the least. Often, talking about life in Gaza is incorrectly interpreted as a denial that Israel has a right to self-defense. Friends whose political beliefs I respect are blindly re-posting political cartoons that are racist, de-humanizing oversimplifications of a tragic and deeply complex issue.  It is appallingly stupid to suggest that Jews in Kiryat Malachi died because they are Zionist occupiers, or that the four children of the al Dalou family died because their parents didn’t love them enough to move them away from Hamas militants.

Discussing possible alternatives to Jabari’s assassination or the military operation is immediately written off as anti-Israel.  I don’t know the answers – nobody does – but for the life of me, I can’t see how this operation in Gaza is a sustainable form of self-defense for Israel.  Hamas will regroup after this bombardment, it will gain more support from civilians in Gaza and from international actors, and it will strike Israel again.  Laying the framework for future attacks isn’t self-defense, and it endangers civilians in Israel and in Gaza.  I don’t believe all nonviolent options for peace are exhausted, and I don’t accept that the killing of Hamas operatives is ever so imperative that targeting errors resulting in the death of innocent civilians should be tolerated.

Yours in peace/salaam/shalom,

Nora

PS. I have some really smart friends here, and you should check out their blogs for other takes on what happened this weekend and some cool ideas in general: Lauren and Aaron were both in Tel Aviv/Jaffa; Emma was with me.

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Oh, is there conflict in the Middle East? I hadn’t noticed.

Now that I am fully immersed in my life as a graduate student in Haifa (as evidenced by the time that’s gone by since I last updated this blog), I have been surprised by how rarely I think about aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that disturbed me the most when I was here in previous years.  It’s quite easy to forget about occupation when you live on a liberal campus and your trips into the “outside world” are for the sole purposes of buying groceries or drinking beer. I have begun volunteering several hours a week for a local organization that aims to promote Palestinian identity, democratic values, and social engagement in Palestinian Arab youth in Israel – even working with these issues is possible without remembering that Israel occupies the West Bank and holds Gaza under siege.

Thankfully, my social awareness was rekindled by a weekend trip to Jerusalem two weeks ago.  Jerusalem is far less removed from overt conflicts than Haifa – just to get off the bus in West Jerusalem, you have to go through a security screening.  The city is far more religious than Haifa, and it’s impossible for me to walk around the Old City without thinking about the complex claims these groups have to the same holy place.

The Western Wall is the holiest site in Judaism, and being here at sundown on Shabbat is a straight-up PARTY.  But it’s not all fun and games…over 100 Arab families’ homes were demolished to build the plaza in this photo when Israel annexed the Old City in 1967.

There is an ominous $3 million gold menorah in view of al-Haram al-Sharif (the third-holiest site in Islam), waiting to be transported into the new Jewish temple “when” al-Haram al-Sharif falls.  Rumor has it that some Israeli-run archaeological excavations beneath the Haram al-Sharif are expediting this process by weakening the dome’s foundations.

A local Muslim family holds the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre because none of the five Christian churches that administer the church trust one another with the keys.

The conflicts in Jerusalem aren’t just religious – they permeate many aspects of secular life, as well.  Since I was last here in January 2011, the Jerusalem light rail has been completed – sounds like a great infrastructure project, right?  It’s actually a great example of disproportionate municipal spending on the city’s Jewish population – it connects Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem to the rest of West Jerusalem, and of the 23 stops, only 3 service (municipal tax-paying) Palestinian neighborhoods.

At the Lutheran World Federation, I was able to help harvest olives on the Mount of Olives (that has to be a bucket-list experience!).  Even this much fun has to be understood in the context of conflict: these trees were planted in 1967 as an attempt to keep nearby Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem from encroaching on LWF property, a threat that still looms today.

Since getting back to Haifa, I have been struggling with how to remember the systematic oppression that takes place in the Occupied Palestinian Territories as I go through my daily routine.  I’ve started with paying more attention to signs of Israel’s conflicts, from the Patriot missile interceptor that was next to campus a couple weeks ago (I could see both the interceptor and Lebanon from my front door!), to the security fence surrounding campus and the number of Arab empowerment organizations in Israel.  Instead of just accepting these phenomena as facts of life, I am trying to make a conscious effort to always ask myself why they are a part of daily life in Israel.

With peace,

Nora

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Getting settled in

I’ve only been in Haifa for five days, but it feels like so much longer.  I think that’s because I have done so much since arriving here.  By the end of my first day, I met my awesome roommates, unpacked my clothes and hung up my photos on the walls of my bedroom, and learned the essential bus routes (to buy groceries and go to the beach).  I had my first Arabic class, and I now know exactly 14 words and/or phrases in Hebrew (but who’s counting?).  On Sunday, we have orientation for our Master’s program, and classes start on Monday – I’m doing my best to relax and enjoy the last few days of quiet before the homework begins!

Kate and me, freshly arrived in Israel and on the train to Haifa!

Now that I’ve had frozen yogurt in the German Colony, forget that last entry.  I’m here for the yogurt.

Look how happy we were to have finally found some toilet paper!  Then, imagine how sad we were to get back to our apartment and realize we had all gotten paper towels instead.

Today my roommate Kate and I took a tour of the Baha’i gardens, Haifa’s most famous landmark.  The gardens are built around the shrine in which the founding prophet of the Baha’i faith is buried, and they are beautifully maintained.  I know very little about the Baha’i faith, other than that it was established in the 1800s, it is monotheistic, it accepts prophets from many other major faiths, and one of its core teachings is that all humans are equal.  Yeah, I probably need to take the tour again.

I have been to many Muslim and Christian holy sites in the Middle East, and none have used outdoor landscaping to this extent.

I am surprised that so many of the people I have met here are afraid of travel in the West Bank.  Today, for instance, a Minnesotan couple touring the gardens with us warned us that we should only go to Bethlehem for the afternoon on a guided tour with a bulletproof bus.  (Those of you who know me can imagine how much I enjoyed innocently saying, “Oh, really?  I should have thought of that when I lived in Bethlehem for six weeks!”).  I left the garden tour – and the Minnesotan couple – feeling pretty depressed about the stereotypes of Palestinians that run rampant in Israel and the United States.

Fortunately, Kate and I happened to run into a demonstration seeking to change those stereotypes right outside the gardens!  I recognized the demonstration, put on by the Women in Black, because I witnessed others just like it when I was here before – it’s an organization descended from the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo in Argentina.  The Madres met daily to demand answers from the government about the disappearances of their children, and their offshoots work around the world to promote social justice.  The Women in Black in Haifa meet every Friday at the same intersection to hold up signs demanding an end to the occupation of the West Bank and an end to the siege on Gaza.  Naturally, we stood with the women for the hour and observed the reactions of Israeli passers-by (everything from spitting to shouts of “you rock!” in English).  A few of the women who demonstrate regularly in Haifa are Holocaust survivors, and I was able to meet one of them today.

I think we made it into lots of tourists’ photos of the Baha’i gardens in the background.

While we were with the Women in Black, two Palestinians from Ramallah came over to us and introduced themselves.  They work for a peacebuilding NGO in Ramallah, and were in Nazareth for a conference – these circumstances are unusual because Palestinians from the West Bank (including Ramallah) have an extremely hard time traveling to Jerusalem or other cities in Israel because they would need special permits from the occupying forces, which are very rarely given out.  They said they were so happy to see Israelis “remembering Palestine,” and invited us to come see them in Ramallah.  I look forward to visiting my new friends in Ramallah, and I’m sure I will feel completely safe when I go.

Kate and I headed back to campus today feeling pretty full of ourselves.  We had successfully navigated our way through several neighborhoods in Haifa without getting lost – or even confused – once.  Naturally, we missed the campus bus stop and ended up being dumped off in a small village about six kilometers out of the city, about 20 minutes before all the buses in Israel stopped running for Shabbat.  So that was embarrassing.  (We swallowed our pride and took a taxi back to campus – I’m not still in the village).

With peace,

Nora

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Starting Point

In just a few days, I will be moving to Haifa, Israel to begin a one year MA program in Peace and Conflict Management Studies at the University of Haifa.  My decision to attend this program has been simple in some ways (it is perfectly suited to my academic interests, and it’s in a part of the world I love), and extremely difficult in others.  On a personal level, spending a year away from my family and friends is daunting.  More broadly, however, I have some serious misgivings about living within Israel’s internationally recognized borders.

I have visited the West Bank twice – once for a week in 2009 following a semester traveling in Turkey, Morocco, and Egypt, and again for six weeks in 2011.  My first trip helped me gain an elementary understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the purpose of my second trip – an independent research project – was to understand how Arab and Israeli women utilize non-violent resistance to occupation.  These experiences talking to and living with the Palestinian people are the foundation for my understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (which, I should qualify, is amateur at best).

As of right now, I have spent a negligible amount of time within Israel’s internationally recognized borders which, on paper, do not include any of the West Bank or Gaza (from now on, this is what I refer to when I say “Israel”). I know that  this means my understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is biased – logically, learning about a multifaceted issue from one side is inherently, well, one-sided.  I also know that unshakeable personal biases are tremendous barriers to any peace process because they give way to hatred.  Accordingly, it would seem that a person who preaches about peace as much as I do would at least be able to acknowledge her own biases.

It was alarming to me when I realized I couldn’t do this.  Not because I don’t know what I think about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but because I believe my understanding is “the truth.”  I want to lay out a bit of what my understanding is in the interest of full disclosure, rather than for the sake of argument (I’m sure I’ll do lots of arguing about this in class next year – don’t worry if you disagree with me).  First, I accept Israel’s right to exist today out of practical necessity, but I don’t believe it had a right to exist when it was established in 1948.  Second, “security measures” like the siege on Gaza and the buffer zones around settlements in the West Bank have nothing to do with security – they are an attempt to eradicate Palestinians.  Finally, the government of Israel intentionally supports policies that are racist, paranoid, and undemocratic.  To read about some of the observations that have informed these beliefs, check out the blog my friends and I kept on our trip to the West Bank in 2011 – Falafel Hotdish.

In case it isn’t obvious at this point, my problem with living in Israel is that I have very strong negative feelings associated with the state.  (I challenge anyone to witness life as a Palestinian in the occupied territories and not have the same reaction).  But this is precisely why I want to live in Israel for a year: how can I argue that people who have spent a lifetime in an entrenched conflict should tolerate opposing viewpoints when I can’t do that myself after a mere six weeks in the West Bank?  My hope is that after spending  a year in Israel with an open mind, I will not only be able to respect Israeli and Palestinian perspectives equally, but also understand how respect and toleration contribute to transforming conflicts around the globe.  The primary purpose of my blog, then, is to keep me accountable to these goals.  Its title, which comes from a poem by Rumi, a Sufi (mystical Islam) poet and theologian, reflects what I believe is the best hope for toleration amidst conflict:

The way of love is not
a subtle argument.

The door there
is devastation.

Birds make great sky-circles
of their freedom.
How do they learn it?

They fall, and falling,
they’re given wings.

Yours in peace,

Nora

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