The newly-vernal sun beat down hot last Friday afternoon in the Palestinian West Bank village of Bi'lin. A group of around 70 protesters squinted as they walked from heart of the village, arrived at its fields and, finally, at the concrete wall that brings the road to an abrupt end. By the time I arrived at the rear of the procession, three or four shabaab—youths from the village—had already set a small fire at the wall's base. They wound up slingshots over their masked heads and tossed stones with little success at both audiences on the other side: a group of onlooking Ultra-Orthodox men from the adjacent Israeli settlement on Bil'in's lands, and two Israeli army trucks perched atop another mound of dirt on the right.
Israeli soldiers fire tear gas canisters during clashes with stone throwing Palestinians during clashes along the controversial Israeli built separation barrier close to the village of Bilin just west of the city Ramallah in the occupied Israeli West Bank, on April 13, 2012. (Abbas Momani / AFP / Getty Images)
Among the protesters, I ran into Ahmed Khatib, a Bil'in native whom I'd met the week before at the now-demolished Palestinian "anti-settlement" protest village of Bab al-Shams. He put an arm around my shoulder and swept his free hand along the path of the wall. "Non-violent," he exclaimed, reprising a theme he'd harped on at Bab al-Shams. Nearby locals chuckled at his remark and Khatib reconsidered with a smile: "Noos-violent," he said, mixing the Arabic word for "half" with his English. The army met the stone-throwing with a fecal-smelling concoction called "skunk" and later with tear gas. Eventually, soldiers crossed through a gate into the fields and, about an hour and a half after the protest started, a squad of troops stormed the dispersed demonstration from the north, sending the bulk of the activists scurrying back along the road toward the village.
By car, the distance traveled between the center of Tel Aviv and Bil'in is that of a marathon: 26 miles. But they are worlds apart, not least because of the military checkpoint and concrete wall separating the two. By the time a visitor crosses, they're already deep into the West Bank, having passed by Modi'in Illit, the most populous of the many Israeli settlements throughout the territory. This month, Bil'in celebrated the eighth anniversary of unarmed—though not totally non-violent—protests against the wall that was set to cut the village off from half of its farmland. After a 2007 Israeli Supreme Court ruling that the wall must be closer to the settlement itself, the sectioned concrete structure finally went up along its new path, still swallowing up about a quarter of the villagers' land. "Even if Israel were to agree to leave the West Bank, Green Park"—the section of Modi'in Illit abutting the wall by Bil'in—"would not be evacuated," wrote the Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf, a friend and my travel companion on Friday. "Even Palestinian negotiators agreed to have it annexed to Israel in exchange for equal territory elsewhere. Thus, the Palestinian people might one day be compensated for the land that was taken from Bil’in, but the people of the village—its owners—will not." And so they continue to protest, for their land and against the occupation in general; one aim sure to be denied and the other often seeming just as unlikely.
Number of the day: 2,368
--The number of square feet in a house that Haaretz blogger Ilene Prusher could have had for the money she paid if she had been willing to buy a home in a settlement over the Green Line (in West Bank). How many square feet did she get in Jerusalem?
- Israel braces for 'potentially crippling' cyberattack -Hacktivist group Anonymous says #OpIsrael, meant to "erase Israel from the Internet" in solidarity with the Palestinians, will peak on April 7. Cybersecurity experts say financial system, government websites are likely to be targeted. (Israel Hayom)
- Israel Police drag their feet in investigation of attack on foreign national - Vinay Menon, of India, sustained serious head injuries after three men in Pardes Hanna allegedly attacked him. Officers ignored eyewitness reports and didn’t take Menon’s full statement until days later. (Haaretz+)
- Compensation for youth who died after violent arrest - Police to pay 2 million shekels to family of Bedouin youth who died of beating during his arrest in 2008. He was suspected of throwing a bag with a small amount of drugs outside the car he was sitting in. (Yedioth, p. 23)
- Palestinian budget reflects PA's dependence on Israel, U.S. - The large defense budget has been criticized because it is seen as part of the internal oppression system, as well as maintaining the crumbling Fatah movement’s hegemony and the status quo with Israel. (Haaretz+)
- Natural gas begins to flow from Tamar gas field on Saturday - Israel's first batch of natural gas begins flowing through underwater pipe en route to Ashdod intake center, where it arrived on Sunday; Israel begins move to energy independence. (Ynet)
- Hamas to ban mixed-sex schools in Gaza Strip - The law, which will mandate separate classes for boys and girls from the age of nine, goes into effect next school year and applies throughout the Strip, including in private, Christian-led and United Nations schools. (Agencies, Haaretz)
- Majdal Shams (in Israeli-occupied Golan Heights): Dozens protest soccer matches opposite Israelis - Forty people rally in local stadium against participation of Israeli teams in games; two arrested. Police officer lightly injured. (Ynet and Israel Hayom)
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Last week, I joined about 40 other Jews, Muslims, and Christians at a third Passover Seder. Now, I realize some Jews (especially Israelis) would consider that a cruel and unusual punishment, but I assure you it wasn't; in fact, I subject myself to it every year.
Even more unusual than the company was the venue—a mosque. In fact, the Seder took place at one of the largest and most influential mosques in the country, the ADAMS Center (an acronym for the All Dulles Area Muslim Society), in Northern VA, not far from D.C. The participants came from a variety of backgrounds: secular and religious Muslims, Jews affiliated with various groups, some Christian pastors and laypeople. The theme was peace and two states, but by no means did we see eye to eye on everything.
Spencer Platt / Getty Images
This was the tenth time this Seder has been held, and the fifth at ADAMS. I've been involved since the beginning, because the main organizer, Andrea Barron, is an old friend of mine, whom I met in Israeli-Palestinian peace work in the early days of the First Intifada. But this isn't your usual anodyne interfaith Seder, where all is prescribed by ritual and controversial topics are avoided. Far from it.
Andrea (and her collaborators) designed the Seder to maximize discussion of what unites us—and what divides us. She introduced discussions of modern plagues, such as religious extremism, terrorism, and ecological factors. A Jew talked about Jewish terrorism, and Muslims attacked terrorism in the name of Islam. Some secular Muslims were very critical of aspects of Islam. A Muslim woman (in full headscarf) talked about her family members who had fought for U.S. democracy in World War II and other wars, in the American army. One Muslim referred to AIPAC as a plague, leading to a surprisingly balanced discussion of what AIPAC is and isn't. Egyptians were sensitive to the seeming anti-Egyptian themes in the text, but were most concerned with relating freedom to the current situation in Egypt. One remarkable Christian evangelical pastor described his work in the West Bank with Orthodox Jews and Palestinian villagers, and even called himself a talmid (student) of the late Rabbi Menachem Froman.
When I was nine, I was sent to the kind of school Dickens wrote about in Nicholas Nickleby. My first experience of anti-Semitism came at Easter, when after a class on Jesus, I was taunted with "the Jews killed Christ," which quickly became "you killed Christ." My knowledge of faith and Jesus was sketchy and I was shocked at my presumed culpability. I was "the son who didn't know" the link between my faith and Israel.
Eight years ago, I supported Ronnie Fraser, head and "sole trader" of Academics for Israel, at a teachers’ union conference in the UK. He was fighting a motion for targeted academic boycott of two Israeli universities. A fringe meeting of 80 delegates saw a debate between two senior women members. Before that, there were coordinated "warm-up" acts that stoked the fires of anti-Israel sentiment. When the anti-boycott speaker began, she was loudly heckled. She was not a Zionist, but an academic who believed in academic freedom. She later told me she recognized several Socialist Workers Party agitators in the room.
Ronnie spoke, clearly upset, and said what he'd seen was anti-Semitism. I watched the faces; they looked like they'd just been slapped. Later he admitted his accusation had been mistaken. But for Ronnie, son of Holocaust survivors, there is no dividing line between being a Jew and being a Zionist. His experience as a Jew and as a political campaigner fighting anti-Zionism is a complete whole. And in October of last year he brought a case to an Employment Tribunal against the union for unlawful harassment of him as a Jew.
He and other campaigners had successfully used the law before when a 2008 draft union congress motion proposing academic boycott was deemed beyond the union's legal powers. But legal advice to the anti-boycotters said, "given the importance of political freedom of expression," a harassment complaint based on the union allowing the motion's debate would fail. In many respects, this reflects the tenor of the Employment Tribunal's findings. It was uncomfortable with the "institutional anti-Semitism" with which Ronnie charged the union and which he claimed constituted harassment of him as a Jew.
On March 30, 1976 the Israeli government announced a plan to confiscate 20,000 dunums of Palestinian land in the Galilee region. Palestinians called for a general strike, taking to the streets en masse in the first Palestinian act of mass resistance inside of Israel. Six Palestinian citizens of Israel were killed by the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) that day.
Since then, March 30 has marked “Land Day,” a day when Palestinians gather on both sides of the Green Line, and often demonstrate in support of the right to their land and right to return to their original communities—whether that land and those communities happen to be in present-day Israel or the West Bank. However, while there were reports of massive demonstrations in years gone by, including last year throughout the West Bank, many of this year’s demonstrations were significantly smaller in size.
Israeli mounted policemen move crowds of Palestinian protestors during a demonstration marking Land Day on March 30, 2012 outside the Old City of Jerusalem, Israel. (Lior Mizrahi / Getty Images)
“Today is a day of remembering our roots, where we came from and why we are here now,” Majd, a shoe salesman in Damascus Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem, told me. “However, I think that in Jerusalem there are too many police and this discourages people from coming out.”
It’s a brief film, only 25 minutes long, but it’s not easy to watch: Glass shatters in the pre-dawn darkness as uniformed men break into people’s homes, shouting “Get out! Hurry! Get out!” Old women and children are pushed and shoved; mothers weep as they comfort their children. “In blood and fire,” shout men in religious garb, smiles on their faces, “we’ll kick the Arabs out!”
But that’s not all we see in My Neighborhood, a short documentary about settler expansion in East Jerusalem that this week received the prestigious Peabody Award. Directed by Rebekah Wingert-Jabi and Julia Bacha, My Neighborhood chronicles the story of Sheikh Jarrah, a Palestinian area in what is today Municipal Jerusalem, where settlers were able to obtain court-backed approval to evict Palestinian residents from their homes—or, in the case of the film’s central story line, part of their home, a home in which the affected family has lived since 1956—but to which other Jewish Israelis soon came in solidarity and support. That story of Palestinian-Israeli cooperation and nonviolent protest is the heart of what the Peabodys describe as an “honest, hopeful documentary.”
The film (which can be watched in its entirety here) centers on the life of Mohammed El Kurd, a middle schooler who one day comes home from school to find half his family’s house taken over, his grandmother in the hospital as a result of being manhandled by settlers who had literally walked into her home and started to remove furniture. He writes poetry about his family’s loss (“The house has fallen/ Shame! /You pile up the misery/ Shame!/ First it is my turn, then your turn, then the neighbor’s turn/Shame!/ Wake up, wake up!”), and dreams of becoming a human rights lawyer, in order to win back his family’s property. “I hate them,” he says simply at one point, but adds: “I hate them for a reason.”
Before Ayelet Tsabari penned her debut short story collection, The Best Place On Earth, the thought of writing a book about Israel left her feeling—to use her words—“scared shitless.” Her homeland was just too loaded, too political. Any story she might write would be bound to raise someone’s hackles—or, at the very least, to raise some tough questions: Why are her stories populated by Mizrahim (Arab Jews) and not Ashkenazim (Eastern European Jews)? Why is she willing to narrate from the perspective of a Filipina caregiver and not, say, a Palestinian? Is it even legitimate for an Israeli fiction writer to write stories that don’t mention Palestinians? Since its publication in March, The Best Place On Earth has raised all these questions and more.
At its heart, this is a book about Israel’s minorities and misfits. An Israeli of Yemeni descent, Tsabari is not interested in writing, shall we say, your bubbe’s fiction. She’s interested in cataloguing the experiences of the Mizrahi community—a population rarely represented in Israeli literature, never mind Jewish Canadian literature. In her stories, you won’t find matzo ball soup, Yiddish, or the Holocaust. Instead, you’ll find fenugreek, Arabic, and tales of forced conversion to Islam at the hands of Yemeni authorities. You’ll also see the effects of longstanding discrimination against Mizrahim, and of some Israelis’ refusal to even recognize “Arab Jew” as a category.
Tsabari, who identifies as an Arab Jew and finds the term “romantic and wonderfully controversial,” tackles Israeli resistance to it in her story “Say It Again, Say Something Else.” When teenage narrator Lily tells her friend that “my grandparents came from Yemen, so we are Arabs in a way, Arab Jews,” her friend immediately dismisses the category with a laugh. “No, that’s impossible,” she says. “You’re either an Arab or a Jew.”
In another story, “Brit Milah,” Tsabari uses the character of Ofra to explore the problem of internalized discrimination. Like many young Mizrahim who are taught to see their own heritage as inferior to that of Ashkenazim, Ofra progressively sheds the markers of her Arab identity. To her elderly mother Reuma—who still clings proudly to Arab traditions—this is as perplexing as it is painful:
Remember that whole “make the desert bloom” thing? Well, as it turns out, deserts aren’t actually intended to bloom.
Just like the rest of humanity, Israel has learned in recent decades that when people completely alter an ecosystem, it doesn’t work out for anyone, least of all the people. This is why after early Zionist pioneers drained the Hula Valley to great fanfare, the Israeli government eventually reflooded a large part of it, and why the Dead Sea, having been wildly over-industrialized, is now for all intents and purposes two seas, surrounded by a rapidly increasing number of dangerous sinkholes.
Richard T. Nowitz/Corbis
So first—the good news: Israel is taking an important environmental stand with regard to two different development areas, one in the Negev, the other in the center of the country. In the Negev, the issue concerns mineral mining:
Last Thursday night I walked back from the Jerusalem city entrance to my home in Abu Tor. I had to walk because President Obama’s security had closed down the avenues and buses that would take me home. I needed to walk because I had to sort out my hawkish inclinations with my “presidential encounter”—this was the first time I had seen him live, and thanks to Ambassador Dan Shapiro, I’d had a great close-up seat amongst the students. And I had better get home to perform my role as sous-chef to my remarkable wife and children’s culinary efforts and creations. All I can do to keep pace with them is to cut the vegetables into increasingly smaller pieces; eventually they will be so small as to disappear. Not a bad metaphor, I thought, for my last eighteen years of aliyah and struggle with this country’s challenges. My growing “sophistication” and Talmudic vocation has only allowed me, in analyzing them, to dice up the problems ever more finely, as if that might make them disappear. But this only makes coherence impossible.
President Obama’s stellar performance was all about coherence. He came armed with having accomplished almost all the symbolic acts: he went to the Shrine of the Book and Yad Vashem, paying tribute respectively to David Ben Gurion and Menachem Begin; he laid wreaths at Herzl’s and Rabin’s graves, honoring the symbols of Zionism; and he had the Turkey deal up his sleeve. True, he didn’t pray with Women of the Wall or go to the Gerer Hasidim’s pre-Passover tisch, but the Landes family also did neither. And he condemned Hezbollah, Iran and Hamas.
Moshe Milner / GPO via Getty Images
He spoke—with humor and intimacy that were enjoyed but easily shrugged off by a highly intelligent student audience—directly. The message received, as I spoke with students on the way out, was that security did not ensure but rather demanded peace, while any peace demanded security. They had to go hand in hand. Israel doesn’t have that much time; all the windows of tolerance for Israel with Europe and, for that matter, the rest of the world are closing, as are peace possibilities with the faltering Palestinian Authority. The latter, Obama maintained, was a partner for peace; peace is indeed possible. “Israel is the most powerful country in the region, and it is allied with the most powerful nation in the world,” Obama said.
Unexpectedly, this had a big impact on me. All Israelis have heard these arguments before from our own politicians. So why was this speech so powerful?
There's a great deal of talk going these days attributed to unnamed senior Palestinian official sources, and many others, about Palestine seeking redress at the International Criminal Court at The Hague if peace talks with Israel remain stalled. This is usually presented, and received by the public, as if it were a straightforward option, akin to the Palestinian decision to request nonmember observer state status from the U.N. General Assembly or joining other multinational bodies.
But the legal and political reality is far more complex, and a series of difficult, time-consuming and, in some cases dubious, contingencies would have to be realized before any charges against Israeli officials could plausibly be launched by ICC prosecutors.
Juan Vrijdag / Getty Images
The biggest technical difficulty with asking ICC prosecutors to consider charges against Israeli officials or citizens for actions in the occupied Palestinian territories is the question of standing under the Statute of Rome, which guides the ICC's work. Israel is not a signatory to the Statute, meaning that Israeli officials could not be prosecuted for their actions on the grounds of their citizenship, or for any acts committed inside territories in which Israel is considered the legal sovereign. Internationally, that would definitely not include the occupied Palestinian territories, however.
On Friday, the United States released nearly $500 million in aid that had been frozen for months to the Palestinian Authority (PA). Following this announcement, Israel claimed that it would restart regular monthly tax transfers to the PA, which it has been withholding since the U.N. bid for Palestinian statehood in November.
Like Israel, the U.S. Congress froze $200 million in aid to the PA in 2011 as punishment for seeking statehood at the U.N. When Palestine was admitted as a non-member state last November, Congress once again froze the request for funds.
Ammar Awad/Reuters, via Landov
During Thursday's meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, President Obama specifically asked him not to take Israel to the International Criminal Court (ICC) over settlement expansion or any other issue; it is suspected that these funds were released to ensure that President Abbas complies. However, following Obama's visit, forces in Congress are already trying to hinder these funds by introducing a bill titled "The Palestinian Accountability Act," which would cut off all aid to the Palestinian Authority until it formally recognized Israel as a Jewish state.
Freezing aid money and withholding taxes bears heavy consequences for Palestinians who work in the public sector and are paid with PA salaries. According to Birzeit Economics Professor Ibrahim Shikaki, 22 percent of Palestinians work in the PA’s public sector; he estimates that an additional 750,000 Palestinians—the spouses and children of PA public sector workers—also depend on PA salaries for their livelihoods.
As part of his efforts to restart negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, John Kerry has reportedly asked Mahmoud Abbas to promise that he won’t try to bring Israel to the International Criminal Court (ICC). To many observers, this may seem like a modest request. After all, the U.S. has long made clear that it opposes efforts to engage the ICC in the conflict. Moreover, the PA hasn’t actually taken any concrete steps to initiate a case against Israel since winning its U.N. statehood bid last November, which suggests that it, too, may be ambivalent about the wisdom of moving forward.
And yet, getting Abbas to give up his right to approach the Court could prove exceedingly difficult. Last fall, in the run up to the statehood bid, the U.S. and the U.K. went through great pains to try to convince Abbas to guarantee that he wouldn’t use the new status to bring Israel to The Hague. But despite all the pressure, the PA refused to make any such promise. Today, domestic Palestinian politics make the PA even less likely to surrender its right to petition the Court than it was in the past.
The PA has recently been facing mounting pressure at home to go to the ICC. From the Fatah youth movement, to Palestinian academics, to Al Arabiya broadcasts, a chorus of voices has been urging the PA to go to the Court, chastising Abbas for failing to do so already. “Israel’s injustices are bad enough,” wrote one Al Arabiya columnist, “but not utilizing the means to effectively counter and end them"—i.e., going to the ICC—"is even worse.” He concluded with a call for a national protest movement to spur the PA into action.
Who is the character most recognized with the story of Exodus? Who lead the Hebrews out of Egypt? Most people would name Moses, the leader of the Hebrews during the Exodus. But some, while reading the Hagada this Passover, might have noticed that Moses was not mentioned in the Hagada. Why is the man so critical to the story of the Exodus—the man know as the greatest profit in the Bible, who had a hand in putting forward the ten plagues, who spoke to Pharoah in the name of God—not mentioned in the Hagada, which is meant to pass the story of the exodus from generation to generation Jews?
The Hagada was collected at first during the days of the second temple and up until the Geonim period, between the 6th and 7th centuries A.D. Some scholars believe the reason for not including Moses in the Hagada was the intention to show that God is the one who freed the Hebrews, without the help of anyone, As mentioned in the Hagada itself: "The L-rd took us out of Egypt," not through an angel, not through a seraph and not through a messenger. What we can learn from this is that there is something bigger than the character or the messenger. The story can be told and can unfold without Moses.
Al Levine/NBCU Photo Bank, via Getty
This lesson might serve us today in 2013. Recently, we saw a new Israeli government formed, with many new faces serving as ministers and Knesset members for the first time. All of them with the job of serving the people of Israel. All messengers of the people. During the campiagn, media and the public focused on the personalities more than ever. There was Benjamin Netanyahu, not Likud. There was Yair Lapid, not Yesh Atid. There was Naftali Bennett, not Habait Hayudi. Tzipi Livni and not Hatnua, Shelly Yechimovitz instead of Haavoda etc. Those were the main characters attracting the most attention. Not the parties, not the issues of the table, none of the content.
As a California-based rabbi on sabbatical in Jerusalem for the year, I have enjoyed exploring the city’s rich culture and heritage, particularly its archaeological history. But as a religious leader who champions human rights, I have also been shocked and disturbed to learn that in Jerusalem, where layers of history have been unfolding for millennia, a true archaeological treasure has fallen prey to politics.
Just a few steps outside of the walls of the Old City is the City of David. It is widely considered one of the most important archaeological sites in all of Jerusalem. As one of the Holy City’s most visited tourist attractions, it draws hundreds of thousands of Israelis and foreigners over the Green Line into the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan every year. This prominent site of biblical era archaeology features historical finds including the Royal Acropolis, Hezekiah's Tunnel, and the Gihon Spring, ancient Jerusalem's main water source.
The Israeli government has considered the City of David a national park since the early 1970s. Since that time, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority has retained management authority, but the Israeli government turned over park operations to the settler organization Elad—an acronym for “to the City of David” in Hebrew—in 2005. To this day Elad continues to essentially control the City of David, while the Israel Nature and Parks Authority involvement with the site remains minor.
David Silverman / Getty Images
Americans have a penchant for making lists and imagining scrupulously constructed alternate realities in which we, the individual Americans, play a central role. Dungeons and Dragons comes to mind, as does Fantasy Football. Not to mention the List of Five popularized by Friends. Which is the closest I can come to an explanation for the fact that if you were to look closely at the insides of my brain you would find—tucked behind all the other bric-à-brac—my Fantasy Seder List. Because (apparently) being an egghead who likes a good Ottoman joke isn’t quite nerdy enough.
The rules undergirding the Fantasy Seder are as simple as they are few: to make it in the imaginary door, the potential guest has to be 1) Jewish (duh); 2) alive (double duh); and 3) a complete stranger to me (this is why we call it “a fantasy” and not “an actual guest list”).
A man reads a prayer while holding greens dipped in salt water in advance of a Passover seder service. The Passover liturgy recited at the seder meal similarly demands that you experience the Exodus as if you yourself escaped from Egypt - not your great grandfather or your Orthodox Uncle Max - and you owe the Almighty undying gratitude as your personal liberator. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)
I figured I should just get that out of the way, because of course Jon Stewart. I’m an American Jew of a decidedly liberal bent with delusions of low-brow intellectualism. Of course Jon Stewart. The only reason he’s not on my List of Five is because I’m afraid I’d fall in love, and then where would my marriage be? Fantasy Seder it is.
Matthew Kalman broke the story of physicist Stephen Hawking’s boycott of Israel. Then Cambridge University tried to falsely deny it.