Even Politicians Smalltalk About The Weather 

Member of Knesset Hillik Bar sat down next to chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat just behind me and I instantly began to eavesdrop. Bar kissed both Erekats’ cheeks, one, two, three, and then they began to chat.

“Did you come from Ramallah?” Bar asked.

“No, Jericho.” Erekat responded. “We’re enjoying the summer in Jericho.”

“But it’s hot!” Bar looked amazed.
“Not yet, but next week.” Erekat reassured him.

Turns out even politicians make small talk about the weather.

“We’re busy,” Bar continued. “A 61-59 majority is crazy. We’re all trying to make Bibi fall, but it’s not easy.”

Erekat nodded sympathetically.

Erekat and Bar had come together along with former Israeli ambassador to South Africa, Alon Liel and EU Representative to the West Bank, John Gatt-Rutter to discuss the newest issue of the Palestine-Israel Journal – an issue pertaining to the Palestinian internationalization effort.

Bar is a very talented and engaging speaker and wasted no time in ripping into the Israeli right’s concept of ‘conflict management’ and dismissing it as a defeatist approach. He also dismissed the right’s position that Israel has no peace partner in Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas as a defeatist view as well.

“We won’t talk to Abbas and we’re talking to Hamas!” he lamented. “We talk to them about ceasefire, about prisoner exchange… The message we’re sending is ‘You want to talk to us? Shoot at us!’”

Bar ended by touching on an idea that more and more Israeli politicians are beginning to address: peace with the Palestinians, while of course being vital for the Palestinians, is something the Israelis need to do for their own good. Just last week a study was published revealing that in the event that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was settled, Israelis would gain $120 billion and the Palestinians $50 billion in the following decade.

“Menachem Begin didn’t make peace at Camp David to make the Egyptians happy,” Bar said. “He did it because it was the right thing to do for his country.”

Bar projected the hope of a politician but the same couldn’t be said for Alon Liel who “wakes up every morning feeling terrible because Israel is solely responsible for the occupation of the Palestinians.” He thanked various European parliaments for recently recognizing the State of Palestine and encouraged Erekat to continue with the Palestinian effort to ban Israel from FIFA. “The FIFA ban will be felt in every Israeli home,” he promised. 

Liel had started by saying that he’d just celebrated the birth of his fourth grandchild.

“My parents didn’t help build this country for it to become an occupier,” he shouted. “If my grandchildren grow up to be occupiers, we can close up shop!”

His comments prompted a fiery response from MK Bar who argued that steps like these that lead to Israel’s international isolation will only drive the Israeli public and the government further to the right as was evidenced in the last elections.

Bar may have been incensed by Liel’s comments but Erekat echoed them.

“If you don’t ignore the facts, you should wake up and feel terrible! In June, 2015 there are roads in the West Bank that we as Palestinians cannot use. The Israeli government now practices one state and two systems and is destroying and torpedoing the two state solution.”

Erekat threatened (not for the first time) to disband the Palestinian Authority if an agreement is not reached by the end of the year and to hand over all control from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean to the Israelis.

Erekat is an even better orator than Bar and uses flowery language and funny anecdotes to illustrate his points. Most times, he has the crowd in the palm of his hand, knowing exactly what to say, but there are plenty who consider him to be a smiling face in a suit whose intentions are not as flowery as his language.

“Our Palestinian state will respect the rights of women,” he promised “And when we have a disagreement, we will resort to ballots, not bullets.” No one asked him how that democratic ideal matched up with President Mahmoud Abbas serving his tenth year of what was supposed to be a four year term.

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Jerusalem Day, Part Two.

I usually leave work at the Palestine-Israel Journal office in the Wadi Joz neighborhood of East Jerusalem in the early evening. As I walk along the Old City walls back to West Jerusalem, it’s a lively and vibrant scene. Merchants sell fresh, green garbanzo beans and pyramids of strawberries. Lingerie and shoes are set up in stalls along Salah al-Din Street. Old men sit on the benches smoking and sipping thick Turkish coffee from paper cups. School children dart every which way and Quran verses drift out of loudspeakers in the doorways of the mosques. But on Yom Yerushalayim, the life had been sucked out of East Jerusalem.

My afternoon started at a demonstration organized by a group called “Jerusalem Won’t Tolerate Racism”. A few hundred folks stood on the stairs of the municipality building overlooking the Old City walls. Protest signs written in Hebrew and Arabic were held high overhead, reading “Jerusalem won’t tolerate violence” and “Say no to racism”. The demonstrators chanted similar slogans, beat drums and blew whistles. By all accounts, it was a good turnout, more populated than in previous years and yesterday police and army forces were present to keep the protesters and counter-protesters from clashing as they had in years past. IMG_1148

Politician Baruch Marzel, Israel’s patron saint of hatred and racism was at the counter-demonstration a few feet away, separated by police barricades. He took photos with many of the hundreds of high school boys clad in kippot and tzitzit and Israeli flags who chanted “Leftists go to Gaza” and threw water bottles at us. Marzel shouted into the megaphone and smiled and danced with the crowd. The wicked man has every reason to be happy. As evidenced in the makeup of the new Israeli government, his crowd is winning. They’ll win for a while and then everything will crash down around them.

Then, I walked to East Jerusalem. It was early evening and the stores were shuttered. Police horses clopped down the street and a handful of Palestinian families were gingerly making their way home, looking over their shoulder a few times, not sure if they’d make it back without being accosted by the massive group of boys waving Israeli flags pouring down the hill as if this were some Lord of the Rings scene, an Iranian military march or something even more sinister.

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There is a great irony in the fact that Naomi Shemer’s hit Jerusalem of Gold is the soundtrack to Yom Yerushalayim. She bemoans in her song that in Jerusalem “the fountains have run dry and the marketplace is empty” but the nationalistic fervor that preempted the writing of her song has caused Jerusalem’s marketplace to become empty once again. While so many others celebrated, I found yesterday to be an incredibly sad day. When there isn’t a concrete wall that snakes its way through Jerusalem, when the Jerusalem municipality allots more than 10% of its budget to the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, when Israel stops demolishing Palestinian houses and evicting them from homes that have been theirs for decades, maybe I’ll celebrate Yom Yerushalayim.

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Jerusalem Day, Part One.

This morning, as my Hebrew class was being led through a rousing rendition of Israel’s alternate national anthem Jerusalem of Gold, a song that praises the conquering of East Jerusalem during the Six Day War, the shops in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City were beginning to close.

Today is Yom Yerushalayim – Jerusalem Day – an annual Israeli holiday that commemorates the reunification of Jerusalem (pre-1967, East Jerusalem was ruled by the Jordanians and West Jerusalem by the Israelis) following Israel’s stunning victory during the Six Day War. This afternoon will see the “March of Flags”, an event where predominantly religious Zionists walk from downtown Jerusalem to the Old City. To give an idea of how religious many of the participants are, men and women participate in separate groups. They will drape themselves in Israeli flags and parade through the Old City’s Muslim Quarter. There will be skirmishes, stone-throwing, and arrests. Some will inevitably yell racist slogans; “death to Arabs” has been a favorite in years past. There will be prayers and songs and they will dance the Hora in the alleyways of the Old City. Israeli police will accompany them and will quickly and efficiently quell any Palestinian counter-protests. And because all of this, residents of the Muslim Quarter are encouraged to stay indoors and close their shops “for their own safety”.

Yom Yerushalayim is a macabre show of ultra-nationalism; a celebration of Israel’s unwavering occupation of East Jerusalem.  For some it’s not enough to evict families and demolish homes in East Jerusalem. Some need to partake in the March of Flags and shut down Palestinian cafes and candy stores too.

Today, thousands will sing Naomi Shemer’s sugar-coated Jerusalem of Gold, but another song is more appropriate. Meir Ariel was a paratrooper who served in the Six Day War and was one of the soldiers who “liberated” the Old City. His experiences in the war inspired him to write a song criticizing the Israeli public’s ecstasy following the triumphant result of the war. He called it Jerusalem of Iron and borrowed the tune and structure of Shemer’s hit.

“Jerusalem of gold, and of light and of bronze,” Shemer sings, “I am the lute for all your songs.” Ariel’s version speaks of bereaved mothers and mortar shells. “Jerusalem of iron, of lead, of darkness…” Ariel counters.

There’s been a protest near the Old City organized by a group called “Jerusalem Won’t Tolerate Racism”, and I’m headed there now. More soon.

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Lifta

A day after the ex-Education Minister of Israel, Shay Piron, voiced his opinion that the Nakba should be taught in schools, I decided it was high time to pay a visit to the village of Lifta. Lifta was a wealthy Palestinian village on the edge of West Jerusalem and had a population of 3,000 in 1948. In 1947, at the start of the war’s hostilities, the Arab Higher Committee ordered the city to send away its women and children. During the Israeli War of Independence in 1948 (known among Palestinians as the Nakba), the militant Zionist group Lehi attacked a coffeeshop in Lifta, killing 7. After the attack, many of the remaining inhabitants of Lifta fled. By the end of the war, the nascent Israel Defence Force had evacuated every last villager. Today, Lifta borders the Jewish neighborhood Givat Shaul and is the only remaining Palestinian village that was depopulated during 1948 which wasn’t either inhabited by Israelis or destroyed.

Most signs in Israel are in Hebrew, English, and Arabic. As with many signs in Religious Jewish neighborhoods, here, the Arabic is scratched out.

Most signs in Israel are in Hebrew, English, and Arabic. As with many signs in religious Jewish neighborhoods, the Arabic is scratched out.

Today, it’s hard to deny the natural beauty of the site, which is now officially an Israeli nature preserve. Anemones and cyclamens cover the ground, and almond, fig and olive trees bloom in the valley. Syrian woodpeckers and gorgeous Eurasian blue jays hop from branch to branch. Orthodox Jewish teenagers were swimming in the natural springs where the town square once stood, and Israeli families often come for picnics. But then you step inside the cool darkness of one of the dozens of stone houses that remain and 1948 comes rushing back. 

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Many of the houses feature graffiti, some of it beautiful and some of it despicable. Inside one of the homes was a gorgeous and fading mural featuring the Dome of the Rock and a dove. As I walked out of that house, I caught a first glimpse of the village’s mosque on top of which was scrawled in green spray paint “מוות לערבים” (death to Arabs). At first I thought that my Hebrew was lacking – that it had to be a mistake. As I sounded out the letters like an Israeli kindergartener, I realized that I was right. It’s a sickening thing to write anywhere, but in such an insensitive location? I was furious. I’m searching for some insight to provide here, but sometimes, there are no words.

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With the Israeli government’s long running attempt to Judaize the city, It’s a wonder that Lifta still remains – just a few minutes on foot from downtown Jerusalem. As recently as 2012, an attempt to build luxury apartments on the site was rejected by the Jerusalem District Court. For now Lifta is safe as a ghostly open air history museum, but no one can say whether the next inevitable round of apartment proposals will be thwarted or will cause Lifta’s second destruction.

Today, some of the original residents of Lifta live just down the road in East Jerusalem. Others live in Ramallah and Jordan. Though they’re not allowed to renovate their homes and live there, they come sometimes to tidy up their family homes, some of which have become a shelter for Jerusalem’s homeless community, and to make sure the weeds in the ancient cemetery don’t grow too high. They come, and are able to instantly identify the houses where they lived, even after 67 years. They reminisce about the two schools, one for boys and one for girls, the olive oil press, and weddings that took place in the center of town by the spring fed pool. 

Lifta is a symbol of Israel’s history and of Israel’s moral obligation to resolve its conflict with the Palestinians. Those who believe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict began with the occupation in 1967 are mistaken. It goes back so much further, to 1948, to the first war between the Jews and Arabs, to Lifta.

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The Day After

Israeli Knesset (parliament) elections

Today I’m ashamed.

Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that a Palestinian state would not be born under his leadership. Election Day, the Prime Minister of this democratic nation warned that “Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls” so it was imperative for people to gather their friends and family to go vote for Likud. Imagine the prime minister of any other country cautioning his constituents that “black voters are coming out in droves to the polls.” What’s even more despicable than Netanyahu’s statement and his disavowal of ever supporting a Palestinian state is that it seems to have driven hundreds of thousands of voters in his direction. On Friday, Netanyahu’s Likud was polling at around 20 seats and less than a week later, come Tuesday’s election, he gained 10 seats – totaling 30 for his right-wing Likud party and effectively securing his reelection.

Today I’m amazed.

A week ago Likud was crumbling. Some projected that they would win less than 20 seats in the Knesset. The momentum was very clearly with Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni’s Zionist Union party. Netanyahu pulled off an undeniably stunning victory by going from 4 seat down in the polls last Friday, to being tied during the first exit polls on election day, to being 6 seats up by this morning. Netanyahu is sly and cunning and willing to say anything to keep his job – making him one hell of a politician.

Today I’m relieved.

The silver lining of this utterly gloomy cloud is that the racist and homophobic Yahad party didn’t receive enough votes to gain seats in the next Knesset. That’s not to say that other racist and homophobic parties didn’t make it in, but it is a consolation that the worst of the worst will be watching from the sidelines.

Today I’m disappointed.

I happened to see Herzog pay a visit to the Western Wall on Sunday and I truly believed that I was laying eyes on the next Prime Minister of Israel. Herzog at the helm wouldn’t have been able to stop the occupation tomorrow and it wouldn’t have been able to guarantee a stop to rockets from Gaza. However, I’m confident that he could have thawed relations with Washington and could have stopped settlement growth outside the blocs and could have presented a more viable socioeconomic plan for a society where the poverty rates are far too high. Herzog was a step in the right direction. Netanyahu is two steps back.

Today, I’m scared for tomorrow.

This morning senior Palestinian officials said that due to Netanyahu’s lack of support of a Palestinian state, Israel is not a partner for peace. I absolutely agree with them. Now, the Palestinian internationalization bid (a process of which I initially was skeptical, but now support) will continue full steam ahead, with the Palestinians seeking recognition at the UN and suing Israel for war crimes at the ICC. At the outset of the internationalization move a few months ago, Israel responded by withholding tax money from the Palestinian Authority. With no change in Israeli leadership and the Palestinians motivated by the election results to intensify their bid, the likelihood of the funds being released are slim. If Israel continues to withhold these funds, the PA’s security won’t get paid and they’ll eventually stop coming in to work. In that event, a third intifada is closer than we think. The Palestinian internationalization bid will likely cause things to get worse before they get better, but after yesterday’s elections one must ask what other choice do the Palestinians have?

The EU, the UN and the US will not take lightly Netanyahu’s disavowal of support for a Palestinian state either, and the coming months will be diplomatically trying for Israel, especially if Netanyahu builds a narrow, right wing coalition. Sanctions and international isolation are a few of the things Israel has to look forward to now that the electorate has chosen to continue down King Bibi’s path.

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The Sorry State of the Israeli Right

Israeli elections are tomorrow and millions of people will vote for Israel’s right wing parties. Voting right wing in Israel is a bit different than voting for Republicans in the states. Some of these right wing politicans – people who will sit in the next Israeli Knesset, people who will hold and have held ministry positions have said things that even the most extreme Republican congressman wouldn’t dream of uttering. So without any further ado, let’s take a look at the Israeli right. 

Leading the religious Shas party is Aryeh Deri, who is is expected to get somewhere around 7 (out of the Knesset’s 120) seats in the elections. Deri spent two years in prison for corruption charges in the early 2000’s. The story of Shas is a story of a party embroiled in embezzlement and corruption, but hell – what politician doesn’t get into a little financial trouble once in a while? Let’s turn then, to the poster-child of the religious right, Naftali Bennet, whose ‘Jewish Home’ party wants to annex 60% of the West Bank. In 2013, Bennet was put on the hot seat for saying (in reference to his army service) “I’ve killed lots of Arabs in my life – there’s nothing wrong with that.” His minions, almost exclusively middle and high school boys are out in full force these days, distributing flyers, posters, and stickers with caricatures of Bennet’s Bugs Bunny-like face on them. One can’t mention the ‘Jewish Home’ party without mentioning Bennet’s cohort Ayelet Shaked, who holds the third place on the party’s list. In July, Shaked published an article on her Facebook page which called Palestinian children “little snakes” and said that Israel wasn’t fighting a war against Hamas, but rather than against the entire Palestinian people. 

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Aryeh Dery

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Naftali Bennet

Saving the worst of the religious parties for last, it’s time to look at Eli Yishai’s Yachad party, which recently splintered from Shas. Yishai should be remembered for such eloquent gems as “Muslims that arrive here do not even believe that this country belongs to us, to the white man” and “we must blow Gaza back to the Middle Ages, destroying all the infrastructure including roads and water.” Baruch Marzel (who looks a bit like Nick Offerman, if Offerman let himself go and donned a kippah) holds the fourth seat in Yahad, and is considered by many to be the most right wing politician running in these elections. Marzel has called for the assassination of 91 year old journalist Uri Avnery, advocated for a holy war against gays in Israel, and was recently indicted for battery for an event in 2013 when he attacked a Palestinian in Hebron, where Marzel lives in an illegal settlement.

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Eli Yishai and Baruch Marzel

But these are the religious parties. These are the parties that believe that God promised the land to the Jewish patriarch Abraham and his descendants. There must be some more level-headed people in the Israeli secular-right, right?

Avigdor Lieberman is the head of Yisrael Beitanu, a secular right-wing party that caters towards Israel’s many Russian immigrants. He has served as Israel’s Foreign Minister since 2013 and lives in an isolated settlement deep in the West Bank but has said that he would leave his home under a future peace accord. Not so bad? Just wait – there’s more. Lieberman (who was once convicted of assaulting a 12 year old) referenced Israeli Arabs this week stating that “Whoever is against us… we must lift up an ax and remove his head.” Whenever there’s a security incident in Israel, Lieberman takes the most extreme stance, stating for instance, this August that there was no choice but for Israel to conquer the Gaza Strip and level Hamas. Thankfully, his party has faltered in the polls and if the stars align, he won’t have enough seats to be allowed in the next Knesset due to an electoral threshold law he himself introduced in an attempt to keep smaller Arab parties out of the Knesset.

And then there is the Prime Minster, Benjamin Netanyahu. What’s he done in the past 6 years? Everything and nothing. He’s strained ties with the Israel’s most important ally – the United States, expanded settlements in the West Bank, and while he used to pay lip service to the idea of a two state solution, today claimed “If I’m elected there will be no Palestinian state”. In the ‘non-action category’, you can put Netanyahu’s inability to fight rising housing and cost of living prices, the lack of any sort of peace plan promoted by his cabinet, and while he’s got no problem bursting into Congress to criticize those who are trying to create a nuclear deal with Iran, he doesn’t actually have any version of a deal to offer himself.

Benjamin-Netanyahu

Benjamin Netanyahu

The right scares me. They are trying to lead this country in a very dangerous direction. Why do people vote for the right? A mixture of legitimate security fears, religious and nationalistic sentiment, Bibi’s fear-mongering, and to some extent President Reuven Rivlin’s recent statement that “Israeli society is sick”.

So that’s the right. And what is the left? The left is anemic and milquetoast (with a few exceptions: notably young guns from the Labor Party, Yitzhik Shmuli and Stav Shaffir).  The left would get walloped if they weren’t running against the villainous clowns detailed above, but polls show that head of the Labor party, Isaac Herzog has a chance, albeit a small one, of beating Bibi. Herzog is a small and seemingly timid man, not anyone’s textbook idea of a prime minister. He’s not a war hero and he’s not beloved by the masses, he’s a lawyer from North Tel Aviv. Though he comes from a long line of Israeli leaders (his father was the President of Israel, and his grandfather was the first chief rabbi of the state), he’s often ribbed for his nasal-y voice and Israeli journalist Ari Shavit recently described him as looking like a bar mitzvah boy. He has said that if elected he would freeze settlement building outside the existing blocs and restart talks with the Palestinians, fly to Washington in an attempt to thaw relations with President Obama, and would present a housing plan prepared by his choice for finance minister, esteemed economist Manuel Trajtenberg.

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Isaac Herzog

While Herzog’s party is projected to draw somewhere between 22-25 seats, Israel’s true left wing party, Meretz, which advocates gay rights, marijuana legalization, and a two state solution, is also hovering around the electoral threshold. It will be a terrible blow to Israel’s vibrant democracy if Meretz does not sit in the next Knesset. The left is uninspiring and in Meretz’s case, on the precipice. And what else is the left? Israel’s best chance.

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Up In Smoke

This weekend, Mohammed Dajani’s car was torched by arsonists outside his home in the Beit Hanina neighborhood of East Jerusalem. Dajani, whose family history in Jerusalem dates back over half a millennium was formerly a professor at Jerusalem’s Al-Quds University. His tenure came to an end in May, after Dajani took a group of 30 Palestinian students to tour Auschwitz, marking the first organized visit by a group of Palestinians to a Nazi death camp. The visit was part of a program organized by Professor Dajani to help Palestinian students understand the historical events that have shaped the psyche of their Israeli neighbors. After the trip, Dajani received death threats, was expelled from the University union, and ultimately tendered his resignation. Now, his car has been incinerated.

Dajani's torched car.

Dajani’s torched car.

Dajani’s work is necessary, productive and inspirational, and there is every reason for the Israeli side to reciprocate. New Israel Defense Force recruits are often taken to places full of Jewish meaning like the Western Wall, Masada, Yad Vashem, and to the national cemetery at Mount Herzl. Why not, for example, take them also to Lydda and Ramle where hundreds of Palestinians were killed and thousands were exiled during the 1948 War? Or take them to the ruins of Deir Yassin (long ago transformed into a psychiatric hospital) where a massacre of Palestinians that prompted a mass exodus in 1948 took place? These soldiers would visit the places where their fathers and grandfathers had been to carry out the events that defined the psyche of their Palestinian neighbors. Certainly a trip like this would be considered extreme. However, Dajani’s essential work is considered extreme in his circles as well, as evidenced by the reaction to it.

The burning of Dajani’s car comes two months after Jerusalem’s Hebrew-Arabic Hand in Hand bilingual school was also set afire by arsonists. Spray-painted on the school’s walls were phrases like “There’s no coexisting with cancer” and “Kahane was right” (Kahane being a rabbi whose right-wing Kach party was banned from the Israeli Knesset for inciting racism). After the arson, Israel’s then justice minister Tzipi Livni said, “We will not let extremists set fire to the coexistence that still exists”. Sadly, there is very little coexistence in 2015 Israel/Palestine. From the Separation Wall, to the fact that Israelis are banned by law from traveling to parts of the West Bank under Palestinian control, to stringent visa regulations effectively restricting many Palestinians from Israel proper, the opportunities for widespread coexistence have shriveled.

Hebrew-Arabic Bilingual Academy after the arson attempt.

Hebrew-Arabic Bilingual Academy after the arson.

Both of these institutions of coexistence, one in East Jerusalem, one in West Jerusalem, have been targeted with fire in hopes that their efforts will go up in smoke. Incredibly, the day after the fire, the students at the bilingual school went to school in quickly constructed temporarily class rooms. Generous people online are inquiring about a crowdsourcing effort to buy Professor Dajani a new car. In this city that can sometimes seem like an inferno, there is also hope.

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