When we started getting news of the brutal, ugly repression Sharon let loose on Palestinians we realized we had to do something. And it had to be something as Jews.
Related Gully Coverage
A Palestinian man walks over rubble after the Israeli army bulldozed areas of the Askar refugee camp near Nablus. Sept. 3, 2002. Nasser Ishtayeh
SEPTEMBER 5, 2002. In June, a group of American activists traveled to the Middle East with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) to support efforts to end Israel's occupation of Palestine. The Gully recently talked with Emmaia Gelman, founding member of Jews Against The Occupation, about what she experienced there. In Part 1 of her interview she describes the state of Palestinian refugee camps, and the importance of Jewish anti-occupation activism.
Gelman, 28, has been an an organizer in queer, Irish American, and Jewish communities. She cut her activist teeth with ACT UP and ILGO (Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization), and currently works for the American Cancer Society building a lesbian/transgender program.
The GULLY: When and why did you decide to travel to the West Bank?
EMMAIA GELMAN: I've never been very active in the Jewish community. I just kept a finger in the pot with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) for a few years, and that was it, except for visits to family in Israel. (I grew up in the Bronx, the culturally-deprived child of atheist parents an Irish American mother and an Israeli-born Jewish father who refused to let me be part of the Jewish community, claiming they didn't want to indoctrinate me.)
But when the second Intifada started up after Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount, and when we started getting news of the brutal, ugly repression Sharon let loose on Palestinians once he was elected Prime Minister, a lot of Jews who weren't particularly hooked in to the Jewish community simultaneously realized we had to do something. And it had to be something as Jews, because all this violence was happening in our name. So a bunch of us (mostly queer, from JFREJ) came together as Jews Against The Occupation (JATO), and have spent a lot of time since then clearing a path for Jews to come out of the closet about opposing the occupation. Now we have about 300 members, gay and straight, with a core group of about 50.
Coming out against the occupation is terrifying for people. Nobody had been talking about it for years, and if you tell the wrong person that you oppose the occupation, you can get any response, from rage to disgust. Anti-occupation work has strained a lot of our family relationships. And Jews who you'd think are fairly progressive who have worked on labor issues, or civil rights come down unconditionally on the side of Israel. It's like people have no Jewish identity outside of Israel, and can't tolerate seeing any imperfections. You want to shake them and say "Remember Yiddish? Remember the Diaspora? Remember the ideal of Jewish morality and commitment to justice?"
Another reason I got involved was that I've personally profited from the occupation as a kid visiting Israel eating delicious food grown on stolen land with stolen water, lounging at stolen beaches, rooting myself down in beautiful land (Israel/Palestine is unbelievably gorgeous) that Palestinians can't live on anymore, and enjoying the security of my Israeli family's relative wealth, which is certainly protected by the occupation. I had a very visceral need to go there and try to undo some of that damage.
I could be a Jewish, American body standing between a Palestinian and a zombified 20-year-old Israeli kid with a rifle. My baby cousin is a tank unit commander in the West Bank right now, raiding houses, apparently. What would he do, or any of his friends, if they saw me standing in front of their gun? Nothing. They'd be forced to act as human beings instead of soldiers.
What is at the heart of the occupation?
The Israeli government has carefully painted the occupation as a war between Jews and Arabs, but it really is a war of colonization. That's why its essential for the world, and Palestinians, to see Jews working against the occupation. It's essential to debunk the idea that this is a race war if there's ever going to be peace. I wanted to break that down.
My grandmother was a "pioneer" (that's what they called it), a young Jew whose family had fled Eastern Europe and gone to America, and who came to Palestine in the 1930s to make a place for Jews like herself to come home to, to come to live and work, not at the expense of Palestinians, but alongside them. I think that's how the project was described to her by the Zionist movement. She didn't come to build a state.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that her work was stolen from her, too that she worked in the service of what must have been a deliberate lie told to her, and probably to thousands of other young, uneducated, well-meaning Jews, by the Zionist movement. It's possible she did know what the Zionists had planned, but just ignored it. But she probably didn't. She was 20 years old, she had just learned English, she lived in Cleveland not exactly the heart of Jewish political debate. She probably wanted to get the hell away from her family. But she was so pained by the outcome, it seems unlikely that she was in it for the sake of creating a state.
She was all about human beings being generous and good to each other, although she was a little cranky herself. In 1999, she went to her grave miserable about what Israel had become. That's another huge reason why I went to the West Bank.
How long were you there, and where in the West Bank did you travel?
I was there for 2 weeks which felt like years. In Ramallah for 2 days, and in Nablus for the rest of the time. And in Tel Aviv, visiting my family in their apartheid-warp-zone, for a few days on either end. It was a lot harder visiting them the second time, having seen Palestinian reality 20 miles away.
When we told my family we were going to West Bank, they asked, "How do you get there?" We were, like, you live 20 minutes away, you don't know how to get there? But that's apartheid for you, in a nutshell. The West Bank could be on the moon for all they know. Except that their son comes home from there on leave every 2 weeks.
What were the Palestinian refugee camps like?
It's hard to imagine refugee camps if you've never seen one. I never knew if I should picture tents, or what. But they're basically a series of shacks, temporary housing piled up into small plots of space, and then some people who clearly know they're going to be stuck there for a while have built actual houses around the edges. There are shops and merchants with carts. There are old sections where people initially were placed after being evicted from their homes and land, and new sections, where the camps have had to expand as the population grows over the decades.
They're supposedly administered by the United Nations, and have UN schools etc., but I still haven't figured out why the UN would allow the Israeli army the occupying army to patrol the camps and shoot people. Which they do, regularly.
What we saw in Al Amri camp was shocking because it was so violent, and so senseless. No matter what you think of the military, you do have a basic expectation that the things they do are going to have a purpose. In Amri, the Israeli army put out a call that all Palestinian men aged 15-50 should turn themselves in. They gathered all the men up into a field, and then just sat them there for hours on end, through the hottest part of the day. While the Palestinian men were there, the army went through the rest of the camp raiding houses, dynamiting the doors off of houses where supposedly no one was home. It was pretty clear that they had hurt people in the process of doing this. Sometimes, after they searched a house, they sat down to watch the World Cup on TV.
If anyone had wanted to hide from these searches, they certainly could have, so it wasn't really about finding someone. Meanwhile, they were harassing and enraging 250 Palestinian men, infuriating a whole camp full of women, and scaring the life out of children who were watching their houses being raided, so it clearly wasn't about subduing Palestinian opposition to the occupation. When we tagged along with the soldiers to watch them, instead of being relieved to have someone document what they keep calling "humanitarian" military action and attest to their claims that they don't violate anyone's human rights, they arrested us.
The only way the Amri action made sense was as pure harassment an army tactic to push Palestinians over the edge, to incite armed resistance, and to make them desperate. That was shocking to me: although I no longer try to attribute human characteristics like compassion or decency to governments, part of me still wanted to believe that Jews couldn't behave that way. The dream that Jews always struggle to be good is just a deep, long-held wish, which is rooted in texts and aspirations woven into Jewish culture. But every tank with a Star of David painted on the side was totally surreal, because the death of that dream was, and is, still new to me.
The worst soldiers we met, the ones who seemed like they were enjoying themselves most, were the immigrants and first-generation ones, for whom Israel touts itself as a haven. They seemed so happy to be doing something that confirmed them as Israelis, not unlike the rash of rah-rah-Americanism that appeared in New York's poorest, most alienated immigrant communities after 9/11. The worst moment was a toss-up between the Russian soldier who answered, "What happened to the Palestinian people in this house?" with "We killed them, ha ha"; and the Ethiopian-Israeli soldier who answered, "How do you feel about the racist harassment you get in Israel" with a lame, cringing "Um, it's okay in Israel" and a sheepish glance at his commander.
For Coming Out Against the Israeli Occupation: Part 2
For The New Republic's Refugee Status: Gay Palestinians about their invisible plight. (registration required)
For Jerusalem Open House, the city's gay community center.
For a bonanza of Middle East and Israeli links from The Jerusalem Post.
From a US-Iraq showdown, to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. Includes original features, headlines, and web resources.
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