Like most people in this world, I was raised to have a religion, and that always includes attachments to mythical sites and places. As a result we feel compelled to visit, are even inevitably drawn to places like Mecca, Bethlehem or Tibetan monasteries. In spite of monumental efforts on my part to deny it, Israel has had that irresistible attraction for me. But the inescapable contradictions of my having been raised as a Jew for whom the return to “Eretz Israel,” The Land of Israel was supposed to be the historical goal of the Jewish people, and my political belief that the process which established the state of Israel was, and continues to be unjust and is the negation of the moral values I was taught as a child has kept me from going. That situation changed when, thanks to Jean-Claude Ponsin, President of the French association, les Amis d’Alrowwad, the opportunity arose for me to do some photo workshops with youths at the Alrowwad Cultural Centre in the Palestinian refugee camp of Aida in June of 2007.
When I was not caught up in the events, meetings and workshops I participated in and in marveling at the sheer beauty of the place, I thought mostly of my family, and what I could say to them about my experience and my feelings about it. My family helped shape me, and I felt an obligation, or maybe the need, to show them the results. So, here are some reflections on what was, for a Jew, a rather extraordinary 10 days spent in the very banal, sometimes joyous, sometimes deadening and sometimes deadly life in a Palestinian refugee camp. They were written on my return in the form of a letter to my family.
I returned last night (28th) in one piece, a little bitten by bed bugs and somewhat tired, but otherwise in good shape. No, I am actually in excellent shape if one can use that term after having passed 10 days in an insane asylum. For one thing is sure, people in Israel have gone crazy, I can think of no other explanation for what I saw there.
Although my experience was obviously extremely limited in time and space and in the number of contacts I made, and was often filtered through language differences and translation, I have three observations:
1. The land is beautiful, far more so than any images, visual or otherwise can show, and it is vast enough for everyone. There is no spatial/geographical rational for keeping anyone out or locking anyone in.
2. I met scores of Palestinians on buses, in their homes, at work, in shops and walking down the streets in Bethlehem, Ramallah and Nablus, the three cities I visited, and from all walks of life from unemployed youth to store keepers and taxi drivers to doctors and social workers to an 85 year old man who hadn’t budged from his house and acre of land in the heart of Bethlehem since he was born there in 1922. Only once in all of those marvelous encounters did I sense real hatred in someone’s voice. Anger, frustration, sadness, certainly, and a lot of it. But not hate. And never, never did I sense any anti-Semitism. The Palestinians I met never even expressed the idea that Israel shouldn’t exist. In fact, as crazy as it sounds, what people said is that they really don’t much care what Israelis do, as long as they allow Palestine to exist as a respected and legitimate state. I realize that this is exactly the opposite of what we have been told for years, but I am convinced, at least for those I met and for their communities, that it is true.
3. Most importantly, and perhaps the most painful and difficult thing for Jews to accept is that peace in Israel/Palestine will not be possible, not ever, until Israel publicly recognizes that she was born through a colonialist process which robbed the 800,000 Palestinians then living in Palestine of their lands and their heritage. This also means recognition of the right of return. All the discussion about “the Palestinian problem,” disputes between Hamas and Fatah, the Oslo Accords, boarders, checkpoints, UN peace keeping, international donations, etc. have not led to a resolution of the conflict and never will without Israel’s confronting her history, and addressing the ongoing humiliation which Palestinians feel 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
I have never hidden my feelings regarding Israel/Palestine, and one could argue that I have only seen what comforts my prejudices. I will not argue that my very strong feelings act as a filter. But there are certain very important objective truths which have been successfully hidden from us, and which we continue to ignore at the peril not only of Palestinians but of Israel, herself.
Almost 7 years later, as I went through the several hundred images I had taken in 2007 in order to find some to post on this page, I realized how much I had missed and how inadequate this collection is in the light of the message which needs to be put forth. So, next year in Palestine…