The Good Ones Don't Make The News

Sitting over a glass of cheap red wine in Paris two weeks ago, I shared my life with my old friends from when I lived there. “How are you?” they asked me. Full, I said. I’m leading a full life—full of food and friends and coffee and meaningful work and challenging projects. “But what’s it like to live there?” they ask.“There’s a violent conflict going on,” I answered while shrugging, “It becomes normal...” I sat with one of my mentors. He asked me earnestly, “Sophie, tell me…is anything good happening there?”

The night after the attacks in Jaffa, I went out and it felt like a ghost town. Even the traffic of cars on the main boulevard had lessened—I felt like a specter gliding down the street on my bike alone. But I went out with a purpose: to sit at the local bar with my Palestinian friend from Building Bridges; to toast our glasses of beer together to life, to health, and to the continuation of friendships which are more important now than ever. While it seems small and futile in the face of terror and extremism coming from all angles, these little and powerful moments happen quite frequently in my life. But I've begun to realize that this reality doesn't reach the "outside" world and media. 

Good people are working hard and trying to carve out futures together amidst the madness of this place, and that is constantly overshadowed by hate and fear on all sides.

Like today. Today I went to a march of Jews and Arabs in solidarity against the occupation. This march is taking place the first Friday of every month.

 The march was organized by Combatants for Peace, an organization of both Israelis and Palestinians who have put aside violence in the name of community building and activism, and another group called Standing Together. The march was the fifth organized event that walks alongside the highway of Route 60 to the Tunnel checkpoint near the Palestinian town of Bayt Jala and the Jerusalem neighborhood/settlement Gilo. February’s march ended in arrests of two Israeli organizers. Over 500 people showed up in March to walk alongside the wall and traffic in honor of International Women’s Day. Today we were around 300.

 I walked with friends and held a sign that said: "Standing together against the occupation" in both Hebrew and Arabic. The verbs were conjugated to be feminine. The drum circle was out in all their glory and there was a mix of Israeli and Palestinian flags. As we marched, many people honked their horns and shouted nasty things. But I strolled with a good friend who waved with a big smile to every person who yelled, "Go die" at us and returned a big thumbs up to each and every middle finger that was gestured in our direction. As we stood by the junction, a religious man driving by began yelling at us and we responded in Hebrew and wished him “Shabbat Shalom!” [The colloquial wishing of ‘Happy Friday’ in Jewish Israeli society, which is connected to the religious observance of the Sabbath.]

Soldiers from the Israeli army followed along by the side of the road and at the back of the protest for protection against the oncoming traffic and also to surveil a group of 300 people walking in the West Bank. The few who followed at the back of the protest were wearing balaclavas over their faces. One man walked on the other side of the road waving a huge Israeli flag in opposition to our presence and our voices shouting in unison, “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies.”

It has been months since I've attended a march or protest. Tensions have been so high and things here have actually been quite scary with the methodical demonizing of human rights organizations that criticize the occupation, you don't want to draw attention to yourself as someone who supports an end to the occupation.  It has not been optimal timing to wave signs and hold hands and say words like “Peace.” See this article by David Shulman that captures all that has been happening recently here.

But in March, I joined this group for the protest in honor of International Women Day, and I promised myself that I would be back every first Friday. The day was incredible. I saw a lot of different people I know from activist circles, powerful women from Women Wage Peace who I interviewed for my research, sweet, sweet Palestinian activists who I have met at various meetings (like Tiyul Rihle) and programs (like Global Village Square), people who joined us in Susiya last year, and more. I asked an old acquaintance “How are you?” He said, “Today? Right now? Right now I am good” and gestured at the crowd. “But when I’m not here, when I’m not with my people…hard. It’s hard.”

In March, for International Women’s Day, everyone was holding balloons. On the count of ten, with numbers flowing naturally from Arabic to Hebrew, the balloons were let go. Within moments, a perfectly timed gust of wind had blown the balloons right over the wall. Tied to them were invitations to the march each month. The sight of the brightly colored balloons in stark contrast with the grey and bleak concrete of the wall was overpowering. And seeing them freely glide over the barrier was incredibly moving. It seemed so simple: the power of the people and the cries for justice could just as easily overcome the walls and everything they stand for.

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Today, the march culminated in the planting of olive trees. The symbolism is cliché; the discourse of peace is dead. But, the action of breaking dirt and leaving something behind that will grow is not to be overlooked. The march ended and I was left floating on (maybe unreal) hopes and (some say naive) optimism.

I’ll be there again May 6th. It’s good for my soul.

While in Paris people may have gained a new sense of what a violent attack on civilians can do to your personal psyche and your daily life and empathize more with my reality here, it’s not the full story. Here, while many people are promoting policies of hate every single day, there are also those who are building hope. 

Over 500 Israelis and Palestinians took part in march to mark International Women's Day and to call for an end to the occupation and violence, March 4, 2016.

Daily Dose of Violence

Today is the day to write. In the last few months I have been silent on the Internet as I settled into a new job, a new rhythm, and poured myself into a new art project. I woke up this morning with a fire in my mind and it has lit a million beacons alight. 

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As winter makes way for spring, the daily dose of violence here has become the new norm.

Last night, as I was in yoga class in Jaffa, we heard sirens. One siren, two sirens, three sirens, four. Cars whipped past the windows of the studio and the teacher told us to breathe in and out. Phones began ringing frantically, and having lived in Israel long enough, I recognize the signs of something serious having happened.

There was an attack in Jaffa. A Palestinian man from Qalqilya with Hamas affiliations stabbed 12 people, beginning at the Jaffa Port and then running north towards Tel Aviv. They "apprehended" (read: "shot," "neutralized," "killed") him. As I walked home, I saw that all the surrounding roads had been closed off. And as I read the news, I pieced together that it had been right there, one block from the yoga studio. 

I ran straight to yoga yesterday upon returning to Tel Aviv from work in Jerusalem. I literally ran from bus to bus to catch the one that would bring me to this space where for one hour I could find quiet and turn off my brain.

Because all day there had been sirens. 

I had purposefully gone to yoga because I was trying to decompress from the imaginings of bloodstained stones near Damascus Gate from the morning when a 50-year-old woman was shot and killed before being apprehended because she attempted to stab Border-Police. The constant sirens rushing towards the Old City framed our morning meetings and were still echoing in my mind as I stood up to give a presentation. 

I went to yoga because I was looking to find a way to turn it off and breathe for a moment instead of thinking about how that death could lead a young man (rumors say that it is her son) to responding similarly and going back to Damascus Gate and shooting two policeman in the afternoon. He was also killed.

At the same moment, there was an attempted attack in Petah Tikvah as well. The assailant was killed.

This morning, there have already been two attacks in Jerusalem and one attack in another city. Sitting on my balcony, I hear more sirens. The cracks are showing.

Israel is responding to the recent surge in attacks by closing down the villages in the West Bank where the attackers came from and by declaring that they will officially finish building the Separation Wall and by shutting down newspapers that are inciting stabbing attacks. All this is dramatized and politicized further by the fact that U.S. VP Joe Biden is currently in town.

It definitely feels as though suddenly violence is on my doorstep in Jaffa—but none of this is new. Since October this year, over 200 people have died (at least 188 Palestinians have been shot dead by Israelis. Many were accused of committing attacks, or attempted attacks, which have left at least 28 Israelis dead). This is all framed in the recent domestic political context whereby Arab Members of Knesset have been isolated in the Knesset for visiting the grieving families of Palestinian attackers, where more settlements have been built, and human rights organizations are being ostracized and penalized.

For me, intermingled with last night is all interconnected with having spent a week in the West Bank. I spent last week co-leading an Extend Tour of American Reform Rabbis (I was a participant last year, you can read my observations from that trip here). Every seven years, the Rabbis have a conference in Israel, and several of them decided to “extend” their stay and come with us. We spent 3 days driving on curving roads framed by white and pink blooming almond trees seeing the realities of occupation. We met with Palestinian activists, Israeli activists, Palestinian and Israeli intellectuals and writers, and a settler from the YESHA Council. We explored Hebron with Breaking the Silence—where we were accosted by settlers who screamed and yelled and threatened us. We entered Ofer Military Court with Salwa and Gerard of Military Court Watch and sat in court as a 13-year-old boy was brought to trial. We saw again and again how this occupation is not only an occupation of land, but it is an occupation of the mind.

Extend Tour in Hebron

Extend Tour in Hebron

"Have A Good Time" in Hebron.  

"Have A Good Time" in Hebron.  

The Wall at Bil'in

The Wall at Bil'in

Upon returning to Tel Aviv, as always, I felt nauseous. The whiplash of going “there and back again” was disorienting. I can’t get the image of martyr posters of the 22 year old student from Qalandiya Refugee camp out of my mind. Or the selfie sent to me by a Palestinian resident of Bil'in with tears pouring down his face after this Friday's protest was met with tear gas. Violence is a daily affair in the West Bank. It only becomes newsworthy when it hits close to home in the center of the country, or when an American is killed.

This is all to say welcome to the Unholy Land. I’ll be unleashing my new photography project in the next few weeks. Subscribe to the newsletter, or follow me on instagram, to be among the first to see it when it is unveiled.

#unholyland stay tuned.

#unholyland stay tuned.

On the Ground in Jerusalem

I got into the cab this morning and as I told my driver that I was heading to Jerusalem, he looked back at me in the rearview mirror. “Be safe,” he said, as his way of remarking on the recent stabbings and heightened tensions. “Don’t think about tomorrow. Just think about today. You can only live in the moment, if you start worrying about what will happen to you…that’s not living.”

I’m working with a radio-show/podcast called Israel Story. We’re the Israeli rip-off of This American Life (even Ira Glass says so in the first episode). The Ira Glass of Israel Story is called Mishy and he lives in Jerusalem. So while the rest of the team lives in Tel Aviv and Jaffa, every two weeks we trek to Jerusalem to meet. 

The creative team that I am now a part of, produces documentary journalism and tells stories about life in this crazy place. The first programs were produced in Hebrew but then after gaining a lot of attention began, we’re also producing programs in EnglishThey produced an amazing piece on the radical vegan movement in Israel, which you can listen to in this episode called Holy Cow!, and another one on a massive Yiddish bookshop hidden away in the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station. The second English season begins tomorrow!

{You can find us any way that you normally get your podcasts: iTunes, Stitcher, or listen online.}

{You can find us any way that you normally get your podcasts: iTunesStitcher, or listen online.}

The morning was productive and exciting as we prepared the finishing touches on the first episode of the season and discussed the episodes to come. 

And then I walked out of our innovative and thoughtful corner where we were sitting in the neighborhood of Nahlaot in West Jerusalem, and out into the world outside.

The “situation,” as Israelis call it, is not simple. Nor is it fine.

I walked quickly. I put my phone in my pocket and tried to be aware of my surroundings rather than the many conversations I was having elsewhere.

My face adopted the frown of all the other people around me. I felt all the tension that I’ve been working so hard to release through yoga return to my shoulders. I walked rather than taking buses or the light-rail because the anxiety of being enclosed in a public space with a crowd was overpowering.

There were police on almost every corner. I saw a woman banging a prayer book against the hood of a car and it seemed as if she was cursing it. A siren cried nearby and I stopped breathing. I crossed a street with a blind man. I saw pairs of nuns walking around wearing head-to-toe black outfits and watched as people’s heads turn checking that it wasn’t a hijab. I didn’t see anyone in a hijab. I went to pay the property tax on my apartment and was pointed in the right direction by a man in Palestinian-accented Hebrew. I passed a burger joint that was laying out rows upon rows of checkered-patterned, paper wrapped burgers on tables to feed the police for free. I ate sabich (a sandwich of fried eggplants and eggs with humus and salads) and watched as 25 kilos of eggplant were delivered, but the man forgot the 2 crates of tomatoes. Two soldiers came in to eat; the man fixing up sandwiches shouted to his help to fill up these soldiers’ food well so they can have a good meal. The streets felt quieter.

Collecting all of these little episodes felt immensely meaningful; Jerusalem tends to do that, it adds a sense of mystified meaning and a layer of “pre-ordained-ness” to every little thing. But at the same time, it was all scattered, disjointed, and colored by my search to make meaning from the madness.

I let out a huge sigh of relief when I was finally sitting on the bus headed back to Tel Aviv (after darting through the silent Central Bus Station through the side entrances rather than the main entrance). It might all be in my head.

But my friends living in Jerusalem told me that they ordered their groceries to be delivered to their house this week rather then venture out into the market. Last week, another friend of mine was 2 meters from a stabbing attack in the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem where a 70-year-old woman died. Two nights ago, there was a stabbing in Be’er Sheva and in the frenzy, and Eritrean man was beaten to death. Tensions are high, the violence and the seemingly randomness of it all is real.

These attacks don't emerge in a vacuum. In the West Bank in the last 2 weeks alone, I can't even keep track of how many people have died. There have been tons of stabbings, shootings, protests, rocks thrown, arrests, detentions, home demolitions, and raids. Today alone, 9 Palestinians were injured with live fire, and there were several stabbing attacks in the settlements of Gush Etzion and Kiryat Arba, and in Hebron.  In the neighborhood of Silwan in East Jerusalem, the Abu Nab family was evacuated and their home was replaced by settlers. The "wave of violence" that's spreading into the borders of Israel are occurrences when the reality of the occupation in the West Bank and the disenfranchisement of Palestinian-Israeli citizens within the borders bleeds into mainstream Israeli society. It's mind boggling to try to see any way in which this desolate situation won't get worse.

Yet amidst it all, there are moments that make you pause and smile. An article is making the rounds on Facebook about a hummus place that is giving 50% off the meal to tables that are both Jewish and Palestinian. On Saturday night there was a demonstration of over 2,000 people in Jerusalem, Palestinians and Jewish-Israelis, who came together to call for an end to hate and violence. And my friends at the Center for Jewish Nonviolence have organized an important week of actions coinciding with the World Zionist Conference that is taking place now in Jerusalem. They have plenty of events taking place such as picking olives with the Palestinian community in Susiya, meeting with families who have been evicted, and posting flyers near the conference area asking what the representatives are doing to end the occupation.

Amidst all the crazy, there is always a grain of hope. At least that’s what I keep telling myself. My grain of hope is that this Thursday, I am meeting with my team from Building Bridges to work on our plans for the next year. My team is comprised of an Israeli woman my age and a Palestinian man, also my age, who lives in a refugee camp in the West Bank. Knowing that we’ve created a space for these worlds to interact, have meaningful conversation and work to build something together—that gives me hope.