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.
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.