Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Return of the Desert God

Happy Holiday of Liberty!
(Palestinians crossing the Taybe Checkpoint)

"We are commanded to recount the Exodus from Egypt." "The more you recount the Exodus, the better." "In every generation, every person must see himself as if he came out of Egypt." So does Jewish tradition tell us.

Historians and archaeologists may well continue to argue for many more years about whether there is any historical basis to the story which appears in the Biblical Book of Exodus. But whether or not it reflects any actual historical events which took place in the land of Egypt more than three thousand years ago, there can no doubt that this story had a profound effect on how Jews perceived themselves throughout the ages. Also this year Jews everywhere were recounting the Exodus - even if many of them only recited traditional texts and did not devote much reflection to its meaning.

It was not only the Jews who were influenced by the story of the Exodus. Christianity took it up in whole, as part of the Old Testament, and as such took care to have it translated into all languages ​​and spread throughout the world. Also Islam took up the story of the Exodus and included its own version in the Qur'an. The story of the slaves who chafed under oppression and of the great liberator named Moses has become part of the common heritage of humanity, a source of inspiration and hope to all who suffer from oppression and dream of liberation.

Especially, as is well known, this story was a major fount of hope for the Blacks in America. Brutally torn from their homeland and shipped in a horrific journey across the ocean, to a life of slavery in a foreign country - where their language and culture and religion were taken away from them, and they were forced to take up instead the master’s language and religion. And then, it was exactly in the Scriptures of the new religion which was forced upon them that the Black slaves found a source of hope, a powerful story about people who were enslaved like themselves and who had cried out to God - who sent them a savior and liberator. 

Thus, during generations of slavery under the overseer’s whip, and later generations of repression and severe discrimination, Black people in America dreamed of the day of liberation and of their own Moses who would cry out "Let My People Go!"

Harriet Tubman, born a slave in the southern United States, was able to escape to freedom - and then returned many times to the South, to help other slaves escape. She became a legend among the slaves, and was nicknamed "Moses".

And after all this history – this year, too, Passover came around, the time when the Jews who gave this story to the world are commanded to recount the Exodus from Egypt, the more the merrier. During Passover it was that Prime Minister Netanyahu, who considers himself the leader of the Jewish people everywhere, spoke on TV and wished a Happy Holiday to all Israeli citizens, but especially the soldiers of the IDF and the Police and the Border Guards. 

Passover Seder ceremonies were held in military bases across the Palestinian Territories, in which took part the soldiers manning the roadblocks on the highways of the West Bank roads, and going on night raids and detentions in Palestinian towns and villages, as well as the crews of the gunboats enforcing the tight blockade of the Gaza coast. Also the settlers living under the army’s protection on confiscated Palestinian land celebrated with great pomp the Holiday of Liberty and recounted the Exodus until the late hours of the night. 

In fulfillment of the ancient commandment "Thou shalt not oppress a stranger: for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt", the Israeli National Police launched on Passover an especially intensive hunt for Palestinians staying in Israel without a permit, police commanders impressing on their subordinates the importance of swiftly apprehending all such offenders.

In one particular Israeli home, this year’s celebration of the Holiday of Liberty reached a high peak. Sergeant Elor Azaria, who last month in Hebron shot in the head a wounded Palestinian lying on the ground and was photographed in the act by a Human Rights activist – was given a special leave from detention in order to spend the Holiday at home with his loving family. 

As indicated in opinion polls, a majority of Israeli Jews think that a person who is considered a terrorist should be killed even if disarmed and no longer posing any threat. Therefore, they concluded that Sergeant Azaria should not be charged with murder, nor with manslaughter – rather, he should be released and perhaps even given a citation and a medal.

In order to understand the deep roots of the present situation in the State of Israel, it might be worthwhile to take a look at another part of the Bible, a far less enticing one - the story of the Conquest of Canaan. After the great liberation from bondage in Egypt, the freed Hebrew slaves wandered the desert for forty years. They were reluctant to undertake the mission which God sought to impose on them, i.e. to embark on a big war and conquer by force the Promised Land; for that reluctance, the Bible brands them as cowards.

The mission fell to their children, who did not remember the time of slavery in Egypt. Under the commander of Joshua, Son of Nun, they ferociously attacked the Land of Canaan and conquered city after city. At the command of God they then massacred all the inhabitants, men and women, old and children - in some places, even the domestic animals. At the happy end, they proceeded to divide and parcel out the land which had been emptied of its inhabitants.

At least, that is how it is described in the Bible’s Book of Joshua. Many of modern researchers and historians doubt the veracity of this depiction. If so, then this book - which gained a sacred status as part of the Jewish Scriptures – must have been authored by a person with a particularly morbid imagination. This text, too, was fully taken up by Christianity, which got it widely translated and distributed around the world. And it, too, served as a source of inspiration. It was easy enough for European settlers in North America and South Africa to identify themselves with Joshua’s Hebrew warriors and regard Blacks of Native Americans as the new Canaanites.

It is noteworthy that Judaism itself, which originally introduced this text to world culture, has taken an increasing distance from it over the centuries. The distant descendants of those savage nomads – they who had broken out of the desert with blood-dripping swords and destroyed the cities of Canaan - had themselves become the quintessential urbanites in all in many countries where they lived. Above all they admired scholars and sages, and kept their distance from warlike activities (in truth, there was in any case little opportunity for them to get involved with such...). Also the God in which Jews believe – A Universal God who holds eternal sway "From end to end of the world" was far removed from the bloodthirsty tribal God of the ancient nomads. The Jews also abandoned the blood sacrifice of animals, which had made the temples of the ancient world into veritable slaughterhouses, and replaced it with public prayer – a custom adopted also by Christians and Muslims.

The Book of Joshua - plus other bloody verses and chapters - remained part of the Bible. Observant Jews must not omit even one letter from the Scriptures, let alone a whole book. But it is completely permissible to provide softening interpretations and glosses. Also, it was perfectly possible to put off dealing with all such issues until the coming of the Messiah, until when they would be irrelevant to the actual lives of Jews in the here and now – and such indeed was the normal practice of Rabbis and Great Sages. For centuries, this was not at the focus of Jewish faith and tradition; among the many sacred dates and holidays on the Jewish calendar, no date was set to commemorate Joshua and the conquest of Canaan.

So it was until the rise of the Zionist movement in Nineteenth Century Europe - which even before reaching the Promised Land and meeting face to face with Arabs had already begun to cultivate dreams of "A Muscular Judaism". In 1899 Saul Tchernichovsky - a young Jewish student who came from the Ukraine to study medicine at the University of Heidelberg, and who was destined to become one of the main Zionist poets – wrote one of his most memorable poems: The people have grown old—their god with them / Passions, stifled by unmanlike folk / Have arisen from a thousand years of slumber! / I bend the knee to life, to beauty, to power / To all the wondrous glories, of which / Corrupt and degenerate walking corpses / Have robbed the mighty God / Of the vast uncharted deserts / The God of the conquerors / Who took Canaan by the storm / But these have bound him up in straps, in phylacteries!

One hundred and seventeen years have passed since a passionate young poet wrote down these words. A hundred and seventeen years in which the Zionist Movement and the State of Israel were engaged on the task of releasing the God of the Conquerors of Canaan from his chains. 

The ultimate fruit of these efforts, the visage of the rampant God of the Desert, could be glimpsed in the video released this week with footage from a demonstration in Tel Aviv, an enthusiastic rally called in support of that aforementioned Sergeant Elor Azaria, who had aimed his rifle and shot point-blank at the head of an injured person lying on the ground. "Muhammad is dead! Muhammad is dead!" chanted the crowd, and then "We will burn down your village! Burn, village, burn!" and "A Jew Has a Soul – an Arab is a Whoreson!" followed by "A Leftist is a Whoreson!" and "Fuck the Media"and concluding with a plain "Death to the Arabs! Death to the Arabs! Death to the Arabs! "

Undoubtedly, the God of the Conquerors of Canaan is by now rampaging, completely unrestrained, throughout the State of Israel and the territories under its ongoing military rule. And where can we find, these days, somebody to try binding him up again? Maybe at Boston, Massachusets.

On the same day that the video from the Tel Aviv rally landed on the Facebook pages, there arrived also another video – showing members of a Jewish organization called "If Not Now" who tried to hold a Liberation Passover Seder on the premises of AIPAC. 

The footage shows activists being arrested by Boston Police on charges of trespassing, being taken handcuffed one by one into a police car. Their fellows outside the building are shown accompanying them with singing and the waving of banners: "End the occupation!" / "Occupation is a plague", "Next Year – Freedom and Dignity for All!"/. A statement issued by the organizers read: "Thousands of American Jews will do what it takes to make sure the next President – whoever they may be – knows that the strongest movement in history to end the occupation is rising in the Jewish community".

The name of this organization is also derived from the traditions of Judaism. The First Century Sage Hillel, well-known for his humane interpretation of Jewish tradition, had said " Hillel says, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?". And he also said "In a place where there are no people , strive to be human".

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Three masked soldiers and an arrogant cat

The debate already started when we were waiting for the bus in Tel Aviv and continued all the way to Jerusalem, across the Green Line to the Tunnels Checkpoint. Of course, it was about the hottest topic these days – the soldier filmed in Hebron when he shot a "neutralized" Palestinian in the head.

- "Did you see? They already moved this murderer to "open detention in a military camp". They wriggled out of charging him with murder. Mark my words, he will probably be put up on charges of ‘careless use of his gun’ or something like that, and he will get one week on probation."

- "What do you expect when the polls show such a majority supporting this bastard? Quite simply, most Israelis think he acted fine. This country is really going to the dogs!"

- "We should have gone there, to the Castina Military Court during the preliminary hearing. We should have confronted the fans of this soldier, all this crowd who said how much they loved him. We should have been there with a counter-demonstration, chanting "Murderer - to prison! Jail the Murderer! ". Then, the whole country would have seen that there are two sides to this debate. The international media would have broadcasted in a big way."

- "Do you really want to go butting heads, have an all-out fight with all those hot-heads, the Beitar football fans, La Familia, the rest of this trash?"

- "They don’t scare me. If we get scared of a handful of Fascists, we can as well go out of business right now."

- "I am not scared of them, either. If there is no choice I'm not shying away from a fight. But if we had gone there, we would have been accused of picking on the little cog, on a simple soldier. That we were leaving alone the higher-ups who give the orders and determine policy."

- "A small cog? Somebody who makes a conscious decision to kill, points his gun and pulls the trigger and shoots in the head a helpless man lying on the ground? It that a small cog? In my book, that is a very big cog, it is a man who decided to become the Angel of Death. He's a murderer, pure and simple. A murderer!".

- "But if you focus on that soldier, you walk right into the trap which was laid by Defense Minister Ya’alon and his gang. Ya'alon pretends that all the soldiers in the IDF are righteous and pure and moral, and there is only one bad apple in this barrel. Just two weeks ago, Ya'alon said that ‘Breaking the Silence’ are traitors, now he is the pure stainless knight who holds soldiers to high standards of moral behavior. Do you want to become a Ya'alon cheerleader? I don’t".

- "I'm not exactly a Ya'alon fan, but somebody from the military and political establishment says something good for a change, and then gets heavily attacked for it by the extreme right, I don’t mind standing up for him."

- "But what Ya'alon said is not really something good. He said that the occupation is OK, the soldiers are all swell guys, only this one soldier is bad. This is hypocrisy, first class hypocrisy."

- "Hypocrisy? Maybe. I prefer hypocrisy to those who say that a murderous soldier is a hero. Those who talk like that may not be hypocrites. They are outspoken fascists".

- "Think for a moment what all this looks like to ordinary people. People who are not political activists like us, people who get their information only from the mainstream media plus some shit which is passed on through the social media. Everyone knows there were many other soldiers who did exactly the same thing, soldiers who deliberately killed Palestinians who did not pose any threat. Soldiers who killed for revenge, or killed for the sake of killing. The only difference is that with those other soldiers there was no camera to catch them in the act and provide clear proof. So, for Ya'alon and the Army Chief of Staff, all these other soldiers are fine. Perhaps they even deserve a commendation. Do you really want to be part of this organized hypocrisy? I think that's exactly the reason why the extreme right succeeded in mobilizing so much public support for this soldier. The public feels that this is hypocrisy, that one soldier is made the scapegoat for all the others who go scot free."

- "By the way, Senator Leahy, quite an important American Senator, demands an investigation of all the Israeli soldiers did killings in recent months. Not only this particular soldier, also the many others before him. This shows that AIPAC's power is slipping. However much they clap for Trump, their control of Capitol Hill is shaking ".

- "That is true. At least one bit of good news on this lousy week. Look, we're already near the Tunnels Checkpoint, the Palestinians are already waiting for us."

- "Actually, that's our real answer to this soldier and to all those who embrace him. That's the answer, Israeli and Palestinian demonstrators who march together and struggle together against the occupation."

Before the doors opened, a representative of the organizers took the microphone: "Remember, our goal here is to march, jointly and nonviolently. Israelis and Palestinians who march together and struggle together - that is more than enough, this fully conveys our message, loud and clear. Our goal is to steadily increase the number of participants, each month having more marchers than on the previous march, more Israelis and also more Palestinians. Marching nonviolently means we do not make provocative acts towards soldiers or settlers. It also means that we do not respond to their provocations, even if they do something very annoying. Remember, one second of ill-considered action can get the entire event depicted in a light which we definitely don’t want. "

We go down. We have arrived in a full bus from Tel Aviv, another busload came from Jerusalem, and quite a few private cars were there from various other places. We were joined by several dozen Palestinians who had arrived before us - some of them from this area south of Jerusalem, some from the Qalqiliya Area where "Combatants for Peace" has extensive activity.

The new initiative called "Standing Together" had started at the beginning of the Third Intifada (the "Wave of Terror", as part of the mainstream Israeli media still insists on calling it). There were demonstrations in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Be’er Sheba. Then there started a routine of holding a joint march on the first Friday of every month, a "Freedom March" at the Tunnels Checkpoint south of Jerusalem - a place that both Israelis and Palestinians can reach quite easily, and for which Palestinians need not ask for permits. Today, it is the fifth Freedom March.

A high wall separates us from the Palestinian town of Beit Jala. The wall was built with the proclaimed aim of protecting the settlers of the Gush Etzion "settlement bloc". A great number of settlers make daily use of this highway which the government of Israel built for them and the two tunnels which were dug in mountain rock at a huge expanse, so as to shorten the settlers’ route to Jerusalem. Along that highway we are going to walk for several kilometers. At the foot of this wall, to which somebody made an effort to give a little aesthetic appearance so as to disguise its nature.

Israelis and Palestinians meet and mingle within seconds. Here and there, old friends shake hands and stand together, some of them spreading out large banners which require three or four people to bear them. Organizers hand out signs in Hebrew, Arabic and English: "There is another way" / "It will not end - until we talk!" / "Stand together against occupation and violence" / "Stand together against racism and hatred" / "Theft of land breeds violence" / "Our tears all have the same color" / "Building together a new hope."

The Gush Shalom round placards, bearing the flags of Israel and Palestine are quite popular among the marchers, and also taken up by some Palestinians. Some others wave the flag of Palestine alone. Two Palestinians hold up a giant cardboard figure of ''Handala", the archetypal child refugee created by the late cartoonist Naji al-Ali who has become the widely used symbol of Palestinian identity. Many participants hold aloft olive saplings, which are to be planted at the end of the march.

On the other side of the road stands a lone settler with a giant Israeli flag. He will be with us in a counter-demonstration along the entire route.

The Drummers’ Band start marching and drumming and accompanying their drumming with the chanting "Down with the Occupation! Down with the Occupation!" Following is the entire crowd, two or three hundred people who came here to swim against the tide. One of the organizers, holding a megaphone, starts the chanting: "Israel and Palestine - two states for two peoples!" / "Occupation is a disaster – Peace, the solution!" / "From Beit Jala to Bil'in, liberate Palestine!" / "Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies!" / "No to Occupation! No to Violence! No to Settlement!" / "One, two, three, four – Occupation no more! Five, six, seven, eight – Stop the killing, stop the hate!". Some marchers start, without a megaphone, a chant of their own:"There can remain / Little doubt / IDF is terrorist / That’s a fact!".

On the high ledge above us, near the top of the Wall, the march is followed by three soldiers whose faces are covered with dark cloth masks, only their eyes visible, and who carry particularly large rifles. Along the highway itself, we are followed by a military jeep, with an officer at the rank of major (his face, at least, is visible…). Gershon Baskin, Jerusalem activist known to be involved in very creative forms of "alternative diplomacy", goes to the jeep. "Excuse me, officer, can I ask why your soldiers are covering their faces?" - "These are the Standing Orders, so as not to let them be photographed and recognized." - "Is that so? Not to let them be photographed and recognized? Indeed? Are they by any chance planning to engage in some kind of illegal activity, which makes them reluctant to be recognized later?" - "No, of course not. Covering the face is routine, part of the Standing Orders". - "Whose Standing Orders are these?" - "These Standing Orders were issued by a person authorized to issue Standing Orders. I am not obliged to specify to you the entire Chain of Command." The officer returns to the jeep and continues forward. The three masked soldiers who did not utter a word, continue to follow the demonstration. A few steps behind them walks a very big ginger cat, tail held high, who looks arrogantly at the strange games human beings engage in.

End of the route, and the railing at the side of the road becomes a makeshift podium. Arabic speeches are translated into Hebrew, and vice versa.

"Peace be upon you! I, Bayan Tabib, Mayor of Izbat al-Tabib and member of the Qalqilya-Tel Aviv Chapter of Combatants for Peace, greet all who had come to walk here. This march is held very near to the date of Land Day, which all Palestinians mark on March 30. For my village, Izbat al-Tabib, Land Day is an especially important time. All the time, the settlers are trying to take our village’s land by force. We resist, we cling to the land and defend it, and our Israeli friends help us defend it!. On this day I want to say to the occupation forces, to the Netanyahu government which is the settler government: you will not break us! We will struggle, struggle together with our Israeli partners, our Israeli friends. We say No to the Occupation, and again No to the Occupation, and yet again No to the Occupation! We will struggle and struggle, on and on, until peace is achieved between our two states. I invite you all to visit us next Friday for a demonstration of the residents of Izbat al-Tabib together with our friends of Combatants for Peace, a demonstration to save and preserve the village's lands!"

"I'm Ron Gerlitz, co-director of the NGO 'Sikuy’ ["Give a Chance"]". It is an association which unites Jews and Arabs, which aims to create a new, different relationship between the two peoples. I am proud to stand here today. I am proud to be part of the joint struggle against the occupation. I am proud of my fellow activists in the Human Rights activists, who are nowadays constantly attacked and slandered and accused of all sorts of trumped-up charges. I am proud to stand together with Israel's Arab citizens, against whom a massive with hunt is being conducted. This campaign reached its peak this week with the Knesset voting to pass the disgraceful so-called Suspension Law, whose immediate aim is to throw out of the Knesset the Balad Party. They want to require the Arab citizens of Israel to bend and contort themselves in order to fit into the very narrow space of political expression that the extreme right is pleased to ‘allow' them. They don’t accept this, they demand the freedom to express themselves freely, just like any other citizen, and they are completely right! (…) When one sees such horrific things as the high percentage of public support for the soldier shot and killed in Hebron, it is very easy to lose hope and give up. But we do not despair! We know there is no future for us in this country if we cannot build a society founded on democracy and coexistence. Without this, there is no future for anyone, not for the Jews and not for the Arabs, not for Israelis nor for Palestinians. We do not despair! We will continue to struggle together, we will build our future together, all of us! "

The last speaker was Taalah, a 16-year-old schoolgirl from Ramallah who came straight from having taken part in the Bethlehem Marathon earlier in the day. "We are here, Israelis and Palestinians together. We are together and we will stay together, like olive saplings planted deep in the ground! We're together, we fight together for peace and honor and life and freedom, peace for all of us, freedom for all of us, against the occupation and against violence, we are fighting together, Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims... [shouts from the crowd: "And Christians! Christians too! "] Yes, we are fighting together, all of us, Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Christians and Muslims, we fight together and we will win together, we are together till the end of the occupation, till the peace between our peoples!"

An organizer takes megaphone: "We come now to the final stage of today’s event - the planting of the olive saplings which we brought with us. The place we selected for planting them is on the other side of the road. We are asking everyone to be careful while crossing. Aside from all political considerations, this is a busy intercity highway. We really would not want to have some stupid accident. "

We carefully begin to cross the road. Suddenly, five activists step forward, carrying cardboard copies of the "Separation Wall" and place them squarely in the middle of the road, completely blocking the way for dozens of settler cars. Behind them, the demonstrators go on crossing the busy road. "It would not hurt the settlers to taste for five minutes what the Palestinians have to endure all the year around – to encounter a wall that looks just like this, a wall that blocks their way and which they are not allowed to cross."

A moment of tension. But, the settlers continue to sit in their cars. Also the three masked soldiers, and a dozen non-masked soldiers who joined them, wait patiently. All marchers crossed safely, the cardboard wall was put aside and the steam of settler cars on the road resumed.

Big red sign at the entrance to the side road stated: "This road leads to the A Area, controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Entry is forbidden for Israeli citizens. Such entry endangers your life and constitutes a criminal offense". We pass the sign and continue to walk a bit further and reach the plot which had been selected in advance. Volunteers take up spades, dig holes, and within a short time all seedlings are planted and the soil packed tightly around them and upon completion of the planting everybody claps. "We need the help of people s with cars who can come here periodically to water the seedlings" says a representative of the organizers. "We will continue to hold marches on the first Friday of each month. We hope to see you in May and June, you and also your friends who did not come today. And I want to remind you - in a week there is a demonstration of our friends in Izbat al-Tabib. That, too, is very important – transportation will be available. See you! "

On the way back could be seen out of the bus window the ginger cat, now walking alone on the empty route of the march.

For more photos: