Thoughts On Visit to Israel by Jello Biafra (2011)
Many people reading this know the uproar and complicated reasons my band, Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School Of Medicine pulled out of a July 2nd show scheduled in Tel Aviv. In many ways I really wish we had played. But I also share most of the boycott’s supporters’ feelings about Israel’s government, the occupation, and ongoing human rights violations.
I hope people take the time to understand how deeply this has torn at the fabric of our band. The promoter in Tel Aviv lost thousands, and I am eating thousands more in lost and re-booked airfares that I have no idea how I am going to pay, or how I will pay my bills for the rest of the year. Real human beings got hurt here.
This whole controversy has been one of the most intense situations of my life—and I thrive on intense situations. But the rest of the band was not used to this. How fair was it to drag them in in the first place? This is not like fighting Tipper Gore and the LAPD, greedy ex-Dead Kennedys members or more-radical-than-thou thugs who think it’s OK to put someone in the hospital for being a “sellout.” I gradually felt like I had gotten in over my head sticking my nose into one of the longest and nastiest conflicts on earth. I’d gotten as close as I wanted to one of those Herzog movies like “Fitzcarraldo” or “Aguirre, the Wrath of God.” A responsible leader does not go, “Hey, check out that big storm at the top of Mt. Everest. Let’s go up anyway just to see what happens.”
So with the roller coaster still in my stomach and my head, I flew solo to Israel instead. The mission: to check things out myself and hopefully at least get closer to some kind of conclusion on whether artists boycotting Israel, especially me, is really the best way to help the Palestinian people. The same idea as before, but sadly, no gig.
Flight hours are weird here. I’ve never seen an airport swarming with so many people at 4:30am. Same for all the people playing bumper cars with their luggage carts, jostling and cutting in front of each other in the long line for taxis.
But first there was Customs, and I expected the worst. Kurt, our soundman, even warned me there was a good chance I would not get into the country because of my well-documented history and big mouth.
Nope. Just a scolding from the woman in the booth that my passport was out of paper to stamp and I was on my way. Past the doors there were only two customs officers for all those people and they didn’t give me a second look.
Already things seemed more multi-cultural than I expected. Many women wore headscarves. Road signs are in Hebrew, Arabic and English, in that order. Many newspapers and TV channels are in Russian.
I woke up even later than usual to discover my ‘centrally located’ hotel wasn’t in the city center at all, but instead was attached to a huge hospital with a giant circular heliport on the roof and a scrunched urban strip mall with its own guardhouse on the other side. I opened my door to find people in hospital gowns with walkers wandering the halls, and some older couples who seemed fresh from a Worlds Greatest Grandma Convention in Miami. I guess it was outpatients, visiting relatives and me.
I can’t deny I’m glad our trying to play in Israel stirred up so much debate in the punk underground and beyond. I hope this has raised peoples’ awareness and inspired them to look deeper. The Arab-Israeli conflict, let alone the boycott of Israel, is not a black and white issue. It is more like all those quills on a porcupine. I am not an expert – just a very interested party who was only there a week. That is why I am deliberately including many different points of view I ran into, plus some history, background and interesting tidbits- in hope that people will at least take the time to stop and think. As one person I talked to put it, “There is a much more human side to this story than either side seems ready to accept.”
I have heard all kinds of views over the years. One friend of mine backed Bush’s invasion of Iraq because, “We have to do it to save Israel.” Another close friend said, “I don’t even believe in Israel’s right to exist. I can’t back any country whose constitution is based on genetics. They don’t legally sanction inter-racial marriage. They even put a religious symbol on their flag…the people fighting to get their land back are justified in what they do.” Both friends are Jewish.
The first people who wrote asking us to boycott went out of their way to be diplomatic and communicate how they felt. Then the gloves came off, and so did some of the masks. Our Facebook page went from eye opening and educational to a childish bickering orgy between a handful of people. Racial slurs began to appear on this and other boycott sites. Many writing in seemed to have no idea who I was or what punk is. One called me a, “fanatic Zionist with a clear touch of cultural racism.”
I also got an invitation from a self-proclaimed fan to, “come meet the Israeli Right” and see the settlements through their eyes, complete with a wine-tasting party.
So needless to say, no matter what I do now, it is going to make someone really upset. Sometimes the more you try to do the right thing the more you wind up pleasing nobody. But I can’t come back and say nothing.
TIME TO EXPLORE
So with that in mind my first night out began in the ancient city of Jaffa. Never before have I been in a city over 5,000 years old, or anywhere near. It is majority Arab, now absorbed into Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv apparently did not spring up until the 1920’s and 30’s when Jews first began to migrate en masse in hopes of establishing their own homeland and state.
Dinner was at an outdoor café, at a long table with all kinds of artists, promoters, organizers, and activists. I did not know how I’d be treated after the cancellation, but people were friendly, welcoming, vibrant and full of energy. They also let me know how heartbroken and disappointed they were that we did not play the show. How much I mean to them, that this was not just another gig in their eyes, etc. I had a feeling this would greet me wherever I went and it did.
Many at the table felt the boycott has damaged the opposition more than it has anyone else and, “helped silence the peace camp in Israel.” A veteran journalist I met later told me, “the best way to contribute to peace is to try and work to understand both sides” and that he felt that boycotts strengthen extremists by keeping people apart so that they don’t talk or interact with each other, and instead dig in their heels and become more afraid.
Others felt the Boycott Divestment & Sanctions (BDS) movement “is not all bad,” and can raise awareness across the pond of what the U.S. is letting Israel’s government get away with. One wrote me later that “I don’t disagree with BDS myself – in fact I would even say that I support the Palestinian call for civil non-violent action against the Israeli occupation… and I definitely feel that BDS is a legitimate way to do so. But if the price paid for this is worldwide ignorance, then I think I believe the price is too high. If musicians were to boycott Israel or Palestine, they would miss out on the opportunity to educate themselves — and then hopefully preach that opinion when and where they see fit.” Or as Michael Franti told me, to be able to educate Americans as someone who has actually been there.
I must admit I have been fascinated with the Middle East since I was a kid, even more obsessed since 9/11. I have offered plenty of solutions to Western and American problems in my spoken word shows and my YouTube series, “What Would Jello Do?” But this one has always stumped me. People in both Israel and Ramallah told me, “We can live our whole lives here and not know what to do or come up with a solution.” As one person at the table said, “It gets in your blood.”
Like America, well-funded extremists have succeeded in shifting the Israeli mainstream further and further to the right. Almost everyone I talked to seemed really discouraged, “This is by far the worst government we have ever had.” I heard that a lot, and I felt for them. It reminded me of when the worst leader my country has ever had managed to steal not one but two elections, and still has not been prosecuted.
Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (aka “Bibi”), of the extreme right Likud party has come out publicly in support if a Palestinian state with ‘significant land concessions,’ but has blocked any real movement in that direction.
Speaking to a joint session of the U.S. Congress last May, he again laid biblical claim to the illegally occupied West Bank. “In Judea and Sumaria, the Jewish People are not foreign occupiers… This is the land of our forefathers, the land of Israel, to which Abraham brought the idea of one god, where David set out to confront Goliath.” (My emphasis) Democrats and Republicans rewarded him with 29 different standing ovations.
He went on that, “Jerusalem must never again be divided. Jerusalem must remain the united capital of Israel,” and that it is, “absolutely vital that Israel maintain a long-term military presence along the Jordan River.” So what land is left? He seems to think Israel can go on forever holding almost 4 million people in virtual prisons on the other side of the walls in the West Bank and Gaza.
His main coalition partner and rising star, Avigdor Liberman, is vastly worse. Few in America realize that 1 in 5 Israeli citizens are not Jews, but Arabs. 20% of the population in the pre-1967 borders are Christians, Muslims, Bedouins, and Druze—about 14% of the voters. Liberman wants to strip them of their citizenship and expel them, unless they sign a loyalty oath. In a January interview in the U.S., where Newsweek called him “Israel’s most popular politician” he seriously proposed, “exchanging populations.”
How different is this from hardcore anti-Semites in the United States like KKK leader David duke and the Aryan Nations demanding, “separation of the races?” In a deliberate middle finger to Obama and Hillary Clinton, Netanyahu made Liberman Foreign Minister.
Just like in America, the ultra-right and the ultra-orthodox relentlessly draw lines in the dirt, see what they can get away with, and cross them. Exhibit A is the march of illegal Israeli settlements on occupied lands. Then there is the never-ending quarrel and push for the most right wing and ultra-orthodox rabbi possible to decide literally who is and is not a Jew and is therefore properly married, etc. There are now laws making their way through the Knesset to revoke citizenship for any act, “deemed harmful to the state,” to allow small towns to set up “admissions committees” to weed out “unsuitable residents.” Another law banning any mention of the boycott whatsoever actually passed, including a clause allowing settlers to sue fellow Israelis for “lost profits” if they so much as advocate a boycott of settlement-made products.
I heard over and over again that the Israeli Left never really recovered from the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. One person who wrote in favor of our playing the show claimed that deep down most of today’s Israelis are basically atheists and would even give back Jerusalem in exchange for peace. If that is true, that sure isn’t who is running the show. As late as 2000, Israel was ruled by the Labor Party, and was still something of a Socialist society. The 2009 election reduced Labor to 13 seats in the 120-member Knesset and the more left leaning Meretz party to 3. As journalist Chris Hedges put it recently in The Progressive, “When you have a liberal class that no longer functions, then you cede power to very frightening, deformed figures.”
The problem is that Israel never annexed the West Bank or Gaza after the ’67 war and officially made them part of Israel. Why? Because then Israel would have more Arab citizens than Jews. Guess how they’d vote? This would give Israel the choice of being democratic but not Jewish or Jewish but not Democratic. In other words, full-blown apartheid.
So instead people in the West Bank are denied Israeli citizenship and denied their own state. Gaza is under naval blockade with Israel controlling all crossing points except on the Egyptian border. One Jewish friend in America put it this way: Imagine if people came to your house one day and took it over because the Native American Indians are taking back their land. From now on you all have to live on Alcatraz – and you can’t leave.
The bottom line, as one person at the table put it—can democracy survive religion? “A little bit of God is a dangerous thing.”
Tel Aviv is a dazzling city. The nightlife is electric. There’s a 24-hour Big Easy vibe like a Mediterranean New Orleans, with some of the rush and intensity of West Berlin before the wall fell.
First up was a “secret” basement reunion gig with a long line outside for native legends Ha Bilium (The Good-Time-Outs). Opening was another big name pop star Shlomi Shaban getting up close and personal, treating his fans to a John Cage piece on toy piano. I’m told Ha Bilium’s lyrics are political, but I couldn’t understand the Hebrew. The singer/accordionist had amazing command of theatrical drama and moods with his voice alone. At times a banjo appeared and the songs reminded me of Munly.
Then it was off to another bar for Shawarma—the one-off name of the night for a bunch of guys from other bands, including The Apples, who, “get together and jam once in awhile.” I am not sure about the last part. This was infernal, tight, complicated funk with heavy rock fire and a dose of psychedelia—horns, stops, the whole thing. No lukewarm jam here, this was Earthless-level tight. Put ’em on a jam festival over here or claim they’re from Vermont and they’d be millionaires. One of them had on a ‘North Dakota College Summer Camp’ T-shirt picturing a moonlit lake surrounded by mountains. I doubt he got it in North Dakota.
Oh, how I wanted to rock tomorrow night! To play for all the cool people I’d met, the music onstage taking me clear to another planet, but it was not to be. I walked out into the night high as a kite on the good times, and sad as hell inside that the rest of my band was missing all this.
FACING THE MUSIC
Day 2 began with another long tasty meal above the ocean in Jaffa with two guys. Two guys named Guy, to be exact, the promoters of the show. I felt I owed it to them to sit down and talk and it is a good thing we did. They said they were more disappointed than angry and they were sure disappointed. They were also grateful that I at least came to Israel to see things with my own eyes, and was willing to talk to them.
They both described themselves as ‘left’, a more respectable and widely used term in Israel than in post-Crass Europe or America. They felt that concerts and politics should be separate. For me it’s a little more complicated.
“Our fight is not for land or religion, it is for peace,”
said Guy from the Barby Club, claiming that some pro-boycott Israelis he knew bought tickets to our show anyway. Guy from Useless I.D., the band who were supposed to open for us, said,
“My band has done benefits for families in Gaza and the West Bank. What have the boycotters on your Facebook page done besides write in?”
He went on to say that we were the only cancellation all year; that I was, in effect, boycotting my own fans. If I cancel Israel I should also cancel Germany because of the Holocaust and neo-Nazis, Holland because their right-wing government supports Netanyahu, and the UK for occupying Northern Ireland and Scotland. If I want to talk about war crimes I should be looking at my own country. In other words, why Israel?
To quote Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times,
“I demand more of Israel partly because my tax dollars supply arms and aid to Israel. I hold democratic allies like Israel to a higher standard, just as I do the United States.”
I will add that being a western democratic country that considers itself part of Europe, Israel is capable of doing much better. If this occupation was taking place on the European continent, NATO might well have intervened – and quickly.
My hosts, too, seemed genuinely frightened at their country’s direction, saying that the Israeli mainstream is against ending the occupation out of fear—’the wall stopped the suicide bombers, so let’s just keep it. Times are better than they were before…’
A couple years ago, an Israeli musician friend put it to me more bluntly. He’d seen my spoken word show and objected to my calling for a cutoff of U.S. military aid, saying,
“We’re surrounded by people who want to kill us. What are we supposed to do?”
I’d never thought of it that way before. I didn’t know what to say.
I think everyone at the table today were ex-soldiers. Military service is mandatory in Israel, 3 years for men, 2 years for women. Thus many have found their views shaped by direct encounters with the other side at their worst. One woman at the table said her views were “more left” before her military service. She said shots rang out as soon as she got off the bus when Israel was occupying Ramallah. That parents and older siblings were using the youngest kids as human shields at the front of a rock-throwing mob to keep themselves from being fired at. Another claimed that some of the rockets from Gaza are launched from the roofs of schools. They were adamant that there are strict laws against unauthorized shootings by soldiers, and that soldiers go to jail for this.
They were even guarded about a two-state solution along the pre-67 borders. At the narrowest point the state of Palestine would be only 14 Km (9 miles) from the Mediterranean, making it all too easy to shell Tel Aviv with rockets, or shoot down an airliner at Ben-Gurion airport, the same for the Golan Heights. “10 million Palestinians could pour in under right of return. Then where would we be?”
This is the Fortress Israel mentality in a nutshell. The most frustrating thing about it is that deep down large parts of it are grounded in reality and not entirely wrong. “We can’t just take down the wall and say ‘peace and flowers’ and get hit with more rockets and bombs.” “The wall really isn’t all bad because it did in fact stop the suicide bombings. We hate it, but we can’t take it down yet.”
My hunch is that most Palestinians are not like this and just want peace. But Hamas is no joke, and suicide bombers and rockets are very very real. I was shocked to read that it wasn’t a few random rockets fired from Gaza, it was 8-10,000. They’re big too. According to globalsecurity.org the largest listed was the Qassam 3 at 6 ½ feet long and 6 ½ inches in diameter.
Guards still search bags at the entrances to some malls. Guy from Useless I.D. talked of a “mass PTSD” still lingering from the second Intifada. Five years later he is still afraid to get on a bus.
Sadly this means that some people told me they are afraid of a Palestinian state because they just don’t trust Muslims, especially when it comes to violence and peace. They point to Israel even giving Arafat money and guns for the police after Oslo, “But they wound up in the hands of people who fired at Israel.”
The replies I heard to this were that rockets were not fired when Egypt got the Sinai back, that seizing the West Bank and the Golan Heights are no longer rocket protection because they can be fired from farther away now anyway, and that surveillance of mobile phones and internet traffic has helped shut down suicide bombers as much or more than the wall.
I’ll add this question: With the technology that Israel and America have today, how could it not be possible to shoot the rockets out of the air before they hit anybody, instead of storming into Gaza, Ramallah or Jenin and demolishing peoples’ homes? The new Iron Dome rocket defense system has intercepted a lot of rockets fired from Gaza. But I’m told it is not 100% effective, does not intercept small-range Qassams and is too expensive to use all of the time.
I also noticed a widespread fear on the street that Israel is in imminent danger of attack from Iran. Never mind that the Pentagon themselves recently admitted they knew all along that Iran abandoned nuclear weapons research clear back in 2003. Sure, Ahmedinejad is a doomsday cult lunatic. But he does not—pun intended—call the shots in Iran. The Chief of Intelligence for the U.N. weapons inspectors before Bush invaded Iraq quoted Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei as saying Nuclear weapons are unIslamic. Maybe the best way to defuse this is for Israel to give up and dismantle its own nuclear weapons. My worry about nukes all over the world is that someone as sick as Anders Breivik or Rick Perry may one day figure out how to hack their way in and set them off.
The show at the Barby Club went ahead anyway, with the other bands on the bill playing for free. The two Guys encouraged me to come. With so many people so upset, I wondered if that was the worst thing I could do. I told them I’d think about it.
I finally decided to go but I mixed up the times. I thought the show started at midnight, but instead it just finished. I went up and talked to some of the fans outside. They were the most emotional yet about how heartbroken they were that we didn’t play. Others said they were glad.
I asked them how they felt the boycott helped, and their main answer was that it was to show solidarity with the Palestinian people. They felt the boycott was already having a major impact and the government was already afraid.
We all went for a long walk to look for beer and some food. A surprising number said they would have preferred I do my spoken word show. “It would create a massive debate. We need something like this to get us going again.”
What really struck me the most about all of them was the sheer depth of hopelessness and despair. “Why do you keep talking about politicians and parties when they’re all shit? They’re all bad. It’s just going to get worse and worse.” One woman who wanted us to play just screamed over and over again how much she hated her country and how bitter she was that she couldn’t leave. I asked the boycotters that if the wall fell and peace came, what would they want? They said there was no point in talking about it because it will never happen anyway.
Several felt guilty and angry that they were living in such privilege while people suffered so badly right next door. As I listened, I tried, but could not come up with any quick advice to offer in the way of hope, or step-by-step ideas to lift their own situation and build a future.
Earlier that night I had gotten a wonderful dose of the other side of Israeli hospitality. A woman behind the desk at a different hotel where I met a friend said she had two bicycles. Want to ride along the beach with me tonight?
It was beautiful, the way all waterfronts should be. No factories, no walled-off mansions or resorts. The bikeway went on and on forever as the sun set. We finally turned around at an old barely used airport when it got dark, riding back past a small walled-off “religious beach” where men and women swam on separate days.
Overall Tel Aviv was amazing. Great atmosphere, great people, and (I know I’m not supposed to say this, but) drop-dead beautiful women. I want to move here.
Yet there was still this haunting feeling inside that seemed to hang around no matter where I went. People here affectionately call their city “The Bubble” for good reason. Just an hour’s drive away from this vibrant ball of energy is one of the most notorious ongoing human rights violations in the world.
BELLY OF THE BEAST
It still blows my mind that such a tiny area in such a small sliver of a country would be ground zero in the hair-trigger fuse of world peace. Israel is about the size of New Jersey. The occupied West Bank is a speck inside that, bigger than I thought with 2 million people, but still about the size of Rhode Island.
A bit of history: First, what is the West Bank? Its eastern border is indeed the west bank of the Jordan River and part of the Dead Sea. From there it pushes westward, forming a rump or notch into Israel, with a thumb of Israel pushing back into the middle to encompass Jerusalem.
On May 15, 1948, after years of battles, the British agreed to leave Palestine and David Ben-Gurion officially declared the state of Israel. Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt all attacked Israel the same day. 6,000 Israelis (1% of the population) and even more Palestinians were killed. Many more Palestinian villagers fled their land to what were supposed to be temporary refugee camps in the West Bank, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and farther countries, assuming they could return within weeks. 3 or 4 generations later they are still there.
In 1949 a cease-fire was agreed upon. What the Jews held in Jerusalem became part of Israel, what Jordan’s army held became part of Jordan, including all of Jerusalem’s Old City. The Jewish Quarter in the Old City was demolished. Jews could no longer enter or worship because Jerusalem itself was divided by—yes—a wall. Jordan held the West Bank and the border with Israel became known as the Green Line. These are the pre-67 borders.
In 1967 Israel’s neighbors again planned and threatened a coordinated attack to “Destroy Israel.” In a pre-emptive move Israel wiped out Egypt’s entire air force before they could even get off the ground and quickly seized the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan (including the Old City) and the Golan Heights from Syria. This was the Six Day War. East Jerusalem was annexed into Israel immediately and the occupation of the West Bank began. Arabs in East Jerusalem were granted Israeli residency status but are denied citizenship to this day. The standoff also closed the Suez Canal, with Egypt on one side and Israel on the other, leaving unlucky ships and their crews trapped dead in the water for the next seven years.
In October 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, a surprise Egyptian attack back across the Suez Canal reclaimed the Sinai but left Gaza in the hands of Israel. Fearing disaster, President Richard Nixon jumped in with 560 supply flights to the Israelis, twenty-two thousand tons of equipment and eighty aircraft. Cold warrior Nixon had beaten back the Soviet-leaning Egypt, Syria and Iraq and joined America with Israel as never before. But as they say in the intelligence community, then comes the blowback.
Result #1 was retaliation against the U.S. by the oil-producing Arab states in the form of embargoes and the rise of OPEC.
Result #2 was that Israel suddenly had a huge glut of weapons, which some claim may have emboldened them to launch the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 that in turn spawned Hezbollah.
In 1973 Israel began building strategically placed settlements in occupied lands across the Green Line. Masterminding the settlements was the freshly minted hero of the Yom Kippur war, General Ariel Sharon, who carefully chose hilltop locations. Many were then annexed one by one into Israel.
Today the illegal settlements are completely out of control, with 300,000 settlers planted across the Green Line in the West Bank and another 200.000 in East Jerusalem. Borders are creatively moved and enforced by the infamous wall started by Yitzhak Rabin that is such a black eye on Israel’s reputation today, even among its citizens and supporters. Some people told me that if the wall had been built along the Green Line it might have actually worked. But Sharon then used it as a land grab, creatively and maniacally routing it through the middle of Palestinian towns, Palestinian farm land and across Palestinian roads, in a deliberate attempt to make the West Bank such a splattered Swiss cheese hodgepodge of impassable walls and checkpoints that a free Palestinian state could never get off the ground. The village of Wallaja will soon be completely surrounded by the wall, with 2,000 residents trapped inside.
Jerusalem is in the mountains, at a much higher altitude than Tel Aviv, 2,474′ (754 meters) above sea level. At a bus stop on top of a hill I met my escort for a tour of the settlements. I’ve read so much about them that makes my blood boil, do I really need to see this? Yes. Everyone should. Your life will never be the same again.
I would be traveling with a key operative from Settlement Watch, a project of Shalom Achshav, whose American branch translates to Peace Now. Some people have dissed me for working with Peace Now on the grounds that they aren’t hard-line or radical enough, that I should only work with the organizations they themselves support, and even labeled Peace Now government collaborators. I have to say that none of the people I’ve met from Peace Now fit that description at all. Plus they had already put in a lot of time and effort to line up things like this to help me out, and frankly I was drawn to them, if nothing else, by the first word of their name—Peace. I like peace.
Settlement Watch itself was created to document and expose the often sneaky under the radar growth of the illegal settlements. They have quite a map of all this at peacenow.org.il. I’m sure more radically correct organizations have them too. The same right wing line-in-the dirt tactic is used here. Put up a shack for an outpost. See if the government cries foul or tears it down. Then put up another. Then another. If the Palestinian owner is blocked from their own land, farm it yourself and steal the crops and sell them. If you spot some land you fancy, muscle away the house or bulldoze it. If the locals object, bring in the army.
The big ones are not hard to spot. Many hills in and outside Jerusalem are over-run with big red-roof settlements of suburbia-style town homes—like a swath of San Jose or Irvine, CA smeared all over the hillside like hummus on pita.
Further out are the East Berlin-style checkpoints, several hundred in all. Israeli cars with yellow license plates are waved right through. A Palestinian bus is stopped and everyone is searched. I’m told the most miserable way is to try and walk through in either direction, then you really get the third degree. Some of the spiffy new settler-friendly freeways have high walls bent and angled over the roadway to guard against Palestinians throwing stones.
A turn up a side road brought us to one of the latest projects. Ahh, settlements. The ultimate “gated community.” A cheerful sign in mellow shades of green, complete with Ben & Jerry’s-type graphics said, “Welcome to Har Gilo—We’re building you the expansion. Sales office—Go straight.” The wall was right there. Our guide from Settlement Watch pointed out how the Israeli side of the wall was nice and decorative, complete with fancy stone tiles, while the side the Palestinians saw was just ugly cement. I also found to my horror that these settlements were being built by Palestinians so desperate for work they took the only job they could get. They had to park their cars, identified by white license plates, outside the gate at the bottom of the hill.
We roamed for a while on roads big and small. The woman from Settlement Watch would stop to take pictures when she spotted new activity, while me and a young Peace Now intern from North Carolina took it all in. She moved quickly in case settlers came out to start trouble. At one intersection a Palestinian car had collided with an Israeli bus. An armored-car police truck was there, along with a cop car and a bunch of soldiers to prevent any “incident” with rocks or shooting, even though we were surrounded by grassland.
We’re building you the expansion
BEAST IN THE BELLY
Up the crest of a hill and we had reached the edge of Hebron—one of the worst ongoing flashpoints of the Arab-Israeli conflict. I’d heard about it, I’d read about it, now we were here. Almost immediately I could feel the despair; metal doors, dimly lit shops, no signs. No cars either. Palestinian residents are not even allowed to drive here. This is especially cruel because the hills and the streets are so steep, some steeper than San Francisco. I’d see an old woman here and there, slowly making her way back up the asphalt hill with bags of what she got at the market, fully clothed in black in the hundred degree heat. Other people had gone back to using donkeys. I have no idea how they got the refrigerators sitting in front of the repair shop up the hill. It has been this way for 17 years.
Further down were some pastel blue Israeli tourist buses and a couple of Army trucks in the small parking lot at the Tomb of the Patriarchs. It is a huge old stone building. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are said to be buried here. There is both a synagogue and a mosque, since Abraham is a Muslim Patriarch too. A huge metal door inside divides the spaces.
One of the few things both Israelis and Palestinians seem to agree on is that a main obstacle to peace these days is the settlers. Hebron is both the largest Palestinian city and the only one with Israeli settlements put up right inside the city with the Israeli army sent to protect them at all costs.
In 1994 Dr. Baruch Goldstein opened fire at the Ibrahimi Mosque inside the Tomb of the Patriarchs, killing 29 Muslims and wounding 125. Hebron erupted in rage, prompting the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) to swoop down on the main marketplace, closing street after street full of shops and imposing a 23-hour-a-day curfew on the Palestinians, in effect punishing the victims for the suicide terrorism of Baruch Goldstein. The second Intifada followed, along with Hamas changing strategy from attacking the military and settlers to attacking civilians. I’m told intifada is Arabic for “‘a shaking off’, like when a dog has fleas.” Hebron is divided into H-1 under Palestinian control and the smaller H-2 where the IDF guards the settlers who have moved in.
Now the only thriving business by the Tomb of the Patriarchs is the gift shop run by and for settlers. 3 or 4 of the old Palestinian shops are allowed to open, but their own people can’t shop there. Only settlers and Israelis are allowed to walk and drive down the street. Palestinians must walk on a much smaller path on the other side of a three-foot concrete wall, enforced by the IDF at gunpoint.
I couldn’t help but think of the Stiff Little Fingers song, “Barbed Wire Love,” as our guide from Settlement Watch was chatting with a Palestinian shopkeeper she knew. A woman friend of his wanted to come over and talk to him, but was forced by the soldier to stay on the Palestinian side of the wall even though she had crossed over to talk to him many times before.
Barbed Wire Love
We got back in the car and drove further in, down street after street of shuttered Palestinian businesses in what was once a thriving old-school bazaar. H-2 looks like it has been a ghost town for decades, or even something out of Mad Max. Someone with spray paint even interspersed Star of David and Smiley Face graffiti on some of the big metal shop doors.
The wildest and most fanatical settlers are here. Many weren’t born in Israel at all, they’re from Brooklyn. We only caught a whiff when a car in front of us slammed to a halt and a settler with a headscarf and long dress began pounding and kicking a door of what turned out to be a mosque. A dozen or more soldiers came trotting down two streets, machine guns at the ready. Word was a stone had been thrown at her car and shattered one of her windows. She and another woman appeared to be OK, but an ambulance was there, and now so was a settler with a sport shirt and long beard brandishing an Uzi of his own. The woman from Settlement Watch knew him and some of the soldiers by name. They also knew her by name and she decided we should get the hell out of there.
Why Hebron? Why here? Like so many other wars, religion is to blame. Some extreme religious Zionists believe Israel must extend from Beirut all the way to Baghdad. Hebron was once an ancient Jewish city; to reclaim it is “redemption.” Only then can the Messiah arrive, the dead return and the world accept rule under Halachic law (Is this starting to sound familiar?). A mural outside an old bus station now used as an IDF base showed a giant glowing ancient Jewish temple rebuilt over the entire Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock were nowhere to be seen.
I did not see the worst of it. A Swedish musician friend of mine spent a month doing relief work in Hebron with the International Solidarity Movement. The flying rocks he saw were not thrown at soldiers by Palestinians, but by settlers in cars at Palestinian school children. He actually saw settler graffiti like, “Die Arab Sand Niggers” and “We Will Rape all Arab Women.” It is usually removed after it is documented. He also photographed the street I had read about where the Palestinians had to erect a grate above the marketplace to catch all the trash thrown at them from settler homes up above, as well as the occasional bricks and concrete.
Litter covered Net Over Palestinian Street
I did not see the reported settler homes with swimming pools next to dry Palestinian wells on the other side of the wall. But another recent Kristof article in the New York Times contrasted the Hebron Hills settlement of Karmel with the old nearby Bedouin village of Umm al Kheir, a cluster of tents and huts not allowed electricity, homes, barns, animals, or even toilets. Any attempted buildings are demolished by the Israeli army. He cites a settler poultry barn where, “chickens get more electricity and water than Palestinians.” He found more “water inequality” in the town of Tuba, where kids again are attacked by settlers and their escorts from Operation Dove and others have been beaten with chains by settlers in an “organized attempt to drive Palestinians out.” An international investigation published in 2009 in the prestigious British medical journal, The Lancet, shows a pattern of malnourished and stunted growth among Palestinian children.
What I can’t get over is not just how vicious this is, but how childish, petty and unnecessary. How do people stand for this? How can people let this go on? If Khadaffi or Hugo Chavez or the Serbs were involved, a world army would break it up in no time. Why don’t people in “The Bubble” break out and march on Hebron en masse and read the settlers the riot act, “you’re ruining our country!” Do they want to keep the settlements intact so those same extremists won’t move in next door?
I wonder how much more Israel has spent over the years on “security” compared to how much it would have cost to remove the settlers and re-settle and reimburse all the refugees for their annexed and stolen land? One theory I heard is that the Hebron-area settlers are so volatile and extreme even the current Israeli government is afraid of them. The day before I arrived 1,500 extreme right settlers rioted at the Israeli Supreme Court over the brief arrests of their leader Rabbi Dov Lior and Rabbi Yaakov Yosef. One of Lior’s followers was Baruch Goldstein, whom Lior later praised as a martyr.
Another is that the Security-Industrial Complex is now the largest sector of the Israeli economy. Israel is the #3 exporter of military armaments in the world, and the weapon barons don’t want anything to interfere with their profits.
Any fantasy that Palestinians can one day be broken down to stay on “their side” of the wall and live happily ever after is ridiculous. It flies in the face of all human instinct and human rights. It is never going to happen. Like the Berlin Wall it is destined to fall sooner rather than later.
Even some activists emphatically denied to me that Israel is an apartheid country. “It is not Apartheid. It’s a military occupation. There’s a difference.” OK, how about this—the occupying army is practicing apartheid in the occupied territories, and enforces and maintains it to the smallest most obsessive detail. Like South Africa there is a pass system called Tasrich, and a census law requiring people’s ethnicity on their I.D. books. Jewish Israelis have blue book, Palestinian books are orange and state Muslim or Christian, while non-Jewish immigrant workers books are green.
After Hebron we drove back down on a new Israeli freeway deliberately routed through the West Bank, an illegal Israeli road with walls on both sides to surround Palestinians within annexed Jerusalem land. All entries and exits were blocked, except to settlements. Palestinians must use the few roads allowed underneath that someone had the gall to name “fabric of life” roads.
Here the walls are not Berlin-style cement slabs like in the cities. They are two layers of East German-style chain link fences with razor wire at the top, a military road in between and a dirt path for detecting footprints.
The Settlement Watch guide explained that not all settlers are religious or political, only 20-30%. “They just grabbed a house there, in search of a different life.” They are not all fanatics from Brooklyn, but North African, Yemenite, Iraqi and other Jews. She said settlement rents are only about 1/5 of the going rents of inner Jerusalem. We went past one suburb/settlement that was only a ten minute drive from Jerusalem and a thirty minute drive from Tel Aviv. People in settlements get all kind of tax breaks that people in Tel Aviv do not.
I met a high-powered journalist at a party later that night who has spent twenty years covering Israel and Palestine for Latin America media. He had interviewed Yasir Arafat almost two dozen times and was the last person to interview Yitzhak Rabin the day before he died. He told me in his estimation 80% of the settlers would leave if they got reimbursed.
The main attraction of the party was a white-hot basement jam blending name Jewish Israeli and Palestinian musicians, folk, mid-eastern traditional, and a younger generation jumping in with some free style Hip-Hop. I had never seen anyone play an oud before, let alone a master virtuoso. Their flamenco/mid-eastern hybrid sound was fantastic. They wanted me to join in, but I felt so far out of my league I was happy just to tap my feet in time with a big smile on my face. Boy, did I need that after what I saw and absorbed earlier that day. No walls, no baggage, just people playing and partying together – exactly what I’d hate to see any boycott get in the way of.
A boycott of products made in settlements has begun inside Israel. But they can’t always tell where everything comes from. Start with the wine, maybe? There is also a growing boycott by artists refusing to cross the Green Line and perform for the settlers. A fancy venue has opened in one of the largest settlements in Ariel. Many artists refuse to perform there. With the law that just passed, will they be sued by settlers for declining a gig?
PALESTINE, AT LAST
Meanwhile, Ramallah has almost nowhere to go but up – sort of. The projected capital of the State of Palestine (unless it is East Jerusalem) has only 40,000 people, but looks way bigger. It is quite spread out – up and down expanding fingers of hills in every direction. It has the feeling of a boomtown, lots of 3-10 story buildings going up, and cranes all over the place. Most of the growth is in the past five years.
I’d been warned how hard it would be to cross the wall and get into Palestine. Was I out of my mind? Many Israeli Jews assume they can’t get in, that the Palestinians might not block them but the Israeli Army does, checking everyone to make sure no Jewish Israeli citizens got in “for security reasons”. For their own safety? Or because they don’t want them to see a functioning cosmopolitan city with its own energy and bustle and (I know I’m not supposed to say this, but) drop-dead beautiful women.
I don’t know where the stories came from because even at the infamous Qalandia checkpoint I did not see anyone checking cars headed towards Ramallah at all. No Israelis, no Palestinian Authority, not even a place to do it. As instructed, I had taken a taxi from nearby Jerusalem. It is almost next door. Traffic slowed to a trickle at Qalandia, but all we did was make a couple of turns, go through a roundabout or two and we had driven clear around the wall. “You’re in Ramallah now.” What? So I am.
I had come here to meet the person my band contacted to try and find a place for us to play in Ramallah. His friends picked me up from the drop-off point and gave me a quick tour. Gone was much of a hint of the last time Israeli tanks roared through and tore the place up during the second Intifada. This is when Yasir Arafat endured 40 days of shelling in his compound and was surrounded and trapped inside by the Israelis for a year. Every structure was leveled except his bedroom and a small office. A Palestinian friend living in the San Francisco Bay Area at the time told me his family was trapped back in Ramallah under a Hebron-style 23-hour a day curfew. They could only get electricity by sending little kids out at night to steal car batteries, at the risk of getting shot by soldiers for curfew violation.
Even now things are kind of sketchy. An interim agreement post-Oslo in ’95, that was supposed to be temporary, divided the West Bank into Areas A, B & C. Area C is totally controlled by Israel, about 60% of the West Bank. In Area B Israel controls “security” and the Palestinian Authority runs the civil side. Area A is supposed to be complete Palestinian control, but Israel seized the security part back in 2002 during the second Intifada, so A & B are now basically the same, say the locals. The people in the car would chuckle as we’d cross an unseen line, “Now you’re under Palestinian Authority” and a few minutes later we were out again.
Ramallah is hardly the shambles of a primitive village American media images might suggest. It actually seemed pretty secular. Clearly headscarves weren’t mandatory. I saw one woman wearing a hijab and tight jeans and another with a skirt above her knees. There are also bars and alcohol. Taybeh, the town where the Palestinian beer I drank came from even has its own Oktoberfest. Downtown had just about anything you could get anywhere else, except…
Settler Fantasy For Temple Mount
Settler Fantasy For Temple Mount
The person who was interested in putting on our show told me, yes, it was awfully short notice and he was not sure many people would have shown up anyway. He said he had a hard enough time finding people who shared his love of rock music, let alone punk. He understood what our band was about far more than I realized, and was familiar with Dead Kennedys. His own band played mid-eastern, hip-hop and his personal favorite, heavy metal. He felt the Palestinian music underground, such as it is, had quite a ways to go.
Lack of venues didn’t help either. He thought a festival featuring a wide variety of music might be the best way to introduce people to our mutant brand of noise. Many had suggested we move our show to the wall so people trapped in occupied Palestine could at least see us play. Both he and promoters in Israel told me that a concert right up against the wall would be shot down by the authorities on both sides over crowd control issues. I can’t think of a single place I saw along the wall that would work as a concert performance space that people could get to anyway, let alone peer through cement twenty feet tall. I have a feeling most people telling us to cancel Tel Aviv and only play Gaza or Ramallah have never actually been here.
No one I met in Ramallah thought a UN vote to recognize Palestine would change much of anything on the ground. The Palestinian State has a long ways to go. They do not issue their own passports. The currency is still the Israeli Shekel. I was told that even with a building boom Ramallah has a 40% unemployment rate, and 40% of those employed are only working temporary jobs. There doesn’t seem to be much planning on where to put new offices or hotels, they just seem to be going up anywhere. I don’t remember any streets more than two lanes wide.
Star & Bucks Coffee – A Growing Palestinian Chain
Ramallah Grows Across The Hills
People here feel the Israelis still control the economy and pretty much everything else, that the Palestinian Authority has little actual authority. I was told investors are reluctant to put money into Palestine because of all the checkpoints and roadblocks. A factory in Nablus can’t easily ship to Ramallah even though it is only a few miles away.
An even bigger sticking point is water. Palestinians have accused Israel of stealing and water-grabs for years, especially the settlers. Water is only available 8 hours a day in Ramallah, so the buildings are dotted with big black plastic water tanks on the roofs where people literally ‘upload’ the water for when the pipes are turned off. I also saw tanks in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, where they are used as hot water heaters. Almost all hot water in Israel/Palestine is heated with solar power (Hint Hint America…)
I was supposed to meet with some Palestinian BDS activists, but did not manage my time well and had to catch a ride back to Jerusalem. We passed through al-Amari refugee camp and another one still sandwiched inside the city. I was told people inside would not like us taking pictures, so I didn’t. These are the descendants of the people in the tent cities in 1948 who thought they’d only be there a few weeks and got stuck. Now the “camps” have grown into ramshackle towns and cities of cinderblock buildings several stories tall. Lots of anger here, not hard to see why.
We easily got past the checkpoint because me and the Palestinian driver “looked Jewish”. Trying to walk through into Israel might have taken hours. The woman from Settlement Watch the day before told me she thought the IDF should go back to giving everyone the third degree and snarl up traffic so even settlers would get so sick of it all they’d leave. It is almost a ceremony now, in the ritual of endless oppression and harassment.
I crossed my fingers for the future as the sun set on Ramallah, knowing the tanks could return and blow it all up at any time.
ALL ROADS LEAD TO JERUSALEM
I could still be a tourist for one day, couldn’t I? I couldn’t not check out Jerusalem. I met up with a journalist my Tel Aviv friends hooked me up with and we walked down Jaffa Street to the Old City.
This is where it all goes down, as they say. The Ground Zero of Ground Zero. The Wailing Wall, The Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Christ supposedly died, Mount Zion, King David’s Tomb, The Muslim Quarter, The Christian Quarter, The Jewish Quarter, The Armenian Quarter, Herod’s Gate, Damascus Gate, Zion Gate, Lion’s Gate (Hmm…), and above all the Temple Mount. Wow.
My host for the day called the Temple Mount, “the holiest of Holies,” so holy Jews won’t set foot on it. At least not until the Messiah comes and the ancient temple is rebuilt. It must have been huge, the mount is as big as several city blocks. The Jewish temple was destroyed twice in ancient times, once by the Babylonians and once by the Romans.
On top of the ruins now sits the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest place in Islam. It was Ariel Sharon tromping around up here in a publicity stunt that broke the camel’s back and set off the second Intifada, propelling him into the Prime Minister’s office a few months later in 2001.
We entered through the Old City on foot through Jaffa Gate. I was immediately struck by all the ‘money changers in the temple’. So many I decided this must be the Temple of the Money Changers. There was even a “Money Changer” sign not 10 meters from the entrance.
OK, the Old City is a city, not just one big religious site, with many residents and many more small businesses. I doubt this vast bazaar has changed much since ancient times. The steps and streets are too narrow for cars and swarming with people. A lot of the shops were pretty cool, with art, jewelry, crafts and beautiful robes. I might have bought something if I wasn’t so overwhelmed.
The Old City
Then there were other stores. One T-shirt stall had two or three vertical rows of nationalist military tees – Israeli Defense Force, Mossad, “UZI Does It” (cute), “Don’t Worry America, Israel is behind you” with a fighter jet, “My Job is So Secret I don’t even know what I’m doing”, etc.
Right beside them on the left were 2 or 3 more rows with “Free Palestine” shirts, Che, a smiling Arafat, peace signs, and one shirt with a map of Palestine encompassing all of Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.
Inside was another section of presumably bootleg shirts in Hebrew of the Dallas Cowboys, the Boston Red Sox, the Celtics, Mets, Patriots, Giants, Eagles with the wrong helmet design, ‘Guns & Moses’, Batman, Harley Davidson and Manchester United. Is nothing sacred? Not even the Dallas Cowboys? Another place was even selling makeshift crowns of thorns!
Weirder still were the buildings in the Muslim Quarter taken over by settlers flying rows of Israeli flags. Nearby was a mosque that had been purchased in the 80’s as a second home/residence by Ariel Sharon! What was the seller thinking? “They probably fled to Europe with the money,” was the reply.
We spilled out of the tunnels of shops onto the plaza at the Wailing Wall. I was told it is not actually a Holy Place, but one where many come to pray. A Muslim neighborhood was built right up to the wall when Jordan destroyed the Jewish Quarter after 1948. The Israelis tore it down right after the Six Day War in ’67, rebuilt the Jewish Quarter and the open plaza at the Wailing Wall today.
Heads were covered, including mine, and a six-foot fence separated male pilgrims from women. The women’s area is much smaller than the men’s, but far more women were praying. A new army unit was being sworn in by an officer and a rabbi. Most were teenagers. A few feet from a ‘No Cell Phones’ sign was a Hasidic man talking right in front of the wall on his mobile phone.
After leaving the Old City we strolled through Mea Sherim (100 Gates), an ultra-orthodox neighborhood where TV, movies and even secular newspapers are forbidden. Posters serve as mass-media, announcing deaths and goings on. Signs warned not to enter the neighborhood in groups or “dressed immodestly.”
We were the only males not in black overcoats on a 90-100° day. Some wore large fur hats like in Eastern Europe where their sects came from. There were lots and lots of children, an average of 8 per family, down from 12 a few years ago. I was surprised to find these Hasidic sects are exempt from military service under orders of Ben-Gurion since their numbers were decimated by the Holocaust, and many study Torah full-time.
Segregation and subjugation of the sexes here seems to rival hardline Islam. Heads must be covered, often by wigs, and marriages are arranged. Israel’s progressive-leaning daily paper, Haaretz, reports a recent marked rise in discrimination, with women being forced to eat at separate tables in separate rooms, and even walk behind the men or on separate sidewalks. The fastest growing settlements are ultra-orthodox.
That night I went to a very interesting avant-garde music performance with large blown-glass bulbs, neon and a string quartet at the David’s Tower Museum in the Old City as part of the Jerusalem Season of Culture. What followed was a fascinating conversation with a filmmaker and animator working on her masters degree after she flagged me down on Jaffa Street and invited me to a late dinner at an outdoor café with her mother, an architect. She was the only person I met who felt positive about the future, that good change was coming.
She also laid out some fascinating history, that she was proud she was a direct Jew descended form those who fled to Spain then slowly made their way back. She said 40% of European Jews were descended from those who converted several hundred years ago when a White Russian King converted himself and his subjects, while many Palestinians are descended from the original Jews who stayed and converted to Islam, including the ones in Hebron.
Her mother’s way of fighting the system was designing cheerful schools with sunlight and lots of windows for Palestinian schoolchildren.
BOYCOTT, DIVESTMENT, AND SANCTIONS
Rothschild Blvd in Tel Aviv is something the world could use more of. In between two rows of trees down the middle runs a nice wide sidewalk and bike path, with benches, coffee stands and even a chess table seemingly every block. There are people and conversation at all hours.
Here the next day it was time to sit down and talk things out with one of the leading boycott and anti-occupation activists. Jonathan Pollak (pronounced Yonatan) is now media coordinator of the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee, a Palestinian umbrella organization of local activist groups. I think he was involved earlier with Anarchists Against The Wall, who did non-violent direct actions to try and stop its construction.
He emphasized to me they do not organize demonstrations, but support Palestinian-led actions. “The participation of Israelis in demonstrations, unfortunately, does make a difference” he told The Nation, “… because of the racist nature of our situation. Open-fire regulations, for instance, are a lot more stringent, officially, when Israelis are present.”
He had just come from a hearing in Military Court he had attended to support a Palestinian comrade. Palestinians held prisoner by the Israelis are subject to Military law, not Israeli civil law or their own. This means that if a Palestinian and an Israeli are both arrested for “Illegal Assembly” at the same demonstration, the Israeli is taken to regular civil court where they get a hearing in 24 hours and no more than one year in prison. Palestinians are taken to a Military prison where they can be held for 8 days and sentenced under Military laws up to 10 years. Some are held for years, starting at as young as 12. The conviction rate in Military courts is over 99%. Violent settlers are routed through the regular civil courts.
Like others, Jonathan told me the main reason to boycott was, “to show solidarity with the Palestinian people. No more business as usual.” He went on, “the Palestinian people asked for a boycott”, that the movement was Palestinian in origin. I was tempted to ask, “Which Palestinian people?” But I must admit I met very few Palestinians who were against it.
He said to fight is not about hope, but about passion, and that even if I didn’t see it, “the Israeli public are feeling the boycott as a boogeyman who won’t go away.” Or as another friend put it, “the boycott is touching Israelis where it hurts the most – their pride in being part of the “western world” and modern culture.” Jonathan felt things like joint soccer games just perpetuated business as usual, that everything was a manageable situation that could be maintained.
He did say any solution, “must incorporate dignity and liberty for Israelis, Palestinians and Refugees.” This was quite a breath of fresh air compared to people on the internet who seemed to want every Jew out of the territory and preferably off the planet.
He said the key is links, musical and otherwise bound in struggle against the illegal occupation. What about the people already on our side who wanted to see us play, I asked. What about the charge that the boycott is just splitting people apart and mainly hurting the Israeli Left? He looked me in the eye, “There is no Israeli Left.”
Then came a surprise opening. I asked what if an “anti-Sun City” type concert was held inside Israel to help wake up and inspire the Israeli people? Do we boycott that too?
He replied that if the event was pro- Palestinian rights and against the occupation it would not be breaking the boycott. But the venue itself must come out against the occupation and for Palestinian rights.
To my relief one of the promoters I’d made friends with said this was not a deal-breaker and might actually be do-able, as long as the organizers didn’t pile on more and more pet causes and hard line positions, thus taking eyes off the prize. I see his point.
WHEN IN DOUBT, MUSIC
After our meeting I found a text from the woman I’d met in Jerusalem alerting me to a show that night at the same place I’d seen Shawarma. After all I’d been absorbing, boy did I need some music. The Midnight Peacocks combined the artier side of the Melvins, some ambient 80’s post-punk passages and deadly Middle-Eastern melodies done heavy. In other words, GREAT.
A store the next day had their two CD’s in a packet for me just in case I stopped by. I couldn’t leave on the plane that night without a pile of underground Israeli music. I’d finally snagged a phone number for an old old friend I’d corresponded with for years, but never actually met. We’d traded vinyl, literature and despair about our countries’ ills since the 80’s, but had kind of lost contact.
He shoved CD after CD at me at warp-speed, some good, some weird, some by female singers he had a crush on. I liked many of them, but grew more and more desperate for something that really blew me away. Most punk was too normal, the indie too limp. The last CD I checked finally hit the jackpot – Orphaned Land, a full-on metal band on Century Media just dripping with middle eastern riffs. In case no one’s noticed I am a sucker for anyone who blends rock, psych, punk or even electronica with middle-eastern riffs. Dick Dale grew up on Lebanese music, you know.
Then who did I run into at the next store, but the bass player for Orphaned Land, who then took me down the street to his own metal shop, called Metal Shop. He got out his laptop and played me what may be an even better metal/Mid-Eastern band from Tunisia called Myrath (or ‘Legacy’), while he peppered me with questions about Ministry and the Devil’s Anvil.
Israeli or not, he told me his band has dozens of fans in Arab countries and even play in Turkey, where people travel all the way from Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iran to meet them. He said he had proof a fan in Egypt was thrown in jail for six months after the police found their album in his home. They have launched a web page and an open letter where Arabs in Muslim countries can download their album for free because they are banned there.
He told me they had brought a belly dancer onstage at Hellfest in France, waving Lebanese and Israeli flags together. I am kind of suspicious of flags, but as silly as this may seem, it could do a lot more good than Dennis Ross and all the Blairs and Clintons combined. They plan to tour Europe with Myrath and an Islamic metal band from France called Arkan late this Fall. He thought we should have played the show in Tel Aviv.
SO NOW WHAT?
As I said in my previous statement it would have been so easy for me and the Guantanamo School Medicine to quietly decline the Israel/Tel Aviv offer and no one would have been wiser. Naïve or not, we thought that in our own small way, if we showed up we might be able to do some good. Opinions swung back and forth every day as hell got hotter, even among individual band members.
I do not regret speaking out. It has been quite a learning experience along the way. I can’t very well shut up now. It is like I’ve been covered with someone else’s chewing gum and I’ll never be able to scrape it all off. As my friend said, “It gets in your blood”, and it has definitely gotten in mine.
What does it mean to be pro-Israel?
What does it mean to be pro- Palestine?
Who is David? Who Is Goliath?
Everyone has such a strong opinion and every person’s is different – another sharp quill on that damn porcupine.
I feel such despair. I loved Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem was hardly the “dead city” at night that some Tel Aviv hipsters claim it is. I want to come back. I want to play. But I, too, am as sickened as the next person that not all the cool people I met can cross into Israel and enjoy Tel Aviv or even worship in Jerusalem. That unnecessary checkpoints prevent them from reaching their farms, schools or even hospitals. 44 years of brutal occupation has done no more to solve the problem than America is winning the War on Drugs. You can’t just keep almost 4 million people in prison!
The leading cause of terrorism is not evil, it is poverty. I asked people why the Arab citizens living in Israel never joined the intifadas. They all replied it was because they had a higher standard of living. They had money. That they would rather live in Israel plugged into its economy than start over from scratch in Palestine. So why shouldn’t the focus be on erasing poverty and lifting as many boats as quickly as possible? So the next generation has something to live for, something to do. So rockets and suicide bombings don’t have the same appeal. Rich Arab countries should also kick in to help compensate Palestinians driven off their land.
I got the same story in Northern Ireland. As the promoters of my spoken word show approached Belfast, we drove through some American-looking suburbs where they told me loyalists and republicans lived side by side in relative harmony because they had more money and less time and reason to fight with each other.
Many I met in Israel seem in a weird denial about how dangerous and insane their leaders have become and how close they are to leading their country off a cliff. Surprisingly few had ever been to the settlements or Hebron. They owe it to themselves to make the effort to see Hebron and places like it with their own eyes. Anyone who does perform in Israel owes it to their conscience to take the time to do the same.
I also feel solidarity with the brave Israelis who are not in denial and desperately want to stop the apartheid occupation and rejoin the civilized world. What about them? Isn’t that what political and resistance art is for? The reports that some people at a Napalm Death concert at the Barby Club were singing, “Death to Arabs!” during a cover of my old song, “Nazi Punks Fuck Off”, tells me I would not simply be preaching to the converted if I play here. Nor would I be playing into the hands of Netanyahu and Liberman and wind up exhibited as a government propaganda tool, like some people on Facebook have claimed.
Bringing down this regime by boycott may be a much higher mountain to climb than the boycott of South Africa. The musician boycott of Sun City (a posh, government-owned golf resort and casino) was just a promotional tool for the financial boycott, where banks, universities and corporations caved into pressure to pull their investments out of South Africa and broke the back of the white apartheid regime.
There was not heavy-duty religion involved. There were not millions in America and worldwide so emotionally attached to the other side for that reason. There was not a powerful Americans for Apartheid lobby in Washington D.C. or Students For A White South Africa on campus. Investors who pulled their money out did not risk an even bigger backlash from pro-Apartheid stockholders and customers.
There was not so much money pouring in from boycott-proof super-rich zealots like Netanyahu and settler patron Sheldon Adelson, a casino tycoon whose estimated $28 billion makes him reportedly the third richest American and the richest Jew in the world. He also meddles in American politics, funding the Swiftboat ads and a multitude of extreme-right Republicans.
I have heard many times on both sides of the pond that, “The problem is not the Israeli Jews. It’s the right-wing American Jews.” As Peace Now put it,
“People like Adelson and (bingo magnate) Irving Moskowitz don’t believe in letting Israelis decide what is best for Israel.”
I am not saying the same tactics that brought down Apartheid South Africa can’t be done. I am just saying that there are different and heavier obstacles this time and people need to be ready for them.
South Africa never had anything like the AIPAC lobby, (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) who now are considered more of a lobby for Likud than for the Israeli people. Nevertheless they have a stranglehold over almost every member of Congress of both parties, using Joe McCarthy-type tactics to smear anyone they don’t like as anti-Jewish and get them voted out of office. The ever-toothless Obama was sure to try to make nice at their national convention. There are also several groups operating on college campuses targeting and smearing academics and even students who question Israel’s government or dare to network with campus Muslim groups. Several professors have been fired.
Then there is the massive funding of settlers, extremists and more by America’s Christian right. I am told Mike Huckabee is a regular fixture at the settlements. Sarah Palin, whose end-of-the-world doomsday visions rival Ahmedinejad, is on board too, telling Barbara Walters that Israel needs to speed up settlement construction because, “More and more Jewish people will be flocking to Israel in the days and weeks and months ahead.”
This is not because any of these wingnuts love Israel or love the Jewish people. They just want all the Jewish people gathered in the right place for their Messiah to return. And if all those Jews they claim they love don’t convert to Evangelical Christianity on the spot, Jesus will send them to burn in Hell alongside Muslims, heretics, and myself.
This is why the U.S. Christian Right is much more interested in aiding Jewish settlers who don’t need the money than they are in aiding Palestinian Christians on the other side of the Wall who do. I asked people in Israel about this and they told me the settlers don’t care about their motives, they just want the money and think they’re using the Christians.
What the Palestinian Solidarity Movement does have on its side is the horror of the occupation itself for all to see. If only more people could see it. This is where I say, yet again, Don’t hate the Media, Become the Media. What this means in this case is that people in Palestine and Israel and people who have been there need to reach out one on one and show people what is going on and what they have experienced, especially Americans. Did the diplomatic and detailed letters to me help in my case? Yes.
Believe me, most Americans are so out of it, they have no idea any of this is happening. They have no idea Palestinians are a people, not an organization of terrorists and bombers.
People outside America have no idea how dumbed-down, tightly controlled and creatively censored our mass media has become. Corporate McNews is more and more of a cartoon show with each passing year – no – each passing month. Less and less actual news stories get reported. The second flotilla was barely a blip on the radar screen, same for Israel’s Summer of Protest. Obama vs. the Tea Party on taxes and budget cuts, Oil in the Gulf of Mexico, yet another sensational child murder in Florida. Sure these first two are important, but Cartoon McNews will stretch them out day after day, month after month and don’t report on much of anything else. Unless, of course, it’s Tiger Woods’ penis or Charlie Sheen is drunk again.
What I am saying is, reaching out to someone you meet online needs more than a quick note with a link or two. People get so many e-mails now they’ll just skip it. Personal thoughts, personal details, hopefully some visuals; and then maybe they’ll be interested enough to start exploring the links. What can one person do, small things, big things? Step by step things that an overwhelmed person just trying to pay their rent can actually work in to their daily rat race and do? I am usually good at this, but I need some suggestions here.
Above all, do not come on as a ‘My way or the highway’ finger-pointing, guilt-tripping bully. Don’t argue, communicate. Sometimes it is stomach-turning and all you can do to start is plant seeds. But it is better than dismissing people as ignorant or stupid, then going back to your corner and giving up. So many times I’ve seen the more-radical-than-thou turn other people off to perfectly good ideas. Fundamentalism is poison.
This especially gets under my skin when so many people I talked to on this visit asked me not to use their names when I wrote this up, out of fear that hardliners mostly on their own side would harass or even attack them. Jamming in a basement with Palestinians or Israeli Jews should not bring fear of retribution.
One writer on metalsucks.net said,
“Whenever I’m abroad… and someone hears I’m from Israel, it’s always, ‘You should stop what you’re doing in Palestine,’ or, ‘You should all stop killing Arabs’- and it’s always Europeans or Americans. When I meet a Muslim or an Arab, it’s always, ‘Ignore the political bullshit, man. It’s the fucking governments. How are you doing? Nice to meet you.’ Oddly enough, it’s the Muslims who don’t judge us based on being Israeli because they know the facts.”
With eyes on the prize of something this important, there needs to be room for everybody. We who give a shit (and I do) need all the people we can get from BDS to Peace Now to International Solidarity Movement to Popular Struggle Coordination Committee, Israeli Committee Against Housing Demolition, Anarchists Against The Wall and beyond.
There is a new Jewish lobby in Washington called J Street, formed to challenge the toxic effects of AIPAC. They may be moderate for my tastes, but anyone who will get in the ring and challenge AIPAC deserves some support.
I heard talk in Israel of a movement started by Rabbi Menachem Froman saying that the settlements in the West Bank should stay, but Jews living in Judea and Sumaria should be willing to live there under a Palestinian state.
I personally support a two-state solution in hopes it can lead to a one-state solution in our lifetime. In the short run we may get a three-state solution if Hamas in Gaza splits with Fatah in the West Bank, like when East Pakistan broke off and became Bangladesh. The Spanish/Portuguese journalist told me that Palestine is already the second largest trading partner with Israel.
Let’s not forget that the Palestinians and Arabs have rolled their demands way back from the “destroy the Jewish State” rhetoric of earlier decades. Yasir Arafat agreed to a Palestinian state defined by the pre-’67 borders clear back in 1988. It is now ten years since all 22 nations of the Arab League offered peace and full recognition of Israel if Israel would agree to a solution based on the pre-’67 borders.
Even Muammar Qaddafi said that, “The Jewish People want and deserve their homeland,” and that “Jews and Muslims are cousins descended from Abraham” in an op-ed in the New York Times.
Jonathan Pollak told me that a friend of his from the United Democratic Front in South Africa told him that the most hopeless period in their struggle seemed to be around 1985-1990. The Apartheid regime seemed more invincible than ever, right before the regime actually fell. Like the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Velvet Revolution, the collapse of the Soviet Empire – and now Arab Spring – it took almost everyone including me, by total surprise. No one expected it. Luckily, like the former Czechoslovakia, the rebels had prepared for the aftermath and all hell didn’t break loose. No civil war, no blood bath. Could the same thing happen for Israel too? I did not hear one word of simmering anger over high rents and the cost of living, yet Israel’s “summer of protest” erupted less than a week after I left, starting on Rothschild Boulevard, no less.
40,000 people demonstrate in Tel Aviv demanding Social Justice
(courtesy of Peace Now)
I hope that is where we are today. Because the occupation, the wall, and the settlements must go. As horrible as the Arab extremists have been, it does not justify this. I support the people of Palestine in their fight to be free and the many brave Israelis who are totally fed up with their government’s human rights violations and want to live in peace.
I will not perform in Israel unless it is a pro-human rights, anti-occupation event, that does not violate the spirit of the boycott. Each musician, artist, etc. must decide this for themselves. I am staying away for now, but am also really creeped out by the attitudes of some of the hardliners and hope some day to find a way to contribute something positive here. I will not march or sign on with anyone who runs around calling people Zionazis and is more interested in making threats than making friends.
As for Arab Spring, I cross my fingers on one hand and bite my nails with the other.
I have a lot to learn and a long ways to go. The more I know, the more I don’t know. I hope people get something out of this if you’ve managed to read this far. I couldn’t keep it all inside.