April 24, 2015


My Parents' Israel, My Apartheid : A South African goes home to Israel (Anne Landsman, April 23, 2015, The Tablet)

The Sunday prior to the trip, I meet my Encounter group at an orientation in Jerusalem. There are about 35 of us, including the two trip leaders, Rebecca Polivy and Shani Rosenbaum, plus nine facilitators. Almost all are American Jews, many of whom who are either rabbis or rabbinical students. Others are social workers, educators. Some live in Israel, most live in the United States. The majority are much younger than me, several around the age my parents were when they came to Israel in 1948. I am immediately struck by their seriousness and their passion.

We sit in a large circle. Each of us has to mention who we are bringing on the trip, and why, in two minutes or less.

I am bringing my South African parents, I tell the group. I mention that they were Mahalniks in 1948 but I don't mention the overturned table that effectively ended any meaningful discourse with them about Israel from that day forward. All I say is that I grew up hearing one story but that there's another story I want to hear.

We are introduced to the Encounter communication guidelines, which include the idea of "listening with resilience." In the participant booklet, it is expanded upon: "Encounter suggests that listening, specifically in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is a radical act. ... 'Resilient listening' allows a person and/or a community to live with tension, to hold multiple perspectives at the same time, and to continue to be open to what is new rather than guarding against it and shutting down." This was never my father's forte, I reflect, remembering the sickening slide of food, dishes, silverware, and glasses onto the ground so many Sundays ago.

Nor has this been a season for much listening. On Nov. 5, the day I left the United States for Israel, a Hamas operative drove a van at high speed into a crowd of people waiting at a light-rail station in Jerusalem. Several people (including the driver who was shot) died. On Oct. 22, there was a similar attack in East Jerusalem that killed two civilians, a woman and a baby. Tensions have escalated in the West Bank, and, on Nov. 11, a young Palestinian man was shot and killed by the IDF in the Al-Arroub area between Bethlehem and Hebron.

On Nov. 12, the day before my Encounter trip, I take a taxi from Jerusalem to the Bethlehem checkpoint, planning to see the city with a tourguide. In terms of the Oslo Accords, Bethlehem is part of Area A, which is fully controlled by the Palestinian Authority. With the Encounter group, I will be in Areas B and C, outside of Bethlehem.

The taxi driver is too nervous to get too close to the checkpoint so he drops me about 100 yards away. It's 9 a.m. and Palestinian workers are streaming through what looks like a giant cage. The mood is somber, tense. I remember visiting Bethlehem in 1977 (before the separation barrier, before the checkpoints), and what I'm seeing is a shocking testament to how bad the situation has become. Everyone seems to be leaving Bethlehem, no one seems to be entering. I'm confused about which way to go, expecting to see a clearly marked entry point or a booth with IDF soldiers, but they appear to be well-hidden, tucked behind a series of Kafkaesque high fences and walls. I walk through the empty maze not seeing a soul.

A familiar feeling seizes me. I'm on high alert. It takes me back to my South African childhood, hearing sirens, screams, the guttural voices of the police in the night, a sense of impending doom ever present. I know this isn't unsafe--tourists stream into Bethlehem every day to visit the religious sites--but the soulless architecture of the checkpoint terrifies me. When I exit into the street, crowds of taxi drivers come toward me, offering their services. The streets are poorly paved, the buildings run-down. I feel as if I have stepped through the looking glass.

I realize I'm walking where my parents didn't walk but I am taking them with me, and, when things frighten me, I remember that my mother was 23 and my father was 28 when they volunteered for war. For the first time, I think about how brave they must have been and how scared they must have felt.

With a tourguide, I visit several historical sites as well as Aida Refugee Camp. I get the opportunity to see the imposing concrete separation barrier up close, as well as from far away. I see it cut through homes, dividing neighbors from one another. I see its defiant, graffitied face, as well as its stern, gray one, where long stretches of it separate Palestinian towns from Israeli settlements. At its highest, it reaches up to 26 feet. From within its boundaries, I look out at the red roofs of the settlers' homes in the distance.

How can I not remember our Sunday drives, where we drove across Durban Street into Roodewal and Riverview where the pastel-colored "ice chessies" were? How can I not think of Mr. Aesop, the Indian man who sold vegetables to my mother who had to move his business from what was declared a White area to where the "Coloured businesses" were? Or the Zwelenthemba township, even further from the town center, whose Xhosa inhabitants had no permanent residency status? How can I not think of separation as something shameful?

When we visit the Lajee Center, which is in the refugee camp, there's some activity in the street. Boys are throwing stones at the IDF soldiers at the other end of the block. The tourguide hurries me into the building before I have time to fully take in the situation. Business as usual, he informs me. This happens every afternoon. Teenagers taunting teenagers.

The soldiers fire a teargas canister at them. A cloud of white smoke fills the street. I immediately want to flee, remembering the South African township riots of the 1970s and '80s all too well, the way things can turn sickeningly from stone-throwing into chaos. Both the tourguide and the director of the Lajee Center point out that we can't leave until the tear gas clears. The boys come inside and go on the computers and do their homework. No one seems particularly perturbed.

My heart is racing, and my hands are cold as ice. I'm also deeply ashamed at how scared I am, how vulnerable I feel. The director is delivering facts and figures. There are 57 Palestinian refugee camps in Palestine, Lebanon, and Jordan. There were 800,000 Palestinian refugees in 1948 when 530 of their cities and villages were destroyed. There are close to 6 million now.

I'm trying to practice resilient listening as my head reflexively fills with a counter narrative, the one that I grew up with: the stories of Arabs fleeing of their own volition in 1948, the Holocaust that exterminated a third of the world's Jewry, my parents' pride at their part in the creation of a Jewish state.

We look out of the window at the Aida refugee camp, built by UNRWA in 1950. Where there were once green tents, there are now two-room cinderblock housing units, 100 square meters each. Still living in the same area, the refugee population has increased fivefold.

The tear gas has finally cleared, and we leave. The tourguide runs to the car, and I follow. A tall gate has been pulled closed in the area where he parked it. Rocks have been inserted under the gate. A group of boys appear and again, my heart plummets, as I'm not quite sure what they're going to do, or what's going to happen next. Instead of starting another round of stone-throwing, they help us lift the gate and roll the rocks away. The tourguide puts his foot flat on the accelerator, and we speed off, bumping along the uneven, ill-paved road.

The moment that undoes me, though, is not when we're in Area A, but when we're driving on one of the roundabout highways created to bypass Bethlehem and connect Jerusalem to one of the settlements. It's smooth, well-kept, and here the separation barrier is lower and clad in aesthetically pleasing stone. It looks like a barrier you would see along a highway anywhere in the world. Now, more than ever, I feel my South Africanness, all the immaculate highways of my childhood that kept me far away from the ice chessies, the squatter camps and the townships, that kept me in my white world. Only on those Sunday drives, out of the window of the Valiant, did I see that other world, where the good roads ended and the potholes began.

Over the next few days, as I fully enter the Encounter experience, listening to Palestinian speakers describe the difficulty and tragedy of their lives, touring Khalet Zakariya (a struggling Arab village choked by the surrounding settlements), seeing where the separation barrier moves away from the Green Line and encroaches into the West Bank, that South Africanness is with me. When Ali Abu Awwad, a charismatic activist who promotes nonviolence, tells us, "To shoot someone takes a minute, to change someone's mind takes years," I think of my own journey, how it has taken me a lifetime to get here. On the subject of Israel and South Africa, Ali, who has lost his brother in the conflict, has this to say: "Saying the occupation is apartheid closes people down. I don't need to be right. I want to succeed." He acknowledges Nelson Mandela's influence on his life, as well as Gandhi's.

Part of our itinerary includes an overnight homestay with the Palestinian families who will be joining us for community-building games and dinner. In groups of two, we were assigned to various families and would be returning with them to their homes after dinner. With great sadness, our organizer announces that it has been canceled because tensions in the area have escalated and the risk has become too great. This is extremely awkward as the Palestinian homestay families are known for their open-hearted hospitality, and the night with them is often a cornerstone of the Encounter experience. Despite this setback, they all join us for the evening. One man, swallowing his hurt pride, tells me how upset he is but that he decided to come at the last minute. He says, "Canceling the homestay touched me. I felt I was building a trust. And now I feel as if the trust is broken."

We talk and gradually he relaxes. The night is about repair and regaining his trust. His community and mine eat together, talk, laugh, play games, dance. I often feel tears well up at the fragility and beauty of what we are doing and the stories we are hearing.

Over the next 24 hours, we learn of extreme water shortages in the West Bank, particularly in summer. It is difficult for Palestinians to get building permits, including permits to build schools. An ambulance driver talks of his experience of driving a 65-year-old woman who had an infected wound from spinal surgery to a hospital and being bullied by an Israeli border guard at a checkpoint. The guard asked, "Are you a doctor or a shoe?" and insisted that he had a bomb in his ambulance. A prominent Palestinian businessman who was born and educated in the United States but has raised his family in the West Bank describes the Israeli stamp in his U.S. passport that has restricted his movements. There are the olive harvests destroyed by settlers, the Palestinian children who have never seen the sea, all the daily indignities of life under military occupation.

But is it apartheid? I realize that I am no longer the 21-year-old who compared the South Africa of my youth to Nazi Germany, my shame at my white privilege to Bertolt Brecht's agony at watching his country descend into madness. I have come to Bethlehem to see across the divide between Jews and Palestinians and, at moments, have been forcefully reminded of the sights and sounds of my childhood, but I cannot equate the one social system with the other. The South Africans were not Nazis, just as the Israelis are not South Africans. Israel is different to South Africa in the wrenching story of its founding, its history, its legal and political system, the centrality of Jerusalem to three faiths, the small size of the country, its paucity of natural resources, its geography, its weather... so different, in so many countless ways.

Posted by at April 24, 2015 5:37 PM

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