photograph of Jacob
Jacob, age 13, Birthright Unplugged's winter '07 trip.

Hello, my name is Jacob and I did my project on Israel/Palestine. I picked this project because Israel/Palestine is a very controversial issue that I, as a Jew am at the heart of.

Initially I didn’t think my parents would be okay with it, but as it turns out my dad had secretly wanted to go there for many years, and we went. The first couple days we stayed in Jerusalem and did the whole tourist thing (we learned the western wall isn’t what you think), saw crowds of soldiers with unsettlingly big guns and equally, if not more disturbingly, young faces holding those guns.

Then we went to the West Bank. That was the biggest wakeup call I’ve ever had. It was like nothing I’d thought I would experience. I never thought it would be as bad as it was. It’s one thing to talk about an occupied territory, but totally another to go there.

I saw a house totally enclosed by a wall, people going without pay for 9 months. I talked with people whose every attempt to make a life in the occupied territories has been defeated at every turn.

There is no excuse for terrorism, but there also is no excuse for what the Israeli army is doing. I saw People under constant fear of military abuse. Children playing in the shadow of sniper. How would you survive like that? Could you?

photograph of group listening to presentation
Jacob listens to a talk on the Israeli segregation practices in Jerusalem by a staff person of the Israeli Commitee Against House Demolition.

I have trouble relating what I think it means to be a Jew to what is going on over there. In my time at shule I was taught that all of these things where wrong and that the holocaust was a reason to help others, not push them away.

I was taught how important other people are, how important helping them is. During my experience in Israel I often remembered something Pastor Martin Neimoller said. “In Germany first they came for the communists and I did not speak up because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak up because I wasn’t a Jew and then they came for me…” This, I think is the core of Workmen’s Circle. Standing up for what you believe in, helping others in need, because if you don’t then they’ll come for you next.

In the case of Israel Palestine we don’t have that to fear, but should stay true to the cause of justice all the same. Being a Jew to me means rising above the ashes of the Holocaust, overcoming rage, hate, despair to go on to help others overcome it. It means staying true to that mold no matter if Jews, or Christians, or Muslims are being persecuted.

Thank you.

photo: young girl getting hair brushed; young boy in front
Children living in home surrounded by the wall in Mas'ha village, West Bank.
photo: mural with brightly colored bird
A mural on part of the wall that surrounds a single home in Mas'ha village, West Bank.

And so we drink tea

Through a yellow gate
we find them
expecting us
young American Jewish

humble Palestinian farmer
beside his rose bushes
tells stories
of the Wall

six year old girl in red
plays with flowers
a laugh of satisfaction
a deep grumble

house enclosed on four sides
two road blocks
a fence
a 9 meter high concrete Wall, muralled
pastel flowers and birds
the girl and her little brother’s only play-mates

on the opposite side
religious Jewish settlers
stone throwing
by dark

she lives in a cage
with a smile like sunshine
laugh like thunder
on a warm summer day

her father speaks of his
broken livelihood
his chicken-coop and green house, destroyed
in the pathway of the Wall
his farm land on other side
over water rich soil
“ it takes me 3 hours to go less than 1 kilometer to my farm.”

weight of his heart squeezes out air
as if a boulder lay upon his chest
Jewish settlers want his home
the state of Israel wants his water rich soil
he simply wants to live
his eyes always down
face weathered
demeanor tired
a small cough

we listen
an early spring breeze waving our hairs
bird song in our ears
black tea sweetened with sage and sugar
warms our ponderous hands
in the grey West Bank afternoon

i sit wondering
when Fear kidnapped Security
and clothed her in costumes of Hate
… this is not a Wall for Security
it is a Wall for Theft
for Captives…

in the face of that dark gelatinous
vampiristic monster called Injustice
we can shake our fists
tear out our hair
fall on our knees weeping
wave signs and flags
and mourn the dead
but we must resist
the madness the monster brings

what else can we do?
life goes on
so the farmer and his sons serve us tea
and we
and the Wall

Saria Idana, April 2007

What Is Holy Here?

by Marjorie, 2006 Birthright Unplugged Alum, Boston USA
Posted in Journals, Hebron Region | January 15th, 2006
photo: large sign hangs on tall concrete wall with guard tower
Bethlehem checkpoint. The text on the sign reads "Peace Be With You, Israeli Ministry of Tourism."

I’m overwhelmed by the desire to share what I’ve learned this week in Palestine, but also overwhelmed by the size of that task. We completed the Birthright Unplugged tour last night, and it’s hard to believe it was only a week long. The amazing people I was blessed to meet, the horrific abuses I was forced to see, the institutional violence I was part of witnessing, the challenges I began to understand, the hope and courage I had the privilege of honoring…so much to tell you…

Too Many Walls
The Wall is called the Separation Wall, the Apartheid Wall, misnamed the security fence. It’s misnamed for both the security and the fence; 3-stories high, permanent concrete blocks wedged shoulder to shoulder, with watchtowers spaced throughout. It is not an overstatement to say that the Wall is creating a prison out of the West Bank.

Most people think that the Wall follows the Green Line (the armistice line of the war of 1948 that forms the de facto Israel/Palestine border and which, under international law, separates Israel from the occupied territories). Let there be no confusion. It does not. The path of the Wall steals 10% of West Bank land into Israel. Though still only partially built, it snakes around the West Bank, carving once-contiguous areas into separate regions, unable to access each other. Its path runs around illegal settlements, de facto annexing them and the land they are on into Israel.

The policy is clear – the most land with the fewest Palestinians is seized. Once the Wall is completed (its planned completion route is public information), the entire West Bank will be carved into non-contiguous “bantustans” that can only be connected by road through illegal Israeli settlement territory.

There is also an infrastructure of roads that cuts through the remaining connected parts of the West Bank, allowing easy access between Jerusalam and all its “suburbs” (settlements). At its deepest point, the Wall cuts into the West Bank 22 kilometers (13 miles). This is all Palestinian land.

I walked through the Bethlehem checkpoint, now called a “terminal.” That’s very much what it looks like, a massive structure, wedged between the Wall on either side. It’s a sterile building compared to an airport terminal, yet more like a prison with a system of electronic doorways, metal detectors, and soldiers behind bulletproof glass. Above is a platform where at least one soldier stands with his gun pointed down. At the entrance is a banner the height of the Wall: “Peace Be With You” in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. It’s pink, green, and purple, with Israeli Department of Tourism at the bottom.

The Bethlehem terminal is well into the West Bank. Perhaps the department of tourism is confused. I pass through without incident, and turn back to get close to the Wall. I stand up right against the hard concrete, look up, concrete to the sky; look right, left, concrete to both horizons; cry, kick, yell. Silence. I don’t know what to do. I have never been in a ghetto before…

What is Holy Here?
Hebron, Al-Khalil by the Arabic name, is a Palestinian city in the West Bank, 35 km from Jerusalem. Throughout the West Bank, most illegal settlements are built either as “suburbs” to Israeli cities, or further east in rural areas (most of which will soon be annexed into Israel de facto by the building of the illegal Wall). But in Al-Khalil, a group of extremist settlers have planted themselves in the middle of the old city, the heart of the city. The daily violence they cause has forced Palestinians to flee the old city, leaving behind abandoned homes and stores that the settlers will soon take over, excavating the area and confiscating land.

In the mean time, the doorways are covered in anti-Arab graffiti. To date, 840 shops have closed. The corridors echo. The Israeli army, which is supposed to have military jurisdiction over only half of the city, currently controls all of Al-Khalil. There are about 200 settlers in the city, and about three soldiers per settler. The main road of the city has been closed off for Palestinians. All of the gates to the old city, except for two, have been walled. Of the two access points, one has an x-ray machine that all Palestinians must pass through, including children. The Hebron Rehabilitation Commitee (HRC), an amazing Palestinian organization, works to rehabilitate buildings within the Old City to try to encourage Palestinians to return to their homes and shops, so that the settlers will not confiscate their property. They are fighting an uphill battle.

On the tour with Walid Abu-Al-Halaweh of the HRC, we hear of settler violence happening nearby. We go to the place where the settlers have just left, and the ground is covered with rocks, some the size of my finger, some the size of both my fists. We follow Israeli army guards to the noise. About 20 girls, none looking older than 14 or 15, are screaming, screaming. They are being gently cloistered by the army officers as they continue to scream at the Palestinians around them. The Hebrew is translated for me: “get out of our country, you’re dirt, you’re scum.” We stand with a group of Palestinian men, women, and children, watching them… or rather, our group is watching them. The Palestinians are mostly waiting to get through the gateway that the girls have effectively blocked now for 20 minutes. Three girls break through the acquiescent army line and race towards us, where another officer holds them. Grown Palestinian men beside me run backwards. I am shamed for the men, at the humiliation of having to fear a 13-year-old girl, because they know what the soldiers will do to them if they act in self-defense. They are afraid of the girls, with Jewish stars around their necks, screaming filth at their neighbors. The soldiers, who look no older than 19, speak softly with the girls, then turn around to scream and threaten the Palestinian crowd, telling them that if they take one step forward, there will be consequences.

For me, as I watch a people to whom I belong behave worse than any animal on this earth, feet planted, fists clenched, I stare into the eyes of the girls, hoping to communicate to them their own shame. I stare into the eyes of the soldiers, “I am witnessing you, you cannot be held unaccountable.” Finally, the girls are subdued and moved back to the gateway they came from, a gateway that has been built from the ruins of the home of Hashem, our tour guide of the afternoon. He says that most settler violence happens on Friday and Saturday, on the Jewish holy days…

To Exist is to Resist
1948, known to Palestinians as Al-Naqba, “the catastrophe,” is not some faraway historical moment for Palestinians. For most people, it is the year their family lost their land. I stayed with a wonderful Palestinian family in Dheisha refugee camp – Sa’de, Nahade, Amani, Jasmine, Wajde, and Sha’de Alayasa. Their family fled from their village of Zacharia in 1948. Upon returning to their village at the end of the war, they were told they could not longer enter. They had deserted their land. It was now a closed military zone, soon to be occupied and turned into a Jewish Israeli neighborhood. No one in the family has been to the village land since 1972. No member of their family is currently allowed to enter Israel. Two generations later, they continue to identify as coming from Zacharia, though both generations were born into the close-quarters of Dheisha, not far from the Wall.

The story is the same for family after family, some who still keep the key to their front door in their refugee home.
Inside Israel, the story is hardly different. During 1948, while some villagers fled from the war into the West Bank or Gaza, some further into Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt, some also fled to what remains Israeli land. They built new villages, sometimes less than a few miles from their old, now razed or occupied villages. Over 100 of these villages are still “unrecognized.” Since the Israeli government does not recognize them, they do not provide them with water, electricity, or any infrastructure whatsoever, including schools or clinics. Yet, all citizens in the state of Israel have a right to these services.

I had the honor of talking with Mohammed Abu-al-Heja, the original lead organizer of the Unrecognized Arab Villages of Israel. Mohammed, originally of ‘Ayn Hawd village in the North, started organizing for the rights of his people in the 1970s and lives adjacent to his former village. Presently the land and homes of his village are occupied by the Israeli town of Ein Hod and Nir ‘Etziyon. Joined by other unrecognized villages throughout the State, they are slowly getting the Israeli government to recognize their new homes. So far 5 villages have been recognized. Mohammed is a charismatic man, slight in build with fiery eyes. Although well into his 60s, he is not quitting the fight any time soon…

The Israelis say they see no partner for peace, yet the Palestinians see no partner for justice.
The Wall, the checkpoints, the Israeli army at every turn, the fight for basic human services, the number of adult males held in detention or prison at any one time, the refusal to allow access to farm lands; all of these actions, including closures on villages, towns, roads, and homes seized between the wall and barbed-wire fences, increasing unemployment, continued dispossession of land makes it impossible for justice for these occupied people.

The continuous threat of violence…hope, faith, organizing, getting pushed down, getting back up, resisting…

Love and anger and sadness and shame and fire and loss and tears and hope.

Marjorie is a young Jewish-American from Boston on her first trip to the West Bank. She is with Hannah and Dunya of Boston to Palestine, who have started the separate Birthright Unplugged organization to give American Jews a chance to witness the occupation.

newVoices: students with Jews on the mind
photo of small stone mosque behind barbed wire fence
Mosque in destroyed village.

Not Next Year, Not in Jerusalem Israeli Palestinians’ – and My Family’s – Desire to Return Home

Rebecca Yael Bak, 2006 Birthright Unplugged Alum
newvoices | May 2006

Winding through the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, past the grand arch of the destroyed Hurva Synagogue en route to the Western Wall, most passersby miss the Tifereth Israel synagogue. What they don’t know is that where now lies a pile of ruins that gathers animal droppings and tourist trash, once stood the tallest building in the Old City.

Tifereth Israel (“The Glory of Israel”) was built in the 1860s by my five-times great-grandfather, Nissan Bak, one of the leaders of the Hasidic Jewish community in the Old City. Nicknamed by local residents the “Nissan Bak Shul,” the formerly domed, majestic synagogue is now reduced to white-gray walls humbled beneath plaster molds that prevent further deterioration, broken stone steps, and, in what was a basement, a pit of rainwater in which a years-old collection of weeds and debris swim uninterrupted.

According to family legend, the builders of the synagogue ran out of money before they could build the roof. On a tour of the Old City right around that time, Austrian Emperor Franz Josef saw the roofless synagogue and asked what happened. Without missing a beat, my five-times great-grandfather replied, “He has taken off his hat in honor of your visit.” Pleased by the compliment, the Emperor funded the construction of the dome.

In 1948, during the Jordanian siege of Jerusalem in one of the battles that led to Israel’s declaration of independence, Jewish soldiers, fighting for their lives and control of the city, used the synagogue as a fort, and the Nissan Bak Shul was bombed, becoming a casualty of war. After Jerusalem fell and my ancestors were led out of the Old City by the British, the Arab Legion dismantled most of the synagogue and used the stones for other construction projects.

Destruction and Deceit

Several hours north, in the lush green of the northern Galilee, lies the ruins of another holy building. A dome still covers the stone mosque and, at first glance, the walls seem to be intact. Closer inspection reveals green vines climbing down the walls and patches of growth that have moved in where the stones have fallen out. Three white, stone arches gape wide, and a garden of weeds has flourished below. The mosque is enclosed by a fence and two rows of barbed wire.

Standing before me is the mosque of El Ghabsiya, the one structure that remains of a destroyed Palestinian village.

If I had not traveled with Dahoud Badr, a refugee from El Ghabsiya, and coordinator of the Association for the Defense of the Rights of the Internally Displaced Persons in Israel, I would have never known that the earth beneath me used to hold the foundations of a small village.

The mosque of El Ghabsiya seems out of place among a few old trees and scores of saplings. Abu Badr, a white-haired man with an eagerness to please, brings out a map to point to the location of his family home. I realize I am standing on it and shift my feet slightly, as if I can avoid walking on what I cannot see. Where the homes of family members stood, fledgling trees planted by the Jewish National Fund struggle to put down roots.

Abu Badr was six years old in May 1948, when the Israeli army attacked his village and expelled its residents. According to him, village authorities had made a pact with Jewish militia leaders not to attack the village, but months later, after Israel’s declaration of independence, the agreement was effectively nullified.

“ Early morning,” he tells me, in a mixture of English and Hebrew, “my mother woke me and told me to wait for her outside the house. She took some things…and quickly we left the village. I was there crying. It was difficult for me to [walk] in the mountains. My uncle returned and told me [what was happening], held me, and we continued. Afterward, maybe I slept, I don’t know. When I woke up, we were in Kufr Yassif [a nearby village].”

Badr’s family moved several times before returning to El Ghabsiya in the end of 1948. In January 1950, the Israeli Army returned and ordered the inhabitants to temporarily relocate to another village for military purposes. After the initial two-week relocation, inhabitants repeatedly tried to return to their homes. Each time, they were turned away.

Residents of the village appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court, and on November 30, 1951, the Court ruled that inhabitants did have a right to return. Since then, though, Israeli forces have consistently impeded their homecoming. In 1956, bulldozers destroyed the homes of the small agricultural village, leaving behind only the mosque that was once the village centerpiece.

Although most Palestinian villages did not petition the Supreme Court or win a favorable court ruling when they did, the saga of El Ghabsiya features elements of commonly heard stories of Palestinians fleeing by force, fear, or a mixture of both.

According to Nihad Boka’ee, coordinator of the Research, Information, and Legal Advocacy Unit of BADIL (meaning “alternative,” in Arabic) Resource Center for Palestinian Residency & Refugee Rights, a Palestinian NGO that researches and provides resources on questions around Palestinian refugees, the inhabitants of 531 Palestinian villages were displaced and the villages have since been destroyed, abandoned, or are currently inhabited by Israeli Jews. Of approximately 726,000 Palestinian refugees (UN Economic Survey Mission), 274,000 left their villages in 1948 and remain within Israel proper (British Survey of Statistics). An additional 30,000 - 40,000 Palestinians were internally displaced after the 1967 War.

Despite the fear that Jewish Israelis might be displaced by internally displaced Palestinians wanting to return to their old villages, the majority of them—85 percent, quotes Boka’ee—remain empty
and unused.

Former Palestinian Villages, Decades Later

In 1995, frustrated by years of petitioning the government to allow them to return to El Ghabsiya, Badr and others decided to restore the neglected mosque and to begin praying there every Friday. Not long afterward, the Israel Land Authority (MMI, according to the Hebrew acronym), which manages all government land, found out and blocked off access to the mosque with fences and barbed wire.

The single row of barbed wire put up by the first visit of the MMI did not keep the residents of El Ghabsiya from their weekly prayers and activities. By now, though, countless visits later, it is nearly impossible to cross the wires to get to the mosque.
The site is declared a military area, albeit one populated by young trees and a dramatic green and brown landscape. Lacking any signs of heightened security or military presence, it is unlike any military area I’ve ever seen.

Although most holy places have been destroyed along with the homes of the Palestinian villages, El Ghabsiya is not alone in the survival of its mosque. Eitan Bronstein, director of Zochrot (“Remembering”), an Israeli organization that educates Jewish Israelis about Palestinian narratives of 1948, recounts the story of Al Majdal, which became the museum for the history of the ancient Arab/Jewish port city of Ashkelon. Nowhere in the museum, Bronstein says, is there recognition that the building used to be a mosque.

In Ein Hod, a popular Jewish Israeli artist colony, also located in the Galilee, the old mosque has been transformed into a restaurant/bar. Meanwhile, the town’s former Palestinian inhabitants live several kilometers away, off a steep and muddy road in upper Ein Hod, which they established half a century ago after fleeing from their homes. Only recently, after much petitioning, did Israel recognize this village, thereby granting them the right to paved roads, electricity, and schools.

In Birem, a destroyed village near the Lebanese border, former inhabitants are allowed to return to the remaining church to restore it, pray, and bury the dead in the nearby cemetery. Despite a court ruling that granted them, too, the right to return, Israeli authorities have thwarted their progress.
“There is an [agreement] between us and the government,” remarked Afif Ibrahim, secretary of the Birem Committee, in an interview. “You can return dead, but not alive.”

Once Upon a Time in Jerusalem

Where many in my family he sitate to rebuild the once grand Nissan Bak Shul because of the expense, the residents of El Ghabsiya have far more than their life savings to contend with. No loose change jar could win them the approval of the Israeli government.

As much as I want to draw parallels between the stories of these two holy places, both casualties of the battles of 1948, I realize that mine is the party that sits on the side of the mighty. The residents of El Ghabsiya have fled to neighboring towns within Israel, and to the West Bank and Lebanon.

So why return now, over 50 years after leaving? Already an old man, Badr says he speaks for his family when he asserts, “It is a question of rights. It is my right. I want to have the right. Maybe I don’t want to come back, but I must have the right according to human rights law.”

As Badr shows me his mosque, I am reminded of my visits to the Nissan Bak Shul with a mixture of pride and sadness. But I usually look at the ruins as a touching reminder of my family’s history and homeland. In Badr’s visits to the mosque in El Ghabsiya, he is reminded of his community’s yearning to return home.

Rebecca Yael Bak graduated from Wesleyan in 2005, with a BA in Women’s Studies. She is currently in Israel, volunteering with peace organizations and practicing a British accent for a play. She will be attending Mount Sinai Medical School next year.