My Journey

In September, 2009, this Canadian boy started a masters program the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, learning about ecology and health, middle-eastern politics and the environment, and how a dire problem may facilitate a region's coming together for the better. This Blog is a record of my head-first dive into this immense world.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


I write this from Egypt, two days after the goodbyes. I’m not far from Israel, just 30 minutes down the Sinai coast, at a little beach called Paradise Sweir (or Paradise Swire, depending on which sign you’re looking at – we still aren’t sure what it means). We meant to get farther down the coast, but the taxi driver insisted that we first check this place out, surely out of the goodness of his own heart and not because he has a deal worked out with the owner. Turns out it’s really nice: the tiny shacks have an outlet, lighting, and a wicked view of the Gulf of Aqaba and Saudi Arabia 20 kilometres across the water, and to top it off lodging is 5 Egyptian pounds a night (5 pounds to one US Dollar). They make their money off of the food, but even this is perfectly reasonable – last night for instance we all sat down banquet style to a giant platter of makluba (rice stewed with vegetables, beans, and meat) for 35 pounds each. No one walked away from that meal hungry. I’m here with 8 people from the institute and my good friend Noah, who’s in the region for 3 months. Noah remarked this morning, after waking up with the sun, having a big breakfast of falafel, foul, salad, and pita, and chatting by the sea for a few hours, that this is the kind of place you could lose yourself at for months if you weren’t careful – good food, cheap everything, people filtering through from all over the world, beautiful scenery. But Monday morning he’ll head for the epitome of bustle that is Cairo, and I will head back to Israel for one last night before catching a plane back to Toronto at noon on Tuesday. This few days is a welcome period of unwinding after the end of the semester.

The Arava Institute portion of this masters degree is over – no more kibbutz, no more PELS, no more interdisciplinary environmental classes, no more intentional peace-building community. Granted, the tiny desert studies academic institution I’ll find myself at next year is still a couple steps removed from the world of work and commerce (what some people call the “real world”), but I may never again find myself involved so intensely in such a tight-knit community hell bent on group discovery, discussion, and social change. This past year has been almost like a year-long summer camp for adults, only with classes, exams, and papers. Everyone should be so lucky to have this kind of experience at least once in their life – I can see why so many people have a hard time leaving, and keep coming back in whatever capacity they can. I feel like this is the kind of blog post that calls for a summing up, a deep analysis of the experience to digest the entirety of a year at the Machon into a readymade manifesto, story, metaphor, poem, song…to make a map of the experience at the proper scale and hold it in my hands so that I can return to it and find my way around again. I’ll do what I can.

Taking the Machon’s surroundings as an arbitrary starting point, it is notable that this program finds itself in the middle of the Arava Valley, one of the driest places on earth, on a desert kibbutz. The placement of the kibbutz has many explanations, depending on your perspective. On the one hand it is a triumph of ruach (spirit) that a group of bright-eyed nineteen-year-old kids decided they were going to plant themselves into the hot desert sands and build a new garden of eden – it is indicative of the particular Zionist spirit that they saw only a bright world ahead, that they could use their own hands, their own sprit, their own resources and creativity to coerce the desert into a state of blooming paradise. What a feat of imagination! And if you look at the product of it today, this particular kibbutz remains socialized, is one of the most diverse and thriving (though this is a relative term) kibbutzim in the area. Concessions have been made, growing melons and onions was abandoned, Thai workers have been hired, but new directions have also been struck with the algae factory and the new Arava Power Company. And if you look at Ketura from above, you see a carpet of green in the midst of a blanket of sand.

On another hand, this wasn’t just a few kids striking out on their own into the desert on their own initiative– for generations planning policy in Israel has been strategic first and environmental, social, and economic second. The Zionist spirit thus has another blade, and that is an expansionist one, neurotically ethnocentric and protective of the Jewish nature of the state, militant and based on a self-conscious effort to revolutionize the nature of the Jew from bookish and weak to a very socialist version of the peasant prodigy – strong, self-sufficient, ideologically driven by allegiance to the Jewish collective. Nowadays we think of Israel as almost an extension of American Foreign policy –Americans looking back might be shocked and uncomfortable with how much it looked like socialism in theory and practice in the early days. The pain of discrimination and violent anti-Semitism left its mark on this new mentality – no one could convince one of these early settlers that they would be safe again unless they were self-governing, ethnically pure, and outwardly strong, and you’d have even less chance of it with the Jews who fled during and after World War II. The rallying cry of “a land without a people for a people without a land” echoed throughout the Jewish world, and the mentality of those “New Jews” was reflective of this – the vast Arab population majority and the 500 Arab villages then in Turkish then British Palestine proper were a temporary impediment to the reclamation of the land as a Jewish State, at best potential brothers and partners in the future Jewish State, at worst animals to be cleared out of the way in its establishment by a variety of means. The “clear, open desert” that those 19 year old kids found themselves in had been formerly the home of semi-nomadic Bedouin who happened to be in the way of this Zionist dream, and who now find themselves in a position of “sign all your historic land claims away for an foreign sedentary lifestyle or live in a pocket of third world in the midst of a newly OECD country”. Still wrapped around Ketura are the remnants of the old quadruple layer barbed-wire fence, a reminder that these settlements filled the Zionist dream in two ways – they made the desert bloom and they held the enemy at bay, forming the skin of the new flourishing ethnocracy.

Looking at the desert on another plane of thought, another dialectic of no less importance emerges, that between the urge toward conquest and the urge toward awe. In the first semester, for the environmental anthropology class, our assignment was to generate an ethnography of kibbutz members about their relationship to the environment, and I personally was struck by how much living in the desert structures the thought of those who live here, even when they’ve been removed from the search for basic needs like the constant search for fresh water and the need to beat the heat during the hottest months (thanks to AC). One woman said that she feels the presence of the desert surrounding her all the time, and finds the openness soul-freeing. Others find it too open, the barrenness oppressive. For some people, the desert is a challenge to which we must rise, to others it is a force before which we must humble ourselves. Both of these stances have their time and place, but often one wonders why settle the desert at all? For all of our conquering, the kibbutzim here are stuck in a ridiculous situation – their economies are based around dairy and dates. The dates can live in salty water, which is great because that is what comes out of the fossil aquifer (meaning it doesn’t recharge. When it’s gone, it’s gone), but they need 1000 litres of it per tree per day! If the dates seem unsustainable, the cows just seem like lunacy – they need water all day, especially in the summer, to cool down, and they’re certainly not grazing on any lush pastures within 500 kilometres of Ketura. Though I said the kibbutzim are successful, they’re still financially on a shoestring, and need to keep mining water to survive. No one really knows how much is left in the aquifer – the battle against the limitations of the desert is sure to end in failure if carried out in the same way as it is today. But a change in tactics is taking place, one that seems to respect the desert for what it is rather than trying to make it what it is not – the Arava Power Company is set to open up heaps of photovoltaic operations beginning in the next couple years, and the vision for the region is to shift to this sort of economy.

I guess what I’m trying to get at is that the most important lesson I’ve taken away from the Machon is that we always live at the intersection of so many dialectics, dynamic contradictions and paradoxes that structure the limitations of our thoughts and actions. Noah is fond these days of quoting Saul Bellow, “where there is no paradox there is no life.” Left wing versus right wing, security versus freedom, intuition versus rationality, social versus natural, local versus global, thought versus action – find yourself clinging entirely to one of these poles and you’ll find that you are entirely stuck, with no chance of progressing. The world is always changing, faster every day, and thus being stuck puts you in quite an unfavourable position. The theme of this year’s Children’s Peace Theatre show in Toronto, which I will be helping to organize, is “the spaces in between”. Caught in the sticky web threaded through these dialectics is our situation in this world, and there’s no escaping it. We are brothers and sisters in our feeling of thrownness – we wake up into the world as if from a dream of a perfect garden and enter a stranger one where there’s no certainty and no hard and fast rules or answers.

At the Machon we wake up from the strange dream of our lives and enter into an even stranger one still, where enemies become friends and whatever you thought you knew turns out to be, not wrong per se, but only a few threads in a tapestry so large that trying to step back from it becomes dizzying. All of this sounds very abstract, and when it hits you, as it does at least once daily, the amazing nature of set-up we’ve got at the Machon, it can seem all too easy – the cultural exchange is smooth, the laughter and affection are abundant, the community seems strong. But behind each person is a tangle of personal history, cultural history, family ties and loyalties to good friends, a formal education, an informal education, a hundred mentors and pieces of advice and wisdom clung to, a thousand formative experiences, joys, and sorrows. Still we must all sink our roots somewhere, and form some identity out of this tangle. When we get to the Arava desert for the AIES program the sands prove too shifting for our formerly comfortable roots and we confusion sets in. It is a telling sign of the shock of this upheaval that one of the most common suggestions in the end of semester student program evaluation was a staff psychologist.

The final days were rushed – final papers kept people occupied, or at least on edge, while cleaning, packing, and the impending goodbye made writing those papers feel even worse - with so much still do say and do, so much still to learn from one another, too many stories still untold, who cares about a grade? But no matter how free we all were, a three day intensive listening circle would only have proved the endless nature of the journey we all have started here. I may find myself in fertile soil again, but my roots will always be restless and searching, never again complacent. Already the calls of longing across the internet have begun, and we have instituted a monthly picnic somewhere accessible to everyone. And though we may lose touch with many of the people over the years, we know that somewhere out there are 45 people who have shared this experience, and who were at one time as close as family.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Up and Down, Side to Side (Act II)

                 This past weekend [note, this is now 3 weekends ago, exams and papers really get in the way!] was a bit of a whirlwind, and a testament to just how small this region really is.  At 1:00 pm on Friday I hopped on the Egged bus for the always beautiful 3.5 hour trip up to Jerusalem, through cracked and desolate desert speckled with improbable patches of green wrenched from the scorched earth by sucking water from aquifers or pumping it hundreds of kilometres.  Much of the trip is spent with the Dead Sea and the mountains of Jordan to the right, and then the turn at Jericho brings you to the Judean hills, spotted with the shanty-dwellings and goat-herds of unrecognized Bedouin, and, not unrelated, little vegetation.  First stop after the central bus station was an hour saunter through the decelerating activity of west Jerusalem, with shops closing or closed for the coming Shabbat.  The destination was Nava Tehila, a monthly Kabbalat Shabbat service consisting of an inner circle of acoustic instruments, and concentric circles of singing and dancing – not your grandfather’s service!  As an existentialist by philosophical leaning, I go to this service for the immense energy and power that the people there draw out of themselves – the room is buzzing and electrified, something I generally find lacking from the solemn, quiet (read: boring) nature of most services I’ve attended.  If I’m going to spend an hour exalting a deity I don’t believe in, it had better come with some good music to allow me to transcend the absurdity of this act!
                After an hour at Nava Tehila, the next stop was a cab to east Jerusalem, just on the other side of the Old City, where the Arab buses leave to go all over the West Bank.  I hopped on the Ramallah bus with my friend Aya from the Machon, and, practicing my fledgling Arabic, ordered two tickets (“Shu adeish?  Ithnayn,” say I.  “thirteen,” says the driver in return).  The Ramallah bus heads through east Jerusalem to the north and east, and at a certain point traces the separation wall to the nearest checkpoint.  You can see as you drive along this barrier how neighborhoods, families, villages, economies have simply been wrenched apart by the wall.  "See that desolate junction?"  Aya says, "That used to be one of the busiest markets around.  Now there's a slight...barrier to trade."  Some people have been cut off from their families, and where they used to be able to walk down the street to say hi, now need a permit to get through the wall.  To put this into perspective for thos of you who know Toronto, my parents live on Wembley road just east of the Allen expressway and just north of Eglinton, and my Sister has been living just half a block west of the Allen, and half a block south of Eglinton.  Now, imagine a political wall has been erected along the route of the Allen, all the way down to the water and all the way up to Barrie, with the nearest checkpoint through it up at Sheppard.  Now a five minute walk is at least a half hour drive, potentially hours depending on the wait at the checkpoint, and it could be never, depending on your ability to get a permit to travel through the checkpoint in the first place.  Imagine the feeling of knowing that your grandchild is what used to be a five minute walk away, and now is a once-a-year visit, perhaps never.  These are my thoughts as we drive towards Ramallah, the wall rising up 10 meters on our right.
          Getting into the West Bank isn’t really a problem, no one checks you; it’s getting out that’s the trickier part, but that’s for later.  Once into Ramallah, we tore off the bus and just managed to flag down a cab as it was accelerating into a green light, then off to a concert at the Ramallah Cultural Palace.  The Cultural Palace is a gorgeous venue, fairly new, with a high ceiling and decent acoustics, and the concert itself was one-of-a-kind: the front man was a jovial oud player and singer, to his right was a q’noun, and to his left two percussionists – a fairly typical Arabic set-up.  To the q’noun player’s right though, things started to get interesting: first a double bass and a cello, then…a saxophone.  Followed by an accordion and a piano.  Needless to say, the music was really unique, and quite good!
                After saying hi to some people after the show (The Rammallah arts and culture scene is reminiscent of most smaller cities – everyone knows everyone and attends each other’s shows), we headed off to the house of a friend of Aya’s named MisbaH.  Walking through the door, we were greeted by a table full of the best vegetarian food I’ve had since I got to this region.  Cooking, however, is not MisbaH’s only talent, and in the past decade or so he has become a central player in the Ramallah underground art scene, promoting the use of art as a means of resistance.  He looks every bit the underground artist with a mane of shaggy dark hair, a slight and agile build, a quiet, kind demeanor and dark, curious eyes.  He’s so good at what he does, in fact, that his talent recently threw him into the biggest decision-making crisis of his life.  You see, MisbaH has been living in Ramallah for the past decade (literally, in Ramallah.  He has not left this city in ten years due to not being able to get a permit to do so), but he is originally from Gaza, and it says so on his ID.  Recently, he got accepted by on long shot to a major art conference in Berlin, and also to a master’s program in Sweden (he has a BA in mathematics).  Israel has been slowly tightening restrictions on the freedom of movement of Palestinians, especially between Gaza and the West Bank, since 1991, but in the past few months this process took a qualitative jump with the introduction of the “infiltration law,” essentially allowing the Israeli authorities to remove anyone, no questions asked, to the place of residence on their ID, and then prevent them from leaving indefinitely.  You can see what this means for MisbaH.  He has spent the last decade building his life in Ramallah, but has been offered the opportunity of his life – to travel the world and develop his skills so that he can come back and use them in the community he loves and which he helped create.  But upon return, the likely situation is that the Israeli officials will look at his ID, see Gaza residency, and take him there immediately.  He left a week ago and is currently in Berlin – we’ll have to wait and see how it all turns out, but for now he’s a free man for the first time in his life.
                After dinner at MisbaH’s we went to one of the many and growing number of pubs in Ramallah servicing the international community, the new rich, and the returning Palestinian community.  Full of a mix of Palestinian artists, international aid workers and foreign students, the atmosphere is reminiscent of what I would imagine southern Italy or Spain to be – open stone patio with refreshingly cool breeze, lively conversation, warm-weather trees like pomegranate, lime, pepper, and fig bearing young fruits hanging around.  We were all drinking Taybeh, the delicious Palestinian beer that was recently highlighted by the New York Times.  The brewery was started by members of that returning Palestinian community, a family who had lived in Massachusetts for decades before returning to the West Bank to help develop the economy.  Looking at the bottle, one is struck by a very strange feature – there’s not so much as a single Arabic letter on the bottle, not even so much as the word Taybeh spelled out in the language of its country of origin.  This sort of thing throws the enigma that is Ramallah into relief – a growing rift between the rich and the poor, an uneasiness with the pace of economic growth and development for a people whose identity is so largely wrapped up in the struggle against the occupation and the resistance, wrapped up in being the victims of unjust Israeli aggression and occupation. 
                After a great night, the next morning I hopped back on the il-quds (Jerusalem) bus and headed back through the checkpoint at Kalandia.  I, of course, am armed with my Canadian passport, and so the wave of annoyance and aggression from the female soldier behind the glass in the bleak room of the checkpoint broke on my privileged status.  “ID, passport, SOMETHING, ANYTHING!?” she yelled as I walked by.  Placing my passport up against the glass, I was let right through without further questions, but a couple of younger men behind me got the full brunt of her anger, perhaps frustrated that I snubbed her attempt to assert her power.  After the checkpoint, it was smooth sailing back to the Damascus Gate of the Old City, and then a leisurely walk through the Arab Quarter, Christian Quarter, and Armenian Quarter, out the Zion Gate, and into West Jerusalem again, where it is too easy to imagine that all of the past 12 hours, visiting that part of Israel which complexifies the myth, doesn’t exist at all.  Having picked up a couple of Taybeh’s in East Jerusalem, I brought them to the Shabbat lunch of my good friend Adi from the Machon last semester.  The crowd was the Ramah camp crowd, the American Jewish Jerusalem bubble.  We opened the Taybeh, which was quickly dubbed the “peace beer”, and made a little toast “l’Shalom” (to peace), while a couple of the guys, one of whom had made aliyah and was in army service, muttered audibly “I don’t believe in peace”.  After we had finished the Taybeh, Adi, who’s never one to let political correctness stand in the way of a good joke (one of the things I love about him), went to the fridge, pulled out an Israeli beer (Goldstar), and announced “alright, now who wants some Apartheid beer?”  We spent the afternoon playing wiffle baseball in a little empty lot in West Jerusalem, and they reminisced about camp.  We joked around and had a great time. 
After this year, I don’t think I’ll be able to fully be in Israel without also being in Palestine.  In the old city one of the oddest phenomena around is the rows of hanging t-shirts for sale, and in two rows side by side you have a IDF shirts and creepy shirts that say Uzi does it, and Free Palestine and Yassir Arafat for President.  Lastly, you have I love Israel and I love Palestine side by side.  But here's the thing, you can’t be pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli without losing sight of the fact that  the two narratives, the two peoples, the two cultures, form two sides to the same coin - you simply can't understand Israel without understanding Palestine, and vice versa.  You have to be pro-justice and pro-humanity, and see where that leads you.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

"In its hour of need, Israel was let down by Diaspora"

Here is an important article from the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, calling on diaspora Jews to practice some tough love on Israel:

Criticizing the IDF is too easy. The real blame lies with successive Israeli governments and the broad public that are not brave enough to end the 42-year-old occupation and prefer instead to throw the army at the problem. As good as our army is, the result will only be more and more bloodshed. So how do we deal with it? By convincing ourselves that we are the moral ones and everyone else just wants to kill us.
If only we had some real friends, friends we could trust implicitly, who could point out the error of our ways. This could be the shining moment of the Jewish Diaspora. They love us, but they also see things from another perspective. We need a strong, unified voice from the Jewish leadership in the United States and Europe telling Israelis enough is enough, you are hurtling down the slippery slope of pariahdom and causing untold damage to yourselves and us. Lift your heads above the ramparts and see that the world has moved on.
Instead, we find the establishment of the Jewish world crouching with us in the bunker.
I'm going to repeat my call again to Jews around the world, if you love Israel, to join in the growing chorus of those who find Israel's policies and actions further and further from their own world view.  Standing with Israel may mean denouncing it publicly and with a loud voice, and pulling it back from precipice it is slowly approaching, rather than cheering it on.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A Community of Peace in a Moment of Crisis

There’s nothing like a crisis in your region to increase your readership, and the bar on my Google Analytics monitoring spiked yesterday.  I realized, though, that what I wrote yesterday was knee-jerk, following the media feed, and that I’m not really in the position to evaluate what’s going on.  Even the update I provided, based on speaking to more people and reading a wider variety of sources after a day of statements, press releases, and media frenzy, all I did was really parrot what was going on online, and add to it some real thoughts, feelings and frustrations that were searching for an outlet.  They found that outlet through the crack that formed in all of our sanity yesterday.  Therefore, I would like you all to read the previous post as an exercise in the hazards of new media citizen journalism and jumping to conclusions, but please take the latter half of the second paragraph seriously, about the future of Israel.  I’m not going to change anything about what I wrote yesterday, to preserve it as a real moment in time.
                But I also realized that I didn’t talk at all about what I’m actually qualified to talk about, and what I’m sure is much more interesting for someone reading this blog – and that’s what happened here at the Machon.  Leading up to the event, a flurry of e-mails went around about the Free Gaza flotilla, with some barbs and quips as people voiced their political views, but nothing that our community doesn’t daily absorb in stride.  Then, early in the morning as news started filtering in, the magnitude of the events began to manifest itself.  Immediately people were shaken up, furious, confused, and scared.  People lost their minds a little bit, cried, yelled, and waited impatiently for the next update.  Angry political e-mails were balanced by exhortations to come together and support each other through this, and there were even a few frantic half-baked plans to get up to Ashdod for demonstrations.  Then there were the official statements from the Machon administration (who we all know very well, small as this place is) telling us to remain calm, hang together as a group, not jump to conclusions, and especially not to jump into demonstrations and political acts without full knowledge of what will be going on, the nature of the demonstrations, who is organizing, et cetera. 
                You also have to realize that we’re not just a peace group; we’re a school/community.  Classes went forward, and people agonized over having to split their time between researching, writing, and preparing for our flurry of final projects and being with each other and processing this news as a group.  Seriously, who cares about the minutiae of the differences between market-based and command-and-control environmental policy at a time like this?   I have to say that it was probably not the most productive academic day in the Machon’s history.  At the day’s end though, two major things spontaneously emerged from our group – a screaming session in the desert out back of the kibbutz to vent and relieve our frustrations (thank you BKR), and a listening circle on campus to check in and gauge where we all are, share our feelings and views, and most of all to reaffirm our friendship, community, and devotion to dialogue and peace through the worst of the conflict.  I can only imagine what things looked like here last January, during the Gaza war.
                Life goes on here, and we all stumble forward through the feelings in our stomachs and the slight trauma to our psyches.  But much more importantly than anything I wrote yesterday, which you can read about a million places on the web, I wanted to broadcast to the world the reality of what goes on at this amazing place in the middle of the desert – in the midst of this crisis that is polarizing the world, Jews from North America and Israel, Palestinians, and Jordanians came together to vent, yell, hug, cry, share, support, and build.  At a time when people from every side were using the senseless violence out at sea to polarize and divide, we used it to come together and build our community even stronger. 
Let’s be clear.  This isn’t easy.  Some people, especially the Arab students but far from exclusively, will be getting excessive heat from their families and home communities for being stupid, young, idealistic and naive enough to be collaborating with an enemy at a time like this.  And at times like these it is easiest to give up and yourself question what the hell you’re doing here, especially if you’ve made personal sacrifices and are watching relations in the region deteriorate despite all that we’ve gained in this little island in the desert.  I’m different.  I’m from Canada, with a Canadian passport, with an out if things get tough.  I grew up in secure, wealthy countries where things like this just didn’t happen and I feel disoriented and over my head.  I am endlessly inspired by the people around me, whose courage surpasses by orders of magnitude anything from fools who hide behind weapons and violence.  The truly radical person believes that utopia is possible, despite the odds.  Albert Camus wrote in the Rebel: The rebel “attacks a shattered world in order to demand unity from it. He opposes the principle of justice which he finds in himself to the principle of injustice which he sees being applied in the world...all he wants, originally, is to resolve this contradiction and establish the reign of justice.”    I am convinced more and more every day that non-violence, peace-building, reaching out, and fighting injustice by living a just life full of good and hard work, with respect for each other and our environment, is the only way to the salvation of our fully global community.

Hard work and hope
Trump hard luck and trouble
This world is it; I will make it my home
This world is it; I will make it my own
-Old Man Luedecke, from Just Like a River

Monday, May 31, 2010

Outrage: At least 10 Dead and dozens injured as the IDF attacks Gaza Aid Fleet

 [update 10:00 pm Israel time - The more the story comes out, the more I'm ashamed of both sides, especially the so-called humanitarian activists [updated update - it appears that the violence came only from one ship, populated by radicals, while the others were dealt with peacefully].  The activists, it seems, deceived the IDF with white flags and promises of non-violence, only to pull out metal pipes, knives, and bats and immediately begin to beat soldiers, who at first only used riot dispersal methods like paintball guns and tear gas, and finally the activists stole pistols and opened fire.  It seems that this act was what started the gunfire, though we can't be sure until the full story comes out.  Even so, the actions of the Israeli navy seem disproportionate, and the loss of life severe.  I don't know what fraction of the flotilla was aware of this plan, as it happened only on one boat, and only about 30 people were initially involved, but clearly this is not the way a peaceful, humanitarian mission behaves.  Shame on those who use violence.  I'm not going to change what I wrote before about standing up to the Occupation and taking back Israel, which I truly believe, but I have to admit I jumped to conclusions about the flotilla event]

         Some of you might have been aware in the last week or so of an international aid flotilla of nine ships that set sail for Gaza in order to "break the siege" that has been going on for nearly 4 years, since Hamas took power in the strip.  You can read about the Flotilla on their own site here.  The boats are loaded with thousands of tons of aid in the form of medicine, food, medical supplies, and importantly, no firearms of any kind, even in the possession of the people on board.  In the past few days the PR machines of both sides revved into high gear as the moment of confrontation approached, and the whole world watched to see what would happen.  IDF ships left Sunday evening in the hopes of having the confrontation at night where cameras would be useless, but the flotilla changed course to force the situation into the daylight.  According to news sources and accounts from people on board, the IDF intercepted the ships off the coast, many said in international waters.  Events following are somewhat unclear, but what is clear is that the IDF used tear gas and live ammunition on unarmed international civilians, potentially in international waters, wounding dozens and killing at least 10.  You can find the stories in the NYTimes, Guardian UK, and I'm sure any reputable news source around.
     I, for one, am outraged, and can't find the words to describe the confusion.  Yes, Gaza is a closed military zone, and I would have been quite disappointed (but not surprised) if the IDF stopped the ships, commandeered the cargo, and deported the people.  This would be the procedure of most countries given the situation.  But what happened is inexcusable and absurd.  In their defense, army radio reported that activists tried to grab guns from the soldiers' hands.  Are you kidding me?  Maybe I'm naive and stupid, but why do you even need to bring guns aboard these ships, full of unarmed civilians?  Speaking to my parents last night I heard about an Israel rally in Toronto, where Netanyahu spoke.  Those of you who've known me since high school know that I've always been ambivalent about these rallies and have not gone, and went through that high school leftist phase (or perhaps transition?  I feel like I'm still in it), but in light of this last event, I feel like urging everyone I know to stay home, or, better yet, go with with signs:  "This is not MY Israel", "Not in my name", "End the Occupation", and so on.  I urge you not to fall into the trap of "with us or against us", or the inane and polarizing idea that unflinching support of Israel is the only thing that will not "give hope to Israel's enemies" or ridiculous ideas like that.  North American Jews like to take solace in the idea that these sorts of incidents are "isolated."  The cases of outrageous racism and murder by IDF soldiers during the Gaza war, the incidents of humiliation and violence by soldiers at check points and in the West Bank, the settler violence, the cases of racism and prejudice in planning and decision making...all of these things are becoming more and more systemic, not isolated.  If you haven't had a chance to look through the accounts of soldiers at Breaking the Silence, I urge you to  You have to understand that if you don't take back Israel now from the direction it is heading (read the article from the NYReview of books from my last post), you will wake up one morning to find you are blindly supporting an Apartheid regime, violent and self-destructive, and you will have to answer to that.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A smattering of goings on

[note: my interview with the french CBC will air at 7:20 am Toronto time on 860 AM or 90.3 FM]

Sorry it has been so long, and I haven't completed the water trip story yet, we've been busy here preparing for finals and going on surprise desert outings. I will try and give a fuller update soon. Here are just a few things going on:

A peaceful protest I attended about a month ago turned violent last week when soldiers started making arrests and firing tear gas. The protest is a non-violent protest against the wanton appropriation of Palestinian land to build the separation wall:

A really interesting article in the New York Review of books reviews the growing rift between what American Jews imagine Israel to be (a light upon the nations, a peaceful, just, democratic state) and what it is actually becoming on the ground ( a state in which about 50 percent of the population would take rights away from Israeli Arabs and expel Palestinians from the West Bank, and in which governmental structures are beginning to follow suit):

About a week ago we got a visit from the deputy prime minister of Israel, "Bogey" Ya'alon, who gave us a talk on his experiences and his views on the conflict and a potential peace.  We both seemed to believe that projects like ours, where real interaction and peace-building happen between peoples, is a good place to start, but in terms of macropolicy we were definitely at odds.  This, after all, was a man quoted as saying: "The virus 'Peace Now,' and if you will, the elites - damage they can cause is very great.  As far as I'm concerned, Jews can, and should live in all of the Land of Israel forever."  I'm happy to say that the session was conducted very civilly, though it did leave a number of people quite frustrated.

I have recently heard a good many people talking about a new Israeli political movement called the National Left, which is an attempt to take back Zionism from the settler movement, which has called any leftist anti-Zionist and ant-Israel.  Their manifesto is free online, and was banned from book stores in Israel after pressure from settler groups.  You can find it here:

In other news, Ontario premier Dalton Mcguinty will be visiting the Arava Institute tomorrow, May 26th! He's on an Israel trip to promote ties between Ontario and Israel in science and technology, especially renewable energy, and will get to hear from a panel of students. I was also interviewed about this visit on the French CBC, and the interview will hopefully air tomorrow. I will let you know when I know exactly what time it will be.

And finally, I will be presenting a paper at the Israeli Society for the History and Philosophy of Science annual meeting this Sunday! The paper is about Julien Offray de la Mettrie, the 18th century French philosopher and physician who published a book called "The Man Machine" in which he maintained that Descartes was right about living bodies being machines, but wrong about there being a separate substance of the soul. Mettrie decided that all living phenomena could arise from organized matter alone, laying the groundwork for metaphysical naturalism in physiology, and getting him promptly booted out of France.
More news as it comes.

Sunday, May 16, 2010


Today was officially Nakba day, and there was a low key event on campus consisting of a little exhibition of photographs and narratives from pre-Nakba Arab Palestine - names of villages that are forever gone, stories of the people who were forced off of their land, never to return - the flip side of the triumphant Zionist narrative that so many of us grow up with.  I don't think I will ever entirely discount the side of the narrative that led to the successful creation of the State of Israel, an accomplishment that will always blow my mind and send shivers down my spine problematic as the narrative may be, but to fully understand the implications of the creation of Israel, you also need to understand the Nakba.  And tonight, after experiencing the representations that the Palestinian students put together, complete especially with a poem about a village, an identity, and a way of life lost, I returned to my caravan somber.  I will always be who I am, and proud of Israel and all it had accomplished, the fact that it was nothing but a dream but a century ago and today it has just joined the OECD.  But being proud of Israel needs to also reside in the mind with knowing the full implications of Israel's existence as a Jewish State.  A little while ago I got a mass e-mail from someone close to me, mostly dealing with Israel's wonderful accomplishments, but ending with these lines:

In contrast to the efforts of tiny Israel to make contributions to the world so as to better mankind, one has to ask what have those who have strived to eliminate Israel from the face of the earth done other than to create hate and bloodshed???  

 So I decided to add my little piece of mind to the discourse, and hopefully all of you out there can help me.  If you ever get an e-mail with a piece of rhetoric like this, please respond with this little message, modified in whatever way makes it appropriate:

This is my response to those e-mails that attempt to fan the flames of animosity, prejudice, and hatred of Jews towards Arabs and Palestinians in particular.  They float around the internet in many Jewish circuits, and I've gotten many before.  I know that this kind of message is coming from a place of anxiety, pain, and fear, and thus needs a dose of understanding, not argument.

  It indeed makes me very proud that Israel has been, and continues to be a pioneer in so many different areas, has weathered the current economic situation with such relative ease, and in many ways continues to be a "light unto the nations".  Not included in this list, but almost equally as important, is Israel's many humanitarian accomplishments.  Two days ago I was running programs with Sudanese refugees in Eilat, and in February I was a full-time volunteer with Save a Child's Heart in Tel Aviv, which has performed heart surgery for thousands of children in need from Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Iraq, and (about half the children come from) the Palestinian Territories.  And we can only point to the mission in Haiti (which my masters supervisor was involved with) to see what Israel is capable of.

But proud as I was of most of the e-mail, I was somewhat shocked with the last paragraph, which was not worthy of a group that is "a light unto the nations".  I have had the privilege through my 7 months thus far at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies ( to live, study, work, travel, eat, and argue with a student body that is 1/3 International, 1/3 Israeli Jewish, and 1/3 Arab (Israeli Arab, West Bank Palestinian, and Jordanian).  Words like those attached to the end of that e-mail are dehumanizing and hurtful, and are easy enough to say from the safety of an e-mail distributed only to Jews of a certain frame of mind.  But I feel that as part of a generation of youth attempting to challenge the status quo of fear, anger, and prejudice in all of our communities and cultures, I have to object.  I have stayed at my friends' family homes in Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Irbid, and have met wonderful people who have taken me in and treated me like family.  I have met young people striving to make a change in their communities and their world, who will be engineers, physicians, poets, teachers, and future leaders, who have loved and lost and have big dreams.  I guess what I'm saying is that when we dehumanize the other, we dehumanize ourselves, and peace and justice fly from our grasp.  So, the next time something like this comes across your computer screen, by all means pass on the pride and joy of Jewish accomplishment, but please leave the rest.