Everyone, in every corner, has a story to tell. You just gotta listen to hear and pay attention to see what’s being shared with you.
Friday field-trip started out with a relatively painless and short bus ride from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and then a 2-mile long walk to Safra Square in an neighborhood called Musrara – an area bordering Palestinian East Jerusalem and Israeli West Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Black Panthers Tour, led by Reuven Abergel, a Moroccan, Mizrahi, Israeli, Jewish activist, took us around the now posh and upscale neighborhood explaining his life growing up in the once-considered slums of the city of gold. What was initially shocking for me was that Israel has its own Black Panthers movement; second, Abergel’s theories about the racism of Zionism was truly enlightening, especially since it was coming from the perspective of a Jewish-Israeli man who has seen the city, country, and politics change from its humble beginnings in 1951 – the year he first arrived to the newly-formed state as young child. The details of the tour are summarized very nicely by its operators:
“Musrara was originally developed by Palestinian Arabs in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. During the war of 1948 the Arab residents were expelled or fled and prevented from returning, and new Jewish immigrants from Middle Eastern countries were settled there during the 1950s where they lived in poverty and hardship close to the border dividing Jerusalem prior to 1967. From out of this reality emerged the Black Panthers, one of the most influential Israeli social movements dedicated to social and economic justice. It was here that in 1971, Reuven Abergeland a group of youth from the neighborhood launched a national movement to protest the discrimination against and exclusion of Mizrahis (Jews of Middle Eastern descent). In the tour, you will hear stories from a lifetime in the trenches of activism, and come to understand a Mizrahi perspective on Israeli politics.”
Abergel, with the assistance of superb translators, told us many stories: How he sat and chain-smoked cigarettes with Golda Meir discussing Israeli discrimination; the Black Panthers’ hunger strike at the Kotel in the 1970s; and how he will continue to fight social injustice in the world, whether it be against Arabs, Palestinians, Arab-Israelis, Jews from Arab lands, or more generally, anyone who suffers from inequality, racism.
The racism of Zionism is not a new topic for me, but it was a new experience to hear someone from the Jewish heritage talk about it with such authority. According to Abergel, who has some controversial theories about why the founders of early-state Zionism invited Mizrahi Jews to come live in the land, Mizrahi Jews are have been discriminated against by the Ashkenzim (European Jews) and looked down upon from the very start. He read out loud newspaper clippings published in the 1950s about how the Mizrahi Jews are lazy, uneducated, poor, uncivilized. The usual, stereotypical racist rhetoric you hear from any hate group about another group of people they don’t understand, but the racism of Zionism is a bit more difficult to swallow. The Jewish state is the home of the Jewish people, but “Black Jews” were not considered to be equal even though they share the same religion, which in these here parts is equated with your ethnic background, your nationality, your cultural identity. Judaism is a nation, with Israel being the location – that’s what they tell us American Jews while convincing us to elevate to a higher spiritual level of existence (the propaganda of making Aliyah). The sugar-coated speech you receive when you come to Israel for a visit is only one small example of the rhetoric involved in obtaining Israeli citizenship to the centuries of persecution and suffering of the Jewish people. Even though you never considered yourself homeless, you begin to feel like a bad Jew if you don’t consider joining. Abergel still wonders, 60 years later, why Zionists invited Mizrahi Jews, Jews from the Middle East, his family, Jews from North Africa, to come settle in a land which considered them dirty and inferior but just good enough to be a part of the nation, albeit apart from it at the same time too, on the outskirts.
The argument, is that the Mizrahi Jews came to aid in the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes. To live in their neighborhoods and “jewdify” the the in-between spaces between the Jews and Arabs, because technically they were a little bit of both. In a nutshell, to do the dirty work that the white, educated Jews didn’t want to get their hands charcoaled with. To create, 50 years on, the narrative of a Jewish claim to East Jerusalem: “We were here from the beginning, this is our land, the land of the Jewish nation.”
The more controversial aspects of Abegel’s opinions involved life back in the Middle East. Did Jews suffer persecution in Arab lands? Abergel answered a girl from a tour with no hesitation – Life was not bad in Morocco, according to his perspective, but Zionism paints a different picture of the history of Jewish persecution outside in the Diaspora; conspiracy theories as to why Zionists would do this is entirely a matter of opinion and another subject of inquiry entirely. It always depends on whose story you’re listening to.
What side of the cultural divide are you on today?
The second stop on my field-trip outside my current residence in Tel Aviv – where the tension bubbles beneath the surface in an irritable manner of hot humidity and angry faces – was Palestine, Ramallah to be exact: Just a hop, skip, jump across a border checkpoint and a large fence/wall that stands between two countries, two cultures, two people of more or less the same origins. My friends picked me up from Musrara, when the tour concluded, and away we went to explore the horizon. In the urban safari caravan: A Pakistani from Karachi now living in Tel Aviv, a Palestinian who lost two years of his life sitting in an Israeli prison for throwing a stone over a decade ago, a Italian MSF (Doctors without Borders) aid worker, and an American Jew (with half Ashkenazi, half Mizrahi (central Asian Caucaus roots, to be exact) who also happens to be, currently, an Israeli citizen.
Crossing the border into Palestine is something I’ve done before. It’s a necessary experience to have if you want to get a glimpse of what goes on outside the bubble, of the reality between Palestinians and Israelis. Coming to Jerusalem for the day, you are already transplanted to another world. Sure there are the same cafes, shops, and museums as the rest of Israel, but in Jerusalem, the conflict in visible, at sea level, on the ground, in the streets – the ultra-Orthodox yelling and throwing stones at cars on Shabbat and the Arab-Israelis, who call themselves Palestinians, injecting the streets of East Jerusalem with motifs of their struggle for statehood. The tension is palpable, heavier, curdling only 45 minutes outside the nightclubs and beaches of Tel Aviv.
Of all days, on this particular sunny Autumn afternoon, I forgot my passport at home. This is a problem because I wanted to cross into another country – an occupied country. The second issue, a very fuzzy, grey one, was that as an Israeli, I am not permitted by law, to enter Palestine. As an American, however, I am. The Qalandia checkpoint was a breeze to go through on the way into Ramallah, and I was assured that getting back in to Israel wouldn’t be too complicated. No one checked our papers to get in, but the long traffic line of cars waiting to get out, all of a sudden, put a pit in my hungry stomach and I felt uneasy. I was taking a risk entering without a passport and I wasn’t entirely sure what shade of grey legality this whole adventure would turn out to be. But that’s thing in the Middle East, with its hazy borders and intractable conflicts, there are no definites except for those of personal narratives and identity.
Behol ofen, we met another Canadian friend in Ramallah, and went off to have a drink and some tasty food. We took photos near the rainbow staircase and I documented the day’s adventure with a downdog, watched the sun set on Israel from Palestine, and in two hours we were on our way back at the Qalandia checkpoint. While waiting in line to get through, young Palestinian boys tried to lure us into buying balloons in the shape of rockets.
I had my American passport card – more or less the same thing as a passport but without the Israeli entrance visa, which was the proof needed to enter back into Israel legally. But I did have my student ID card from Tel Aviv University. Ihab said, give me the student card, hold on to the passport card: “Why?” “Because it’s Tel Aviv, because it says something, because it means more than your passport.”
The 19 year-old blonde Israeli IDF border patrol soldier definitely noticed my student ID among the multi-colored passports of my friends. “Where is her passport, this is not a passport.” “She’s American and studies in Israel” Ihab said and only then handed over my passport card, showing that I am truly an American. We were asked to pull over and wait while they checked me out. I was nervous, fully realizing that the legality of my hop on over to the other side could be a big balagon (mess). Ihab laughed at me: “They don’t shoot people above the waist anymore, don’t worry. The worst that can happen is that you’ll go back to Ramallah and spend a night in Al-Amari refugee camp.” I can understand how and why this is a humorous situation for Ihab, a man who did time for throwing stones. The blonde soldier came back and handed us our papers: “next time, bring your passport and visa.”
Back in East Jerusalem we went to the Jerusalem Hotel to have drinks and smoke hookah with MSF and other international aid worker friends. We spoke English, it felt like London. I was relieved to not be in Ramallah anymore, even though I was still technically, in Palestine. The names of places mean a lot, but they are completely different depending on who you ask. Ihab and I talked about the ease of travel for someone like me and the ease of “citizenship” as well. It’s something I’m not ready to talk about quite yet, the hypocrisy of it all and how I took advantage of the system that offered me so much. I’m very grateful for everything, even if I do criticize the way things are run here, but it is extremely unsettling to be aware of the fact that people, who truly believe this land is their home, cannot attain citizenship rights and cannot get through Qalandia checkpoint with no passport – to be more accurate, a passport with no visa.
Fiza and I got a ride back to Tel Aviv from two French MSF workers, who were driving to the bubble to go tango dancing – a night on the town away from work. During the short ride back, I kept thinking about Abergel’s theories and thoughts on Zionism and racism too. I heard some fascinating stories on my day trip to East Jerusalem and Ramallah, everyone really does have a story to tell, including me, but I came back home with more questions than answers – questions that I know I will never resolve in my own head or by someone else’s definitions. It’s all relative, but the theory of relativity is known to complicate every discussion.