30 June 2006

the old city and haifa.

While Jerusalem's old city is fascinating, today's tour was excrutiatingly dull, even by the low standards of an organized group tour. Since we arrived in Israel a day late, we missed our originally scheduled tour and had to find a guide last minute. Since it was a Friday, Muslim and Jewish guides were not available, and since it's the height of summer, good guides book early. Hence, we ended up with a chatty but uninteresting Christian Arab guide. From his tour, you'd think the Muslims and Jews had never visited Jerusalem. We saw every remotely relevant Christian sight in the city, and heard a nearly complete recitation of the Bible before finally visiting the Western Wall. (Al-Aqsa mosque was off limits because of Friday prayers). I was disappointed - I wanted to hear about all of the religions in Jerusalem, not just the one I knew the most about already. To make matters worse, he took us to an overpriced bazaar instead of turning us loose in the market to shop because his friend owned the shop. Bad tour aside, the city is still beautiful.

After the tour, we bid farewell to Jerusalem and the lovely Ambassador Hotel (no sarcasm intended - free wireless internet is always a winner in my book) and went our separate ways to our internship locations. There are ten of us in northern Israel, including my roommate and I in Haifa. We arrived at the Dan Panorama Hotel, which, although lacking free internet, is lovely. Pool, fitness center, and since somehow we've been designated "executive guests," we have access to the business lounge on the 20th floor, overlooking the city and the bay. The lounge has free appetizers and drinks all day long, which will save us a small fortune in food costs and keep us out of the minibar (whose contents are now piled along the closet floor so we can use the fridge). Interestingly, the hotel is very supportive of orthodox Jewish guests - the room service menu is kosher, and there is an elevator that stops automatically at every floor on the Sabbath. Since we're in a foreign country with excellent local cuisine, we decided Chun-ling Chinese Restaurant would be an lovely choice for dinner. We were the only ones in the restaurant for most of our meal, but the food was delicious (made even better when paid for by credit card). But the best part was definitely the music, which included "Silent Night." In June. In Chinese. Nothing more to say.

To top off an excellent Chinese meal, we also discovered a gelato shop just blocks from our hotel. The twenty some odd flavors were overwhelming, but the english-speaking guy running the shop let us try pretty much all of them before we decided. Then he told us about the hundred other flavors they rotate in and out. Between that, the nearby ATM, pharmacy, business lounge, pubs, mall, Chinese food, metro station, and beach access, we're in heaven. The ice cream man, i.e. my new hero, asked us what we were doing in Haifa while we sampled everything he had to offer. We explained our internship program, and when I mentioned Isha L'Isha, he recognized the name. I asked him if he knew of it, and he said simply, "I have lesbian friends." He told me more about what the organization does, and assured me that they work on serious issues, and aren't like the crazy "bra-burning, bearded, flannel shirt, and baseball cap" women of a more radical organization in the area. It appears some stereotypes can cross oceans and cultures. Either way, I'm glad to hear Isha L'Isha isn't a boring knitting circle sort of group - bring on the excitement and controversy! I start work on Sunday morning (weekends are Friday/Saturday in Israel to account for worship days), and I can't wait to find out what sort of projects I'll be working on! Since internet is no longer free (unless I have access at work), this is the end of posts with pictures since it takes too long to upload them here and on photobucket, so just look for them there in the meantime.

good fences make good neighbors.

Let me begin by saying the West Bank is breathtaking. Reddish-orange rocky desert, steep hills, and terraced olive groves scattered across the landscape. There are long, low stone walls dividing olive groves (Palestine is rumored to have the world's best olive oil) and grazing lands crisscrossing the terrain, and random ancient ruins of stone houses and columns. The entire landscape is virtually empty save the occasionally Israeli settlement or Palestinian village, or perhaps a nomad leading his goat herd to new grazing ground. With the Israelis essentially holed up in their settlements and Palestinians' travel limited, the roads are practically deserted. Driving through the West Bank, the quiet calm makes it easy to forget it's one of the most hotly contested regions of the world.

However, today's topics - the Israeli settlements and security fence/barrier/wall - brought us crashing out of the beautiful scenery to the tense realities of the West Bank. We spent the morning touring settlements with Gidon Ariel of Maale Adumim and Yair Shalev of Shilo, the only settlement built on true biblical holy land. We started the morning with Gidon in Maale Adumim, a large settlement of over 30,000 people outside Jerusalem. Maale Adumim, as well as other settlements we saw later, bore a disturbing resemblance to Disney's planned community in Celebration, FL. Instead of Disney characters, however, there are "peace dove" traffic circles and biblical themed neighborhoods and streets (flowers, Bible verses, instruments, etc). When I pictured settlements, I thought of Israeli families moving on their own to settle in their "promised land," building a house and making a living for themselves. Instead, I found carefully orchestrated communities of rows of identical apartment buildings and landscaped streets. The settlements are in violation of the Geneva Convention - I can't buy the argument that Jordan claimed the West Bank and somehow that justifies moving Israeli civilians into lands occupied by the Israeli army. Maale Adumin is preparing to expand, building more housing right up to the edge of Palestinian-controlled East Jerusalem, essentially closing it in. As Gidon explained, the settlers "look forward to peace," and see their occupation (in the non-military sense) of the West Bank as a step towards closer Arab-Israeli relations. How living behind a barbed wire fence in a Jewish-only community contributes to peace is beyond me.

While the settlers claim to support peace, Gidon said they opposed the barrier originally, but since it's being built, they support it as a way to "keep the terrorists out." The Israeli government calls it a fence because less than 5% of it is a bona fide "wall," (the rest being a multi-layered barbed wire fence) but to me, it's still a wall. Does Berlin during the Cold War ring a bell, or am I the only one who still remembers that fiasco? I can accept the logic for a wall to keep out suicide attackers - they're a legitimate threat that needs to be addressed. However, if Israel's building a security wall, it should be in Israel (i.e. along the Green Line). Even the East Germans built the wall on their own territory. As it stands now, the wall meanders from the Green Line well into the West Bank in order to circle around settlements and protect them. Since the settlements are illegal in the first place, I don't have any sympathy for further violating international law to protect them. Furthermore, the wall isn't just encircling the existing settlements - it's leaving space to continue expanding them (in the case of Maale Adumin, more than doubling it). So here we have an illegal wall being built not only to protect illegal settlements, but to continue building them. All while Israelis (settlers and non-settlers) are supporting a peaceful solution. By building the barrier on Palestinian territory, Israel is essentially claiming an additional 5% of the West Bank. The generally accepted two state peace is a 78-22% split of the land, which is hardly an even divide even along the Green Line, so what reason does Israel have to claim more of it? Gidon said that the Green Line is only the 1948 ceasefire line, not an official border, so why shouldn't they be allowed to build east of it? By that logic, shouldn't Palestinians be allowed to move west of the line? According to Gidon, no, since they're not Israeli citizens. I don't follow the logic.

In that same vein, Gidon also asserts that the settlements are on uninhabited land (save some nomads, who don't count since they didn't build anything there), the 5% of the West Bank the settlers have claimed is "miniscule" because few Arabs were displaced. In his words, "There's nothing wrong with people moving into uninhabited, desolate lands." Would he feel the same way about Palestinians settling in 5% of uninhabited Israel proper? I don't imagine so, and as he said before, they're not Israeli citizens, so they can't live there. I just can't understand why, if these settlers are so determined to settle in the desert, why did it have to be in the West Bank? There's plenty of uninhabited desert in Israel proper, and only Shilo is on biblical lands, so that can't be the reason. The wall and the settlements are a huge issue in resolving the conflict, and I just cannot equate them with any real desire for peace on Israel's part. One bright moment in our discussion with the settlers came at a candy factory where we spoke to the Israeli owner and one of his Arab managers. He employs Arabs and Jews in near equal numbers, although he didn't address the issue of salary. Talking about the political situation, he said that "our problems are because of our leaders. Not leaders, our politicians - we don't have leaders." He was the only settler we met who was genuinely interested in using settlements to facilitate Israeli-Palestinian interaction - everyone else said it was a good idea, but puts up barbed wire to keep out the terrorists.

At a mashav (form of kibbutz), Yair took us to meet a former Texas rancher who moved to Israel to begin raising goats in the West Bank. While the rancher was proud to say he employed several Palestinians on his farm as harvesters, he expressed his distrust of them, and reinforced the master-servant relationship. While he may be interacting with Arabs, it's not on a equitable level, and thus isn't really contributing to cultural understanding. On the topic of refugees, Yair said that he was against forced relocation and supported the Palestinian right of return in principle, but that it wasn't practical yet. He said that it was impractical for Palestinians to expect to return to a village after decades as refugees in other countries. But somehow, it's perfectly logical for the Israelis to expect to return to a land after 3000 years? He never adequately addressed this question for my tastes, and it's one more example of the hypocrisy in the settlement movement that prevents me from believing it can ever be well-intentioned.

And I'm not the only one opposed to settlements and the wall. After a morning in the settlements, we met with Dror Etkes of Peace Now Settlement Watch, a leftist Israeli group. Peace Now was formed in the 1970s as a group of Israelis dedicated to urging their government to serious negotiations. When the settlement movement began, the Settlement Watch segment of Peace Now was formed to protest the policy and monitor the development of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Although long winded, Etkes made a compelling argument. He doesn't have a problem with Jews living in the West Bank, and indeed thinks such arrangements can be a valuable contribution to peace. However, what he does oppose is the state-sponsored and constructed settlements being strategically placed around the West Bank to isolate Palestinian areas, dominate natural resources, and attempt to surround Jerusalem. The Israeli government provides incentives to settlers, making the housing there the most affordable in all of Israel. By encroaching on Palestinian territory, and now building a wall to solidify such encroachments, the Israeli government is rejecting any real efforts at peace. I just can't support a government that claims to support a peaceful two-state solution on one hand while implementing policies to undermine such a peace at every step of the way. I don't think the Palestinians are in the right either, but I'll get into my criticisms of their policies at a later date.

The devil's in the details - two small things to point out about Israel and the West Bank, one sad and one irrelevant. The sign pictured points the way to Jerusalem from the West Bank. The Arabic word in the right is the phonetic spelling of Jerusalem, while the shorter word in parentheses is al-Quds, the Arabic word for Jerusalem. By calling it by its Hebrew name in Arabic, I feel like the Israeli government is making a subtle statement about who's really in charge, regardless of negotiations. There's no reason to call it anything besides its Arabic name - if you speak Arabic, you know what al-Quds is. It's a minor detail, but language is such an important part of a culture. It'd be like the post-WWII allies calling the country Germany in German instead of Deutschland. There's no logical reason for renaming the city besides to belittle the Arabs in the West Bank. On a brighter note, while Israelis drive on the right side of the road, the colors of the road lines are backwards - white in the middle, yellow on the edges. Tomorrow is a tour of Jerusalem, so there will finally be pictures of the city. In the meantime, live vicariously in the West Bank.

29 June 2006

jerusalem.

Looking over my last two posts, I realize I'm beginning to sound like a die hard Palestinian nationalist, and that's not true at all. Like I said yesterday, I'm finding myself opposed to both sides of the conflict, but in different ways. I'm loving every Israeli person I meet, but I can't stomach many of their government's policies (a feeling probably reciprocated towards the United States by much of the world). I feel for the Palestinian cause, but their sociocultural approach to the conflict angers me to no end. That said, today's Israeli/Palestinian day has turned almost all of yesterday's thoughts completely around. My fragile little mind can't handle this much thought in one day (apparently my camera couldn't either, so no pictures).

We started the morning at PASSIA, the Palestinian Society for the Study of International Affairs in Jerusalem. As the name suggests, it's a Palestinian research group, non-partisan but not unbiased in the conflict, obviously. The speaker, Director Mahdi Abdul Hadi, was clearly a brililant, accomplished man, but had a limited view of the Israelis on the other side of the conflict. His narrow definitions of categories of Zionism (an already problematic label) implied that no Jew in Israel felt anything but disdain for the Palestinians. Ranging from religious to political to practical Zionism, the least extreme Israeli Jew, in his eyes, supports Sharon's unilateralism and has little interest in negotiation. The worst want only Jews in all of Israel and the occupied territories. Views like this are why the rank and file of each side continues to avoid one another. If I believed everyone who disagreed with me hated me, I wouldn't want to negotiate either.

Although Hadi started off rough with broad generalization about the Israeli people, I perked up when he moved to the topic of Hamas's January 2006 election victory. As others before him, he criticized the West for their democratic hypocrisy, a view I completely support and will hence forth no longer mention unless I hear some new arguments. However, he disagreed with characterizations of Hamas as a political Islam movement, and instead argued it is a nationalistic political movement using Islam because of the faith's ties to Palestinian culture. Islam is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. He suggested that there are no Hamas leaders in the West Bank, only followers of the true leaders in Gaza. Hamas is at a crossroads as it attempts to integrate into the PA and begin governing, and the leadership faces internal strife between hardliners commited to the destruction of Israel and moderates looking to negotiation as representatives of the Palestinian government. Similarly, the West is split between rejecting Hamas as a terrorist organization and giving them a chance to form a government and possibly come to the negotiation table. According to Hadi, Hamas won elections not because the Palestinians were looking for a move towards political Islam, but because they were fed up with the corruption and failures of Fatah, a point I think is well taken. In the words of my inner hippie, "give peace a chance." As he discussed, the Palestinian people aren't going anywhere. They will continue to preserve their identity and fight for a homeland regardless of Israel's actions, and history has demonstrated that the oppressed outlast the oppressor every time. With this in mind, the two sides have to return to the negotiation table soon or nothing is ever going to change. Unlike some of the earlier Palestinian speakers, Hadi believes a third party mediator is vital to successful negotiations. As he explained it, Palestinians have no money and no power, but the drive to outlast the Israelis - a third party is the only way to ensure a peaceful solution. I think he makes a point - both sides are too entrenched in their own views to be able to see compromises without an objective (that being the key word) mediator.

Before I could even fully comprehend Hadi's lecture, we went to the Israeli Foreign Ministry to meet Ido A'Haroni, a senior advisor to the Foreign Minister. He started off by emphasizing that the peace process is just that - a process, and that neither side is ready for a concrete two state solution. A pessmistic view, to say the least. The remainder of his talk illustrated vividly the reasons for his view. I heard disturbingly violent and outright rascist generalizations about the Palestinian people, and much to many people's dismay, he spoke long enough to only allow for a few questions before we had to leave, therefore not allowing us to ask for elaboration. In his words, "the Islamic world would like to take us back to the Dark Ages," and Israel and the United States are grouped together in criticism of the west "because of what we stand for" - namely, freedom and democracy, principles which he believes are antithetical to Islam. He attributed the collapse of the 2000 Camp David summit to the Palestinian peoples' "conscious decision to wage war against Israeli civilians" through the declaration of the second Intifada. While I agree the second Intifada was not the popular rock-throwing uprising like the first, and I cannot support the use of violence, I resent the generalization that it was a massive Palestinian conspiracy to drive the Israelis out of Israel. I don't support the Intifada, but neither do I support Israeli violence in response to it, and those in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. Two wrongs don't make a right, and you can't have the moral high ground but retaliate against civilians at the same time. Similiarly, he talked about the Israeli response to the 1972 Munich Olympics kidnapping and murder of 11 Israeli athletes (as detailed in Steven Spielberg's Munich) as a positive policy. I'm sorry, but I can't justify revenge killing, and no one should smile when they talk about it. I feel like a broken record, but two wrongs don't make a right. What was solved by tracking down and murdering the planners of the attack? Did it bring anyone back? Did it make a positive impact on the resolution of the conflict? No, and why perpetuate human suffering?

While A'Haroni's moral flexibility angered me, his diction disturbed me even more. I can almost follow the logic behind retaliation for violence, although I don't see its purpose and think it does more harm than good. But it was the blatant devaluing of Palestinian life that left me nauseated. When he talked about Israeli deaths, there were "massacres," "slaughter," "murdered," or simply "killed." However, when he proudly related successful Israeli assassinations of Palestinians, they were "eliminated" or "no longer with us." For all the horror he professed at the deaths of Israelis, I would have expected a bit more respect for human life than that. This is why the conflict angers me on both sides - everyone's doing the exact same things but criticizing the other for it. Everyone condems killing, but everyone uses that as an excuse to perpetuate it. I just can't stomach it coming from either side.

After the Foreign Ministry, we rushed to the Knesset to meet several Knesset Members (MKs). Three gentlemen from three very different parties reminded me why I love parliamentary democracy. Proportional representation is such a brilliant idea, I can't understand why we've never adopted it in the United States. We started with Ahmed Tibi, of the Ra'am Ta'al Party (Arab Movement for Change), one of the few Israeli Arabs in the Knesset. His party's primary platform is equality between Jewish and non-Jewish (particularly Arab) Israeli citizens. As a representative of the Israeli Arabs, his party, squarely planted in the opposition, also supports complete withdrawal from the occupied territories (not, he was quick to specify, Sharon's "disengagement" with partial withdrawal at the same time as increased settlements elsewhere). Not surprisingly, they also oppose the settlements. Aside from his constituency's close ties to the Palestinians, they believe that a peaceful two state solution will open the door for equal treatment of Israeli Arab citizens, a point I think is well taken. It's hard to campaign for equality when your fellow non-citizen Arabs are engaged in a fierce battle against Israel for a state of their own. It was fascinating to hear from Tibi, since the Israeli Arab population often goes overlooked in western media accounts of the conflict and Israeli society. I love that Tibi has a seat in the Knesset - that's what I love most about democracy, and why I can't agree with a solely Jewish state. Tibi is raising issues that need to be addressed, and it'd be a shame to silence him.

My personal favorite MK was Ran Cohen of the Meretz Party, a peace-loving social justice party that is currently in the opposition but was formerly in the majority under Rabin. Meretz acknowledges the unique history of the land, in that two unique groups of people both have legitimate claims to the land. He supports a two-state peace, with the borders determined by the Green Line (incidently, he is the first person I've ever heard to specify borders when supporting a two state solution). Furthermore, Meretz supports negotiation with Hamas as members of the Palestinian leadership. Even better than their unflailing support of democracy, and why I would vote Meretz in the United States, was the party's social justice platform. Women's rights, the environment, equality for Israeli Arabs, religious tolerance, the environment, and even gay rights. What's not to love? Sadly, Meretz only holds five of 120 seats. But considering what a dominant role the conflict plays in Israeli and Palestinian politics, it's refreshing to see a party thinking beyond the peace and into the future, when domestic social issues can be better addressed.

Our last MK was Meir Porosh of the United Torah Judaism Party, an Orthodox Jewish party. He didn't speak english, and so the translations were difficult to follow, but it was interesting to hear from such a unique perspective. They are also in the opposition, but on the opposite side of the political spectrum from Meretz - another point for parliamentary democracy. Left and right aren't the only choices. Although interesting, I have a difficult time with his views. He doesn't believe the holy land can ever be divided because God promised it to the Jews. The party has made political sacrifices, but at the core believes in a single Jewish state solution. They want to avert bloodshed and coexist with the Palestinians, but have no desire to see a two state solution. The marriage of religion and politics makes me nervous, but I respect that his view is being heard.

Finally, we finished the evening with Linda Gradstein, a National Public Radio Middle East correspondent who's been living and reporting on the conflict from Israel and the West Bank for seventeen years. A American who stumbled into journalism while living in Israel, she offered amazing insight into the conflict. After three days of speakers firmly linked to one side or the other, it was refreshing to hear from an objective third party. I could have talked to her for hours, but we only had a brief time because she had to leave for yet another broadcast. We talked a lot about the current situaion in Gaza since she and her colleague have been reporting on it non-stop since the kidnapping on Saturday. While the Israeli airstrikes and invasion of Gaza, as well as the Palestinian kidnappings of Israelis, are serious hinderances to the peace process, Gradstein expressed the view that the situation could resolve itself into renewed negotiations. As events unfold in Gaza, Hamas and Fatah are on the verge of signing an agreement to reopen negotiations that results in Hamas's de facto recognition of Israel. In her interviews with Hamas leaders, she found that the orders for the attacks and kidnapping came from Hamas leadership in Damascus, and that Ismail Haniya, the newly sworn in Prime Minister, knew nothing of the plans. As she suggests, and I'm inclined to agree, if Haniya can deliver the IDF soldier alive, this could bring both sides to the table with renewed vigor for negotiations. However, if Haniya fails, then relations could crumble and destroy Hamas's tentative forays into negotiation and cooperation with Fatah. Israeli leaders she spoke to have no intention of staying in Gaza and reoccupying the region, but we'll have to see how that pans out. I know most people think I'm nuts for being here, but it's thrilling to be in Israel, talking with Israeli and Palestinian leaders as this is happening.

While Gradstein's analysis suggests hope may rise from the Gaza crisis, she crushed my dream of the one state solution. As she explained it, the Israeli birthrate is at 2.6, the Palestinian at 6.2 in the West Bank and 6.9 in Gaza. A'Horoni expressed a fear that such a birthrate would make Jews a "minority in their own homeland" by 2020. Gradstein explained it as the reason a one state solution would never happen. While it may begin as a Jewish state with Arab citizens, the birthrate would quickly allow the Palestinians to dominate elections and turn Israel into a Palestinian state, something the Israelis would never allow and most Palestinians would tolerate a Jewish state to see happen. Ironically, we could end up with the reverse of today's conflict - powerful Palestinian majority oppressing a weak Jewish minority. I'd never considered the one state solution in that light, and while it's a sad reality, it's a reality nonetheless. I still wish we could all get along despite our religious differences, but as this goes on, I see that as more and more unlikely. Practically, I think the only permanent solution is two states (Green Line borders). It pains my idealistic little heart to let go of a one-state peace, but I'd rather have a lasting peace.

On the topic of the Green Line, we're visiting settlements tomorrow and talking about Israel's security fence/wall. I'd start in on it now, but I think this is long enough. I promise, once I start the internship and stop the constant flow of different viewpoints, these entries will become a reasonable length. Bear with me in the meantime. Until then, shalom and salaam.

28 June 2006

tel aviv.

After spending the day in Israel proper, I feel even more confused about this entire situation. Is it possible to disagree with both sides of a two-sided conflict? I think it just may be. We spent the morning at the Peres Center for Peace and the enclosed Yitzhak Rabin Center meeting with Ron Pundak, the executive director of the Peres Center and a major player at the 1993 Oslo Accord negotiations. Pundak made some interesting points, and I was particularly impressed with his brutal, often self-deprecating honesty about the failures of Oslo and Camp David. There's a lot of demonization of the "other" on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and while he had little love for the Palestinians, I respect his ability to recognize the flaws in his own nation. He opened the discussion by stating that the Israeli sentiment that the creation of Israel as "a people without a land moving to a land without a people" was an outright lie. He solidly acknowledges that the Palestinians have ties to the land and a rich heritage dating back to well before the creation of Israel. Everything I've ever heard in this vein from the Israeli side is "God promised Jews this land," end of story, so I was impressed to see a prominent Israeli admit that two distinct groups had legitimate claims to the land. In his view, Oslo failed because of arrogant Israeli policy and Arafat's mistakes - both equally. Yesterday, the Palestinian leaders predominantly attributed the failure to Israeli hypocrisy (settlements, continued occupation, etc), so it's refreshing to hear someone admit that no one was (or is) innocent.

Even more provokingly, Pundak expressed that "the strongest side of the equation should always be the most generous, and we weren't." I was speechless after hearing this - the Palestinians are clearly the underdogs, at least in my view, so I grow tired of hearing Israelis paint themselves as the victims (more on this later). Peace is in the best interests of both parties, and I respect that Pundak realizes that peace is a compromise and a process. It's similiar to social contract theory - we trade some of our freedom in exchange for protection. Both sides give up part of what they want to meet in the middle, and everyone goes home happy and living in peace. It seems so easy to me as an outsider, and it's frustrating that both sides will refuse to budge over seemingly innocuous trivialities. I suppose it's always easier to solve problems when you have no personal investment in the outcome, but it's obvious to me that 50 years of stubbornness hasn't solved anything, so maybe it's time for new tactics. Pundak believes that there is increased support for change today, and that both sides are increasingly understanding of one another and willing to make concessions to acheive peace. The newly elected Hamas government in Palestine may destroy this new support, but it's too soon to tell. He clearly disapproved of Hamas's election, but I still can't shake the feeling that everyone is being hypocritical about Palestinian democracy. There were free and fair elections in Palestine, and that should be valued regardless of who won. Israel values democracy - Pundak was quick to express his disapproval of Sharon's unilateralist policies and disengagement because he believes that peace will come through a joint process - so why don't they value Palestinian democracy? In his view, unilateralism indicates that one side has stopped caring about the interests of the other, resulting in an overall loss of hope and direction for a future viable peace. I agree - one side deciding the future of the other isn't peace, it's domination. That can never work in the long run, and I think it causes more harm in the short term as well. As difficult as it is to negotiate and compromise, that's the only thing that will ever work.

Since I've been completely behind the notion of a one-state solution since I discovered it yesterday, I was interested to hear Pundak's perspective on it. Sadly, this is where I lost my awe for his open-minded honesty and heard an expected biased response. He said it would never work, and that Israelis wouldn't even consider it. For him, Jews feel a connection to the land and their state through their heritage - history, language, tradition, religion, etc. - and even for secular Jews, the Jewish character of Israel is sacred. He said outright that he (and most Jews) didn't want "one state for two peoples." I take serious issue with this, as it values uniformity over diversity. I can't swallow the idea that a state would be better off if everyone thought within a narrowly defined range. Part of what I love about being an American is that my friends can come from all backgrounds, religions, political persuasions, etc., and we can still get along and revel in what we can learn from each other. A state founded on such narrow parameters completely loses any semblance of balance and diversity, and that feels too much like 1984 for me.

Which brings me to my second major issue with today's discussion. After Pundak finished, we attended a lecture/discussion about Israeli identity and democracy with some of the Education Department of the Rabin Center. We brainstormed what we think of when we meet an Israeli, and we threw some ideas out there, gradually venturing into negative stereotypes as times passes, as such things go. Someone suggested "defensive," and as the woman wrote it on the board, she huffed a little under her breath and said "we have to be." I realized that that is the attitude that has always rubbed me the wrong way about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the reason I've been hesitant to support Israel. While I can never deny the historical victimization of the Jewish people, I struggle to swallow the idea that Israelis are somehow the underdog. Yes, they are victims of Islamic extremist suicide terrorism, but the use of suicide attackers illustrates just how desperate the enemy is. With no money and no power, human smart bombs are a cost-efficient (as callous as that sounds) way to fight. Israel may be a Jewish state surrounded by 22 Arab countries, but no one's forcing them to be there. If you're choosing to move to and live in your homeland despite opposition, you can't also play the victim.

Speaking of 1984, I need to vent some frustrations about the notion of a "Jewish Democratic State." In our discussion of Jewish identity, we watched a film entitled "The Deli" about the multicultural tensions that exist in Israel - from immigrant and native Israelis, orthodox to secular Jews, Israeli Arabs and Jews, and so on. The basic plot entailed a Russian immigrant selling pork in his deli, a vandalism incident, and a very angry orthodox old man. Other characters brought the other conflicts into the storyline. We stopped halfway through to brainstorm solutions to the impending confrontations, and my immediate response was "secular democracy." When religious law becomes state law (as in this case, where the deli owner couldn't report the vandalism because he sold pork in violation of a local statute), I don't understand how you can in good faith claim democratic principles. For me, a fundamental trait of democracy is freedom of worship. State-sponsored religion is inherently undemocratic for non-believers. The two people leading the identity discussion talked about the wealth of ideas and cultural diversity of Israel and how hard it is to compromise with so many views. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing, and I don't think any truly democratic state would want to limit its views to the narrow range of one people. Democracy is founded on discourse - I can accept a Jewish state, and I'd prefer a multicultural democracy, but I think a religious democracy is an inherent contradiction in terms.

There are a few more pictures posted, but admittedly few because I was too lazy to take my camera out of my bag, and we sat in the same building all morning and frolicked on the beach in the afternoon. And yes, the ones on this page are essentially irrelevant to the topic, but I think pictures break up the monotony of text. For you news-watchers out there, Israel is invading Gaza in response to the attack on and kidnapping of an IDF soldier. I'll post more tomorrow on what it's like to be here for that, but for now, just know it probably looks more exciting from your end. Tomorrow is an Israeli/Palestinian day and a evening meeting with an NPR correspondent, so get excited.

26 June 2006

the west bank.

I left for this trip not entirely certain where I stood on the Israeli-Palestinian question. Knowing Israelis who lost friends in suicide attacks and Palestinian refugees driven from their homes, I tend to see the conflict as a tragedy for both sides. I will admit, however, that I've always tended to lean more towards the Palestinians as the oppressed and occupied. I do not, for any reason, support or even condone the use of violence, and by sympathizing with Palestinians, I mean peaceful civilians, not suicide attackers or extremists. I do, however, lament the circumstances that lead shahids to feel they have no other choice. The situation will never resolve itself if we spend our time debating over who is to blame for the situation, instead of discerning how to move past today and plan for a peaceful future. For that reason, I'm here to learn about what's being done, what should or shouldn't be happening, and how I can help, rather than waste time pointing fingers. We're in this boat now, and it's sinking fast, so knowing who poked the first hole isn't going to help anyone.

Today I met a plethora of individuals on the Palestinian side, from high-ranking government officials to refugees who had lived in temporary "camps" for decades awaiting return to their family's lands. With everything we hear about Palestinians and the occupied territories from the media, the actual experience was almost a bit of a disappointment. Absent were the violent extremists the media has led me to expect. In their place I found a people much like any other - proud of their heritage and eager to build a better life for themselves and their children. I expected one sided criticisms of Israeli policy, and while I did find them, I also found surprisingly balanced and self-critical perspectives from the upper echelons of the Palestinian government. More interestingly, who we spoke to makes a powerful statement about the conflict. We met the equivalent of the speaker of the house and the assistant Secretary of State (and the assistant in name only because the newly appointed Hamas foreign minister is confined to Gaza and unable to assume office in Ramallah). We would have met the President's Chief of Staff and potentially Abbas himself if not for the IDF soldier's kidnapping in Gaza. A group of students would never get the time of day from similar ranking officials in the United States, unless it was an election year and the students were from a swing state. The Palestinians have proved exceedingly willing to talk to anyone, and I have this heartbreaking feeling that it's because they're desperate for anyone to listen to them.

We started the day with a briefing from Dr. Ahmad Soubeh, the deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Palestinian Authority, who offered a brief history of the negotiation process before diving into some of the issues facing the conflict. When asked about Hamas's refusal to recognize Israel's right to exist, he made a provoking point. He maintained that governments recognize each other, not political parties. The American government recognizes Israel and the PA, so it's not necessary for the Republican party to also make a formal declaration of recognition. While Hamas, being a terrorist organization before becoming a political party, is a bit of a special case, I think he makes an interesting case worth consideration. While I'm not certain I completely buy his argument there, I am in complete agreement with his view of the American reaction to the January Palestinian elections. He (and others throughout the day) contend that the United States is hypocritical for punishing the Palestinian people by withdrawing aid after they held free elections. By punishing the election of Hamas, the west is only strengthening the case for fundamentalism. Democracy is about people choosing their own government, and sometimes the other guy wins. That's the whole point, and we have no right to only be for democracy when it's on our terms. An anecdote from his own life made me realize how difficult the Palestinian situation is to understand, in that a nation is expected to make broad changes while living under occupation. As Deputy foreign minister, he was under house arrest, unable to reach his office for several weeks. But a journalist's first question in an interview was "Why aren't you doing enough to stop suicide bombers?" The man can't even get to his office or visit his family in the next town over, and yet we expect him to change the social fabric of his nation overnight. Dr. Soubeh's introduction of the potential solutions to the conflict caught me off guard when he described a one state solution. The 78-22% two-state solution is nothing new to me, and I thought that was always the ultimate goal. Au contraire - according to him, a large number of Palestinians would just as soon live as equal Israeli citizens in one state than in their own independent Palestine. While critics on the Israeli side contend this undermines the Jewish nature of Israel, I don't think that's a bad thing. Close ties between religion and politics have always been hard for me to swallow, and the possibility of people of three religions sharing the holiest sites in one united state is the most appealing idea I've heard yet.

Dr. Saeb Erekat, the Chief Negotiator for the PA, offered a poetic telling of his role in the negotiations over the years. As he put it, there were hundreds of unwritten chapters about the stupid things and missed opportunities on both sides of the table, and his self-deprecating humor about his role made for an entertaining look at a serious situation. Acknowledging the history of the Jewish people, he characterized the Palestinians as "victims of the victims," and maintains that there will never be a military solution to the conflict. He joked that he has the most difficult negotiating job in history, with a dispersed people, no land, no army, and no economy on his side, but as he put it, "even a broken clock is right twice a day." To see hope for a solution coming from the man who's been on the frontlines of collapsing talks gives me hope that I will one day study the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as history and not as current affairs. When asked about role of the United States in a peaceful solution, he said the Americans could be valuable as an objective, unbiased intermediary, but once we sacrificed our objectivity, we were useless. He also criticized American actions in the region, arguing that the United States needs new tactics to address the problems of the middle east. For him, democracy is key to stability in the region, but it has to be a unique democracy for each nation.

We finished up the afternoon at the Palestinian Legislative Council and a talk from the PLC's spokesman, Dr. Aziz Dweik. (The pictures in the chairs of the chamber are for the PLC members in Israeli prisons. We also watched the Natural Resources Council debate a measure on water management.). Unlike the first two talks, Dr. Dweik presented a feistier, more confrontational look at the conflict and especially America's role in it. Like the others, he championed democracy as key to reforming his nation, but was much quicker to point fingers at Israel and America for the problems of Palestine. When asked about violence and extremism, he spent more time criticizing American and Israeli sanctions and actions that heighten the appeal of fundamentalism than addressing the factors he can control, such as the state-supported glorification of martyrdom. He refused to condem violence and recognize Israel until they did it first, arguing that the oppressor has to recognize the oppressed, not the other way around. Such pettiness about who apologizes first wastes everyone's time, and sometimes you have to be the bigger person and step up.

The Kalandia refugee camp defied everything I expected about a camp. On the one hand, my gut reaction was "is this really so bad?" When I picture refugee camps, I imagine people crowded into makeshift tents, with little privacy or safe water. But Kalandia is a city of buildings and streets. Ahmed, our guide, admitted that Kalandia is one of the nicest camps, and that the tent cities do in fact exist in parts of Gaza and poorer sections of the West Bank. But he offered a more provoking reason for the unconventional arrangement - the "camp" has been in existence for over 50 years, with many of its residents living there that long. Despite decades in a camp, when asked where they are from, most refugees will name the city their family came from, and say they only live in Kalandia. Children born in the camp who have never seen their families lands still believe that someday, they will be allowed to return to their lands. I don't know if it's hope or naivete, but I found it heartwarming that people who have lost so much still believe in peace. Ahmed's family still holds deeds to hundreds of acres in Israel proper, and he dreams of a one state solution where he and his family may return to their lands and live alongside their Jewish neigbors as equals. For many in the camps, the desire for their home outweighs the drive for a national homeland, and many would rather see their children become free Israelis on their old land than Palestinians with a state of their own. I never in my wildest dreams imagined that anyone, much less large numbers of refugees, would want a one state solution. Having always viewed the conflict as a nationalistic one, it seems I've misinterpreted the nature of Palestinian nationalism in the most positive way possible.

Visiting families of refugees in the camps demonstrated one of the most powerful themes I've found throughout my travels - the overwhelming generosity of the people who have the least. In every home we entered, family members immediately retreated to the kitchen to start brewing fresh coffee or tea while others arranged every chair and couch in the house so we wouldn't have to stand. At the house of a 95 year old woman and her husband, who have lived in the camp since its establishment, a young son was sent down the street to buy juice for us. Some of us are wearing shoes that cost more than a month's salary in Kalandia, and yet they insistedt on offering all they can. Here we are invading their house to talk to them about a clearly difficult subject, and they're the ones encouraging us to stay longer. Similar to the politicians' willingness to talk to a group of lowly students, there's this sense that there's nothing to be lost and everything to be gained by sharing stories.

In the camp, we also met two families of shahids, or martyrs. After spending a semester researching suicide terrorism and the implicit state support for the families of shahids, I wasn't sure how to ask if they were martyred, or if they martyred themselves as suicide bombers. While I feel for grieving families, I cannot overlook the deaths of innocents. As it turns out, both were shot by IDF soldiers at what Ahmed described as peaceful demonstrations 50m from soldiers. While I know I'm getting a one-sided explanation from the families of the victimes and that the soldiers were probably provoked in some way, I find it difficult to imagine the potential threat a 16 year old boy could possibly pose to armed troops to warrant his death. His mother was distraught, crying for his lost future and the loss to her family. He was just months from moving to the United States to study, and now, almost three years later, the mother appears to have lost all hope. With five daughters coming of age, her hopelessness and self-inflicted misogyny angered me. She seemed to think that only her son had a bright future outside the camps, and I can't help but think that attitudes like this play a bigger role in limiting women's advancement than any state-sponsored policy could ever do. I can't wait to start my internship and begin helping change just such attitudes. Everyone, from scholars to refugees, cites breaking the cycle of poverty as the key to social change. If children have something to do, something to live for, then they'll avoid falling victim to extremism and instead become productive members of Palestinian society. In Morocco last summer, someone pointed out the satellite dishes atop the poorest houses in the medinas, and since then, they seem to be everywhere. As a lifelong avoider of TV, this boggles my mind. An entire large family crowded into a two room house, children roaming the streets, and yet money is being spent on satellite cable. I have a similar reaction to the large number of smokers I saw in Kalandia. With limited resources and few opportunities for advancement, it breaks my heart to see money being squandered on mindless amusement to pass the time.

Perhaps more heartbreaking was the grafitti covering the walls of the camp. It reads "Hamas, 4-17-2006," which was the date of the first suicide attack in Israel since the January 2006 elections. While Islamic Jihad claimed the attack, Hamas refused to condemn the act, calling it a legitimate response to Israeli aggression. A tentative cease-fire was signed in February 2005, but it has been violated several times since then. That some people celebrate in the deaths of others sickens me, no matter what injustices have been committed. Two wrongs never make a right.

In other news, our hotel is blessed with free wireless internet, so look forward to frequent updates, at least while I'm in Jerusalem. We also have a overzealous rooster somewhere outside our window who begins crowing around 3 AM and doesn't stop until mid-morning, but he's slightly less exciting. Tomorrow we're spending the day with a variety of Israeli officials, and the day after visiting the settlements. In the meantime, pictures are posted, and I apologize in advance for grainy quality. I accidently left the ISO speed at 1600 from Bonaroo, but the problem's been corrected for tomorrow.

22 June 2006

and an even greater respect for photographers.

An America Dancer Photoessay:

Standing in front of the Communist propaganda mural outside the former Nazi Air Force Ministry, Sarah relates the building's history to her tour group:
During dress rehearsal for Side of Splendour, Sarah adjusts to performing in her costume under the venue's bright lights:
Overcoming her stage fright, Sarah runs across the front of the floor as her fellow performers dance in the background:
In keeping with German tradition, Sarah and the rest of the cast light sparklers during the opening night reception at Dock-11:
Sarah and Clint, the show's choreographer, share a celebratory champagne toast after a sold-out opening night performance:
Rain or shine, Sarah recruits participants for her tour outside the Brandenberg Gate Starbuck's. Working only for tips, her livelihood depends on the number of participants she is able to attract:
Pointing out that the signs on the cobblestone line running through Berlin all face the West, Sarah explains that reunification has not gone as smoothly as many hoped:
Livening up the tour in hopes of earning better tips, Sarah adds a theatrical flair to her telling of the history of the Brandenburg Gate:
At the end of the tour, Sarah helps several of her participants navigate the tram system back to their hotel:
Sarah pours free beer for arriving pub crawlers before finally returning home for the night:

21 June 2006

why i have a profound respect for journalists.

An American Dancer

Although she spent a rainy night sleeping outside her front door and has no steady income aside from tips earned as a tour guide, Sarah Oppenheim says she has no regrets about moving to Berlin to start her career as a modern dancer.

"It's cheaper to live here than New York, and companies here are more supportive of young dancers," Oppenheim says. "It's hard to get hired in New York without experience, but no one will give you that experience."

Oppenheim, 23, graduated from SUNY Purchase in May 2005 and spent the following summer backpacking in Europe with a friend, stopping in Vienna for ImPulsTanz, Europe's largest dance festival.

"Instead of spending my junior year abroad, I told my parents I wanted to move to Europe to start my career after graduation instead," Oppenheim explains. "My older siblings are all artists as well, so my family is very supportive."

After spending several months traveling, she fell in love with Berlin, settled down in September 2005, and hasn't looked back since. Although she misses her family and friends back home, she believes her experience in Berlin has been worthwhile.

Speaking about her recent performance in Side of Splendour, a piece choreographed by Clint Lutes, a fellow ex-pat dancer originally from Virginia, Oppenheim says she loves the diversity present in the Berlin dance scene.

"In this 7 person cast, we have two Americans, two Israelis, two Germans, and an Australian." Such diversity means more contacts for future work than she would otherwise find in New York.

"In New York," she explains, "primarily dancers attend each other's shows, which means they essentially pay each other, but in Berlin at least half the audience has nothing to do with the dance community. They just appreciate new art." Katerina Witt, the German ice skater, was among those supporting Side of Splendour on opening night.

Held at Dock-11 Studios in Prenzlauerberg, Side of Splendour sold out its four day run, resulting in a much-needed paycheck for Oppenheim.

"The studios here are really supportive of new choreographers. They don't charge to use their space, so a show just has to pay a lighting designer and the rest of the ticket sales go to the performers."

When not dancing, Oppenheim earns money by working as a tour guide for New Berlin Tours. While the job allows her to set her own schedule, taking dance classes in the morning, giving tours in the afternoon, and rehearsing until late at night, working only for tips results in an irregular cash flow.

"I'm going to splurge and buy a new dress with my paycheck from the show!" she says. After living frugally for months, she looks forward to a more relaxed lifestyle. Her time in Berlin always uncertain, Oppenheim searches Craigslist for monthly room rentals in Prenzlauerberg, near much of Berlin's dance scene.

With her visa extension recently approved for another year, she can now plan further into the future. In addition to settling into a permanent apartment and having friends and family visit during the summer, she also says, "I hope to be choreographing my own show by the end of the year."

***
Photojournalism = very hard profession.

While I may alternatively laugh and yell at errors in the Independent Florida Alligator, I have new respect for what those people are doing. Sorry to every reporter I've ever silently (or not-so-silently) cursed! Forgive my amateurish foray into your field, and rest assured I'll leave the reporting to the experts from now on. Pictures to follow as soon as I outsmart blogger. You may have won the battle, but I will win the war.

The website with everyone's work from the Berlin trip won't be up until the fall, which is why I'm posting my story here for your amusement in the meantime. Aside from my newfound respect for the journalism industry, this experience also made me realize how badly I miss dancing, and left me even more excited about taking West African dance in the fall.

20 June 2006

the arts.

Blacklight ping pong may well be the greatest new sport (if curling made the Olympics, then this definitely deserves respect!). At basement bars until the wee hours of the morning, hip Berliners play a modified team version of ping pong. The nights are generally spontaneous and rarely advertised, so the news spreads via word of mouth. Essentially, everyone who wants to play grabs a paddle and circles around the table. Someone serves, rotates the circle, someone returns, rotate again, and so on. If you miss, you're out. When it gets down to two people, they play best of three for the honor of ringing the bicycle bell nailed to the counter to signal the start of a new game. The game moves fast, so no one fights about points, and while some people are very good, everyone is patient with challenged beginners slowing down the game. Even if you're awful at ping pong, like yours truly, light trails make for hours of entertaining photography experiments.

For those unaware, the FIFA World Cup is being held in Germany as I type, with the finals being played in Berlin in a few weeks. While soccer is underappreciated in the States, riots break out in other countries over soccer games. It's like the Olympics, only more cutthroat. Two years ago, the captain of the Semester at Sea made us think the ship was sinking when he announced Greece's underdog victory in the Eurocup. This Holland fan decorated one of Berlin's most recognizable symbols, the Brandenberg Gate, with his country's colors and snapped a picture before a Berliner chased him away. What I wouldn't give to be in Europe for the excitement right now, and I don't even particularly like the game!

Berlin's music scene deserves mention as well, so pictured here are Suburban Kids with Biblical Names, the greatest pop artists to come out of Sweden since ABBA. Their name caught our eye at a record store in Alexanderplatz, and as karma would have it, they played at White Trash Fast Food (perhaps the greatest name for a music venue in history) four days later. Thanks to Andrew (of Gainesville's own Inuit Jargon) and/or Tim for the picture. Between that and this past weekend's road trip to Bonnaroo, it's been a rather musically rewarding summer.

While my actual story for the "class" part of my trip focused on an American modern dancer I met in Berlin (story coming soon), here we have a young break dancer performing at Kurfurstendamm for a crowd of tourists and Berliners alike. While some claim they dance because they love it and would do it even if they made no money, these guys avoid any such noble facades. When they passed around the tip hat midway through the show, I was out of cash except for a few coins. Apparently, my empty wallet didn't convince him, and I was angrily cursed out in German for not "donating" enough money. He even refused to take what I could offer - it seems "beggars can't be choosers" isn't the popular proverb in Germany that it is in the States. Such is life.

My flight to Tel Aviv leaves on Friday - everyone's favorite atheist is off to the holy land of three of the world's major religions for a six week internship and class focusing on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Until then, I suggest you marvel at Cambridge in Colour and start planning your own international adventure. For those in Gainesville, everyone's favorite indie presidential candidate and all-around inspiration is off to Philadelphia with Teach for America to change the lives of those high school students lucky enough to be in his class. MacKenzie, you will be missed.

13 June 2006

i am a jelly donut.

Ich bin ein Berliner = I am a jelly donut. Ich bin Berliner = I am a citizen of Berlin. It seems W is not the only American President with humorous linguistic mishaps. However, in Kennedy's defense, he was attempting a foreign language, and the Berliners (of the non-edible variety) still loved it. Is that because the donut is just an urban legend? I certainly hope not, because that would take half the fun out of the Cold War, and what good is a 50-year arms race if you can't share a laugh now and then?

While the jelly donut represents the old Berlin, today the doner kebab has far surpassed anything German as the edible symbol of the city. Doner stands abound throughout the city, and at approximately 2 euro each, they're the most cost efficient way to sustain yourself in the city. Similar to a Greek gyro or Lebanese shwarma, the doner consists of an obscenely large spit of meat, thinly sliced onto pita bread with garlicky yoghurt sauce and your choice of veggies. Doner stands are open vitually all hours, so they're equally delicious as an early breakfast after a long night or the more traditional lunch or dinner. Be careful that you don't end up so addicted that you consider bringing one home to share with your friends. We have McDonald's and BBQ, Berlin has doners.

I've already discussed Berlin's massive Turkish population, and fortunately their culinary contribution to the city extends beyond the doner. The Turkish market is home to the city's best (and cheapest!) fresh fruits and vegetables, along with parts of animals that you're probably a better person for not recognizing. And of course, a heavenly selection of olives (and only .10 euro extra for pitted ones)! A fabric selection that puts JoAnn Fabrics to shame, baked goods and other snacks, fresh squeezed juices, tons of jewelry, and knick knacks galore round out the biweekly market. You won't find GDR and Soviet memorbilia like at other Berlin flea markets, but this is a chance to mingle among real Berliners, not just tourists.

And what discussion of food would be complete without complementary drinks? While Germany is most famous for its beer, I prefer the wines. But to each his own - stop by a beer garden and try a dunkel (dark) beer with a pretzel, then visit a restaurant for a German Riesling and cheese, and you be the judge.

11 June 2006

ich bin ein berliner.

For all its tree hugging and complicated history, Berlin is still a quirky metropolis with its share of cultural oddities to confuse and bewilder the tourists. Pictured is my favorite street corner in all of Berlin. Now, a winged hot dog and a witty slogan would be funny anywhere, but this building is particularly special in Berlin. The restaurant is called "The Flying Sausage." That's not a translation from German to English, that's its name. Berlin, while blessed with an English-speaking and well-educated populace, is still the capital of Germany, a nation whose native language is, not surprisingly, German. Adding to the irony, this restaurant is in the heart of the district of Kreuzberg, a mere block from the city's famous Turkishemarkt (Turkish Market). For those not familiar with Kreuzberg and Berlin's Turkish population, it's the world's largest outside of Turkey. And thus, we have an English-titled restaurant with an amusing logo in little Istanbul, demonstrating that Berliners have indeed preserved their sense of humor.

Here we have either a naive tourist falling prey to con artists in Alexanderplatz or a member of the con team setting a trap for said tourists. I stumbled across this set-up as I headed into the train station in search of crepes. The primary con artist places a ball under one of three boxes, mixes them up, and then the victim pays 50 euro to lift a box and find the ball. Several accomplices in the crowd take turns "playing" the game and winning to inspire tourists to try their luck. I watched for quite a while as the same bill passed back and forth between three people. Most amusingly, a recorded message from a loudspeaker at the base of the tower warned tourists that the game was a set-up and it was impossible to win. And what language did the kindly German authorities select for this warning? That's right, American English. Of all the foreigners who visit Berlin, they decided Americans were most in need of a constant recorded message telling them not to be stupid. Inspiring, no? There's a certain irony in Americans being conned at the base of the TV tower built as a symbol of communist acheivement. There's even more irony knowing that the Soviets couldn't finish the tower and had to hire a team of Swedish engineers to complete the job. Today, the tower stands as an icon of architectural disaster, but Berliners won't part with a beloved symbol (and the best aerial views) of their city. In a misguided effort to capitalize on World Cup fever, the ball atop the tower has been turned into a soccer ball. A soccer ball sponsored by T-Mobile, resulting in a hot pink monstrosity dominating the skyline. Crazy Germans...

While Europeans are well known for welcoming dogs into cafes, restaurants, shops, public transportation, and even supermarkets, they generally maintain a degree of normalcy in their treatment of their pets. Not so for this fine gentlemen, who we captured on film as he drove his dogsled across the street in front of the Brandenberg Gate on a lovely spring day. I feel bad enough for huskies being walked in the Florida summer heat, but to force those poor animals to pull a sled? At least he wasn't selling rides to fat American tourists.

And finally, here we have an instance of Berlin's infamous public displays of affection coupled with a dog patiently staring down a bratwurst stand as he waits to board the U-Bahn. Berliners, old and young, have no qualms about expressing their love to the entire world. While we can debate the relative merits of such attitudes, I maintain that it's rather disconcerting to watch an elderly couple go at it while attempting to enjoy an innocent dinner.

09 June 2006

remember.

For a history student, memorials serve as physical reminders of the events we'd sometimes rather consign to history books. As a lifelong pacifist, it was during my internship at Quantico that I developed the profound respect I now have for the men and women of the armed forces worldwide. While some misinterpret my love of traveling as a dislike for my own country, traveling in other countries has only reinforced how lucky I am to live in a nation that allows me to criticize it. It angers me that so many (American and foreign) are quick to confuse criticism with disrespect or hatred. It is precisely because I love my country so much that I believe it can be better. Bringing me back to my original point about memorials, for me, the Vietnam Wall is one of the most powerful in the world. I am indebted (for far more than a television show, I assure you) to the friend who introduced me to The West Wing, and a line from the show embodies why I can't look at that wall without tearing up: "Men died for us. We have a responsibility to live our lives with integrity and honesty to honor their sacrifice." It pains me to see students my age walk past that monument with no comprehension of or respect for what it represents. That's why I study history - because I don't think we should ever allow those sacrifices to be ignored. I love my country and those willing to give their lives in defense of the ideals on which it was founded.

In that vein, considering the rich, and often painful, history of Berlin, the city's memorials offer a provoking illustration of its past. Treptower Park, in the former East, is home to an enormous statue of a Soviet soldier, rifle in one hand and orphaned child in the other, crushing a swastika with his boot. (as Orwell would say, "If you want a picture of the future, picture a boot stomping on a human face - forever.") Buried under the site are the bodies of 5000 Soviet soldiers who lost their lives in the battle of Berlin. In the wake of World War II, the Soviets wanted no questions in the minds of East Germans about who rescued them from the crushing grip of Hitler. In later years, I imagine it served a similar purpose as a vivid reminder of the power of the Soviet-backed East German government. While not my favorite war memorial, today the statue illustrates all too clearly how history is written by the victors.

While not a war memorial per se, Berlin's memorial to the 10 May 1933 Nazi book burning is one of the most simplistically beautiful monuments I've ever seen. A translucent glass panel in Humboldt University's plaza reveals an underground chamber of empty white bookshelves with space for the 20,000 books burned that day. The chamber is completely sealed, save a small trapdoor to change the lightbulb, symbolizing that we cannot change history no matter how badly we may want to. A small plaque in the ground bears a line from poet Heinrich Heine: "Where books are burned, in the end people will burn." The line proved eerily prophetic, considering his words date from 1820 and were among those burned in 1933.

The controversial Holocaust memorial, officially titled "The Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe," opened last May, and it is only fitting that unprecedented events in human history are remembered by unconventional memorials. A sprawling array of 2700 concrete slabs in the heart of Berlin, blocks from both the Brandenberg Gate and the site of Hitler's bunker, American architect Peter Eisenman's design has been raising eyebrows since well before ground broke on the project. Among the objections - What about non-Jewish victims? Is Berlin the right location for Germany's memorial? Should it be such an accessible, public space? Graffitti? Is it too vague? While you can debate the validity of such objections until you're blue in the face, the memorial is indeed vague. The concrete slabs, reminiscent of coffins, are all slightly different sizes and shapes, creating a dizzying effect when they tower over visitors' heads. The monument is intentionally devoid of names or other identifiers, and is open to the public at all hours, staffed only by a single (frequently ineffective) guard to ensure visitors do not climb the slabs. Eisenman never intended the site to be a graveyard - he envisoned a memorial that would become part of daily life in Berlin, and indeed, Berliners meander through the rows much like the tourists. Is that a positive thing? Are Berliners acknowledging their history by accepting a 200,000 square foot reminder, or are six million victims being disrespected? See for yourself and decide, but in my eyes, Eisenman's vision was right on task. Even those who hate the memorial can't ignore the tragedy it represents, and in the end, isn't that why we build monuments?