30 July 2006

debris it covers everything but still i am in love with this life.

Sitting on a Turkish sleeper train (a surprisingly luxurious one, I might add, albeit slow) riding through rural Turkey enroute to Thessaloniki, Greece, I finally had the opportunity to mentally find some closure to my Israel/Palestine trip. Someone we met in Istanbul thought Erin and I were "brave" for coming to Turkey on a whim with no place to stay, no Turkish, and no idea what we were doing, and it made me realize how quickly everything happened in the last week.

I've been writing so much about the conflict and violence and the huge issues surrounding anyone's time in Israel and Palestine, but the "devil's in the details," and now that I'm not there anymore, I'm noticing little things. I'll never fit in in Israel - I don't drink coffee (much to the dismay of the waiters at breakfast every morning!), I don't chain smoke, and I drive rather cautiously without using my horn. I enjoy excessive amounts of ice in my drinks. I'm a gun control advocate alarmed by the presence of automatic rifles in shopping malls. Even when I have a cell phone, I rarely use it. Compulsory military service and I would never get along. I'm not comfortable asking someone's religion before their name, and I'm not sure I really care enough about their religion to ask.

But I love the desert, the mountains, and the ocean, and knowing any one of them is only a few hours away. I love that people here find it interesting that I don't believe in god and still came to the holy land. I miss the hibiscus the size of dinner plates on Hanassi Avenue in Haifa. I love that I was welcomed as an American in Ramallah and Haifa alike. I love the Chinese restaurant playing "Silent Night" in Chinese in June. I love how everyone in Haifa was so proud that Arabs and Jews live together peacefully in their city. I love that even though everyone asks, no one really cares about my religion. I love the olive oil and I think I might even miss hummus soon. I love that my being here has made those back home aware of what's happening in the region. In short, I love that I was embraced in Israel and Palestine as a student, volunteer, and colleague without anyone questioning my intentions, and I can't wait to come back.

28 July 2006

you may think i'm an open book but you don't know what page to turn to, do you?

Since I was featured on the UF website last month, it's been brought to my attention that I have become the subject of a campaign by the Arab student associations to have the "racist" spotlight removed. By featuring an American student studying Arabic who wants to work for the American government, it seems UF is implicitly supporting western insensitivity towards the Arab world, Islamaphobia, and perpetuating the stereotype of the Arabic speaking terrorist. Think what you want about me, but please don't pass judgment on my passions based on a 250-word profile I didn't write. Read this, ask me to clarify, call me when I'm back in the states and I'll be more than happy to sit down and answer any question you might have, and then I can fully respect your right to label me however you feel is justified. But frankly, I'm hurt that people have been so quick to write off an outsider's interest in their language and culture, and more stubbornly committed than ever before to understanding this region.

Soundbite response: I study Arabic because I don't agree with what my government is doing in the Middle East and I want to change it.

Long answer: I was crushed to hear that I've been labelled a racist because I don't look like the culture I study. I resent the implication that my intentions are some how dishonorable simply because I'm an outsider. I'll readily admit I don't know everything about the Arab world and very little about the Islamic faith (an ignorance not limited to Islam, but closer linked to my distaste for organized religion in general), but I only began studying the language two years ago. I'm twenty-one years old - I'm not finished learning yet. I wasn't born with an intimate understanding of the Arab world, but I'm fascinated by it and want to understand everything I can. I have an admittedly "western" view of the Middle East, but I can't help that I was born in the United States, and I'm doing everything I can to learn about this region, including visiting it whenever possible. I love the language and culture of a people who, until now, have always welcomed me into their homes as their own and encouraged my study of their language.

I opposed American intervention in Iraq in 2003, but I think that's become a moot point. The United States is enmeshed in post-war Iraq, like it or not, and the debate must shift to how to help the Iraqi people rebuild their nation on their own terms. I don't want an American-friendly puppet government in Iraq, I want sustainable democracy regardless of who wins. As I've said about the election of Hamas in Palestine, democracy means the people elect their own government, not necessarily the one America would like best. I want to be part of reconstruction Iraq to be the American who asks, "what do you want your country's future to look like, and how can I help make that a reality?" rather than says, "here's my solution, make it work." I want to be the advisor in policy debates who says, "Islam is not a violent faith. Arab doesn't equal terrorist. No, all Arabs don't hate the United States, and we'd do far better to look at the Arab world as an ally and not as a threat." What happens in reconstruction Iraq will determine the future of American policy in the Middle East. I want to play a role in ensuring that such policies make a positive impact on the people of the region, rather than foster growing tensions and resentment.

I'm appalled by the assumption that because I want to work for my government, I must agree with its every policy. I by no means hate the United States, but instead love my country so much I believe it can be better. The fact that I can here, in a public forum, openly criticize my government is, for me, the most beautiful thing about American democracy. The United States is arguably the most powerful nation in history, and I want to see it be a force for good. Power shouldn't flow from the barrel of a gun, and I would much rather see my country respected than feared, resented, or hated. The United States government has actively carried out or supported/condoned unpardonable actions in the Middle East, but how will that ever change unless those who disagree with those policies become part of the decision-making system? All of the activism and demonstrations against American foreign policy will come to naught without a sympathetic ear within the government willing to work for change. My country's foreign policy has to be based on cultural understanding in the Arab world, and at the root of that understanding lies the ability to communicate in someone's native language.

I was embraced as an ally by peace activists (Israeli and Palestinian alike) in Haifa and Ramallah, and while I bore more than my share of criticism for American policy in the region, everyone was always quick to distinguish me from my government. The women I met during my two weeks with Isha L'Isha welcomed the opportunity to hear an American outsider's perspective on the conflict, and encouraged me to continue my studies and work within my government some day to facilitate their efforts at home. Much of their time is spent lobbying Knesset and PLC members, and they recognize the value of a kindred spirit on the inside. I'm hurt that my fellow Americans of Arabic origin are unwilling or unable to accept that someone outside their culture could want to drastically overhaul American policy in the Middle East. I don't think so much of myself that I believe I'll change the world overnight, but I'm content in knowing that I'll have at least gone down trying to change a status quo I don't believe has to last forever just because it's lasted this long. Americans are criticized for stereotyping the Arab countries and Muslims as terrorists, but isn't the same thing happening in reverse when my interest in the region is characterized as racist just because I'm not Arab?

My "Arabic is the new Russian" quote garnered much of the initial backlash, but I stand by it. The United States has found itself, for better or worse, intimately involved in the Middle East but with a drastic shortage of language and regional specialists. Much like the early years of the Cold War, the American government, particularly the intelligence community, finds itself trying to conduct foreign relations with a region it doesn't understand in languages it can't speak. American diplomacy in the Middle East cannot be successful in such a one-sided fashion. The intelligence community cannot address terrorism coming from Islamic extremists without also understanding "real" Islam and the Arabic language. I study Arabic to be that person who has an academic background in a region grossly misunderstood in the United States. I'm not suggesting for a moment that Arabic is the "language of terrorism (just as Russian was never the language of impending nuclear disaster)," but instead belive it is a fascinating language with a rich and beautiful history. I'm enthralled by the language and the culture, and I fall more in love with it with each country I visit. I began studying Arabic because I was interested in the region and it was the only Middle Eastern language offered at UF beyond an introductory level (a problem in and of itself, but I'll save that for another day), not because of any assumption about its links to terrorism. There are those within the government who do hold that view, I'll concede, but how will they ever learn otherwise without exposure to the beauty of Arab culture?

Being in Haifa during the current fighting between Israel and Lebanon has only left me more committed to seeing an end to violence in the region. No one deserves to die because of their religious or ethnic (or anything else, for that matter) background, period. I don't want to see us divide ourselves on religious or political lines to the point where we cannot see past an adjective to begin to understand one another. If I'm wrong, then educate me - please don't take the easy way out and just label me a racist. I'm not claiming to have all of the answers, just a lot of ideas. If you'll join me, then I welcome anyone's input on how to build a sustainable peace in one of the most fascinating and culturally rich regions of the world.


27 July 2006

freedom yells, it don't cry.

20 - 21 July 2006

Crossing the border back into Israel after the Jordan trip gave me a taste of real border security, and the humiliation that comes from the power dynamic contained therein. As we waited in line to go through the metal detectors (shortly after passing through those on the Jordanian side, which apparently weren't good enough), a distinctly Arab-looking family (husband, wife, and three kids, the oldest maybe 12) was pulled out of line and into a separate room for additional searching and questioning. It took our group over an hour to get all the way through security and passport control, and the family was still in the questioning room. They had Israeli passports, too - they weren't Jordanians or Palestinians trying to enter on a visa, they were Israeli citizens returning home. I can't even imagine what it must feel like to know your own government doesn't trust you because of your ethnic background.

After I went through the metal detector (without beeping) and showed the security guard my passport, he saw that I had the exit paper instead of my passport stamped, so he sent me to a bench outside the questioning rooms, keeping my passport. I waited maybe ten minutes until two female security guards came over with my passport and took me into a private room for "additional security screening." They told me to take off everything removable and proceeded to conduct a metal detector wand scan while questioning me about my time in Israel and Jordan and lack of stamp. I had just passed through the metal detector successfully, and in a linen skirt and thin t-shirt, I didn't even have a pocket to hide something in. The only thing metal on my person was the hook-and-eye closure on the back of my bra. Because I didn't have a stamp, it meant that I had visited or planned to visit the Arab world, and thus warranted extra scrutiny. It was humiliating to sit there as though I had done something wrong, my passport carelessly in some security guard's pocket as he talked about me with his colleagues. Anyone who's traveled understands the helplessness and virtual nudity you feel when your passport leaves your control, and I can only imagine what it must feel like to endure that repeatedly at checkpoints all over the West Bank.

At passport control, I was further interrogated about my missing stamp, and I explained that I was planning to study in the Middle East the following year and didn't want to have to buy a new passport. I wanted to add "and if everyone could just get along, we wouldn't have this problem." The four times I asked not to have my passport stamped, the guard always complied, but not without first making me feel like a criminal for wanting to visit Syria or Lebanon. I'm equally annoyed at Syria and Lebanon for not recognizing the stamp - it seems like such a petty battle to fight in the grand scheme of things. I could have easily been visiting the West Bank and had my passport stamped when I flew into Tel Aviv, and I still wouldn't be welcome in a fellow Arab nation.

After artfully packing 18 kilos of books and such into my carry-on suitcase on Thursday, Erin and I went to the post office to ship it home so we wouldn't have to drag it across Europe. Per standard policy in Israel, as we walked up to the door the security guard approached us to search the bag. As he strained to lift it onto the table and took one look at the mess crammed inside, he asked for my identification. When he saw my American driver's license, he gave the bag a cursory wave with the wand and let us pass. While this attitude is horribly racist, I've never been so glad for my pasty white skin. Had Erin and I looked less "American" or had IDs from a less-friendly country, we would have been there for an hour while he tore through our bag the way he did the purse of the Arab woman who entered after us.

At the airport, we encountered a similar conveniently racist sentiment. After luggage is scanned through the x-ray machine, airport security staff searches each bag by hand. Seeing our American passports, they quickly went through Erin's open shoulder bags and my carry-on, but when they saw the outline of a two-foot metal vase inside my tightly packed hiking backpack, the guard just asked me if it was a vase and let us pass. They were opening shampoo bottles, unfolding socks, and digging through every nook and cranny of the suitcases of other passengers, but mine went unopened. Aside from the blatant racism present, this is also a ridiculously large security risk to take. For all the security measures being taken at Ben Gurion, it seems just plain dangerous to slack on searches in a consistently predictable manner.

i never dreamed this life was possible.

Adding to Friedman's analysis of Turkey, I've seen men pushing strollers and carrying groceries. A thriving and open gay culture existing side by side with devout Islam. Murat, our host for Sunday and Monday night, owns the Sugar Club Cafe, a proudly gay cafe on Istaklal Avenue, a famous shopping and nightlife district in Istanbul. He was quite the change from Ersin and Hakan the nights before, who were clearly uncomfortable with the entire notion of homosexuality. Hakan wandered around Istaklal trying to find the cafe because he didn't want to ask someone and have them think he was gay. After he called Murat to take us to his house on Sunday, he hung up the phone surprised that he "didn't sound gay." I think we gave him his first real interaction with a gay man, and it was less traumatic than he expected. Turkey's not perfect, but I think it's coping just fine. It's a mixture of old and new, east and west, in a way reminiscent of Morocco but much more pronounced.

Erin and I spent Sunday on a boat floating through the Bosphorus, then headed back to Istaklal for dinner at one of the ubiquitous rooftop terrace restaurants before meeting Murat at Sugar Club to catch a cab back to his flat on the edge of town. Murat and Hakan both live bachelor lives in their parents' old apartments, but in the most unexpectedly opposite ways possible. Murat's flat was barren, with crumbling unpainted cement walls, a broken lock, and floors that hadn't seen a broom or mop since he first moved into the place. The toilet was broken, so we flushed by filling a bucket from the shower. The shower was a faucet on the wall of the laundry room with no drain, so we washed our hair over the sink to avoid flooding the apartment. Hakan's place, conversely, was adorably decorated with a floral wallpaper border halfway up dividing two lovely shades of pink walls. Tables had lace tablecloths, windows had matching curtains, and the flowers were not only alive, but thriving. The living room still had family pictures of Hakan and his sister as children on the shelves. The shower not only had a drain, but a curtain and a rug as well. Erin and I joked that only the differing numbers of products in the two bathrooms convinced us Murat was really the gay host. The entire experience just adds to the absurdism that was our weekend in Istanbul.

Monday we slept late and wandered down to the Old Bazaar, converted from the Sultan's former massive stable complex. Each stable has been converted to a shop, and similar goods are grouped together. The place feels more like a mall, with doors on each store, upscale jewelry and clothes, and every shop accepting credit cards, so we left it in favor of the crowded chaos of the nearby Spice Bazaar. You can't use your Visa, but fresh spices and teas in every flavor make up for the inconvenience. We made it to the famous Blue Mosque just in time for the call to prayer, so it was closed to visitors until everyone finished. Once we finally made it inside, it was worth the wait. Every inch of the walls are covered with intricate blue tiling (hence the name) and the ceiling is painted in a similar fashion. Soft rugs cover the entire floor (you leave your shoes outside) and only a few pillars break up the massive space inside. Women pray separately in divided areas along the edges of the main floor, and interestingly, they were still there when visitors were allowed to enter. The men had all finished, but I'm not sure if men start before the women or that since visitors can't enter the women's areas anyway, they don't wait for them to finish. Either way, I was intrigued.

We got lost trying to find a Turkish bath before giving up and having dinner on Istaklal once again. We stopped at a cafe afterwards for dessert, and were having a great time people watching from the balcony until Erin noticed a painting on the wall. It had several scenes from Istanbul, but the panel in the corner was of a plane hitting the World Trade Center. Our waiter noticed us staring at it, and laughed and said it was Istanbul. We asked about the 9/11 panel, and he smiled and said that was New York. He wouldn't elaborate on why it was on the wall, and feeling rather nauseated, we quickly left. We weren't sure what to make of it, but both left feeling furious that anyone would make light or even revel in a nation's tragedy. It was a rather disappointing end to a beautiful day in the city. Regardless, I'm still in love with Istanbul and excited about coming back here one day and exploring more of the country.

on fire with the things i could have told you.

17 - 19 July 2006

Our trip to Jordan was beautiful, but I'll let the pictures speak for themselves. We spent the first day at the Roman ruins of Jarash before going to a stunning resort on the Dead Sea (to which I'll be returning next year!). Tuesday, we went to the ruins at Petra (a city carved into rose-colored mountains) and Mount Nebo, where Moses apparently saw the Holy Land. With all of the driving (through the desert, of course), I finally had an opportunity to really reflect on the events of the past week. To be in Israel and Palestine studying the conflict was surreal enough, but to have waited out Hezbollah's longest range rocket attack in history in a bomb shelter was more than I ever imagined. Everything always seemed so far away from us - we watched the situation in Gaza unfold on television as though it were thousands of miles away. Even the Hezbollah kidnapping and threats of rocket attacks felt like headlines and not reality. Less than an hour before Haifa was hit the first time, we were being assured by Israeli citizens, IDF soldiers, and our professors that Hezbollah would/could never hit Haifa. It's mentally overwhelming how quickly things can change here.

Sunday made me appreciate just how much everything depends on a small twist of fate. Erin and I had every intention of waking up early to make it to Haifa in time for her 10 AM meeting that morning, but we stayed up late the night before and slept through our alarm. Had we been morning people, we probably would have been in the train station when the rocket landed and killed eight people, instead of her enroute on a later train and me waiting for a bus in Tel Aviv. Moral of the story: nothing wrong with sleeping in occasionally.

Riding back from Tiberius on the bus after we first heard of the attack, I witnessed how complicated loyalties are in this conflict. From the bus, Erin and I saw fireworks being launched from Israeli Arab villages. The nice explanation is a wedding, but the more likely version is celebration of the rocket attacks. My sympathies lie on the Palestinian side of this conflict, and I oppose most of Israel's policies, but that sight left me absolutely furious. No one should celebrate violence. EVER. What is this going to achieve? The more people emphasize their differences within Israeli society, the harder it will be to overcome the past when a settlement finally comes. Israeli civilians don't deserve to die because of where they live and what their military is doing, and by the same token, neither do the Lebanese or Palestinians. Human life is inherently valuable, no matter what someone's ethnic or religious background.

I've been rethinking my views on the death penalty for a while now, but living here for the past month has convinced me it can't have a place in a democratic society. The average citizen is innocent in this conflict - I don't buy the argument that all Israelis serve in the military, so there are no civilians, that the Lebanese people have allowed Hezbollah to control the south and thus they support them, or that Hamas leaders hide in civilian areas, making Palestinians legitimate targets. All sides need to stop killing each other if anything is ever going to change in this region. I talked to someone who said that Israel had a right to defend itself and destroy Hezbollah first (even if that meant taking hundreds or even thousands of Lebanese civilians with them), then they could talk about peace negotiations. That's absurd. No Israeli would ever want that solution if it were reversed, and it's ridiculous to assume that the other side would just roll over and take the violence and then accept a settlement on the victor's terms. That's not peace, it's just a temporary ceasefire until both sides can regroup, and civilians on both sides continue to live in fear.

Back in Gainesville, I know both Jewish and Arab (led by Palestinians and Lebanese) students organizing demonstrations to show their solidarity with Israel or Palestine/Lebanon. I've received emails from both listserves inviting me to join them, and even if I wasn't across the pond, I'm fed up with both sides to the point where I would never go. American Jewish friends are convinced the entire Arab world is erupting in celebration of dead Israelis after watching one story on the news, and Arab friends believe Israelis won't stop until they've leveled Beirut. Armchair mid-east "experts" regurgitating the latest headline are driving me mad. I'm sitting in the region, and the vast majority of people just want to live their lives without fear of death from a sudden rocket attack or airstrike. No sane civilian wants to live in a state of heightened warfare, no matter their political views or distaste for the people on the other side. In my experience, most people are indifferent towards the "other-" not really interested in getting to know them, but also not wanting to see them slaughtered. It's a "live and let live" attitude over here, which isn't acceptance but is certainly better than hatred. I can't stand the demonization of the "enemy" present in the rhetoric on all sides, but I'm more committed than ever to spending my life working for peace in the region. I recognize that it's easy for me to remove myself from the conflict and be furious with both sides because I don't fully understand the conflict as part of my own life, but I'm hoping that neutrality can be an asset.

I'm tired of this being about where you're from or what language you speak - why isn't Gainesville demonstrating for peace, Jewish students alongside Arab students? I don't want to hear that Hezbollah started it (they did) or that Israel's response is disproportionate (it is) - the point is, civilians are dying on both sides, and people are pointing fingers like kindergarteners. Erin and I were explaining why we came to Istanbul to a vendor in the bazaar, and the man condemned violence but especially criticized Israel for killing civilians. Newsflash - we left Haifa because Hezbollah also kills civilians - yes, far more Lebanese have died, but in the end, does it really matter from which side innocent deaths come? For me, the "civilian" adjective rings far louder than the number or nationality. Two wrongs don't make a right, and until "we" replaces "they," nothing will ever really change.

23 July 2006

at the crossroads.

I think Istanbul is my new Berlin. I'm completely in love with Turkey. We've spent two days zipping back and forth between Europe and Asia with our amazing Turkish Couchsurfing hosts, Hakan and Ersin. I'm never staying in a hostel again! Hakan makes us breakfast in bed and drives us all over the city so we don't have to navigate the public transportation system (which is rather complicated in a city of 50 million!). They're both software engineers - Hakan took eight years to get his degree and spent a year dodging his compulsory military service before serving on the Iraqi border, and Ersin's working on his PhD to continue avoiding the military. We're learning some basic Turkish (a very cruel language for foreigners!) - the word for "no" (pronounced "hayare") sounds suspiciously like "testicles" ("hiyah" - ironically, the same as the Arabic for "lıfe"), which amuses Hakan and Ersin to no end. Thomas Friedman called Turkey the "only functioning Muslim nation," and while the existence of others is up for debate, Istanbul is alive and well. Fully covered and veiled women walkıng arm in arm with friends in jeans and tank tops, the call to prayer harmonizing with European and American pop music emanating from countless cafes. Ersin is hosting another American girl named Diane who's studying "performance installation sculpture" in Philadephia and just hitchhiked her way from Serbia on Thursday night. We spent yesterday afternoon in the Istanbul Modern Art Museum, and I might be startıng to buy into performance art (well, some of it anyway). Today we're cruising through the Bosphorus, the strait between Europe and Asia, and stopping in the neighborhoods and fishing villages along the way. Tomorrow we're wandering the Grand Bazaar and visiting the famous Blue Mosque - I'm excited, I've never seen the inside of a mosque. We'll be ın Istanbul for at least two more days, maybe longer, then off to Greece or Germany depending on the circumstances. If I can find some wireless Internet, I'll post some pictures soon.

20 July 2006

love is not a victory march.

16 July 2006

Erin and I woke up late this morning, and since she was going to try to make it to a meeting at her office to say goodbye, she left before me to catch a train to Haifa. As I was about to leave the apartment, Yehuda told me not to take the train because Erin had just called to say that hers had stopped outside of Haifa and she had to take a cab into the city. As it turns out, a rocket struck the train station that morning, killing eight people. We only knew that the train service had stopped, so I went to the bus station and waited an hour for a bus to Haifa. When it finally arrived, it was packed with people trying to return to Haifa for their belongings and soldiers deployed to the city. When I arrived at the Haifa bus station, I waited another hour and a half for a bus to the city center to meet Erin at the hotel. Unbeknownst to me, another rocket hit the city around the time Erin left her locked office and returned to the hotel to start packing. The bus finally came, and as we drove through the city to the Carmel District atop the mountain, I was struck by how eerily empty the city felt. Shops and restaurants were closed, there was almost no traffic and no pedestrians on the street. I got off at my stop (sadly, even the gelato shop was closed) and walked down the deserted street towards our hotel.

As I approached the mall connected to the hotel, a siren went off. I thought it was an ambulance or something, so I kept walking the last block towards the hotel. In front of me, a car veered off the road and up the sidewalk, and a woman leaped out of the front seat and opened the back door. Two young boys, the oldest not more than eight or nine, were already unbuckled and ready to scurry out the door. The father ran from the driver's side and they all sprinted into the mall. It was closed, but a security guard inside the door unlocked it for them. Still uncertain of what was happening, I followed the family into the mall as we were ushered by security guards into the basement of the hotel. As I ran down the stairs, Erin came out of the hotel lobby and followed me to the basement. She told me it was the bomb siren, and the second once since she arrived. Apparently the sirens can give a one minute warning of an incoming missile. We went down to the bomb shelter to wait out the attack. She called Yehuda to let him know I had arrived - since it took me four hours to make the one hour trip to Haifa and there had already been one attack, Yehuda had been calling Erin constantly to see if I'd made it. If not for that family, I probably would have kept walking down the street until I reached the hotel.

As we sat in the shelter, Erin told me she'd already started packing my things, and Yehuda wanted us to take a taxi back to Tel Aviv as soon as we were finished packing. After maybe twenty minutes in the shelter, we went back upstairs to throw the rest of my stuff into my bag. We had a voucher for some internet time left, so we emailed home to let everyone know we were alright in case the attacks had already appeared on American news. As we sat in the lobby waiting for the reception to call a taxi, the full weight of what'd we'd just done started to hit us. The two girls living in what everyone thought was the safest city in Israel had just waited out a rocket attack in a bomb shelter. I realized that those two boys who ran into the mall ahead of me knew exactly what to do in that situation - their parents didn't have to tell them a thing. They reacted to the sound the way American children respond to ice cream trucks. BF Skinner's theories have been verified, but in the worst way possible. These attacks are part of daily life here - frightening, sure, but not entirely unexpected. The aprtments in Tel Aviv all had bomb proof rooms in them - apparently it's Israeli law. Again, it's amazing how fast things can change here - just last night we were talking about coming back, gong to work, eating our ice cream and shopping at the stores on our street that we hadn't visited yet. Now our city is deserted.

The hotel couldn't find a taxi for us, so the receptionist suggested we just hail one on the street. As we left the building, the only people in the hotel were journalists checking in. The other guests had long since left. Outside, I tried to wave down one of the few passing taxis. A photographer took pictures of us and talked to us about why we were leaving. He asked me to run across the empty road with my bags while waving for a cab, and I chastized him for violating the principle rule of photojournalism - no staging photos. He just laughed. Keeping a sense of humor about the whole thing is the only way to deal with it, so I went along with him. If those pictures turn up anywhere, I'm sorry John Freeman, I tried to preserve the integrity of the field! When we finally found a cab wiling to take us to Tel Aviv (without ripping us off in our desperation, which I found very noble), a French news station camera crew ran up to talk to us about why we were leaving Haifa as we loaded our luggage. So you may or may not see Erin and I under the caption "American students flee Haifa" in a variety of global news outlets.

When we got back to Tel Aviv, the rest of the group had arrived from their various cities. Since we were the first refugees, we managed to keep our private room at our professors' apartment while everyone else crammed into the apartments. The group met at a hotel in the city, where Yehuda broke the news to us about the cancelled program. They moved up the Jordan trip to Monday-Wednesday, and everyone was booked on a flight back to the states on Wednesday night. Heartbroken, we immediately began asking about ways to stay. Since the program will be terminated as of Wednesday, GMU has nothing to do with us after that date, and if we change our plane tickets, they can't do anything or be held responsible for us. Four people kept their tickets (plus the three who already left makes seven of 21 people who left early) and the rest of us immediately got on the phone with Delta to stay. Erin and I, since we couldn't go back to our internships in Haifa, decided we had no interest in going back to America early to hear "I told you so" about going to Israel, booked a flight back from Ireland and planned a backpacking trip through Turkey and Europe as a compromise.

We're going to Jordan early Monday morning - I find it ironic that everyone is breathing a sigh of relief now that I'm leaving Israel for an Arab nation. There's a stigma surrounding every Arab state in the region if you so much as mention traveling to one of them, and now Jordan is a two-day respite from the threat of rocket attacks. While the attacks and time in the shelter were frightening, to say the least, I'm furious with the American media for making this country look like a war zone. CNN and Fox coverage (the only American stations we get here) replay the same attacks over and over, blending the damage in Israel with the airstrikes and evacuations in Lebanon, until it looks like the entire region is in flames. That's absolutely absurd - I'm sitting in Tel Aviv about to go shopping and eat in a restaurant. Those in the group who are living here are still working at their internships (on their own accord, no pressure from GMU). I knew the media was sensationalist, but I never realized how completely over the top it was until I was living in the country dominating every story. I appreciated everyone's concern, but it's frustrating when everyone is getting their information from American media coverage of the conflict with no understanding of the broader situation in the country. If I've gained nothing else from today's experience, I'm fully committed to working in the Middle East and I'm going to be permanently weary of anything I see on an American media outlet.

19 July 2006

noise in the background from a televised war.

14 - 15 July 2006

We spent our first afternoon as "refugees" from Haifa laying on a beach in Tel Aviv with the students we stayed with last night. Aside from the cold showers at the apartment, Erin and I are living the good life here. The news says Haifa residents have been ordered to stay in bomb shelters today, but walking through Tel Aviv today, you'd never know anything was out of the ordinary. Since it's the weekend, the beach was packed with Israelis enjoying the sunshine. The rocket hit the Stella Maris area of Haifa, a relatively uninhabited mountain in the city. There's a monastery at the top and a cable car to take people up there, which Erin and I have been meaning to do one night, but it closes early so we hadn't make it out there yet. After our stressful afternoon on the beach, we met with Yehuda and Nancy to talk about the future of the program. They're doing everything they can to keep us here, and we're behind them 100%. One student flew home last night and another leaves tomorrow. We're completely free to leave if we feel unsafe, but after spending the day in Tel Aviv, it's almost impossible to feel unsafe, let alone even remember there's a war about to break out in the north. Yehuda said we could go back to Haifa Friday night, but called us less than an hour later to say we should wait another day or so. Yet another instance of how quickly things change here. After the meeting, we wandered down a main shopping street in Tel Aviv and saw an adorable French film at a movie theater. We moved into the spare room at our professors' apartment and spent what we thought was our last night there before we would return to our normal lives in Haifa on Sunday.

On Saturday, we took a shurut (short bus!) to Jerusalem to do some shopping since Yehuda implied that it may very well be our last chance to do so. GMU is pushing Yehuda hard to cancel the program and send us home. They're trying to move the Jordan trip up so we can at least fit that in before we have to leave. We're fighting to find a way to stay until our original departure date even if the program is cancelled. When Yehuda called us in Jerusalem to ask about my flight to Orlando and the special arrangements for my ticket, our hearts broke. Apparently, our dismay was evidident, because an antique shop owner invited us in for tea to cheer us up and others offered us "sadness discounts." In the antique shop, we cheered ourselves up by playing with the jewelry selection. When I said I wanted a smaller pearl necklace, the owner called the jeweler out of the back room, and he brought out a selection of pearls and asked me how long I wanted my necklace. As he was making it, I toyed with a multi-strand garnet necklace and asked if it was possible to have a single strand. He grabbed some scissors, cut off a strand, and sent the jeweler to fashion a clasp for it. It was an excellent afternoon of self-soothing our depression about having to leave Israel, and now I'll have good stories behind my souvenirs.

As we were leaving the old city to catch a shurut back to Tel Aviv, Erin's phone got a notification of a new email saying the program had been officially cancelled. Since her phone only showed the intro of the message, we couldn't see whether or not we were going to Jordan or when we'd have to leave. Thoroughly depressed, we headed back to Tel Aviv to talk to Yehuda and beg to stay, only to find that he had left to take Nicole to the airport for her flight. The other students across Israel in the north and in Jerusalem and Ramallah have been recalled to Tel Aviv, and we're meeting tomorrow afternoon to talk about our future. Yehuda is having Erin and I go to Haifa tomorrow morning to pick up our stuff and check out. We've resigned ourselves to the fact that our time in Haifa is over, but we're unwilling to leave Israel now. This entire program is about conflict resolution, and to leave when things heat up and negotiations are most needed is counterproductive. We're here to learn about the conflict and how people live and work in a constant state of heightened tensions. What does running away teach us about the effectiveness of conflict resolution?

making history.

13 July 2006

Since my schedule has been completely destroyed by my week as a virtual refugee in Tel Aviv, I'm writing retrospectively about the events of the last week, slowly but surely, and dating things as they would have been had Hezbollah and Israel not conspired to ruin my summer. It's been mind blowing, to say the least. On Thursday, Erin and I both left work early to take a bus out to Tiberius and the Sea of Galilee for the evening. We're going to try to see all four of Israel's seas before we leave. Galilee is beautiful - we arrived and wandered down to the market by the shore, and found a man with a small boat who took us out on the water for an hour or so. Across the lake from Tiberius is the Golan Heights, which make a stunning skyline. We had dinner on the water at a Lebanese restaurant (with ice!) and did some shopping before heading back to the bus station to spend the night in Haifa. In a jewelry store, we spoke to a woman who said Hezbollah would never attack Haifa and that we had nothing to worry about by staying there.

We planned to head out early the next morning to a hot spring south of Tiberius, the Golan winery, and some waterfalls in the northern Golan. After spending an hour and a half waiting for a bus (and fending off advances from a well-meaning but creepy Canadian IDF soldier), we set off for Haifa. Josh, the IDF soldier, assured us Haifa was completely safe from the Hezbollah threats. Interesting side note - in the course of our conversation, we were talking about women in the IDF, and it turns out his commanding offiicer is a woman four years younger than him (making her all of twenty!). Most of the other officers at his training were also women. I made a note to tell Tamla about the IDF's feminism, then realized she hates the military and probably wouldn't care anyway.

Just before we left, we spoke to our professor about our plans for the weekend. Less than half an hour later, right after the bus left, we got a voicemail from Yehuda telling us to call him immediately. We called him back, and he told us not to sleep in Haifa that night and to come straight to Tel Aviv since we had a change of clothes with us. Confused, we agreed, then called the girls in Nazareth to find out if they'd been called to Tel Aviv, too. Vanessa told us that a rocket had just hit Haifa, marking the furthest south Hezbollah had ever reached. While this was shocking in and of itself, more mind blowing was how quickly things change here. Less than an hour before the attack, we were being assured by a number of people that Haifa was immune from rocket attacks. On the ride back, everyone was listening to the radio news in Hebrew, but all we could catch was Haifa and Hezbollah repeatedly. I've never wanted to speak a foreign language so badly in my life! We got to the Haifa bus station and changed for a bus to Tel Aviv, finally making it more than four hours later. In the preparations for this trip, everyone was worried about Ramallah and our time in the West Bank. I just mentioned the phrase in an email, and people told me to stay out of there. Even Jerusalem and Tel Aviv see more violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Haifa was always isolated as a peaceful mountain beach town where everyone was so proud of how well Jews and Arabs got along, and here Erin and I are, being evacuated from what everyone thought was the safest city in Israel. Everything in this country gets more and more complicated the longer I stay here.

17 July 2006


Jordan is absolutely beautiful. I can't wait to move here next year! We have a flight booked to Turkey on Friday morning, so I'll be in Israel Wednesday and Thursday night, and then everyone can stop panicking. Look forward to real entries about something besides my plans and the political situation starting again Wednesday night. Off to Petra tomorrow...

16 July 2006

new plans.

Good news! My flight is officially changed - I'll be flying from Shannon, Ireland to Orlando on August 4. In between, I'll be visiting my two favorite engineering researchers in Germany and Ireland, and perhaps stopping through Turkey or elsewhere in Europe in the meantime. We're going to find some dinner and come back and work out the details - I'll keep you posted here.

good news.

Well, I may have discovered a solution that allows everyone to rest easy and me to still have an exciting summer. The program is officially cancelled, but we have the option of keeping our original departure date and severing all ties with GMU. Needless to say, I'm staying. However, I recognize that Israel is becoming a bit riskier and giving everyone back home reason to panic, so I've found a nice compromise - Europe. If Delta lets me, I'll change my departure city to anywhere in Europe and piddle around there until I fly home. Those of you in Europe, let me know if you want a refugee visitor for a few days. If I can't change my departure city, I'll still go to Europe and come back to Tel Aviv on August 4 to fly back to the states. Everybody wins! I'll update here when I finalize the details.


If you're watching the news, rockets just hit Haifa again today. Erin and I are here at the hotel packing our stuff as quick as we can. The hotel has a bomb shelter and the city has an air raid siren, so we're safe for the meantime. We're taking a cab back to Tel Aviv as soon as we get out of here. I'll be in touch when we get back to Tel Aviv.

15 July 2006


Unfortunately, and against the wishes of all of the participants, GMU has decided to officially cancel our program. Yehuda is trying to rearrange our Jordan trip so we can go on Monday and Tuesday, and as of now, we're all booked on a flight back to the states on Wednesday night, arriving Thursday. Erin and I are going back to Haifa tomorrow to pack our things and say goodbye to our internships, and continuing to stay in Tel Aviv until we either go to Jordan on Monday or fly back on Wednesday. Yehuda will be negotiating with the GMU legal department to see if there is a way for participants to stay here with no connections to the program and release GMU from any liability. If that's the case, we are all committed to staying in Jerusalem and/or Tel Aviv without going any further north. We'll know tomorrow night whether we're going to Jordan or not, and Monday night if we have any chance of staying here until the end. If things work out, I won't be back until August, otherwise I'll see everyone next week.


As of now, I will no longer be living in Haifa. Yehuda is working today and tomorrow to arrange new internships for Erin and I, most likely in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. Depending on how things go today, we'll be going back to Haifa tomorrow afternoon to pack our bags. We're staying in Tel Aviv with Yehuda until we have new internships, and I'll keep everyone posted here. I'll be in Jerusalem for the day, and back here tonight. Thanks for everyone's concern - I'll see you all soon (hopefully not too soon!).

14 July 2006

moving forward.

As of now, GMU has decided to continue the program as scheduled. Students have the option of leaving freely - one left yesterday and another leaves tomorrow night - but the rest of us are committed to staying. Erin and I spent today in Tel Aviv and are staying again tonight. Hopefully we'll be returning to Haifa tomorrow night and joining the rest of the Israeli population in resuming our daily lives. Thank you for everyone's concern, and it probably won't surprise anyone that I have every intention of staying here for the duration of my internship. Looking forward to seeing everyone when I get back in August - salaam and shalom.

13 July 2006


At approximately 8 PM (1 PM EST), a rocked fired by Hezbollah in southern Lebanon hit central Haifa. Erin and I were in Tiberius visiting the Sea of Galilee for the afternoon, and were en route back to Haifa when it happened, so we were safe. We're in Tel Aviv with our professor for the night, and we'll be figuring out the future of the trip in the morning. I'll do my best to keep everyone posted via this blog since I don't have my computer with email addresses and regular access to email. Until then, shalom and salaam.

12 July 2006

a change of heart or address.

I think I may have been too quick to judge Jerusalem. It wasn't my favorite after our first week here, but after spending the morning meandering through the old city, getting lost and then found again, I think I'm in love. It reminds me of the Fez medina with its winding streets, hundreds of shops selling variations of the same products, and overly friendly middle-aged Arab men begging you to "come look at my shop." In the less touristy areas of the market, where vendors sell clothing, housewares, fresh fruits and vegetables, and disturbingly fresh meats, I found a half dozen or so spice stalls selling a dizzying array of loose gummy candies. It was just like the candy stores in the states, except it doesn't cost $3 for a quarter pound. For those unaware, the way to my heart is with gummy, sugar-coated candies (those and cheese being the primary reasons I will never be a vegan). Perhaps the American health department would have some objections to loose candy in a less-than-cleanly market setting, but I'm banking on the preservatives to protect me from salmonella. You only live once, right?

After a healthy lunch of gummy sharks and sour sticks, I caught a cab to the ultra-modern Van Leer Jerusalem Institute for Isha L'Isha's conference, the entire purpose of my mid-week trip to Jerusalem. When Ilana arrived, I was put to work hanging signs while she handled everything else in Hebrew. I impressed Hagit last night when I asked her for the Arabic spelling of the street name so I could find Van Leer today - it was a point of pride in an otherwise linguistically useless trip. It's a cycle of highs and lows - sometimes my English is a lifesaver, and sometimes everyone is wishing I spoke something else. If nothing else, I'm more committed to learning Arabic than ever before - I don't want to be the stereotypical monolingual American. As people started arriving for the conference, I got stuck with the unfortunate task of making everyone who approached me to buy a copy of the conference's book first speak English, and then explain to them that the books were on the bus from Haifa, which was stuck in traffic, and would be there shortly. I'm sure many angry things were said about me in Hebrew, but for once, it was convenient to play the "non-Hebrew speaking new stupid American volunteer" role and dodge complaints.

Our first speaker, Dr. Amalia Sa'ar (all names are transliterated from Arabic, so spelling is close at best), brought up an interesting issue about the gendered nature of the conflict and current crisis. After thoroughly tearing apart Israel for its military action in Gaza, she asked why the kidnapping of a single soldier warrants a response, but the thousands of women being trafficked as sex slaves daily are virtually ignored by the Israeli government. Whether or not you support the intervention in Gaza aside, she makes a point. By acting as it has, Israel is in effect valuing a male soldier's life over a woman's. She wasn't proposing military action against traffickers, just better laws to protect the women and prosecute perpetrators of trafficking. Why is it that soldiers (male as well as female) are afforded the full protection of the state, but the rape, domestic violence, and sex trafficking of thousands of women take a backseat? I don't think it has as much to do with women v men as feminists suggest. But a kidnapped soldier has a clear enemy to attack and punish. The issue is black and white - there's "our" side, and there's the terrorists. No gray area - just point fingers at Hamas and everything can be justified. But the women's issues are more delicate - domestic violence by returning IDF soldiers, small arms rampant in the country, rape and abuse of women by both sides, trafficking aided by individuals within Israel - with no clear "enemy," a state can't take decisive, concrete action. Combatting these issues require policy and cultural changes, and it's easier (and more PR friendly) to point fingers and conduct airstrikes against Hamas than address stickier internal issues. It's the same reason flag burning and gay marriage come up in an election year - it's easier to resort to old black and white standbys than address the complex issues of foreign policy and economics.

After withstanding a virtual assualt on her government's policy in Gaza, Israeli Education Minister Yuli Tamir (Labor Party) spoke candidly about the Gaza crisis and the conflict in general. In her words, no one in the Israeli government - not her, not the Knesset, not Olmert - "knows what to do" in Gaza. A woman in the audience standed up and demanded the government admit that instead of continuing the bloodshed with no clear plan. It's a valid point - if there is no immedate solution, why default to violence? While I think Israel's response is disproportionate, to say the least, Yuli made a rather convincing counterargument. Israel is in an impossible position - it can't reward Hamas's terrorist actions with a prisoner swap (BF Skinner is rolling in his grave at the very notion), because we've all seen how well that's worked in the past. But by not acting, Israel opens the door for future kidnappings and acts of terrorism. I think the solution has to lie at the negotiation table. Clearly, violence hasn't worked in the past and isn't working now. It's time to try something new. She said that in this situation, unlike in the past, Israel has "no partners on the other side." At that, several Palestinian women in the audience walked out, and others responded angrily. Yuli says things have changed - she used to be able to speak to Palestinian leaders, but she can't anymore. Interestingly, she says she feels the same way about the ultra-orthodox parties in the Knesset - for her, it doesn't appear to be about Islamic fundamentalism, but about religious extremism in general. She realizes that such attitudes will never lead to a solution, and I respect her candor. While the foreign ministry representative extended his speech and ducked out early when he sensed our challenging questions, Yuli ended her speech early and stayed longer to allow more time to take questions and comments from the audience. I'm still not a fan of the Israeli government, but Yuli earns my upmost respect for standing her ground in the face of hostility.

Our final speaker was a Palestinian doctoral candidate doing research on Arab women in Israel. While she wasn't as provacative as the first two, her issues are quite valid. Arab-Israeli women are marginalized on two fronts, first as Arabs in a Jewish state and second as women in a male-dominated society. It's not a particularly unique problem - minority women in the United States suffer similar problems, but Arab-Israeli women are somewhat different in that their loyalties are always being challenged. Although of Palestinian origin, their Israeli citizenship ostracizes them from Palestinians in the occupied territories, and their Palestinian roots isolate them from Israelis. Even in so-called "joint" peace movements and feminist organization in Israel, Arab women play a marginal role. Organizations like Isha L'Isha and Bat Shalom may include Arab women, but the organizations are named in Hebrew and all business is conducted in Hebrew, not Arabic. The steering committees and executive boards of such organizations are dominated by Jewish women, and Arab women are only included as token representation. That was part of what disappointed me about Isha when I first arrived - I was expecting a much more grassroots cooperative, but I'm finding that doesn't really exist anywhere in Israel. As she put it, Israel has to resolve its domestic ethnic conflicts (both between Arabs and Jews as well as mizrahi and ashkenazi Jews) before a solution will ever be possible in the greater conflict. As sad as it is, I agree - as long as the inherent distrust exists between Israelis themselves, they will never be able to work towards a compromise with the other side of the wall. The more I study this conflict, the less idealistic I become. Everything seems so obvious to me, but it's easy when you don't have a personal stake in the outcome. I want peace so badly, but it seems those on both sides would rather have victory.

In other news, I certainly picked an exciting time to come to Israel. Erin and I are spending the weekend not watching CNN and exploring some of the small towns around Haifa and the Sea of Galilee, so don't expect an update until Sunday morning. Until then, amuse yourself with new pictures from Ramallah and Jerusalem. And hello to my reader in Indonesia, whoever you are.

11 July 2006

silver linings.

Although I had to wake up obscenely early (well, by my standards anyway) to go with Hagit and Visaka to Ramallah today, it was worth every second of lost sleep. En route, we picked up Shelly, an Israeli woman tracking and fighting against the path of the security wall who told us more about the issues surrounding the wall. In Jerusalem, we drove along the path of the wall to see exactly how far it deviates from the Green Line to encompass settlements and exclude Palestinian neighborhoods. Near one IDF outpost at an unfinished section of the wall, we met Terry, a Palestinian woman also working against the wall. Her husband's family owned land all over their neighborhood, but now the wall cuts straight through the middle of it (see pictures starting Thursday). Her house is next to the wall (on the Israeli side) while the hotel her husband's family used to own is across the street, on the other side of the wall. The IDF confiscated the hotel to use it as an outpost to prevent crossings of the wall. She was married in that hotel, as were most other couples in the neighborhood, and now we couldn't even walk across the fence to see the municipality sign designating Jerusalem from the West Bank. I've hated the idea of the wall since I first encountered it, but seeing the human side of it makes me all the more passionate about it.

When ID cards were handed out via census for Jerusalem residents, residents of Terry's neighborhood received blue Jerusalem or orange West Bank IDs depending on where they were that night. Terry was at home, but her husband was working at the hotel that night, and thus received a West Bank ID. He, and many others, are now considered illegal residents in their own homes. There is a lengthy appeals process to attempt to receive a Jerusalem ID for cases like his, but it can take years and appeals are seldom approved. One of Terry's neighbors' daughters lives on the West Bank side while her fiancee is in Jerusalem. Her father joked that they will hold the wedding at the hotel as always, and they'll have the honeymoon through the fence. Out the backyard of Terry's house, we saw the winding path of the wall to include empty land for expanding settlements while snaking around Palestinian neighborhoods. The absurd path of the wall is obvious on a map, but I didn't realize how blatant it was until I saw it zig-zag through areas as narrow as a city block. The wall is being marketed as a security measure to separate Jews and Arabs (nevermind the inherent flaws in such a plan), but the wall runs straight through Palestinian neighborhoods, separating communities and even families. I just can't fathom any logical, moral, or legal reason for the wall, especially its current path. Having come from Berlin only a few weeks before this trip, the impact of divided cities is all too fresh in my mind, and I can't see how anything good could ever come of this.

After the wall tour, we went with Terry into Ramallah for a brief tour before meeting with a group of Palestinian women activists. As we drove through the checkpoint, I saw some of British "painter" Banksy's public art/graffitti on the wall, which I know will make some people jealous. Driving through the city, I couldn't help but notice the absurd numbers of satellite dishes atop homes and apartments. Ever since someone pointed this phenomenon out to me in Morocco last year, I've been unable to ignore it. While I disagree with nearly every Israeli government policy, things like the satellite dishes are part of my frustrations with the Palestinian people in this conflict. As an extension of this, Ramallah is drowning in trash. Ditches alongside roads, gutters, sidewalks - everywhere trash is piled up. And I'm not talking about a few stray bottles or newspapers here and there - it's more like mini-landfills throughout the city. This lack of resepect for their city saddens me to some degree, but angers me so much more. If this land is so contentious, and the Palestinian people yearn so desperately for a state of their own, you think they'd take a little more pride in the land they do have. People speak of the poverty inside the occupied territories, yet money is being spent on satellite television instead of food.

The Palestinian people are the most educated in the Arab world - more college degrees per capita, thousands of people studying in the States and Europe, and yet promising young people feel they have no other options besides martyrdom as a suicide bomber. Even worse, Palestinian society condones and in some cases encourages this attitude. The Palestinian territories are awash in wasted potential, and it angers me beyond belief that they are wiling to sit back and let a generation of young people fall victim to extremism. Suicide bombers are on the whole young, educated, middle-class, and relatively secular, so this isn't about poverty stricken idiots falling prey to brainwashing. That's what is so frightening - this is a choice that's being made over and over again. While the Israeli government needs to reexamine its policies, the Palestinians need to take a long, hard look at their own society before peace will ever be possible. I support and despise both sides - I want a two state solution, but I can't understand why both sides are doing the same things over and over and expecting a different result. Wasn't that Einstein's definition of stupidity?

Disappointed in Palestinian society, I looked forward to meeting the Palestinian feminists for a roundtable discussion with Visaka, Shelly, and Hagit about the Israeli-Palestinian peace movement. Visaka shared her life story again (which I'll probably be able to recite word for word by the end of this trip) while I took pictures of the meeting. Once the discussion started, I sat back and absorbed. It's fascinating to meet the women I want to write my thesis on. In talking about Visaka's strategy of appealing to both sides as mothers, everyone discussed the idea of having Gilad's (the missing IDF soldier) mother appeal to the IDF to stop shedding more blood in the name of peace. I think it's a fascinating theory, but the cynic in me doubts that it would ever work. There's a relatively large contingent of Israelis opposed to occupation, the wall, the Gaza "summer rain" operation, and the settlements, but their voices aren't being heard, so I find it difficult to believe that one grieving mother could turn back the tide of a large scale military incursion in Gaza. But if wishing made it so...

While the women were full of ideas for cooperation, their means of talking about the Israelis (and not just the government) made my stomach churn. They complained that the Israeli peace movement wasn't doing enough, that many of "them" supported Sharon/Olmert's unilateralist policies, and it was impossibe to tell if "they" were really supporting a fair peace. The disgust in their voices can't be captured in print, but it reminded me (to a lesser degree) of the Israeli foreign ministry advisor's disdain for the Palestinian people as a whole ("Islam wants to send us back to the dark ages"). I wanted to stand up and point to Shelly and Hagit, two dedicated peace activists and feminists sitting in their office taking the blame for their entire country. When everyone mentions American policy and arms selling in the region, there's always an apologetic glance in my direction as if to say "we're not talking about you specifically, just your government." But there was none of that in the Palestinian women's criticisms of Israelis. While I'm by no means a fan of the Israeli government, I'm careful to direct my disdain towards those who warrant it, and not the nation in general.

This victimization attitude is prevalent on both sides - no matter who's speaking, there's this sense that they can do no wrong and it's the other side who's to blame for everything that's gone wrong. As an outsider, let me assure you no one is innocent here, including third parties like the United States. As long as we stay in this zero-sum, us v them mindset, nothing will ever change. I've said it before, but it bears repeating - when will both sides wake up and realize the other one isn't going to magically vanish one day? The sooner people realize this, the sooner we'll be able to move past finger pointing and "well, they started it" arguments to real progress. I hope it happens in my lifetime. So many see this as a long, protracted conflict, but people were also saying that about the Cold War up until just before the wall fell. In that I see hope that my children will learn of this wall as history, not breaking news. In sha allah...

10 July 2006

sunrise, sunset.

It's been a slow day at the office. Visaka is touring in Tel Aviv with Hagit and everyone is on the phone in Hebrew working on their own projects. I compiled scholarly research on 1325 all day - fortunately, there's plenty of it to go around. Rita and Tamla had a twenty minute screaming match about something in Hebrew. I was just sitting at my desk in the corner trying to be invisible - it was awkward, to say the least. I have no idea what they were fighting about, but Tamla ended up storming into the other room in a fit of rage. Not something you normally see around an American office - most people take it outside or into a private room. Tamla came back in a while later and gave Rita a hug and a kiss, and they had a quiet conversation in Hebrew. I think they apologized to each other because they went back to working in the same room. A little office politics to liven up the day. Tamla's stressing about last minute conference details, and she sat down at the computer next to me and said she hates the world. I told her to think about puppies and the cats who live outside our office window, and she was amused. Since I can't be of any use with the Hebrew planning, at least I can entertain my coworkers as the silly American. One of the cats slipped in through the window and wandered around the office until Rita fed it some cottage cheese on the windowsill, and the other two came out of nowhere to beg. I'm glad they're being fed - I've been tempted to bring them something since the first day, but I wasn't sure if it was kosher (no pun intended). Just like in the States, progressive issues seem to go together - these feminists also appear to be animal rights supporters. Tamla spent the afternoon panicking about the conference - it seems the woman who was supposed to organize the bus for the Haifa women to take to Jerusalem neglected to plan it correctly, so now she's trying to find a way to get everyone there on Wednesday. Since I don't speak Hebrew, I can't even help, which makes me feel really good about myself while she's flipping out and talking simultaneously on two phones. I really hope everything goes off smoothly on Wednesday, if only for her sake!

Boo Italy. I just may boycott the gelato shop tonight. Probably not though. With 120 flavors and only three weeks left, I don't have time for petty feuds. Ramallah and Jerusalem tomorrow and Wednesday for the conference, so there probably won't be an update until Thursday morning unless I find some free wireless tomorrow night. Pictures from the weekend are posted (for real this time), including our mud adventures.

09 July 2006

let the poets cry themselves to sleep.

Something about deserts sparks intense periods of self-reflection (i.e. quarter-life crises) for me. I think it's the vastness of uninhabited space that makes me think about myself in relation to the world and the impact I want to make on it. That, or the heat fries my brain. Both are equally likely. Today at work I found myself pondering my five year plan and why I've placed so much value on things like winning a Marshall scholarship and going to Oxford instead of things like the Peace Corps. I've always been critical of people more interested in having a legacy than making an impact, but I'm realizing I have more in common with that mindset than I'd like to admit. I disagree with the notion of "philosphers" on principle - yes, they're brilliant thinkers, but if each one had written one less book about the origins of the world's problems and actually gone out and done something to fix it instead, imagine where we'd be today. I can't handle people who complain or say they have better ideas, but then don't do anything to implement them. That's why I want to work for the US government - I believe it can leave a positive impact on the world. I won't change the world, but at least I'll have gone down fighting. But I'm realizing that I want someone to notice my fight and remember my name, and that's obscenely selfish and arrogant. I want to go to Oxford partially for the quality of education, but partially for the prestige that comes with the name and the respect it garners. But prestigious names alone shouldn't garner respect - I shouldn't be worth a damn to anyone until I've made a positive impact somewhere. I know that in my heart, but part of me still wants to be impressive before the fact, and that saddens me. I suppose admitting you have a problem is half the battle, but it's disheartening to realize you have so much in common with what you condemn.

The women I'm working with embody why it's so much more beneficial to all parties to forego recognition and just throw yourself into making change. Rita became passionate about stopping trafficking in women as sex workers when she counseled women in prison in Israel. Although she won a major international award for her work after seveal years, that didn't motivate her to start and she only uses it now as a means of gaining audiences for her cause - as an internationally recognized advocate, she can reach the ears of Knesset members and other policy makers. I want to model myself after people like that - people who are recognized for passions they already have, not people who work for recognition. I want to work in reconstruction Iraq one day, but I've been putting it off because I want to go to a prestigious graduate school and do exciting research in order to be hired at a high enough level to be important. But I have just as much potential to work on a more grassroots, entry level position, and probably a better chance of impacting American-Iraqi relations. If all politics is local, then why am I so fixated on titles and legacies? Last year's quarter-life crisis just changed my professional and academic future, but now I'm tearing down my entire world view. I should stay out of deserts for a while, or else I'm going to end up having to change my life plan again, and this is getting stressful.

On the topic of life plans and causes, Visaka arrived today for the conference. We spent the morning in a coalition meeting with representatives from the other organizations talking about their particular causes in the greater peace and feminist movement. Visaka talked a lot about how she got involved in the Sri Lankan peace movement - she has three sons, two of whom serve in the Sri Lankan military, and one went missing in 1998 (he still hasn't been accounted for). When the government refused to answer her inquiries, she joined forces with the families of other missing soldiers and hasn't looked back since. Her organization, the Association of War Affected Women, is composed primarily of widows and mothers on both sides of the conflict encouraging dialogue to ensure that no more women suffer what they have. I find it impressive that she is able to work for peace and speak directly with LTTE representatives who oversaw either the capture or killing of her son. I'm not sure I'd be able to put aside personal grief for a greater cause like that. But because of her personal stake in acheiving peace, her passion inspires others to follow her and leaders on both sides to trust her.

Tamla took issue with Visaka's tactic of focusing on women's traditional roles as mothers of missing soldiers, because she thinks it undermines the feminist movement for equality. Visaka defended her organization on the grounds that women are fully capable humans, and motherhood is just one of many roles a woman can fill. Furthermore, leaders on both sides of the conflict identify with the notion of a grieving mother - as Visaka said, "every general has a mother." She and AWAW have campaigned for both sides to wear and respect the wearing of identity tags by soldiers to aid in the indentification of war victims. By appealing to both sides as mothers, not as politicians or other biased groups, they can unite across the divide to make the effects of war more real to those fighting it, she argued. I agree. Tamla's attitude is the reason I don't call myself a feminist. I take issue with the idea that women have to constantly define themselves by defying traditional roles and blaming men for the situation. Feminists are isolating and limiting themselves by rejecting traditional roles as somehow oppressive. And by laying the blame on men, they're alienating half of their potential allies. Men find it difficult to support feminist movements because it often means taking blame for a historical repression not perpetuated by them. I suppose I'm more of a "humanist" (in no way related to the psychological school of thought) - I believe in equality at no one's expense. Women are "less equal" than men in many countries, but so are poor, handicapped, and racial/religious minority men and women, and nothing makes women in general particularly special. While I like the idea of groups like Isha transcending the political conflict to work for their mutual benefit, I don't want them to lose sight of the greater struggle for equal rights for all. Working directly in a generally feminist organization, as opposed to an issue-based organization like I'm used to, is really helping me define not only what I believe in, but how I want to see it acheived, which is as important, if not more so. I'm idealistic enough to believe the world can change, but cynical enough to know it will take a long time, and I don't want to see others cast aside during that process.

08 July 2006

to symmetry.

To the second hand and its accuracy
To the actual size of everything
The desert is the sand
You can't hold it in your hand
There's no difference you can make
And if it seems like an accident
A collage of senselessness
You weren't looking hard enough
I wasn't looking hard enough

For those unaware, after last summer's Saharan adventure I fell completely in love with all things related to deserts. Something about growing up in the lightening capital of the world makes me appreciate dry desolation. The Dead Sea and Negev are nothing like the Sahara, but equally beautiful in their own way. We left from Nazareth on Friday morning, picked up the boys in Jerusalem and Ramallah, and drove down through the Judean Desert to the Ein Gedi spa on the Dead Sea. As dictated by tradition, we slathered ourselves from head to toe in the thick black mud (a satisfying experience in and of itself!), and waddled down to the sea while it dried to a crusty shell. Between the mud and the salt water, no sunscreen will ever stay on your skin, but ortunately, the mud acts as a natural sunblock and the low elevation and the minerals evaporating from the water block most UVA and UVB rays. Even my pasty body walked away burn free. Once the mud is dry, you wade into the bathtub-warm sea to scrub it off and float around. It really is impossible to sink - we tried! Once you're in above your waist, if you lean off balance or slip on the underwater mud, your feet float up against your will and you end up on your stomach or back. In chest deep water, you're not really standing so much as bobbing straight up and down. The salty water is foul-tasting, and stings beyond belief in even the tiniest cut, but apparently the health benefits are amazing. My skin definitely felt fresh after the mud bath, but the salty feeling doesn't leave your skin until a freshwater shower or two later. We contemplated racing to Jordan (you can see it across the water), but decided that might not go over well with either government. Maybe next time. All in all, check one off the "list of things to do before I die." I want to go back when I'm in Jordan next year - I've heard the weather is beautiful there in the winter (as opposed to oven-like in the summer).

Exfoliated and mud-free, we next boarded two Land Rovers for a two day off-road Negev Desert tour. I can't walk today after bouncing around the back of the jeep and slamming into the walls and ceiling, but the views were mindblowing and worth every painful second (the pictures can't begin to do it justice, but look anyway). We left the spa and continued driving along the shores of the Dead Sea, passing the countless resorts and mineral mining plants. Sadly, the Dead Sea is rapidly being destroyed - Ilana, a woman at Isha, has seen it change dramatically just in the last ten or fifteen years. Potassium and magnesium mining (for fertilizer) are drying up the sea, and the resorts pumping water into their spas have left strips of dry land criss-crossing the sea. It's gotten to the point where the sea has actually split into two parts, and will be gone in an alarmingly short number of years. So hurry up and see it before it's just a salt flat! We stopped by an enormous cave made almost (98%) entirely of salt, near a salt rock bearing a slight resemblance to a woman that's been dubbed Lot's Wife for the tourists.

After a gas stop, we headed off the beaten path and into the Negev with Barack, our driver. Barack has a thing for American female rockers, so we blasted Macy Gray and Alanis Morrisette all afternoon. Asked about a stuffed Eeyore hanging from his rearview mirror, he professed his love for animals, particularly donkeys. Apparently, those tough desert cowboys have a softer side! The Negev looks nothing like the Sahara I fell in love with last year, but is equally stunning. Where the Sahara is entirely reddish-orange sand dunes with no vegetation (save the oases) and minimal visible animal life aside from the occasional salamander, scorpion, or stray camel, the Negev is teeming with life. Bushes and trees dot the landscape, and a whole host of mammals live there, from ibex to rodents to foxes to leopards. The Israeli government has poured a lot of money into desert agriculture, so you'll also see the occasional splash of vivid green date, banana, or grape farms in the middle of a rocky plain. In place of dunes, the Negev has rocky mountains, cliffs, and valleys, and earthquakes have split cliffs to reveal the layers of earth underneath. There are a few small villages off of the main paved roads, but once you're on the dirt paths, there's no civilization for miles. After seeing what development is doing to the Dead Sea, the Negev reminds me that there are still places left untouched by human hands, and it's not too late for sustainable development.

We ended the day at a Beduoin campsite for dinner and camping under the stars. Reminiscent of the Moroccan oasis last year, we ate on cushions around a low table, and drank tea around the campfire before falling asleep. The site was less authentic than the Saharan one, with electricity, running water, and a parking lot for campers. While showers and flushing toilets are lovely, there's something lost when you're no longer "roughing it" in the desert. Modern conveniences aren't necessarily a panacea - it makes me sad to see the Beduoin culture made more convenient and familiar for Westerners. But the desert at night is still breathtaking, so I can't complain too much. If they start building air-conditioned cabins out there, then I'll have to start a revolution.

We woke up to an enormous breakfast the next day before loading back onto the Land Rovers for another trek through the Negev. We stopped for a swim at a freshwater spring, which seemed out of place in the middle of a rocky desert. We drove through Ben Gurion national park, where we saw a few ibex and played with a 3/4 mile deep steel well that made sounds like explosions when you dropped rocks or sand into it. We were like babies with Scotch tape - Barack had to drag us away. We stopped at a goat farm to taste fresh goat cheese and Israeli wine as our last hurrah in the Negev before heading back to civilization and our van driver at Ein Gedi. Dusty, salty, and tired, we all slept on the drive back to Jerusalem, and then proceeded to circle the city for over an hour as our driver attempted to figure out how to get into Jerusalem to drop off the boys. It's sort of like an Orlando taxi driver staring blankly at you if you asked him to take you to Disney World. Biggest tourist destination in the country, and the man didn't know where it was. Ahh, the irony. We headed back toward Nazareth, and two others and I got off in Afula to catch a cab to our respective homes and pass out in our beds. An exhausting, but beautiful weekend. I'd move to the desert and open a winery if I didn't have moral qualms with pumping water into the desert for agriculture and disrupting the natural order of things. I suppose I'll have to suffice with just visiting occasionally.

Germany won the third place match, so here's to hoping French wine and cheese will outplay Italian wine and cheese for the championship tonight. I'm completely hooked on world football. South Africa hosts in 2010 - anyone care to join me?

06 July 2006

it's a small world after all.

Wine and cheese prevails. As much as I love Italy as a country, their football team beat my beloved Germany, has a player who wears a white scrunchie, and players who cry like babies when they fall down. Go red, white, and blue! The pub we watched the match in, Beer House (conveniently located at the exit to the zoo, for those stressful days with the kids), featured over one hundred beers from around the world...including a Palestinian beer. Brewed in Gaza according to our waitress, but in Ramallah according to the label. Either way, Palestinian beer. Not very tasty, but at least we tried it. In the lobby of the hotel when we came back, a kindly (creepy?) French gentlemen attempted to invite us for drinks, presumably in celebration of his team's victory, and when we pantomimed that we were going to sleep, he asked if he could join us. Tempting, but since we had to be at work today, we decided to go with our gut and run away. Quickly.

Today's Jerusalem Post said that Israel is stepping up its campaign in Gaza in response to a second qassam rocket into Ashkelon. Eight residents were treated for shock. In the words of Erin, "what about the Gazans?" I'm not sure how many rockets have landed in Gaza thus far, but it's been at least five - a university, a power plant, and three bridges. I'm sure there are quite a few residents there also suffering from shock, among other things. On the topic of rockets, North Korea tested at least seven missiles yesterday. They all landed in the Sea of Japan, except for the single long-range missile, which failed shortly after launch. Always look on the sunny side of life, I suppose.

It was a slow day at the office since the weekend starts tomorrow. I tracked down a copy of a film about trafficking for Rita so she can subtitle it, and composed a few english emails for various people. Last semester, I always came up short because my Arabic and Spanish skills weren't quite good enough, so it feels nice to be useful, at least linguistically speaking. Visaka revised her speech, and we're all much more excited about the conference now. I get to pick Visaka up from her hotel on Sunday and bring her to the coalition meeting at Isha, which is rather exciting. The main reason is that her hotel is next to mine, but I like to think that it's also because I'm working well here. It's a ten minute bus ride, so if they didn't trust me, somone could have easily picked her up. It'll be amazing to have the opportunity to talk to her about her work in Sri Lanka, and what she thinks about the future of peace both there and in Israel/Palestine. In more amusing news, Tamla graced us with an entertaining tirade about the influx of "enhancement" drug emails she receives.

After lunch, Tamla introduced me ("this is Jessica. She is here 40 hours a week for one month!") to yet another volunteer, Hannah Safran, so I could find out more about Isha's history. Katalina, a German volunteer, is sick and won't be able to accompany Visaka on the trip to Ramallah and Jerusalem, leaving me as the sole representative of Isha. Hannah asked about how I ended up working at Isha, and in my explanation of GMU's program, I mentioned the University of Florida. "In Gainesville?" she asked. Turns out, Patricia Woods, a UF professor, did research at Isha several years ago and specializes in the modern Middle East and gender studies. Unfortunately, she teaches in Political Science, which explains why I didn't find her in my search for a thesis advisor. Even if she's not my official advisor, it's exciting to have someone else at Florida who knows what I'm doing here. The Gator Nation really is everywhere.

Hannah will also be a great resource - she's done a lot of feminist activism as well as academic research on women in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She also recruited me to help catalog the Coalition's library, which, while a tedious job, is practically forced (and much needed) thesis research. In a fascinating (seriously, go read it!) interview with an American feminist publication, Hannah talks about being a gay rights activist with other political agendas. She makes a point about the gay movement - there's a hesitation to take on other issues and risk losing sight of the equal rights struggle. But it's the same idea as feminists for peace, working against the occupation. There's strength in numbers, and if groups can unite over one larger issue, they open the door for their smaller agendas. Saying she hasn't agreed with an Israeli policy since 1967, she talks about the issue of the Israeli settlements in a two state, Green line solution: "They can stay there. They can be Palestinian citizens. Twenty percent of Israeli citizens are Palestinian, so I don't mind if 20 percent of Palestine is composed of Israelis or Jews. If they choose to be Palestinian citizens, I'm sure they will be treated as well as Israeli Arabs are here - second-class citizens. [laughter]" I agree whole heartedly - if they want to live on that particular land so badly, they shouldn't care what country it's in.

I'm not always in line with the tactics of the feminist movement, but I respect Israeli peace-feminists for the way they've framed their struggle in the greater cause for peace. Isha may be staffed by Israeli women, but they're fighting for all women. While there's a cultural imperialism argument to be made there - is "feminism" a western notion? - I think they're on the right track by setting aside religion and ethnicity. I feel like so much more can be done by large groups working on the same issue, rather than having dozens of small groups representing Arab-Israeli, Jewish, Christian, secular Israeli, Palestinian, etc. women. I just wish there were more (any?) men in the movement - I think it lends credibility to your cause to have supporters who aren't part of the "oppressed" group. Anyone can stand up and demand their rights, but it's much more powerful to have someone stand beside you. That's what traditionally has hindered the feminist movement, I think - women are fighting for rights, but don't have (or are unwilling to accept, in many cases) allies. It's easier to blame men and say they don't understand than to work alongside them. This is where I lose touch with the movement and hesitate to label myself a "feminist" - I support women's empowerment, but not at anyone else's expense. No quotas, no forcing women into men's fields, no blaming anyone for where we are today - I'd rather change the mindset that "men's" fields exist, and create a culture where the most qualified individuals succeed.

I'm off to Nazareth for the night, then the Dead Sea (hooray for mudbaths!) and the Negev for the weekend, so I'll be incommunicado until I can post pictures on Sunday. Until then, pictures from Haifa and Jerusalem have been captioned, so in case you were profoundly curious about the sights, now you know.

05 July 2006

up in arms.

While I can adjust to scorching temperatures and no ice, the widespread prevalence of weapons in Israel is still (and will probably always be) disconcerting. I can handle the sight of armed, uniformed soldiers on busses and in restaurants, but those in civilian clothes still startle me, no matter how many I see. Last night at the pub, two soldiers walked in and laid large automatic weapons under their chairs like they were their purses. Just slid them under the table, ordered a beer, and lit up a cigarette to watch the end of the match. One soldier was in jeans and flip flops, the other in basketball shorts and a tank top, both carrying three-foot long automatic rifles. No one in the pub flinched, except for Erin and I. I can't decide if I feel safer knowing there's a trained marksmen three feet from my chair, or frightened knowing there's a loaded weapon lying on the floor of a crowded pub during a World Cup semifinals match. I think it's the latter, in any situation. I suppose the soldiers are fully aware of their weapons, but to me, it looks so careless, just slung over the back of a chair or lying on the floor...

As Tamla yells at MS Outlook in Hebrew (I don't speak the language, but it appears Outlook is winning), I'm researching 1325 as it applies to Israel. Isha's published two studies of Israeli women (Jewish and Arab, as well as some settlers and Palestinian feminists in the occupied territories) that have very harsh things to say about Israel's implementation (or lack thereof) of 1325. Women are horribily underrepresented in the Knesset, in peace negotiations, in the cabinet, security discourse, and elsewhere in government. Soldiers and security forces don't receive adequate training in protecting women and children from violence, including sexual assualt. Women's unique needs are not addressed in conflict situations, except in the rare case of female settlers, which has more to do with their status as settlers than as women. Grassroots women's peace organizations abound in Israel, but receive no government funding or positive media coverage, and Israel has refused to negotiate with the PA for a peaceful compromise, instead undertaking unilateral actions. Even Israeli Arab citizens, who in theory have the same rights as Israeli Jews, have been victims of violence at the hands of police and IDF forces. Israel is also one of the most heavily armed countries in the world, both in terms of military equipment and civilian-owned small arms.

While the government hasn't gone out of its way to help Israeli women, Isha's research suggests that in the case of Palestinian women, Israel has been outright repressive. Palestinian women are denied access to medical care, including prenatal, by checkpoints and degrading body searches. Women in prisons suffer more profound rights violations. Military operations in the OT disrupt the already sporadic access to basic needs for women and children. The only support received by Palestinian women comes from international aid organizations, despite conventions mandating fair treatment for occupied populations. While I was not surprised by accounts of violations of Palestinian women's rights, Isha's damning conclusions about Israel's treatment of its own women shocked me. Here is a Jewish Israeli organization accusing its government of violating nearly every human rights and international humanitarian law treaty and convention it has ever signed (if you'd like to read either of the studies, email me - jducey@gmail.com). I don't necessarily expect Israel to devote the same resources to the protections of Palestinian women as it would for Israeli women, but some regard for human rights law isn't an absurd expectation of a democratic government, is it?

endless summer rain.

First, a pox on Italy for breaking my heart last night. Lehmann, if you're reading this, I owe you a hug, and you're still my hero. Viva France tonight! No, it's not raining in the desert - "Summer Rain" is the name given the Gaza operation by the Israeli Defense Forces. Seems they've been taking too many lessons from the CIA in euphemisms. The deadline passed and nothing happened, just more violence on both sides. A rocket landed in Askelon yesterday (and several in uninhabited parts of the Negev), and in response the IDF stepped up its bombing campaign in northern Gaza. Does anyone (anywhere) really think this is helping? An IDF spokesman said the other day that this operation is not about the Palestinian people. In the same statement, referring to the jet buzzings and airstrikes, he said that "no one will sleep in Gaza" until the IDF soldier is returned. Do the Palestinian people not live in Gaza, or did I miss something? I think the airstrikes are a disproportionate reaction, to be sure, but I understand that the IDF believes it can't sit back and do nothing. But don't try to claim this is solely about Hamas and not civilians. Bridges, universities, and power plants are very much about the civilian population. A former American ambassador on CNN yesterday made an interesting point - no one else is getting involved. Not the United States, not the Arab world, not the EU - no one. It's like tuition increases or Bright Futures reform in Florida - everyone knows we need it, but no one wants to be the one to fall on the sword and say it. I'm starting to lose faith in the NPR columnist's theory last week that this crisis could lead both parties back to the negotiation tables if Hamas produced the IDF soldier. It doesn't look like that will be happening anytime soon, and worse yet, it doesn't appear Hamas ever had any interest in talking. The Palestinians will out-reproduce the Israelis every time, and the Israelis will forever out-arm the Palestinians. When will either side realize they're not going to wake up one day and find themselves alone in the promised land?

04 July 2006

independence day in haifa.

Happy Independence Day! Flipping through our TV channels this morning in search of some English news, we passed a Christian evangelicalist show - in Arabic. A young boy was being "healed" by the holy spirit. Nice to know such things are not just an American oddity. I hope everyone is launching fireworks tonight - we'll be spending the evening watching the Germany/Italy (go Germany!) semifinals match at a British pub. What better way to celebrate our independence than in a pub of the nation from which we won it? We don't have any American flags to wave, but we'll find a way to show some pride. On the topic of freedom and independence, my favorite conservative has some provoking thoughts on flag burning for the occasion. Speaking as an American far from home today, I too, am grateful for the First Amendment in all its glory.

I arrived at Isha at 9:30 this morning to find it completely empty. I knew Hedva wasn't working today, so I figured others would show up later and settled in to continue researching 1325. Tamla and Ilana came in a bit later to deal with a problem that had arisen with a directory of women activists working on 1325 they are publising. It seems an Argentinian woman who used to work with Isha had been left out, and they were trying to squeeze her back in before anyone noticed. Relatively uneventful, except her name is Jessica, and I was convinced I was being talked about in Hebrew until I asked. We shared a good laugh about it, and Tamla assured me, like all good women, that they would at least leave the room to gossip about me. I managed to get myself invited to come along with our Sri Lankan guest on Sunday for the Haifa segment of her Israel tour. I've been invited to the other cities as well, as long as the money works out. This being a poor non-profit, I've offered to pay my own way if necessary, but Tamla says she hopes I won't have to. On my first day, Tamla and I were talking about why I came to Israel and she asked whether I was Jewish (common question of people who study in Israel, I've noticed). I explained that I just study Arabic and am interested in the Middle East. Today, she asked if I was religious or secular, and when I answered secular, she shook my hand in congratulations. I suppose that's why it's so easy for her to look beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to broader issues - for her, this is just one more land dispute like all the others.

I spent the afternoon hours reading up on developments in Sri Lanka in preparation for Visaka's speech at the conference. As in Israel, things aren't going well. After spending last semester researching the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam's (LTTE) use of suicide terrorism, I've been interested in the conflict. Hostilities and violence have stepped up in the last few weeks, and the international community is pressuring Colombo (Sri Lankan capital) to stop its attacks on Tamil civilians. More than 800 people have been killed in the escalating violence since December. The LTTE, is also urging India, who has essentially washed its hands of the Sri Lankan conflict since the 1991 assassination of former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, to play a large role in peace negotiations. In early June, talks broke down when the LTTE refused negotiations mediated by a Nordic group including Finland, Denmark, and Sweden, EU nations that recently declared the LTTE a terrorist organization. The Sri Lankan conflict, although a land dispute divided on nationalistic/religious lines like Israel-Palestine, is particuarly unique in that the international community doesn't sympathize with either side. While the LTTE has been branded a terrorist organization by the United States, Canada, and the EU, among others (a label well-deserved, as the LTTE's Black Tigers are the world's most effective users of suicide terrorism), there is no corresponding sympathy for Colombo. With the threat of return to all-out civil war (which officially ended in 2002 with a Norway-brokered ceasefire agreement) and both sides without friends in the international community, Sri Lanka stands at a potentially history-altering crossroads. Just as the handling of the current Gaza crisis could open the door for negotiations between the Hamas government and Israel, or send the country back into escalated violence, we're witnessing history. Visaka, our keynote speaker, has served as an intermediary between LTTE and Sri Lankan officials at peace talks, and I can't wait to hear her perspective on her country's future.

Happy Independence Day to everyone, wherever you may be.