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.

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