Preface: This summer, I went to the middle east for about 10 days, which I split between Tel Aviv and Gaza City. It was a beautiful, intense, interesting experience. I turned 30 while there. I wrote this in Tel Aviv, but didn’t publish it until now, because I felt that some of the experiences would offend some friends, people I really do adore, but who, in some form or another, participate in cultures and belief systems that I feel are deeply unfair and unkind. However, I think it’s an important story to tell, so here it is.
I am writing this from an apartment in Tel Aviv, cowering under my air conditioner and drenched in sweat after a short walk outdoors. I have one more day in Israel before returning to the United States and my normal-person life, but this trip has been a very emotional and interesting experience.
Before I dive in, I’d like to just acknowledge and accept that Israel/Palestine issues are extremely sensitive and divisive for a lot of people. Many of those who read this will have different opinions, visceral responses to words or phrases, or just plain anger. To everyone – I love you all and don’t judge you for your opinion. All ideas and thoughts are welcome. Let’s get to it.
Context #1: This is Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank.
Gaza is currently secured on all sides – Mediterranean Sea to the west (featuring a complete Israeli blockade), Israeli barbed wire to the north and east with a single gate at Erez, Egyptian barbed wire to the south with a single gate at Rafah, open only a few days per year. In 2007, Islamist militant group Hamas (considered a terrorist organization by both the US government and Israel) won a fair election to become rulers of Gaza, and no fair elections have happened since. In 2014, a brutal and largely one-sided war broke out between Hamas and Israel, resulting in the deaths of around 1500 Gazan civilians and 700 Hamas militants and a total of 73 Israeli soldiers and civilians (not to mention significant destruction of property). Since that war, Hamas rocket attacks have largely subsided and the attack of choice has changed from organized military activity to random and sporadic attacks within Israel, usually knifings or car attacks. Lastly, a power plant dispute between Israel, Gaza, and Fatah (the Palestinian ruling party of the West Bank) has left Gazans with extreme limitations on electricity.
Context #2: I have been to Israel only one other time in the past, on a Taglit birthright trip. For the unaware, if you are Jewish (even the teenciest bit Jewish), the Israeli government (and some wealthy interested parties) will buy you a plane ticket, rent you a tour bus and guide, and show you all the things Israel has to offer (in a thinly veiled attempt to get you to have some Jewish sex, make some Jewish babies, and make Aliyah – the Hebrew term meaning “move to Israel full time”). My favorite people from that trip were two Israelis, one of whom graciously allowed me to stay in her apartment in Tel Aviv (and the other of whom made me very tasty pizzas last night). However, Taglit wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows – I experienced a lot of casual racism from random Israelis during my birthright trip. It was common to hear things like “be careful for your belongings, there are a lot of Arabs who work here”, or “President Obama is a Muslim, I mean just look at him!” I also experienced some positive elements – the Israeli women I met were incredibly empowered, comfortable giving orders in the military and holding their own ground in a social/intellectual environment. Gay people and people of different skin tones seemed wholly welcomed and integrated. And I ate a lot of shawarma. Altogether, it was a mixed bag.
Context #3: through my network, I had been connected to the director of a tech accelerator program funded by an American service organization. They have a few programs, including a code school and mentorship for young Gazan entrepreneurs. Given my background in both tech and Arabic, it seemed like a good time. So I applied, was accepted, and booked my tickets.
While the Taglit schedule was very tightly controlled, this trip would be different. I arrived on Friday night in Tel Aviv, my friend picked me up, we ate homemade challah at her house and caught up. On Saturday, I walked to the beach, ate a shakshouka, and surveyed the Tel Avivian landscape. Nice cars, clean and safe streets, tourists and families surfing in the water. It felt a bit like Miami. That night, my friend and her roommates asked what I was doing in Israel. “Mentoring startups and entrepreneurs,” I said. “Where?” they asked. “South of Tel Aviv,” I said. I looked at my phone, where the director of the Gaza program had just sent me a message to meet him at the train station in Ashkelon, about an hour south. “Ashkelon,” I said. “Ashkelon?? Why would anybody go to Ashkelon?” I shrugged and said, “That’s the easiest way to get to where I’m going.”
The next day was Sunday, and I took a train south from HaShalom station to Ashkelon, where I met up with two Brits who would be mentoring the coding school, and we were scooped up by the director of the Gaza accelerator program to drive south to the Erez border crossing with Gaza. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I imagined a mix of an Al-Qaeda training video and the scene in Wayne’s World where they open the door to the James Bond villains training (and I CANT believe I can’t find this clip on the internet). Or, I don’t know, something like this:
Instead what I got was an understaffed airport security terminal, tall, grey ceilings with florescent lights and security cameras, a couple distracted-looking guards, and a relatively quick, painless entrance through the Israeli side. However, as I waited for my travel companions to pass through, I looked through a large glass panel that separated me from the leaving-Gaza side, populated by Gazans sitting in orange plastic chairs. There were probably thirty of them, eyes glazed and bored, waiting for the chance to get screened before entrance to Israel (presumably to see family or do work). It was impossible to know how long they’d been waiting, but none of them moved in the five or ten minutes that passed as my fellow westerners were greenlit one-by-one to proceed.
The next step was a mile-long walk to the Fatah checkpoint (since Hamas and Israeli have no mutual communication or recognition, Fatah acts as an intermediary here). Again, bored bureaucrats who glanced at my passport, said “first time in Gaza?”, I nodded, and onward I went. Then, a taxi a couple miles down to the Hamas checkpoint, where (you guessed it) another bored bureaucrat (this time with a big ol’ beard) also glanced at my passport, and then whaddya know, I’m in Gaza. We had a driver there to meet us, Abu Rami, who drove me to the accelerator. The drive was dusty and filled with the chaotic swerving I remembered from my time in Morocco (is there really such public resistance to street lines??) We passed dozens of car-repair shops, service animals (pack mules and donkeys). The disparity in wealth between this and Tel Aviv, where I’d been only a few hours before, was sharp and easily recognizable.
When we pulled up to the accelerator (located in an apartment building), I grabbed my bags, walked up the stairs, opened the door and was frankly stunned at what I saw. The accelerator might as well have been in San Francisco – air conditioned, well lit, filled with art and swag and color and character, people grinding away on their laptops, conference rooms in use, the code school in session. I explored the space (not a small space, and they’re looking to move to somewhere bigger already). I threw down my bags and, jetlagged beyond repair, took a desperate nap, then awoke to meet the staff that runs the accelerator and some of the entrepreneurs. Over the next few days, I had regular meetings with Hussein, Abdul Hamid, Noor, Nuwar, Nael, Mohammad, Hamid, Ahmed, and many others.
To say that I was surprised by their level of sophistication would be an understatement. These were not crappy SF startups with no prospects – most were already revenue positive, their founders were deeply invested in learning business development and marketing techniques and could communicate with me on a high level to discuss their projects. Their English was, in most cases, excellent. Their teams were diverse in gender (the accelerator was a bit under 50% women). It was mind-expanding to sit in this modern space and be surrounded by thirty young women in hijabs all coding and designing on their laptops.
That these companies had achieved such success and progress thus far is really exceptional. As a friend from the program said: “it is considered incredibly difficult to build a successful company in America. Imagine doing it with three hours of electricity per day (at home), no PayPal, no widespread banking or credit systems, an Islamist government that imposes strict punishments for small infractions and severe gender segregation, and absolutely no ability to travel to build your network or do business!” (I’m paraphrasing).
And this is where I became emotional. I had several conversations with Hamid – he’s 18 and dropped out of school because he wanted to teach himself machine learning. He doesn’t have a company yet, but he can be found at the accelerator grinding through online AI classes. I think he might be a genius. In conversation, he was discussing ways to get around the structural limitations of being in Gaza, and casually said, “well, of course I can never leave this place, so I have to come up with other plans,” and the way he took for granted the futility and despair of his situation was very angering. This person could (should!) be traveling to the best universities and working for top companies. Instead, he will sit in Gaza and wait.
The biggest reason I wanted to go to Gaza was to personalize the situation – it is one of the least accessible places on Earth, and much is written about it. Once I actually got to know the people there (and granted, this is a subset of people carefully chosen for me; I did not have any interactions with Hamas members, open anti-Semites, etc.), the sense of injustice, at least for that group, was very strong. One of the workers there, Saed, had his home bombed during the 2014 war while his parents, wife, and child were inside. Nobody was killed, but the home was destroyed (he had worried about a bomb falling on the roof, so he moved everyone downstairs, only to have a bomb hit the side of the first floor). Saed studied in England, speaks fluent English, has a hilarious sense of humor, is a skilled freelance developer, and a very average chess player (bring it on Saed).
Saed is on the right. His king is in danger.
For me, the frustration at this injustice found many outlets for blame. One of my favorite people I met was Sara, a brilliant Gazan woman who works for the accelerator as a coordinator. I asked her about dating in Gaza, and she broke down the difficulties and dangers of male-female relationships in such a religiously controlled society. I had an incredible conversation with an out-of-work male hairdresser who lost all his clients when Hamas made it illegal for men to cut women’s hair. He lamented that homosexual relationships carry the price of death. I mentioned Islamic Sharia Law, and he spat on the ground in disgust and rage. He, like literally every single other Gazan I met on the streets (5 for 5), asked if I could help get him out of Gaza. The desperation was palpable, but not just aimed at Israel. Sure, people blame Israel for the travel restrictions, and the bombs, and electricity, but they (at least the ones I met) also blamed Hamas for their militancy, conservative backwardness, lack of free expression, and inability to empower their citizenry. So yes, I was frustrated that Israel limits travel so severely (it’s illegal for Gazans to cross the Erez border with cell phones or laptops, or any toiletries, if they can even get a travel permit which is next to impossible), and the 2014 degree of force was certainly overwhelming and possibly unjustified, but I was also frustrated that people had no agency to participate in their political process, to make their own choices or speak their mind without fear of swift and violent repercussions.
It is impossible to remain completely dispassionate, but people on both sides have an extremely difficult time seeing their own hypocrisy. Over dinner, I asked someone in the program, an American woman who is incredibly intelligent and kind and someone whom I’m glad to call a friend, what she would do if she had ultimate power to rectify the situation. Not fully understanding the question, she offered a couple of reforms that Gazans could enact. “No,” I said, “You can tell Israel what to do also in this scenario, and they have to listen.” She took a sip of her drink, then waved her hand in a gesture that meant, “get out of here.” I asked her to elucidate, and said, “they should go back to wherever they came from.” My first thought, which I swallowed, was, “Back to the camps?” My second thought was, if the displacement of the Palestinian people is the injustice you hope to correct, how would the displacement of the Israeli people provide justice? 1948 was almost 70 years ago. There can be no justice without cohabitation, and there can be no cohabitation without justice.
My days in Gaza were completely filled; I woke up at 6am jetlagging, worked on Digital Reach from my hotel with its spotty internet, ate breakfast overlooking the Gazan beach and watched as kids swam and played in water contaminated with sewage and refuse (there’s nowhere else to swim), Abu Rami drove me to the program where I had 1-on-1 meetings with startups from 9am until 4pm (though always time for two more breakfasts and a lunch), and then I would give a 2-hour presentation from 4-6pm. I’d find a nap around if I could, go out to dinner, and get back to my hotel ready to sleep the moment I arrived. Before I knew it, my time in Gaza was over and I was headed back north to Erez and the crossing into Israel. At the Hamas checkpoint, on arrival, there is a big mural showing a Palestinian being interrogated by an Israeli, with the Israeli saying “Come on, just work with us a little” and the Palestinian refusing. “Stop Snitching” was how my friend described it. Again, I breezed through security (didn’t hurt that it was my birthday) and I was back across. At no point had I felt unsafe or bothered – in fact, I felt (as I always have in Arab countries) that people were exceptionally kind and generous. It had been a powerful, engaging, and moving time. I expect to return as soon as I am able.
I took the train back up from Ashkelon to Tel Aviv, sweated my way through the city to the flat where I’m staying, and took advantage of some of the perks of affluence – a warm shower for the first time in days, a place to wash my clothes. It was my birthday, so my Israeli friends and I went out for dinner and drinks, and I admitted that I had not in fact remained in Ashkelon but had crossed into Gaza. They were shocked. One of them commented that it felt like I had casually wandered into East Berlin in 1965. They had many questions (in fact, I was surprised at just how little information crosses the border). What money do they use? (Israeli new shekels, they were surprised to learn). Did you see Hamas everywhere? (didn’t see a single Jihadi, though I did see some billboards and graffiti recruiting people to mujahideen service).
But, when I described my emotional response to hearing Hamid’s casual despair, my friends hardened in the same way that the woman who made the “get-out-of-here” gesture had. These wars and rules and walls were necessary to protect “us” against “them”, and most collateral consequences weren’t significant if it meant that Israelis were safe. And, in Israel’s defense, there is something a bit terrifying about going to get hummus in Jaffa and wondering if someone was going to randomly walk up and stab me, sort of like the scary scenes in Jessica Jones where she walks around wondering which stranger has been Killgraved and will suddenly attack her.
And, the trappings of modern society (gender equality, respect for rule of law and social structure, a semblance of democracy) are really appealing elements of Israeli culture. However, just as my friend in Gaza struggled with the hypocrisy of her own vision of justice, so did my friend in Israel. The unavoidable truth is that Israel is not egalitarian – some people (Jews) are more equal than other people (non-Jews). My father’s family is Jewish, and therefore I could emigrate here overnight. Hell, they’d probably give me money, a job, and introduce me to a bunch of hot single women. If I was a Gazan with Israeli citizen relatives, or family in the West Bank, I’d have a significantly worse chance of ever visiting them in my entire life (let alone becoming an Israeli citizen yourself) than Andrew Seidman would have of becoming an Israeli citizen before next Wednesday. If you’re Arab, Muslim or otherwise, you’re not required to serve in the military (unlike all Jewish citizens), Arab participation in Knesset is lower than their share of the population, and your national anthem is about beating Jewish hearts yearning toward Zion. It’s not exactly a bouquet of equality.
EDIT: As I write this, Israel announces the closure of Al Jazeera Arabic News center and revoking of press passes for “supporting terrorism”
But, while Israel is certainly deserving of its share of criticism, at this juncture, I’d like to take issue with two words that are commonly used to describe Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank.
Genocide: this word is often used to sensationalize what is happening in Gaza. It is insulting to the survivors of genocides in Syria, Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Cambodia, Armenia, and (of course) the Holocaust to throw this term around in reference to Gaza. There is no organized mass killing of Gazans. This is inflammatory language designed to shut down conversation rather than achieve justice, and it is not founded in reality.
Apartheid: Apartheid was a system of racial segregation in South Africa, codified into law. While there exists significant racism in Israel, the law does not explicitly support it. And, while in South Africa black people were citizens, Palestinians are not under the umbrella of the nation of Israel and its laws. So, while a sort of modified de jure apartheid seems to exist (in the immigration rules described above, for example), the situation in Israel seems more likely to be a subtler form of racism mixed with legitimate political and security concerns.
The one phrase that is both shocking and seemingly accurate, however, is Ethnic Cleansing. In the past, I had always heard this to be interchangeable with “genocide”, but upon closer inspection Ethnic Cleansing doesn’t inherently mean killing (though it usually ends up that way).
Expulsion counts too
Instead, Instead, by means of population control, incentives for Jews to move to Israel, settlements encroaching onto traditionally Arab areas, it seems very likely to Israeli leadership is seeking to create as close to an ethnically “pure” Jewish state as possible. The continual development of new settlements would seem to be the primary indicator of this. And, it is a scary idea, as ethnic cleansing and violence are pretty inextricably linked (as in, what do we do if they don’t want to leave?).
This type of violence can manifest itself verbally or emotionally before it becomes physical. For example, last night I was having a pleasant dinner party with my friends, and we started watching Israeli Survivor (yes, this is a thing). My friend’s girlfriend (a really nice person who treated me with kindness) had a coworker who was a contestant on the show, a good looking dark-skinned guy named Amir. She explained that the big twist of this season was that Amir had come out of the closet, not as gay, but as an Arab Muslim. He had changed his name from Mohammad to Amir as a teen. She had mixed feelings about it, because Amir had been quite the ladies man around town and had slept with a number of her friends. “It’s not a nice thing”, she said casually with a sip of her drink, “to sleep with someone and then find out later they are an Arab”. My jaw clenched. I did not want to ruin my friend’s nice dinner party by starting a conflict with his girlfriend. I looked at both of my Israeli friends who seemed to happy to ignore or tolerate this type of hatred without comment; perhaps they agreed with it, or perhaps they didn’t care, or maybe they didn’t feel comfortable asserting themselves. This comment felt similar to those I had digested during Taglit (and also some I’ve heard in the American South), and I was left with the impression that these sorts of racist comments happen with great frequency in Israeli culture (especially given that this is Tel Aviv, which should be the most cosmopolitan and liberal part of the country). This is the sort of culture that can lead itself to the mistreatment and dehumanization of others under the guise of self-protection, which seems to be happening (at least to some degree) to Palestinians.
For normal Gazans, they are caught between two sides and have no agency. Hamas controls their domestic life, Israel controls their international life, neither is too concerned with their problems, and nobody has much of an incentive to help them. The Washington Post covered it accurately here. As of right now, though, Israelis hold the vast majority of the power, and I think there are a few things they should do:
First, normal Israelis need to confront racism within their society. In retrospect, I should’ve said something to my friend’s girlfriend, like “why does it matter whether he’s Arab or not?”, but really, one of the Israelis should have said something. They share a birthplace and a language, this is their society and culture, and they need to be the ones combating racism and bigotry.
Second, Israel needs to stop the process of ethnic cleansing, which means the cessation of settlements and the modification of immigration laws to make it easier for Arab Israelis to exist as equal citizens and for Palestinians to fear less for their homes and livelihoods.
Third, Israel should make small investments easing difficulties for their neighbors. No toiletries? No cell phones? These rules almost certainly can be relaxed without negative consequences. Plus, in a nation where everyone serves in the military, being understaffed at the only crossings into the country for Palestinians is a conscious choice and not a budgetary one. Get some more people down there, get some Arabic speakers down there, and help people move about their business with less hassle and difficulty.
On the Palestinian side, the road is more difficult, because their real enemy is a fair amount more nefarious than Israel seems to be. Radical Islamism controls their government and society. Normal people have an obligation to resist this, but this is the most dangerous of all obligations. Hamas has just started to draw a distinction between Jews and Israelis, migrating slightly from “Jews are the problem and must be removed or killed” to “Israelis are the problem and must be removed or killed”, though from what I am told, most average Arabs don’t quite understand the difference yet. And, even then, it’s hardly cause for celebration.
I am reminded of this famous political cartoon:
No, what Palestinians need (and this is true for many places in the Arab world) is to throw off the yoke of Islamic Fundamentalism, to control their own societies, grow their economies, and seek to build networks and relationships with their neighboring countries. Israel serves as a convenient scapegoat for Islamist groups, and if it followed the prescription above it would (probably) shift a lot of the focus back onto Hamas’ inability to govern.
The biggest problem is that both sides view the conflict as inherently adversarial. I think a valuable exercise is to close your eyes and imagine an actually peaceful Jerusalem. What does it look like? I see something semi-American – people of different faiths and ethnicities co-existing, working together, building things, arguing sometimes, but free to speak and travel and do business. The impediments are cultural – Gazans need to ditch Hamas (which will only happen at great cost) and Israelis need to recover their soul. Israel was built by refugees on the back of hard work, grit, and determination. In this light, they should have a lot of empathy for the Palestinian refugee community.
Anyway, this blog post has gone on long enough. I will post some pictures when I get more of them back to me. Here’s me with the group:
And here’s me with my Israeli friends:
and lastly, Falafel and Hummus
Anyway, thank you all for reading and please leave comments. Would love to know what you all think.