One of the things that continually amazes me is what separate lives Israelis and Palestinians live, particularly in the West Bank, where in places their homes are separated by less than a mile. Yes, some shop at the same Rami Levy supermarkets, there are a few rare friendships between settlers and their neighbors, Israeli settlers hire Palestinians to work on their houses, and many Palestinians pay for Israeli cellphone service because they can’t get email on the Palestinian networks (See "Israel has yet to release 3G frequencies").
But it is not uncommon to meet a 20-something Palestinian adult who has never really met an Israeli – other than soldiers at a checkpoint – or an Israeli, even one who speaks Arabic, who has never really had the opportunity to sit down and have a meaningful conversation with his peers.
Lately that divide has taken on an added dimension: Palestinians and Israelis in the West Bank aren’t even on the same time zone. Israel decided to wait a few weeks later than usual to end Daylight Savings time in order to align with Europe, while Palestinians switched over at the end of September.
While the temporary time difference is a small thing, and will end when Israel switches on Sunday, it drives home just how out of sync Israelis and Palestinians can be. In many ways, when I drive 10 minutes from my house in Jerusalem to Bethlehem, I am not only crossing into a different time zone, but a different world. And that poses a major challenge for Israeli, Palestinian, and international negotiators who are trying to manufacture peace between two peoples who hardly ever see each other any more, let alone talk to each other.
It wasn’t always thus. Between Israel’s conquering of the Palestinian territories in 1967 and the outbreak of the first intifada in 1987, Israelis regularly shopped in Palestinian cities such as Bethlehem while West Bank Palestinians joined Israelis on the many beautiful beaches that stretch along the Mediterranean coast. After the second intifada broke out in 2000, however, Israel built a separation barrier to keep out suicide bombers. Security is much improved, but Israeli-Palestinian relations have seriously deteriorated.
Some have an idea: Why not reopen the borders? It’s an idea I’ve heard voiced by everyone from Israeli professors to successful Palestinian businessmen. During the month-long Muslim holiday of Ramadan this year, Israel allowed 1 million Palestinians into the country, and, for the first time, it allowed men over 40 and women of any age to enter without a permit on Friday.
There were no terrorist attacks. Nothing blew up. Sure, a lot more Palestinians visited family members or the beach than went to pray at the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, but that is a religious issue, not a national security concern. While that short window may have allowed for a bout of interaction with Israelis, Israelis still weren't allowed into Palestinian cities, where the entrances are posted with large red signs warning Israelis that entering is forbidden, dangerous to their lives, and against the Israeli law.
If peacemakers are serious about ending the divide between these two peoples, why don't they pressure the government to let Israel just open the borders and let people meet each other directly and indirectly?
As one person told me, “Nobody needs to go to the White House, nobody needs to sign anything, Barack Obama doesn’t need to get any Nobel prizes.” Israelis and Palestinians just need to talk.
Of course, that alone won’t make peace. But without such grass-roots interactions, it will likely be much more difficult for any eventual peace deal to stick.
On Sunday, four people were attacked by masked Israeli settlers wielding iron bars and stones as they picked olives in the West Bank village of Burin, resulting in light injuries – a common occurrence during the annual olive harvest in the West Bank.
While most of the settler violence is directed at Palestinians, two of those hurt in the latest attack were Israeli volunteers with Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR), an organization comprised of rabbis and rabbinical students which has, for more than a decade, sought to protect Palestinians and their trees during the olive harvest. Olive trees are not only a major source of Palestinians' livelihood, but a mainstay of the West Bank landscape and a symbol of their roots in the land.
According to RHR, the situation has improved somewhat in recent years, but more than 1,600 olive trees have been vandalized by settlers in the past two months alone, including 100 trees destroyed in Qaryut near Nablus this weekend, and 400 olive trees burned down in Jalud a week before.
"Non-Jews have property rights in the Land of Israel, and protecting the ability of farmers to safely access and make a living from their lands is part of honoring the image of God in every human being," says Arik Ascherman, the president and senior rabbi.
RHR derives its mandate from the Biblical declaration that every human being is created "in God's image" – b'tselem in Hebrew – as well as international law.
"RHR follows in the footsteps of the Jewish and Hebrew leaders that have historically called for justice and fairness, whether that be the Prophet Micah and his imperative of righteousness, or Professor René Cassin, one of the crafters of the UN Declaration of Human Rights," says Moriel Rothman, a former intern for RHR who coordinated volunteers during the 2011 olive harvest.
The organization often draws on the weekly Bible portion read by observant Jews around the world in its email newsletters. At the start of the olive harvest, the lesson was especially fitting: "Abraham’s journey teaches us that even if we are the landowners, we must remember the experience of migration and make sure to treat the foreigner within our gates as we would want to be treated in our homes."
RHR believes that bringing Israeli Jewish volunteers to the West Bank provides a very different encounter than that of elites negotiating around tables in foreign capitals. “By breaking down stereotypes of Israelis, particularly religious Israelis, we empower Palestinian peacemakers to be heard by their own people,” Ascherman says.
According to him, there has been an improvement over the years, as many farmers can now access lands they couldn't reach for up to 15 years. But Israeli authorities have failed to prevent numerous settler attacks in recent weeks.
“We were quite surprised that the [Israeli] security forces, knowing that Palestinians were working today [Sunday] and knowing what had happened, didn’t manage to stop the attack with iron bars,” says Ascherman. He says RHR has been "frequently told that the security forces can't allocate any more resources, and that this year the usual harvest reinforcement was not provided."
Earlier this week, Israeli human rights watchdog Yesh Din charged Israeli police in the West Bank with failing to protect olive tree groves. According to the group, only four of 211 complaints of olive tree vandalism since 2005 have ended with an indictment. The "vast majority" of cases were closed because of "police’s inability to locate the perpetrators or for 'lack of evidence'," The Times of Israel reports.
More than 7,500 olive trees were damaged between in 2012, a slight drop from 2011, according to a 2012 UN report. Thousands of olive trees have already been damaged so far this year, although exact numbers are not clear. According to Visualizing Palestine, 800,000 olive trees have been uprooted since 1967, putting a dent in an industry that comprises 14 percent of the agricultural income in the West Bank and Gaza and supports the livelihoods of 80,000 Palestinian families.
Karnit Flug has been announced as the successor of her former boss Stanley Fischer as chief of the Bank of Israel, four months after he stepped down.
Her appointment not only concludes a drawn-out process of replacing the highly respected Mr. Fischer but is also a somewhat rare victory for women in a country that lags behind its Western counterparts in gender equality – and one that almost didn’t come about. Ms. Flug was passed over not once but twice in favor of male candidates, both of whom withdrew due to allegations of questionable conduct.
It is difficult to say with certainty whether gender bias played a substantive role in causing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to initially ignore the woman seen by many as Fischer’s preferred successor. Perhaps it was her relative lack of international standing, or a research paper she wrote during Mr. Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister that was not as flattering of his economic policy as he may have wished.
But what is certain is that Flug is set to become the first-ever female governor of the Bank of Israel in a country that is slowly but surely improving the relatively low number of women in top positions, from politics to academia to the military – a state of affairs that some have blamed not only on the large percentage of religious women who choose to stay home or work only part time in order to raise their often large families, but also to persistent chauvinism in Israeli society.
“Finally, even in Israel, [they] figured out that gender is no longer relevant when it comes to professionalism, and [they] are not afraid to appoint a woman to a senior financial post, even if it is considered a 'masculine' role," said Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, one of the most prominent women in Israeli politics. "I have no doubt [Flug] will efficiently and successfully fill the big shoes Stanley Fischer left behind – not because she is a woman, but because she's a worthy professional."
According to a 2012 gender gap report by the World Economic Forum, Israel ranked 46th in the world for the relative representation of women among legislators, senior officials, and managers; 62nd for the ratio of women in parliament; and 95th for women in ministerial positions.
To be sure, women’s status in Israel is far better than in other Middle Eastern countries, and has improved markedly over the past few decades. Affordable child care, state subsidies, and societal attitudes enable many mothers to work straight through their child-bearing years, with just three-month breaks per child, and fathers are commonly seen pushing strollers along the streets of Jerusalem or picking up their pigtailed daughters from elementary school.
In academia, women now constitute nearly 60 percent of master’s degree students, which may eventually help bring about more equitable ratios among faculty. As of 2010, women represented only 15 percent of full professors at Israeli universities, compared with 23 percent at US colleges and universities. Overall, women accounted for only about a quarter of the total faculty at Israeli universities, compared with an average of 38 percent in the European Union, prompting the government to introduce new measures to improve the situation.
There have also been moves to improve women’s representation in the Israel Defense Forces, where shorter terms of required service and resistance to women combat units have resulted in a dearth of women among the top ranks; though the number of female career officers has increased 40 percent since 2000, they still account for only 3 percent of combat officers. But 90 percent of jobs in the Israeli military are now open to women, and the IDF even has a women-only combat unit.
Such progress is no doubt encouraging to those fighting for greater gender equality on civilian battlefields, despite the hurdles that remain.
Samar Shawareb had an MBA and a successful event-planning company when she began a boot camp for aspiring entrepreneurs at Oasis500 in Amman, Jordan, so she went into the intensive session with low expectations.
“But it was very, very useful – it touched on aspects that were totally new to me,” says Ms. Shawareb, who was in the fifth of 23 waves of entrepreneurs that the Oasis500 accelerator has fostered so far.
Of the 600 who applied for a spot in that wave, about 300 were interviewed and 60 were invited to the boot camp. Shawareb’s start-up, Arabia Weddings, was one of eight selected for a three-month incubation period.
“Basically I was pitching a project idea, because I had no [Web] traffic, I had no revenue,” she recalls.
She has since received significant investment and has five other employees working full time, and three part-timers. But the small-scale wedding planners, photographers, and florists whom she is targeting have been slow to grasp the potential of online marketing, though they are coming around, says Shawareb, who wants her arabiaweddings.com site to become the No. 1 wedding website in the region.
While she is determined and optimistic, she says the company is still "on the runway."
“I am nervous, because I thought that by this stage I would have probably broken even but that’s not happening,” she says, adding that political upheaval in the region has made the economic environment difficult. “Money is becoming tighter with venture capitalists and angel investors.”
A headline caught my eye today that is worth sharing in this blog, given its mandate to find humanity amid the pressures of the Middle East. The Monitor's former Jerusalem bureau chief, Ilene Prusher, has published a very interesting and thought-provoking interview that shows that even amid terrorist attacks there can emerge some glimmers of humanity.
The headline atop Ms. Prusher's Jerusalem Vivendi blog in Haaretz today reads "Understanding Jerusalem by trying to understand the man who tried to kill your wife." What follows is her conversation with American Jewish writer David Harris-Gershon, whose wife was severly injured in a 2002 terrorist attack at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Mr. Harris-Gershon reveals in his recent memoir exploring the motivation for the attack that the perpetrator, middle-class Palestinian father Mohammed Odeh, had expressed remorse for his actions – which in turn pushed Harris-Gershon to examine his own views of Palestinians more deeply. This part of the Q&A is particularly revealing:
You wrote about how the average American Jew has been taught to see Palestinians, adding that before this evolution, “I did not think of Palestinians as human – they taught children to champion martyrdom and spilled blood joyfully, dutifully, in the streets of Israel.” Explain how you moved from that to realizing that there are “shades of brutality on both sides.”
It began here in the US and it began with intensive reading. When I learned in my research that Odeh expressed remorse, I was faced with a person who had been humanized. I felt that the only way I could understand him was to read a lot about Palestinians.
I read a lot of Rashid Khalidi, I read Gershom Gorenberg, and I began gaining an understanding of the Palestinian experience in the territories. I knew nothing about any of this. I was kept in the dark about who Palestinians were, by the Jewish community, perhaps by the media, and by my own lack of inquisitiveness – and that was concretized by the trip to meet the family. All of that formed my new political identity.
To be sure, the experience remains a challenging one for Harris-Gershon, who says he would not support Mr. Odeh's release from prison and – together with his wife – is still reluctant to visit Jerusalem. But in a conflict where perspectives of the other can be so deeply entrenched by fear and hatred, it is worthwhile to read the account of someone who reexamined his own views – even of the man who planted a bomb that nearly killed his wife.
Autostrad, a funk-rock-reggae band from Amman, shatters the norms of traditional Arabic pop with songs about sex, drugs, and unemployment on the Jordanian street. It has also shattered the norm of how many Arabs deal with Israel.
The six-man group enjoys an ardent Palestinian fan base, but its recent tour in Israel – where it played to Palestinian fans in Nazareth, Haifa, and the Golan Heights – has stoked a tense debate about how Arabs can best support the Palestinian cause. Most refuse to acknowledge Israel's sovereignty over historic Palestine and critics have berated the band for accepting, or “normalizing,” relations with Israel, rather than joining the popular Arab movement to boycott it until Palestinians are granted a sovereign state of their own.
Proponents of the cultural boycott of Israel flooded social media after learning that Autostrad obtained an Israeli visa from the Israeli embassy in Amman, under the Twitter hash tag, “come_to_Palestine_after_liberation".
"Your 'cultural communication' is for only the few… welcome to Palestine, dirty, lying Arab hypocrisy," tweeted Jordanian architecht Roaa Zaidan, reiterating the argument that the band caters mostly to a Palestinian elite, while undermining the popular struggle for equality and freedom for the majority.
Many say that Arab musicians should instead apply for Palestinian permits, which don't grant access to cities such as Jerusalem and Haifa in Israel proper.
The movement known as "Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions" (BDS) has succeeded in persuading, and sometimes threatening, a slew of prominent musicians from visiting Israel, in what they claim is an effort to end the occupation and promote the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
Autostrad resisted such requests. Along with thousands of local fans, they branded their shows as a form of “cultural resistance,” strengthening solidarity and bringing a sense of normalcy to a war-weary people.
They issued a Facebook statement following their Nazareth show, echoing a position expressed repeatedly by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, that “visiting the prisoner does not legitimize the jailer.”
“[The Israeli visa] is the only way for us to get to our homeland, Palestine, and no one can stop us from doing our work,” said band member Hamza Arnaout to the Jordanian site Ammannet before the tour.
But Budour Hassan, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who blogged on the issue, insists that fighting occupation, not improving its conditions, is what's needed.
“It’s not like if they don’t come it’s like a funeral,” says Ms. Hassan in a phone interview. “We have our own Palestinian musicians, who can’t move freely.”
For at least some fans at Autostrad's intimate East Jerusalem concert, however, attempts to deter the band from visiting Israel are “incompatible” with modern Palestinians, who are weary of hollow talk of liberation.
“That this beautiful band comes all the way from Jordan strengthens my position here as an Arab in this land,” said tattoo artist Wassim Razouk, who hit three of the band’s six shows last week. “This conflict will be resolved in hundreds of years, but, in the meantime, I’m not ready to waste my life.
Overall it’s fine, I tell them.
But this week I had an interesting experience in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Geula, where 850,000 people – 1 in 8 Israelis – gathered for the funeral procession of the ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, widely seen as one of the greatest Torah scholars of his generation.
As I was interviewing a secular Jewish man off to the side of a street, a flurry of flyers rained down from a balcony above us.
“ARE YOU AWARE?” the flyer asked, one side printed in English and the other in Hebrew. “Separating oneself and maintaining distance between men and women is the basis for tznius [modesty],” it said, referencing a passage from Shulchan Aruch, a 16th century compilation that Rabbi Yosef and others have held up as the basis of all Jewish rabbinical law.
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But few today would endorse the conclusions that followed this statement on the flyer:
- When men are in the street, a woman should go off to the side.
- A woman should not raise her voice whe[n] men are around.
- Women should not be strolling outdoors when men are frequenting the streets”
Such societal demands, together with occasional incidents of “immodestly” dressed women being scolded or stoned, are seen by many as the work of fringe groups who are becoming increasingly vocal as more ultra-Orthodox women expand the sphere of their lives – including jobs at hi-tech firms such as Intel.
It was ironic to me that I was showered with these pamphlets while standing quietly by a dumpster, apart from the crowds, rather than when my husband and I were fighting our way through a mass of humanity in Geula’s main street, which required not only brushing up against ultra-Orthodox men with top hats and swinging side curls but at times being tightly sandwiched between them.
But Jewish life seems full of such contradictions, at least to an outsider like me, and even religious Jews themselves can’t agree on exactly how to implement the value of modesty in the hustle and bustle of modern life. Here’s an excerpt of a debate I found on theyeshivaworld.com about the potential perils of mingling with seminary girls in Geula during the school year, an influx that is resented by more than a few yeshiva guys:
Yummy Cupcake: when i was in sem[inary] (very recently), walking through geula any day me[a]nt bumping into men sometimes. and yes, i am a very frum [devout/observant] … girl, and so are all my friends, and you know what, we didn't make a big deal out of it b/c we knew geula was c[r]owded and we don't own the streets, and there is not really anything you can do about it. just keep walking!
Stuck: What do you mean by “bumping”?
Yummy Cupcake: i mean literally- bumping into them. swiping as you pass by each other. and then continuing on as if nothing happened- because in reality, it's the norm there.
Stuck: That doesn’t sound too kosher.
Sam2: Stuck: Just because it doesn't sound Kosher to you doesn't mean it isn't. Rav Moshe and the Tzitz Eliezer both have famous T'shuvos pointing out that it's Muttar [acceptable] to sit next to women on a bus and be squeezed into a subway train with them….
To solve such problems during the autumn holiday of Sukkot, when the narrow streets of nearby Mea Shearim are jam-packed, rabbis have decreed that men should walk on one side of the street and women on the other. But for the rest of the year, and the rest of Jerusalem, it seems this bumpy coexistence will continue – and so will the debate about how best to express the modesty required of religious Jews.
A Kuwaiti official’s intimation that Gulf countries may soon expand medical screenings of expatriates to “detect” homosexuals has stirred up gay-rights activists and sent a ripple of snickering across the Internet.
But while the idea that homosexually could be medically detected may be funny to Westerners, upholding a ban on such activity is a serious matter in the states that belong to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), where more conservative mores prevail.
“Health centers conduct the routine medical check to assess the health of the expatriates when they come into the GCC countries,” Yousuf Mindkar, Kuwait’s director of public health, told the local daily Al Rai. “However, we will take stricter measures that will help us detect gays who will be then barred from entering Kuwait or any of the GCC member states.”
Gulf countries have banned gay-themed movies and imposed prison terms for homosexual activity, such as a 10-year sentence in Kuwait if the activity involved minors. In Saudi Arabia and Yemen, homosexuality carries the death penalty, according to a 2012 report by the The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association. It is technically legal in Bahrain, but in 2011 police there arrested 127 people, mainly gays from Gulf countries, for putting on a “depraved and decadent” party with cross-dressers drinking and smoking shisha, Gulf News reports.
But on a societal level, there are at least pockets of acceptance, particularly in cosmopolitan cities such as Dubai, which has become a hub for many Western countries in the Middle East. A Dubai-based lawyer interviewed several years ago for a trade publication article on gay lawyers in the Gulf said there was “complete acceptance” of his sexuality at his firm.
“Homosexuality is tolerated provided people don’t go up and down the street with a rainbow banner,” he said.
The issue is likely to be increasingly in the news as the 2022 World Cup draws closer, which Qatar won the right to host in a controversial vote. Russia, which will be hosting the 2014 Olympics in Sochi this winter, is facing growing pressure over a recent law banning the spread of homosexual propaganda among minors – an offense which can result in deportation when foreigners are concerned. Some 40 US congressmen have expressed concern to the US Olympic Committee over the law, which could affect both athletes and spectators.
As Israeli-Palestinian peace talks intensified yesterday, with both sides agreeing to meet twice a week for up to eight hours a day, they received an extra boost of support from Israeli and Palestinian lawmakers.
For the first time, a caucus of Israeli members of Knesset (MKs ) visited the presidential palace in Ramallah Monday, which drew the interest of dozens of reporters from Israeli, Arab, and Western media. Their aim was to give a “tailwind” to peace negotiations and underscore the strong majority on both sides that favor a two-state solution, says Hilik Bar of the Labor party, who is chairman of the Caucus to Promote Resolution of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.
“It was important to me to emphasize both to us in Israel, to [the international community], and to Palestinians that we have a majority in the Knesset and it’s really in the hands of these two leaders to close the deal and bring us peace,” said Mr. Bar in a phone interview after the event, estimating that 70 to 80 of the Knesset’s 120 members would vote in favor of a two-state solution.
The new caucus, which was launched this spring, is the largest in the Israeli parliament, with 40 members. In May, they hosted a delegation of Palestinian lawmakers – the first time Palestinians have ever entered the Knesset, which they had long avoided doing for fear of being seen as endorsing Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, Bar says.
Yesterday, 11 Israeli MKs traveled to Ramallah to reciprocate, and were accompanied by a presidential police escort from the Beit El checkpoint to the Muqata, the Muqata presidential compound that Israeli forces stormed during the Second Intifada.
It was not the first time that Israeli MKs have visited Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the Muqata, however, and some diminished the significance of the event since nearly all of the participants were from the dovish Labor party. (Some members of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party had to cancel due to the death of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the party who was widely considered one of the greatest Torah scholars of his generation.)
But in a neighborhood where cynicism is easy to come by, fueled recently by a number of violent incidents that killed both Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank, as well as a terrorist attack this weekend that injured a 9-year-old girl in the Israeli settlement of Psagot – it is worth noting that Israeli and Palestinian parliamentarians took the initiative to meet despite the fear, criticism, and hatred that challenge such reconciliatory action.
In a lighter side to the Israel-Iran standoff over nuclear weapons, Iranians armed with nothing more than jeans and a camera are protesting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s intimation that they are ruled by a cultic government that restricts not only their voting options but their sartorial choices as well.
One Iranian Twitter user, who had only bothered tweeting 152 times before today, dedicated his next 140 characters to Mr. Netanyahu:
Other tweets ranged from sassy to vindictive, but all seemed to send a clear retort: We don’t need you intervening on behalf of our freedom.
The #jeans protest came in response to a comment by Netanyahu last week in which he attempted to distinguish Iranian aspirations from the theocratic system of government that has prevailed in the Islamic Republic since 1979. The Supreme Leader is officially considered “God’s deputy on earth.”
“If they had a free go, are you kidding, they’d toss out this regime, they’d go in blue jeans,” said Netanyahu during his first-ever interview with BBC Persian. “I mean these people, the Iranian people, the majority of them are actually pro-Western. But they don’t have that. They’re governed not by Rouhani. They’re governed by Ayatollah Khamenei. He heads a cult. That cult is wild in its ambitions and its aggression.”
Netanyahu has just returned from Washington and New York, where he warned the US and the world of the dangers of accepting Iran's softer rhetoric without seeing any real change in its nuclear program. Some say the Israeli prime minister sees himself as taking on a Churchillian role of warning against appeasement, just as the formidable British leader did when faced by the Nazi regime.