Sunday, November 5, 2017

Israel and Palestine: It's Complicated

It was about an hour bus ride from Jerusalem to Hebron

Seriously, it is complicated, and I know if I try to explain it, some people will want to tell me how wrong I am or ill informed or biased, and they’ll probably be right. My reasons for writing about it are as much to explore my understandings and what I’ve learned over the last week, or more specifically during a “joint narrative” tour in the city of Hebron in the West Bank, a part of, depending on your point of view, the “occupied territories” or “liberated Judea” or simply Palestine, all terms used by people during our tour. 

The full day tour was arranged by Abraham Tours, which runs hostels in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Nazareth, and arranges tours in Israel, Jordan, and Egypt. “Our unique Hebron Dual Narrative Tour is renowned for exploring both perspectives and narratives of the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in one of the most volatile and divided cities in the Middle East.” Hebron, a city of historical significance to Jews 2nd only to Jerusalem according to our Jewish tour guide, was the first area in the West Bank to be targeted by settlers after the 6 Day War, and has been a flash point ever since.

The overall tour was led by an Orthodox Jewish American-Israeli from “the free state of Berkeley, CA” as he liked to say, who is now an Israeli citizen with an Israeli wife and three children. He lives in Israel an hour or so from Jerusalem. My brother and sister-in-law, both Israeli citizens who know of him, described him as left wing, by which I think they mean he opposes the settler movement and believes in “land for peace” and the possibility of a two state solution. But I got the impression during the tour that he was “settler friendly.” It may be because he was tasked with presenting the settlers’ viewpoint that he put aside his own viewpoint during his part of the tour. A Muslim Palestinian woman named Lena presented the viewpoint of the Arab population.

But perhaps I’ve already left some of you behind, so a brief explanation of what I think I know about the origins of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I welcome you to search and read on your own to gain a deeper understanding, and caution you that as I say above, I’m no expert. 

The Nation of Israel was established in 1949 after a UN partition plan was rejected by Arab Palestinians and the Arab countries. A Zionist movement, that is an effort to encourage Jews to immigrate and settle, had been going on since the early 1900’s, and increased with a wave of refugees after WWII. The Jews declared an Independent state of Israel, the Arabs declared war, and the new nation managed to fight the surrounding countries of  Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq (and contingents from other Arab nations) to a standstill. The UN helped broker a cease fire. Temporary borders were established through the middle of Jerusalem. Jordan annexed the West Bank of the Jordan river, and Egypt claimed Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula. The Arabs who lived in or fled to those areas during the conflict were considered refugees and not offered citizenship in the other Arab nations. They or their offspring remain in that stateless status today. The Arabs who remained in Israel became citizens of Israel.

Before it was Israel, the British controlled the area, and before them, the Ottomans, and before them, other Muslim groups interrupted by a century or two of Crusader control. Before that the Romans, and before them the Jews, and before them, the Canaanites, and other groups mentioned in the Bible including the Philistines, from which the name Palestine was derived (according to our Israeli guide) and used at times by the Romans, the Ottomans and later the British. 

In 1967, during the “6 Day War” Israel gained territory in Gaza and the Sinai on their border with Egypt, the West Bank on the border with Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria. Egypt later negotiated peace and Israel returned their territory in Sinai, though Gaza remains an area of Palestinian control and Jordan gave up their claim to the West Bank, which is now governed by the Palestinian Authority, though Israel maintains a military presence and controls the borders. 

I find that I can’t adequately summarize the history of the conflict—suffice to say that there has always been violence: attacks, repression, counterattacks, and in addition to the armed conflicts that have broken out between Arab nations that have not recognized Israel and remain in an official state of war, there has been terrorism around the world and in Israel by Palestinians frustrated by the power imbalance and the loss of land they consider rightfully theirs. The Israeli army is tasked with maintaining control in the West Bank and armies aren’t good at being police. During uprisings referred to as “Intifadas,” young Palestinians attacked soldiers and civilians with stones, molotov cocktails, knives, and even suicide bombs on a regular basis, and soldiers responded with beatings, rubber bullets, and live fire at times. People on both sides died, more Palestinians than Israelis.

Many Israelis view the West Bank as an area that should be part of Israel proper because it is part of the biblical lands of Judea and Samaria that Jews once controlled. Hebron is believed to contain the burial plots of the patriarchs of Judaism; Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and their wives (except Rachel, thought to be buried in Bethlehem), and in fact part of our tour was of the mosque/synagogue (called Ibrahim Mosque by Muslims and Cave of the Patriarchs by Jews) now partitioned and guarded by Israeli soldiers after it was a scene of mass shooting by a radical Jew, Baruch Goldstein, in 1994, which killed 29 Muslim worshippers and wounded well over 100.

To our Palestinian guide, Lena, this murderous rampage and its aftermath, which was followed by months of martial law and the eventual partition of the historic mosque/synagogue and the city itself, is a grievous example of Israel’s disrespect and dictatorial treatment of Palestinians.
Between 1929 and the 1967 6 Day War, Jews had been banned from entering the building. The historic building, sacred to both Muslims and Jews, was initially built by the Jewish King Herod, and served over the centuries as synagogue, church, and mosque. In a Solomonesque arrangement agreed to in negotiations at Wye River (an agreement never fully implemented) Palestinians now have access to 80% of the building for a Mosque and Jews 20% for a synagogue on all except 24 days of the year during 12 of which Jews can use the whole building for their High Holidays and Muslims are excluded, while during the other 12 only Muslims have access, during Ramadan. 

Lena pointed out cameras that monitor activity inside the mosque and complained that one can’t pray as one wishes while being watched. 

Mosque of Ibrihim or Cave of the Patriarchs
On the other hand, Eliahu, our Israeli guide, told us about a massacre that occurred in 1929, when members of the Arab community in Hebron killed almost 70 Jewish residents and destroyed homes and synagogues during the British Mandate, after which the British removed all the Jews of Hebron to Jerusalem. There have also been several attacks on Jews in and around the Mosque since they gained access in 1967.

sometimes soldiers checked ID's,
but some checkpoints were unmanned
and "one way."
This was either the tomb of Isaac or Jacob
Here’s how Wikipedia describes the situation now: “Hebron has a Palestinian majority, consisting of an estimated 208,750 citizens (2015)[1] and a small Jewish minority, variously numbered between 500 and 800.[2] The H1 sector of Hebron, home to around 170,000 Palestinians, is governed by the Palestinian Authority.[3] H2, which was inhabited by around 30,000 Palestinians is under Israeli military control with an entire brigade in place to protect some 800 Jewish residents living in the old Jewish quarter.[4][5] As of 2015, Israel has declared that special areas of Hebron's old Quarter constitute a closed military zone. Palestinians shops have been forced to close; despite protests Palestinian women are reportedly frisked by men, and residents, who are subjected every day to repeated body searches, must register to obtain special permits to navigate through the 18 military checkpoints Israel has set up in the city center.”

Our tour was in the H2 section only—including through several Palestinian shops that remain open in an ancient market area. After guiding us through the mosque and viewing the tombs of Abraham and Sarah (the women had to don a light blue hooded cloak that reminded us of the cloaks in A Handmaid’s Tale), Lena took us to see a maker of a traditional flat bread, a cheese maker, to a soup kitchen that serves hundreds and sometimes thousands of meals each day. We saw an ancient tahini mill consisting of two wagon wheel size rocks that used to be turned by hitching a camel to the one on top and having it walk in circles in the cavelike room. We were exhorted by a man who serves on a citizen council to post our pictures to Facebook and tell the world about the indignities that Palestinians face when they have to pass through checkpoints. We also saw a demonstration of creating sand art in bottles with different colors of sand and visited a shop selling crafts made by the “Women of Hebron,” an organization dedicated to improving the status of women there. And we were served a delicious lunch by a Palestinian woman and her children in their modest home. 

Eliahu kept up a constant monologue of historical timelines colored by his sympathies for the Jewish love of their historic homeland, the archaeological record of the area and reference to the Biblical passages they proved, the record of Jewish populations who had resided in Hebron over the centuries and their impact, all peppered with anecdotes of knife attacks on soldiers or innocent Jews that occurred where we were standing at the moment or in a house we were passing. We visited a synagogue rebuilt in the same place an ancient one stood using the same plans as the one destroyed in the 1929 massacre and restored with two hundred year old Torah’s that had been saved by a 12 year old boy and kept safe in Jerusalem until returned a few years ago to the ark.
Historic Torahs in the ark of a rebuilt synagogue
He told us the story as we gathered around that ark and added that a man in his 80’s identified himself as that boy when the synagogue was being opened for the first time. He also brought in the former spokesperson for the Hebron settlers, David Wilder, to give his viewpoint. He dismissed any talk of peace as a fantasy. He seemed to be saying the settlers basically hope Israel will annex the West Bank, and when asked if he thought the Arabs living in Hebron should have a vote in Israeli elections in that event, he sidestepped the issue. 

The H2 area was quiet with few cars and soldiers stationed not only at checkpoints, but on top of walls, behind bullet proof glass patrol stations, or lounging next to armored vehicles. Behind walls topped with razor wire was what appeared to be a fairly thriving city—the Muslim dominated Palestinian city of Hebron from which a cacophony of Muslim prayers broadcast from many Mosques and echoed through the valley and across the hills a few times during the day. I went in thinking I had a basic understanding of the settler issue and what was needed for peace—security guarantees on both sides, land swaps, those kinds of things. But seeing it up close showed me that I don’t really know much and that it’s complicated. Very complicated. 
the historic marketplace
The Friendship Garden was a lovely green space built by the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee. On their website, they say HRC was established "to preserve Hebron’s cultural heritage and save the Old City from the greed of Jewish settlers."

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Longest War

The Liar in Chief addressed the nation on Monday night to talk about his new strategy in Afghanistan, which is the same as the old strategy, but with fewer details. Here are a couple of the things he said that I felt I had to respond to:

“When we open our hearts to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice, no place for bigotry and no tolerance for hate.”

No, Mr. President, that is not true. Too many people who call themselves patriots are prejudiced, bigoted, and hateful. You, sir, are one of the greatest examples of this. When you said that Mexican immigrants are criminals and rapists, when you encouraged people not to trust their Muslim neighbors, when you call women fat or ugly, and call residents of our great American cities thugs and drug addicts, when you say that a war hero who endured torture on behalf of our nation is not heroic because he was captured, you show quite clearly that patriotism is not a cure for prejudice, bigotry, and hate. 

“Let us make a simple promise to the men and women we ask to fight in our name, that when they return home from battle, they will find a country that has renewed the sacred bonds of love and loyalty that unite us together as one.”

These words sounds so lofty and uplifting, Mr. President, but coming out of your mouth they smell like dog droppings and reveal you as a hypocrite. Sir, you make the promise first. You promise that you will be loyal to the American people above your loyalty to your business interests around the world, to your family who may have broken laws in order get help from the Russians to get you elected, and to your friends and supporters who may have done the same. We know from former FBI Director James Comey that when you use the word loyalty, you mean a willingness to overlook morality and ethics in order pay fealty to you, we know from your use of the word loyalty in referring to some of the people who helped you get elected who you later fired and called losers that loyalty only extends in one direction as far as you are concerned—towards you. As to love? We see no evidence that you understand the word. Here are some things you profess to love: war, Wikileaks, fighting banks (which I suppose means welshing on your debts, not making sure banks are regulated to protect us), women (ummm…Access Hollywood?), the old days, buying a building, Mexico (yes, really, you said that), China (yep, that too). 

“When I became president, I was given a bad and very complex hand. But I fully knew what I was getting into, big and intricate problems. But one way or another, these problems will be solved. I’m a problem solver. And in the end, we will win.”

We know you too well by now to swallow your lies and excuses or to believe your promises. When you ran for president you never tired of blaming everyone else for the problems that the U.S. faces around the world, but you continually told us that solving them would be easy. You claimed to have secret plans to destroy ISIS “very quickly, very fast.” Earlier in this same speech, you admit that your instinct was to pull out of Afghanistan, but you studied it, you said, “in great detail and from every conceivable angle.” And now you’ve decided, as you apparently did in relation to ISIS as well, to basically follow the same plan Obama and his generals laid out for you. Except you think being secretive about how many troops you might send and for how long you might keep them there is going to make a tremendous difference. Oh, yes, and you’re making another promise you can’t keep, that in the end “we will win.” You’d be better off, sir, to acknowledge what most world leaders understand: no one wins in war, and it’s likely to be very tough and in the end, there are no guarantee things will get better for the Afghan people no matter how much time and money we spend fighting there.

“We will not dictate to the Afghan people how to live or how to govern their own complex society. We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.”

I have a question. If we don’t care how other countries govern, why don’t we just leave Afghanistan and let the chips fall where they may? Why should we care who governs if we don’t care how? If the Taliban take over and decide to make women cover themselves from head to toe and chop heads off anyone who complains, so what? Why did you threaten Venezuela recently? Who cares if Maduro starves his people? Or the Cubans for that matter? Why do you care if they throw dissidents in jail? You don’t seem to care that Duterte is murdering his people in the Philippines. You praise him for solving the drug problem by shooting drug dealers without a trial. Oh, and Putin, Russia. What exactly are the criteria for being a friend of the United States of Trump? Is it merely promising not to directly attack our “homeland?” Or does it have something to do with whether we’re allowed to sell things in your country? Or perhaps whether or not you’re willing to open a Trump hotel or golf course? And what does this mean that you also said on Monday night: “As the prime minister of Afghanistan has promised, we are going to participate in economic development to help defray the cost of this war to us.” Seriously, what does that mean? Is that like, we’re going to go into one of the poorest countries in the world and try to make money off them to pay us back for helping them? Is that money going to the U.S. government or to your cronies? I’ve got an idea, how about heroin? Let’s help them grow poppies, make heroin, and then sell it back to them! Ever heard of the Opium Wars? No, I’m not talking about gang fights in Chinatown.

“And we must achieve an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the enormous price that so many have paid.”

I’ve heard these words before from a man who was President when I was just turning draft age in 1969. “Peace with honor,” Nixon said. Then he proceeded to bomb the bejeezus out of North Vietnam in addition to Laos and Cambodia because they were offering safe harbor to the rebel fighters. In the end, some five years later, with tens of thousands more Americans dead or maimed and who knows how many southeast Asians, we left with our tails between our legs and Nixon resigned. Let’s get to the resignation part sooner this time. 

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

A Better Day Will Come

Every so often I get inspired to write a song (there were a few years in my life when I wrote dozens, but in recent years, one or two or year is all that come). But I was in a music rich environment--the Appalachian String Band Music Festival, better known as Clifftop, among old-time musicians last week. It's an amazing experience at Camp Washington Carver in the hills of Fayette County, WV where every year thousands of musicians who play fiddles, banjos, guitars, and assorted other string and non-string instruments gather for 10 days of camping, jamming, dancing, and competing in individual and band contests. My brain was full of music, and I wrote four new melodies. One of them was especially beautiful, not just in my opinion, but in the opinion of several who heard and played it. I was asked what the title was, and answered, I don't know, but it feels hopeful. When I play it, I keep thinking that it's saying a better day will come. "That's your title," he replied.

The morning I was packing to leave, words to it started coming to mind, and as I drove, I sang into my i-Phone. In the next couple weeks I plan to record a simple version of it, but I hope I can convince other musicians to record it as well. I could imagine it being orchestrated or being played by a rock band, a string band, or an acapella choir. Here are the lyrics:

A Better Day Will Come
by Paul Epstein ©2017
We are frightened. He is ignorant and rude.
They are threatening our whole way of life. 
We’re resisting. We are marching in the streets.
We are ready for a long and brutal fight.

Take my hand. Give your heart.
We don’t know where this will end, but we must start.
For the good of all, we’ll find a way.
We must believe that there will come a better day.

We are angry. We want justice for all.
We should make the wealthy pay their share.
There’s corruption going right to the top.
We will fight for our rights and what is fair

Decent jobs, living wage,
We need health care for all without delay.
Get out the vote, make calls, or pray
We must believe that there will come a better day

Take my hand. Give your heart.
We don’t know where this will end, but we must start.
For the good of all, we’ll find a way.
We must believe that there will come a better day.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Out, Out Damn Trump!

Here we are, five months into a presidency that may last another 3.5 years or longer. Any hope we had that Mr. Trump would actually lead the country responsibly are gone, and many around the world wonder what kind of place the U.S. and the world will be after his term. I think we must consider impeachment. It could result from any number of “high crimes and misdemeanors” Trump may have committed, including but not limited to collusion with a foreign government to sway our election, accepting money or favors from foreign governments or businesses and possibly granting return favors, obstruction of justice, abuse of power, or something we can’t even imagine at this point. 

In the recent Senate Intelligence Committee hearing with Jeff Sessions, Republican Senator Tom Cotton asked him if he liked spy novels and then expressed skepticism about the lines of questioning by Democrats, asking, ”Have you ever…heard of a plot line so ridiculous that a sitting United States senator and an ambassador of a foreign government colluded in an open setting with hundreds of other people…?”

They had a good laugh. But I didn’t. I have frequently said and heard scholars of U.S. history say recently, “you can’t make this stuff up,” or “this is the stuff of spy novels,” or “anyone who wrote a novel in which a preposterous character like Donald Trump gets elected president couldn’t find a publisher.” Unprecedented has probably become the most used word in media these days.

I would like to engage in my own penchant for writing fiction and send a message from an imaginary centrist Trump supporter who has decided he or she made a mistake.

“I believed him when he promised he would make America great again. I believed him when he said he would put Democrats and Republicans in a room and make them solve problems, I believed he would repeal and replace Obamacare with something better that would cost less, bring back all kinds of great jobs, rebuild our infrastructure. I believed we would have such an economic boom that he could cut taxes and still have money for tax cuts and infrastructure projects without raising the debt. I believed him when he said he would protect Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. 

“But now I’m beginning to understand that his exaggerations and boasting are something more than campaign strategy. I don’t see how he could claim that the House health care bill, which the CBO said would cause 24 million Americans to lose their health insurance could be the “great plan” he said it was. Now he calls it “mean.” So I wonder what the Senate will come up with and how much less “mean” that will be. Does that mean it will only kick half as many off their insurance? Will we really be covered for pre-existing conditions? And during the campaign he railed against Wall Street and said he would go after hedge fund managers and make them pay their fair share. But I haven’t heard anything about that since, and now there’s a bill to roll back the protections they passed after the financial crisis of 2008. 

“I know in his first couple weeks he made a big deal about calling some CEO’s and talking about keeping jobs in the U.S., and maybe he helped save a few jobs, and the economy seems to be humming along, but it doesn’t seem much different than it was in the last few years. We’ll see. But when you combine all that with some of the crazy tweets and the way he just goes after everybody, including Comey, who, you know is a pretty straight shooter, and now supposedly Mueller, the former FBI director who is investigating him, well, it just seems like he must be hiding something to be so afraid of just letting them do their jobs.”

Yeah, I know, it’s fiction. Trump supporters for the most part are die hards wearing blinders and reading, listening to, and watching the media that reinforces their belief in Trump. But actually only about 38% percent of voters view him favorably (according to, down from a high of 48% after the election. So, perhaps, before the 2018 mid-terms, Republicans in Congress will decide he’s more of a liability than an asset and start impeachment proceedings. If not, the other 50-60% of us better get to the polls and elect a Congress that will.