Monday, July 21, 2014

War Diary from the Gaza Envelope

[This excerpt from my book-in-progress seems tragically all too relevant given the latest violence in Gaza.]

After my visit to the Arava Desert, I drove north out of the desiccated rift valley, headed west, dipped into and rose out of the earthen maw of the Rimon Crater, and then continued across the moon prairie of the Negev Desert. On the dusky pink horizon, Israeli tanks kicked up veils of dust. Approaching the coast, disoriented by nightfall, I missed a highway turn-off and unknowingly drove toward one of the gates to the Gaza Strip. Then I spotted a sign. A panicky U-turn corrected my navigational error before the Army checkpoint and the barbed-wire wall that contained the impoverished coastal enclave of Palestinians. 

The next morning, I headed out from my room on Kibbutz Urim. A mammoth satellite dish dominated the skyline of a military base near the kibbutz. In the distance, above hemmed-in Gaza, hovered several white balloons, like weather gauges although more likely rigged with high-tech gear to eavesdrop into the Palestinians' communications networks. By the time I reached the outskirts of Sderot, my nerves felt jangly. I was half-expecting a rocket to drop at random on the bingo card of the urban grid of Sderot.

The blue-collar city of 24,000 is like the Cleveland or Detroit of Israel. Sderot might get praised for its heartland values, but it remained the butt of hard-luck jokes from big-city snobs. A nice place to be from, but you wouldn't want to live there. Or visit. Or pass through. The general attitude was summed up in an episode of Arab Labor, the caustic TV comedy described as "Israel's Seinfeld"—except with a sharper bite. In one episode, a Jewish-Israeli photojournalist tries to woo a feisty Palestinian lawyer by promising to follow wherever she might move: "For you, I would live in Nazareth, I would live in Nablus…" He lists Arab cities no Jewish-Israeli would ever venture, except in an Army vehicle, before delivering the punchline: "I would even live in Sderot!" Ouch.

Sderot was established in the 1950s, a kilometre from the Gaza Strip, as a transit camp for Kurdish and Persian Jews, and grew into a "development town," a euphemism for communities hastily erected to house waves of new immigrants: mostly Moroccans in Sderot, followed by Ethiopians and later Russians from the Caucasus. The city remained out of mind for most Israelis until 2001. During the Second Intifada, Palestinian militants fired crude unguided, short-range rockets (known as Qassams, after the military wing of Hamas) at Jewish settlements within Gaza, border kibbutzes and eventually Sderot—more than 2,000 rockets by 2008. A "code red" warning gave residents 15 seconds to sprint to the safety of a bomb shelter. In 2007, the Israeli government gave special privileges to Sderot and nearby kibbutzes and towns within seven kilometres of Gaza—what became known as the "Gaza envelope" or, more cynically, "Qassamland." After Gaza became the international symbol for the plight of the Palestinians, the Jewish side promoted Sderot into the role of civic martyr.  When Justin Bieber toured the Holy Land, the Israeli Prime Minister's office tried to rope the Canadian teeny-bop star (and evangelical Christian) into meeting fans from Sderot, a goodwill gesture with a political bent. (Bieber balked.) "What about the children of Sderot?" became a refrain to justify any action by the Israeli Army. In late 2008, after an uptick in rockets, the IDF launched the Cast Lead assault on Gaza and 1,400 Palestinians died. By 2011, the Israeli military had deployed the "Iron Dome" missile-interception system to protect the city, even as the municipal government teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. 

Sderot would seem, then, a shaky foundation on which to construct a new utopia. And yet one of the most ambitious attempts to reboot the kibbutz had broken ground amid the city's maze of bomb shelters.

I expected a city under siege. My route through Sderot took me past nondescript scenes of concrete buildings and red-tiled rooftops like dozens of other towns I'd visited in Israel. Shopping malls and apartment blocks. A community college and wide boulevards. Not a bombed-out shell. Not the Stalingrad-by-the-Sea I'd expected from newspaper headlines. Yes, I spotted graffiti-decorated concrete shelters. But that was all. The cobbled sidewalks and tree-shaded crescent of Kibbutz Migvan might have been a suburban lane in Anywhere, USA. 

But appearances can be deceiving. This was, I would learn, a city straining under the psychic pressure. Life as a symbol wasn't easy.

I parked the car and met Nomika Zion, one of the founders of Migvan. She showed me her book-filled townhouse and walked me through the kibbutz—a street of similar houses, with a shared building for meals and meetings, an open yard and volleyball net for recreation, and smaller top-floor apartments for younger members. I had to adjust my image of what a kibbutz should look like: no cotton fields, no orchards, no farm equipment, no factories, no country vistas and swimming pools, no barbed wire encircling the grounds. No drunken volunteers. Migvan looked more like one of the "co-housing" developments that were sprouting in progressive European and North American cities: Copenhagen, Berkeley, Vancouver. (The Danish founder of the international co-housing movement had been inspired, in part, by the kibbutz movement.) Migvan took the co-housing model one step further. They didn't just live together and eat together. They kept a common purse, too. Like the first kibbutz, everyone pooled their earnings. 

Nomika Zion, co-founder of Kibbutz Migvan in Sderot
Nomika had been born, like many of her neighbours, on a traditional kibbutz and raised among kibbutz aristocracy, political leaders and left-wing artists and intellectuals. Now in her 50s, she still had the liquid fire of her early idealism, as we spoke in a quiet office room. Her dark hair fell in coils past her shoulders, and her kohl-shadowed eyes pulsed between humour and sadness, outrage and inspiration, as she outlined the rocky journey she had taken to get here, from a rural kibbutz in the Jordan Valley to an urban commune next to the Gaza Strip. 

"I grew up in a very political family," said Nomika. Her grandfather, Yaacov Hazan, was a legend in the Labor movement, a founder of Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek and the  Artzi Kibbutz Federation, and an elected M.K. in the first seven Israeli Parliaments. Her grandmother edited a psychology imprint for a publishing house. Her mother worked as a journalist and theatre director; her father was a public figure who career-hopped between socialist politics and avant-garde theatre. Nomika's early years bridged the pastoral idyll in Kibbutz Reshafim, where she'd been born, and her parents' cosmopolitan friends and colleagues in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. "I grew up in the kibbutz but also in bohemia, with actors and writers," she recalled. "I developed social sensitivity at a very early stage."

As a young girl, she saw that kibbutzniks' ideals weren't always reflected in their behaviour. Reshafim was near Beit Shean, a development town, like Sderot, populated with poor Jewish immigrants of Mizrahi origins, from the Arab countries of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. There was little communion between the well-educated, well-connected Ashkenazi members of Kibbutz Reshafim—children of European immigrants—and the dark-skinned arrivals from North Africa.
"The kibbutz surrounds itself with a fence—and that fence becomes a wall. I'm talking about an emotional and mental wall," Nomika told me. "And a profound conflict started to develop between the people from the kibbutz and the people from the development town."

One Shabbat, when she was 10, Nomika invited several Mizrahi girls from Beit Shean to visit the kibbutz. When they arrived, boys from her school threw stones and taunted her guests: "Get out, you dark Moroccans! You Beit Sheanites! We're going to call the police!" The girls ran away, and Nomika never saw them again. Three decades later, she felt haunted by the incident.

"It's an emotional wound in my heart," she said. The pain reminded her that human conflict springs from an ignorance, a lack of human contact, that well-meaning abstractions can't overcome. Later, at her kibbutz high-school, Nomika's peers were all high-achieving students from the same background, cut off from the country's cultural or political diversity. "When people don't meet each other, they start to develop stigmas and stereotypes and prejudices toward each other. And this is what happened to us." Kibbutzniks were locked in an echo chamber, a suburb for socialists, in which they never heard opposing points of view. 

"You build your identity in the reality of conflict," observed Nomika, "much better than in a homogenous society where people all come from the same ideological roots, the same background, the same mentality. And we were a very homogenous society." 

During a pre-Army year of civil service, Nomika worked with high-school drop-outs. In her second year in the IDF, she taught in the slums of Netanya, a coastal city north of Tel Aviv. "Very violent young people—teenagers," she recalled. The year was 1981. The rancour of a national election split Israel into factions: Labor Party supporters versus the Likudniks, Ashkenazi versus Mizrahi Jews, secular versus religious Israelis, kibbutzes versus development towns. In Netanya, Nomika represented everything the kids from impoverished immigrant families had learned to despise. "I remember so much hostility and hatred and violence toward me—not as Nomika, but as a symbol," she said. "So I realized I had to make a major change in my life and try to create a true dialogue with these young people."

Many of her friends had left the country. Nomika stayed home. She worked briefly as a journalist. She taught in a kibbutz high school. For three years, she worked in the offices of the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement. She convinced parents and school officials to remove kibbutz students from the homogenous high-school system to study for a year instead in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, among non-kibbutz peers. 

"The idea was to expose them to a different reality, different voices. To break the wall that we had built around ourselves," said Nomika. "This was the seed of the urban kibbutz."

That idea, however, took a few years to germinate. She began to talk with friends from college about founding a new social model of living together—neither the lonely crowd of the multicultural city nor the isolated collective of the old kibbutz. Something different. A fusion. An evolution. An urban kibbutz. 

"It was only a title. An empty word," she admitted. "We had to build the vision of what it would be about."

One friend brought another. A nucleus coalesced around the notion of a city commune. They met every month and organized cultural evenings and seminars with readings and debates, how to build this new society. Typical hippy-dippy stuff. People came and people left until, as Nomika recalled with a smile, "after two and a half years, we said, 'Okay—it's time to give birth!'" 

But to what? And where?

There was an urban kibbutz, in a poor neighbourhood of Jerusalem, named Reishit, founded in 1979 by former members of Nomika's home kibbutz. Reishit had been an inspiration. So her group visited Jerusalem as a possible location. They considered Holon, too, an industrial suburb south of Tel Aviv. Nomika suggested they add Sderot to the short list. Then they debated the options: Where could they do the most good? 

They voted. Sderot won. Everyone who didn't like the result left the group. A core of six remained. "Young, very ideological!" Nomika raised her fist and smiled at the memory. "We decided to come here because we wanted to make some tikkun—personal and social tikkun, yes?" She asked if I understood the Hebrew word for "repair" or "heal." "The first goal was to repair the damage and build a new relationship with the people from the kibbutzim and the people from the development towns."


"Sderot today is a multicultural and multi-tribal city," said Nomika. "So what do you think we have in common?"

I didn't know. It wasn't politics obviously. It wasn't religion. It wasn't social status or ethnicity.

"The ultimate answer, of course, is the rockets. Qassams!" Nomika laughed darkly. "External threats always unite people."

Sderot had enough to worry about with its rapidly growing population, its mix of immigrants, its poverty and exclusion from mainstream Israeli life. Then, in 2001, the city added downpours of rockets to its forecast. The Second Palestinian Intifada broke out, more violent then the first, with bus bombings and Qassams and infiltrations. Sderot was the closest, densest urban centre to Gaza. And a target.

"Eight years we were living under Qassams," recalled Nomika. Thousands of rockets and mortars dropped on the streets and buildings of Sderot. The Israeli Army responded with devastating air and ground attacks. Still, the rockets rained down. Even after the Israel's unilateral pullout from Gaza in 2005, the citizens of Sderot felt anxious, depressed, eager to escape. Rates of crime, substance abuse and divorce rose in the city. A 2007 study revealed that half the residents suffered from symptoms of post-traumatic stress; nearly two-thirds admitted they would flee Sderot if they could afford to. A tenth had already abandoned the city. (Other residents with a dark humour posted a banner that read, "I came to Sderot because it enchanted me," punning on Kassum—the Hebrew for "enchant"—and Qassam.) Worst of all for Nomika was the hardening of attitudes toward the Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere by the citizens of Sderot, even her fellow kibbutzniks. In January 2008, the conflict was at a low point. Upwards of 50 rockets hit the city every day for a month, without respite. The wail of sirens was a soundtrack to daily routines. Citizens kept one foot ready to spring into their personal shelters—a requirement, since the 1980s, in Israel's building code—when they were at home. They kept an eye out for the nearest bomb shelter when they walked the streets. 

Like others, Nomika felt helpless under the barrage, without a voice. So she and a fellow Migvan member gathered 20 people from Sderot and nearby communities to discuss their feelings about the situation, how the tit-for-tat reactions between the militants in Gaza and the IDF had only escalated. "They hit, we hit back. Always stronger and stronger. And we were trapped in this vicious violent cycle which never stops." They named their new group Kol Aher, or Other Voice. The members connected with citizens in Gaza who shared their hope. The two sides couldn't meet in person so shared stories via phone and email. 

In late December of 2008, the IDF launched Operation Cast Lead. Residents of Sderot cheered as Israeli fighter jets dropped deadly payloads on Gaza. Two families left Migvan for good. "Because the relationships are so close here, it's like cutting an organ from your body," said Nomika. "We didn't know if we were going to survive as a community." Other members would have abandoned Sderot were it not for a loyalty to the disadvantaged populations of Sderot they served. Within the kibbutz, political tensions percolated among friends once united by progressive beliefs.

"The people of Migvan became very extremist," said Nomika, her voice tinged with disappointment. "The war brought a lot of tension to our community. It was better not to talk about it, because to confront other people all the time just leads to a dead end. I can feel the tension today."

Staying quiet didn't come naturally to Nomika, so she wrote an open letter to the government about life as a citizen under siege with a front-row seat to the deadly fireworks of Cast Lead. She acknowledged her own anxiety about the Qassams but argued that changes in her friends and neighbours—in her homeland—scared her more. "I am frightened," she wrote, "we are losing the human ability to see the other side, to feel, to be horrified, to show empathy. With the code word 'Hamas' the media paints for us a picture of a huge and murky demon that has no face, no body, no voice, a million and a half people without a name."

She did not want anyone to believe the war was for her benefit, as a citizen of Sderot. "Not in my name and not for me did you go into this war," ran a line that would become a chorus. "The bloodbath in Gaza is not in my name nor for my security." The newspaper editor who published her letter used that phrase as a headline. Overnight, her cri de coeur, so out of tune with the martial demands for payback from other corners of her country, went viral on the Internet. Her "War Diary from Sderot," as it became known, was translated into more than 20 languages as it jumped from website to website, from nation to nation. Television crews showed up on her doorstep. She did a half-dozen media interviews—every day.

"I started to get so many responses from all over the world and from Israel," she recalled. "People said, 'You are our echo—this is the saner and human voice we are afraid to express because everybody supported the war.'"

She also received threats, accusing her of treason. But the positive reaction affirmed her belief that hope might lead out of the darkness. Her friends in Other Voice offered a forum for views not always welcome on her own kibbutz. On any kibbutz, for that matter.

"This is a very significant group for me because my friends, my so-called leftists, are not leftists any more," said Nomika.
A gardener in Migvan, one of the kibbutz founders, a man who had once been so opposed to serving as a soldier in the West Bank that he went to jail for six weeks as a conscientious objector, had spoken to Nomika about the situation in Gaza. "If they shoot one Qassam," he told Nomika, "we should destroy the whole village." 

"What about the women?" she replied. "The children?"

"I don't mind," he said. "Eye for eye, tooth for tooth."

The encounter chilled Nomika. "This is the new game in this region," she told me. "Completely changed. And this is what happens to people. What the Conflict did. It has left a profound mark on their souls."

Nomika Zion remained active in Other Voice, a public spokesperson, in Israel and abroad, against military action as the sole option to keep Gaza in check. In January 2013, the New York Review of Books published a translation of another letter she wrote, addressed to Prime Minister Netanyahu, in protest of yet another military operation against the people of Gaza. "We will continue to raise another voice in the dwindling light, as we wait anxiously for the next bloody round," she promised her country's politicians and an outside world that has grown numb to the endless news cycle of violence in the region.

1 comment:

  1. Ultimately it is a psychological battle and every intellectual author should know that... Israel is the rising light among nations, and deserves the right to defend herself.