In the past six weeks, the Jenin Freedom Theatre, still recovering from the unsolved 4 April murder of its co-founder and mentor, Juliano Mer-Khamis, has faced a new stumbling block: the Israeli military.
First, at 3:30 in the morning on 27 July,Israeli soldiers arrived at the Freedom Theatre to arrest Adnan Naghnaghiye, Location Manager of the Theatre, and Bilal Saadi, chairperson of the Theatre’s Board of Directors in Jenin. Soldiers further threw stones and huge blocks of concrete at the building, shattering several windows. In the Theatre’s press release, night guard Ahmad Nasser Matahen relates how “they told me to open the door to the theatre. They told me to raise my hands and forced me to take my pants down. I thought my time had come, that they would kill me.” When General Manager Jacob Gough and Theatre co-founder Jonatan Stanczak arrived on the scene, they were “forced at gunpoint to squat next to a family with four small children surrounded by approximately 50 heavily armed Israeli soldiers. Whenever we tried to tell them that they are attacking a cultural venue and arresting members of the theatre,” adds Jonatan, we were told to shut up and they threatened to kick us, I tried to contact the civil administration of the army to clarify the matter but the person in charge hung up on me.””
Adnan and Bilal were detained without charges for almost a month, denied access to a lawyer for over two weeks, and subjected to beatings and sleep deprivation, all as part of a supposed investigation into the murder of Juliano Mer-Khamis.
Then, on 6 August, Rami Awni Hwayel, a 20-year old acting student who currently holds a lead role in the theatre’s adaption of Waiting for Godot, was handcuffed, blindfolded, and taken away by the Israeli army at the Shave Shomeron checkpoint between Nablus and Jenin. Though the army quickly determined he had nothing to do with Juliano’s murder, he was held for a month pending investigation of a confession, extracted during interrogation, that he had illegally sought employment in Israel for 10 days many years ago. In an open letter to the Israeli Embassy in London, Jacob Gough relates how at a court hearing on 17 August, the military judge “stated that the police and army were wrong to have picked up Rami and spent this time as they have on this matter, and that Rami obviously has no connection to the murder of Juliano, however, in what just seems to be an attempt to ‘save face’, the Israeli authorities are looking to imprison him under the aforementioned charge.” The army usually punishes perpetrators of this ‘crime’ by sending them back across the border; for Rami, who, like Adnan and Bilal, was initially held for over two weeks without a lawyer, it will now be more difficult than it usually is for a resident of Jenin refugee camp to secure a visa to tour Waiting for Godot throughout America this September.
Finally, at 2am on 22 August, the Israeli army arrived in Jenin, surrounded the Theatre and entered the home of the Nagnaghiye family, where they beat and arrested Mohammed, theatre security guard and brother of Adnan. They also ransacked and trashed all three floors of the Nagnaghiye family home: “Furniture was thrown to the floor and broken, and there was even dog excrement on the floor. The army also took another three residents of the camp on the same night.”
The stated reason for all of these arrests is an Israeli investigation into the unsolved murder of Juliano Mer-Khamis. However, in an interview given on 3 September, Jacob Gough related that “initially [the army] gave the normal rubbish excuses, like ‘they’re acting against the security of the region’. We then found out they are supposedly doing an investigation into the murder of Juliano. But then I don’t count investigations where you kidnap people and treat them inhumanely, treat them to sleep deprivation- for a week they didn’t sleep- and then you try to get them to confess. Like this they work. That’s not an investigation, that’s trying to pin it on somebody.”
Indeed, Jacob says in an Open Letter to the Israeli Security Apparatus that “in every one of [Bilal’s] court hearings so far, when the Israeli security services have requested an extension of detention, it has been noted in court documents that no information pertaining to the murder of Juliano has been gained from interrogation”, and that “on Sunday 14 August Adnan was in court for another extension of detention, [and] the judge gave the security services an additional 8 days but stated that they needed to wrap the interrogation up as they have not gained much from this time before.”
In addition, the inhumane treatment inflicted on the detainees casts doubt on the real motives of the Israeli army. On 22 August, the same day that Mohammed Nagnaghiye was taken, the two men detained on 27 July – Mohammed’s brother Adnan and Bilal Saadi- were released with no charges filed against them. In the open letter to the Israeli Embassy, Jacob relates that “finally after 2 weeks [Bilal’s] lawyer was allowed access to him…he told her that they had treated him ‘inhumanely’. As of now we only know that they were using disorientation techniques (he had no idea whether it was night or day) and whilst having him shackled painfully and after denying him food for a long period of time they then put food in front of him, obviously with no possible way for him to eat with dignity.” Adnan had been “in much a similar position to Bilaal, but spent 16 days without access to a lawyer.”
Israel also appears to be deliberately impeding the movement of Freedom Theatre actors in and out of the West Bank. In our interview last Saturday at the Theatre, Jacob related that members of Rami’s theatre troupe, which plans to tour Waiting for Godot through America in September, “have all had to have visa application meetings with the American consulate. The American consulate doesn’t come to the West Bank, so these students have to go to Jerusalem and Jordan. Jerusalem is a lot easier. In the past these students have never had problems getting to Jerusalem, and suddenly- stopped. None of these children can go, they are all perceived as a security threat.” In a phone interview on 5 September, Jacob reiterated that “there is no doubt in my mind that this is related [to the army’s arrests]…it all occurred at exactly the same time…[this is] another part of the Israeli army crackdown. I’m sure it’s connected.”
In the Jenin refugee camp “there is fear, fear of being associated with the theatre, [because] we have had someone killed, lots of people arrested…”. But fear seems to be a common factor on both sides of the equation. “After Juliano’s death”, Jacob explains, “it was shown how much support the Freedom Theatre has in the world, and not just people. Politicians, organizations, media as well…[one] of the most dangerous things for Israel, is showing that places like the Freedom Theatre can reach really far…we’ve had the actor’s union in Britain, actors’ unions in America, France, Germany- the Parliament in Britain, France, Germany, Sweden, at least- Congressmen in America as well- people phoning the Israeli embassies and sending them letters all the time, asking what’s happening, what are you doing to the Freedom Theatre. The Israeli embassies started sending back replies, which I’ve never seen before! I’ve never seen the Israeli embassy reply to these kinds of letters, they just go whatever…we don’t care. It feels like we’re hitting a nerve, and we try to harness that.”
On 1 August , the General Secretary of Equity, the trade union representing 36,500 UK based performers, actors and creative workers, wrote to the Israeli Embassy in London to ask why the Freedom Theatre’s “location manager, Adnan Naghnaghiye, and Board member, Bilal Saadi, “are currently being detained following an attack on the theatre”. The letter concludes that “as an organisation which campaigns for freedom of expression, we are obviously very distressed about these reports. I therefore urge you to ensure that the individuals concerned are released immediately and safely returned to Jenin.”
Two weeks later, on 16 August, Equity received a reply from the Israeli Embassy. Citing the murder of Mer-Khamis, the letter states that “the authorities have instigated profound and comprehensive investigations which led them to the arrest you mention in your letter. Although we are aware that damage to the property was caused during the arrest, this was not intentional.”
In his open letter to the Israeli Embassy, Jacob replies that “though it is good of the ambassador to admit damage was caused to the theatre, to say throwing rocks at windows is unintentional is not just wrong, but also a lie. Anyhow, even unintentional harm/damage is at the very least negligent.” An even more curious lapse on the Israeli Embassy’s part, however, is that they ignored completely Equity’s complaint regarding the arrests of Adnan and Bilal, and instead spoke of the arrest of Rami, which was not even mentioned in Equity’s letter and which had nothing to do with ‘damage to the property’ of the theatre, because it occurred far from the theatre! Through this strategic move, the Embassy seeks to deflect attention away from the army’s mistreatment of Adnan and Bilal, and onto “[Rami’s] involvement in a number of other unsolved crimes”- the heinous crimes, namely, involved in crossing the Green Line briefly to bring a little money back to his impoverished refugee camp.
If Rami and his classmates are able to tour ‘Waiting for Godot’ through the US this September, “the hope”, says Jacob in his reply to the Embassy, “is [that] they will manage to get offers of scholarships to continue their training, a rare opportunity and ray of light for these youth who have spent their whole lives under occupation…This whole farce of court proceedings puts this trip for [Rami] in a very precarious position and further works to undermine the work of The Freedom Theatre, which I would say seems to be more the goal of the Israeli authorities than a genuine investigation into the murder of our friend and leader, Juliano Mer Khamis.”
When Juliano founded the Freedom Theatre in Jenin in 2006, he hoped to use performance and art to show to the world a Palestinian people and their vibrant, creative culture and self-identity. In April 2006, four years after the Battle of Jenin, in which 15-20% of the camp’s infrastructure was destroyed by the Israeli army, Mer-Khamis said in an interview with author Arthur Nelsen in London that “in Jenin – especially in Jenin – something is happening, in the good sense of the word. There is a universalist discourse, an international happening…an international campaign around a new kind of resistance…we want to be part of this third Intifada which is on the way in a way to hopefully influence at least some of the people in Jenin camp, towards non-violent, cultural international resistance.”
The Freedom Theatre’s hope remains that, after the violent suppression of the first two Intifadas, a successful Palestinian revolution today must revitalize Palestinian culture and self-identity, and inspire international recognition not merely of a Palestinian state and governing power, but first and foremost of a Palestinian people. On 4 April 2005, one year before the founding of the Freedom Theatre, Juliano said that “we are facing the end of the destruction of the Palestinian people by the Israeli forces. We are in a situation today where not only the political and the economic infrastructure are destroyed, the Israelis are destroying the neurological system of the society, which is culture, identity, communication. We felt that creating a project which will deal with the arts, with cinema, with theatre, with the media activities, computers, web sites, is the best way to fight this deconstruction of the identity of the Palestinian, which is deliberately done in the last year by the Israelis. Israel is pushing back the Palestinian people into the Stone Age…communicating with the outside world, bringing people from the outside world, breaking the wall down, if not physically, metaphorically- is creating the grounds for hope. We cannot bring hope, hope- we cannot bring it in a sack or a package. We can create the grounds so people can build up hope, and this is our task today, to create the grounds for those children.”
In the face of Israeli army harassment, Jenin’s Freedom Theatre has received an outpouring of support, both internationally and within Palestine. In addition to the ferocious and impassioned letter-writing campaign, it has received many donations from abroad to support increasing legal fees.
Additionally, most recent events may indicate that, in response to international pressure, the army is relaxing its crackdown on the Theatre. Mohammed Nagnaghiye, who was arrested on 22 August, received a 15-day extension of his arrest on the 29th, but was then unexpectedly released on 3 September. He did not report any abuse at the hands of the army, and was quickly allowed access to a lawyer. In addition, two technicians at the Theatre, Mohammed Saadi and Ahmad Matahen, along with an acting student, Momeen Syatat, were told to hand themselves in to the Salem military base outside of Jenin by 1 September. The Theatre wrote on its website, “to walk into the arms of the Israeli security service quite often means disappearing from the surface of the earth, never knowing when you will come back and knowing that you are most certainly facing harsh treatment. We demand that Mohammed, Ahmad, and Momeen be treated no worse and no better than any Israeli citizen brought in to participate in a civil criminal investigation. Their legal rights, as stipulated by international law, must be honoured.”
Thankfully, all three residents of Jenin refugee camp were simply asked a few questions, and then released. Over the phone on 4 September, Jacob noted that “the pressure that the theatre put on and that our friends around the world put on, seems to have made a difference. Otherwise the army would’ve kept acting the way it usually does…They even said to some of the guys who went the other day ‘we like the Freedom Theatre, we support the Freedom Theatre!’”
Indeed, at strategic moments Israel does claim to support the Freedom Theatre. Juliano was, after all, an Israeli citizen and well-known Israeli actor; in addition, token gestures of goodwill towards Palestinian arts initiatives bolster Israel’s public image. In reply to Equity’s letter, the Israeli Embassy in London spoke of how “Mr Juliano Mer-Khamis, the director of the theatre, was shot and killed in his car by masked terrorists…Mr. Mer-Khamis…taught alternatives to violence to Jenin’s youth…following his death, the Israeli authorities took it upon themselves to solve his murder and bring his murderers to trial.” In his open reply to the Embassy, however, Jacob retorts that “as there is no evidence or lead or knowledge of who may have committed this attack, it is rather presumptuous of the Israeli Embassy to say it was a Palestinian. Likewise we don’t comment on any theories that it may have been an Israeli…Juliano [son of an Israeli mother and a Palestinian father] was a symbol of co-operation that served very well to show that Jewish-Israelis can live and work with Palestinians, something many far-right Zionists would not like to see…”
In addition, though he taught alternatives to violence, Juliano never tried to teach alternatives to resistance- throughout his life he remained unequivocally opposed to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. As he said in 2006, shortly after the founding of the Theatre, “What we [are] doing in the theatre is not trying to be a replacement or an alternative to the resistance of the Palestinians in the struggle for liberation. Just the opposite. This must be clear…We are joining, by all means, the struggle for liberation of the Palestinian people, which is our liberation struggle.”
It is this commitment to resistance that motivates Israel to crack down on the Freedom Theatre. As the Theatre continues, in the memory of Juliano, to support the struggle for the revitalization of the Palestinian people, it remains to be seen whether the Israeli powers will continue to impede its progress.
I stop in my tracks, panting and sweating, and turn around. I knew this was going to happen as I jogged past the soldier standing limp and bored on the side of the road. The soldier beckons me toward his little box with a slight twitch of the huge assault rifle draped across his chest. With a rough look on his 18-year-old face, he addresses me inquisitively in Hebrew, and I, in between gasps of air, say “Lo Ivrit (no Hebrew). English?”
“Where you from?”
“Can I see your passport?” His tone becomes the slightest bit nicer when he hears the holy name of Israel’s daddy-with-the-checkbook. I know I’m not required by law to give this kid-with-an-army-jacket-and-a-huge-gun my passport, he is only a soldier; but if I say ‘no, I don’t have to show you anything’, he would say ‘Yes you do, I am soldier, I make the rules here’, and if I persisted, he might radio in reinforcements, or police. So I give him the passport. He looks it over. “What are you doing?”
“I’m jogging, for exercise.”
“Why not?” Of course I know why he is surprised to see a sweaty Jewish-looking boy without a kipa jogging here with a shirt that has Arabic letters on it. I am not jogging down any old street, and I know it; I am jogging in Tel Rumeida, or Tel Hebron as the settlers call it.
The city of Hebron has a long and complex history that mirrors in many ways the travails of Palestine as a whole; suffice it to say that the Hebrew name for the city, Hebron, and the Arabic name for the city, al-Khalil, both mean ‘friend’. Jews lived here in ancient times; Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Ruth and Jesse are buried in the city (patriarchs and matriarchs worshipped by Jews and Muslims alike); in recent history of the last 1000, Hebron was mostly populated by Muslims, except for a small Jewish community that maintained peaceful ties with its Arab neighbors. In 1929, as mounting anti-Zionist sentiment began to stir up the Arab world (understandable, as Zionists were settling Palestine in droves and had clear, British-backed intentions to create a predominantly Jewish state on land previously promised to the Palestinians), 67 Jews in the Jewish community of Hebron were violently murdered by Arab mobs (many more were saved by Muslims who hid terrified Jewish families in their homes, at considerable personal risk). After this, Jews left Hebron- until 1968, when Rabbi Moshe Levinger and a group of fanatical Israelis rented a hotel in Hebron for Passover, and barricaded themselves in, refusing to leave. Eventually, the Israeli government compromised with them and relocated them to a nearby settlement, which they called Kiryat Arba.
The rapidly expanding settlement still had eyes for Hebron, however, and in 1979 Moshe Levinger’s wife Miriam led a group of 40 women and children to occupy the abandoned Beit Hadassah hospital in central downtown Hebron overnight. When patrolling soldiers heard a chorus of Jewish folk song coming from the abandoned building the next morning, they knew they had a situation on their hands. The women and children refused to leave, though the building had no electricity or running water. When several of the children were becoming very sick because of the sub-human living conditions, the Israeli government installed running water and electricity; eventually, when it was clear the women and children were not going to leave, the israeli government allowed their husbands to visit them on Shabbat.
For about a year, a crowd of young yeshiva boys from Kiryat Arba would come to the Beit Hadassah building from the Cave of the Patriarchs (where all the above-mentioned founding myth-figures are buried save Jesse and Ruth) chanting and singing every Shabbat night, and set up vigil ooutside the building. One night, a year after the initial occupation, 6 of them were murdered by Arabs. Immediately following that tragedy, the Israeli government in the early 80s granted, and built, permanent housing for several families in downtown Hebron. Between 1980 and 1984, the other downtown settlements in Hebron were established- Avraham Avinu, Tel Rumeida, Beit Romano and Admot Yishai. The latter settlement, Admot Yishai, was originally a group of 8 families who one day showed up on top of a hill living in portable caravans; when one man inside one of the caravans was killed by an Arab man standing outside his flimsy window, the Israeli government rushed in to build permanent housing. A similar pattern, then, to Beit Hadassah- first, belligerent and unapologetically racist right-wing religious fanatics move in of their own accord, driven by the zealous belief that they are restoring a direct link to the Jewish past (as always, the truth or falsity of this claim does not matter in the face of the reality of the occupation); the Israeli government gripes and moans, but can do nothing to stop them, and so must in the meantime at least try to contain the situation; when one of the settlers is killed, he is turned into a martyr by the settler community, who demand help from a government that, if it refused, would be denounced by the larger Jewish community for failing to care for its citizens or respect the very ethnic legacy it uses to prop up its otherwise largely secular rule.
These Jewish settlers in the middle of the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank form a compact knot in Hebron’s exact cultural center; their separate settlements can be covered on foot in their entirety in 20 minutes. Surrounding this little pocket of Jewish settlement, dubbed H2 (and all else dubbed H1) after the Oslo Accords in 1993, are soldiers, checkpoints, watch towers, concrete walls, barbed wire, electric fences, and many other signs of occupation. Wikipedia-
Israeli organization B’Tselem states that there have been “grave violations” of Palestinian human rights in Hebron because of the “presence of the settlers within the city.” The organization cites regular incidents of “almost daily physical violence and property damage by settlers in the city”, curfews and restrictions of movement that are “among the harshest in the Occupied Territories”, and violence and by Israeli border policemen and the IDF against Palestinians who live in the city’s H2 sector. According to Human Rights Watch, Palestinian areas of Hebron are frequently subject to indiscriminate firing by the IDF, leading to many casualties. Hebron mayor Mustafa Abdel Nabi invited the Christian Peacemaker Teams to assist the local Palestinian community in opposition to what they describe as Israeli military occupation, collective punishment, settler harassment, home demolitions and land confiscation.
The presence of settlers in the city means the presence of an enormous military occupying force in the city, which makes life horrible for its residents. I have seen 15 heavily armed soldiers raid a home in the middle of the afternoon with guns pointed wildly in all directions, in full military coordination, to look for and apprehend an eight-year-old boy who they claim threw a stone at them while they were making their rounds. I have seen a gang of 8 year old settler boys, on a raised platform behind a barbed wire fence, spitting at a gang of Palestinian boys down below, who try to spit back, but cannot because of the difference in elevation and the fence (a fitting metaphor, if there ever was one). The Zionists respond ‘well life is tough for the settlers there too, they live surrounded by Arabs who would murder them, and many of them have been murdered!’ They attribute this Arab hatred to anti-Semitism, coupled with the intrinsically violent nature of Arab blood. They forget that they are hated here because they bring an occupation that chokes the life of the city, and they are a symbol of a larger occupation that has choked the life of all Palestine.
Littering the H1 side of the checkpoints one reads graffiti saying ‘Free Palestine’ and ‘Zionism is Racism’; inside, ‘Free Palestine’ and ‘Free Israel’ fight for wall space. There are about 500 settlers and 5000 soldiers to guard them in Hebron. The tragic absurdity and tense surreality of the situation is all the more concentrated by the fact that what used to be the cultural and economic lifeline of Hebron, downtown Shuhada Street, is now completely boarded up, a ghost street, because of the close proximity of Jewish settlers. Long stretches of silence on the once bustling street are punctuated by the occasional Palestinian family walking side by side carrying bags of groceries (which were freshly prodded through by the hands of soldiers at the checkpoint 50 metres away), the occasional group of fresh-faced Israeli soldiers or stern-faced older Israeli cops, the occasional steps of settler boys with a glint of macho, self righteous evil in their eyes (and this isn’t anti-Semitism, I love meeting the eyes of old rebbes wandering down the streets of Jerusalem, or exchanging a quick glance with religious yeshiva boys muttering to themselves as they pace down the windy roads- but these Hebron boys are something else, they look like dogs born and bred to hate, to fiercely, zealously, arrogantly and violently defend their Judaism. Shame on any interpretation of any faith that values such macho, ignorant defense of the tribe and hatred of the other over the universal virtue of humility).
Except on Shabbat, most settlers drive their cars up and down the street, honking angrily at the Arabs who get in their way (they drive like New Yorkers because many of them are, in fact, American). The electric tension in the air is amplified by the fact that not only the settlers, but also the vast majority of Palestinians in Hebron are religiously conservative and politically right-wing (70% Hamas), and, like much of the West Bank, have been driven to this belief in recent years thanks to the intensity of the occupation.
So there is a reason I go jogging down Tel Rumeida- because it is one of the most fucking absurd and terrifying places I have ever seen, terrifying because of its normality, unsettling because of the peace and quiet that lingers in the air as soldier boys walk by with guns or drive by in jeeps, as stern-faced looking settlers grow even sterner faces as they see me without a kipa and with Arabic writing and the word ‘Morocco’ on my T-shirt, as six-year old Jewish children play happily in the sunshine as policemen stand quietly on the street corner, as arabic men eye me with the confused look of ‘what the hell are you doing jogging in this war zone?’ And indeed, I feel disgusted at the image of myself sometimes, a boy coming from halfway around the world to spy on this conflict that concretely strangles the lives of those embroiled in it, a boy who has the privilege to jog by soldiers, and ironically scoff at the fact that he is waved through because of his american passport, while others live in constant fear that a wrong glance given at a soldier could send them to jail for two years.
Then you get to what is half- Cave of the Patriarchs, and half- al Ibrahimi mosque. Muslims enter from one side to worship Abraham, and Jews enter from the other side to worship the very same guy. Though the building is controlled by an Islamic waqf, it is surrounded on all sides by a thick layer of 18-year-old-Jewish-boys-with-guns. Before 1967, for 1400 years it was completely a mosque, and Jews could only ascend up to the seventh step on the outside staircase. In all honesty, speaking as a Jew and as a cosmopolitan secular citizen, I am glad that today part of the structure is a synagogue, and Jews can worship there freely; I am not glad, however, that this has been achieved through such a barbaric and racist occupation! And yes, it was wrong for Muslims to forbid Jews from visiting the tomb of their patriarch, but shame on those who use the memory of this past oppression to justify their present oppression!
The creepiest part is the room that houses the Tomb of Abraham. It lies in the middle of a circular vault; on one wall there are two windows, through which Jews in the synagogue can look into the room of the Tomb; on the wall next to it there are two windows, through which Muslims in the mosque can look into the room. Both Muslim windows are connected through a direct line of visibility with one of the Jewish windows; the 2nd Jewish window is actually a door, the only door that leads into the room of the Tomb, and it is blocked from Muslim view by the Tomb itself. Thus Muslim and Jewish worshippers, as they go to pay respects to the first patriarch of both of their religions, the mutual father of Isaac (who spawned the Jews) and Ishmael (who spawned the Muslims), awkwardly look at each other through this narrow, slanted, indirect, sidelong, askew line of sight. Each side can see, out of the corner of its eye, members of the other faith approach the tomb with eyes widened in awe, and lips moving in prayer. How sweet and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity! How awkward, unsettling and sad it is for these two cultures, with so much water under the bridge, and so much in common, to approach the same holy site from two different vantage points, with a plastic screen standing up in the room next to the Tomb, to block either brother from throwing something through the bars of the window at the other, over the father’s grave! And, as befits an occupying power, the Jews have the privilege of an undisturbed, solitary vantage point, that also doubles as the only door through which the Tomb can be physically accessed. The blanket that is draped over the Tomb, however, is adorned with beautiful cursive Arabic script. I went back and forth from the mosque side to the synagogue side, looking through each window, making sure the tragicomedy before my eyes was real.
On the way back to the ISM apartment, I am stopped again by another soldier. This happens at least twice every time I jog. This kid asks me my religion. “You are Jewish? Ah. Be careful, there are Arabs here, they have knives. Come back here and let me know if there is any problem.” I grab my passport out of his hand, turn around and walk away. I should’ve known, jogging in a war zone!
After we interviewed Jacob Gough, Acting General Manager of the Jenin Freedom Theatre, Rawand Arqawi, Acting School Coordinator of the Theatre, sat down and did a short interview with us after we had watched some promotional videos. We were tired, and didn’t expect another interview, but we jumped up to the occasion and talked with her for about 20 minutes. A life-long refugee in the Jenin camp, she was more soft spoken than Jacob, with a more careful and tenuous grasp of the English language, and offered a very valuable and unique perspective.
The problem with our students is they have no high school. Its different than any theater. The targeted group here are the people who had the traumas, so its different from the people who just want to be actors. Most of them have not finished high school because of the occupation, because of the invasion  most of them left the school. Things here are very bad.
Its been 9 years since the battle of Jenin. How is the community working to rebuild? What are some of the challenges, and how is the Freedom Theatre helping your community rebuild?
After what happened with the invasion, everyone had stories from the occupation, because the occupation hurt everyone here. Everyone was shocked and everyone had traumas because of what happened, because most of the people saw their parents or members of their family killed in front of them. So most people were thinking there is no life, everyone is dead, just tanks and blood were the life for everyone. But when this theatre opened, because of Juliano- Juliano was a wonderful man who pushed the people to deal with their problems in a good way. So when this theatre opened they started to improve, the children had drama therapy, this has helped alot. Also for the children to come and see performances, to see that there is life. Not just blood and tanks, there is another kind of life the children did not know about. The people here don’t know what is cinema and what is theater, and in the beginning the people did not accept us because they had no idea about acting, they had no idea about theater. So the people were thinking about resistance, about weapons, about right of return. So when this theater started they started to change their thinking, they started to think ‘ok, we have now some kind of entertainment, especially we have summer camp for the children. This is the best way to deal with these children, instead of to play in the street, to come here and to see performances, to find entertainment here. Also the challenge here for the freedom theatre- the girls, for the first time, they can for the first time express about what they have, what they want, what they need. It is a big challenge here in jenin camp, to show the people also, to send message about palestine, about the problems of the girls- this is a big challenge here in jenin camp.
When the children first come are they usually quite shy, and then more comes out?
Yes. Its not just the students, its everyone here in the theatre. When I first came here, i was overwhelmed. but then because of my work, because of the encouragement of Juliano- he always just pushed, pushed, pushed us- ‘ok, just talk, dont be shy, what you have inside, just talk, express it.’ This is what he did with us. He completely changed our lives, like from the bottom to the top. So we can deal with the people now, we can express what we want, we didn’t have fear, we can deal with our problems. Always he said ‘why are you afraid? Just say why! Nobody will come and cut your head!’
Do women get issues at home when they realize these things? When they go back home and they are more confident?
Yes, I had a fight with my brother last week, he said ‘you are completely different! Theatre changed you! You start to fight…’ Its not just that i am defending my right, because we are a conservative state, so women think that when males say something we have to obey them- no! Now its the time to confront our problems. For me i am convinced of what i am doing, this is my work, and i can deal with my problems, i am an adult, its not like children. From the beginning, if we are all silent, and dont fight about our rights, we will not succeed. Its not only for me, also for all the girls here. If i dont want to fight about my rights- i have rights to learn, to work, to travel- i cant do what i want! Its not because I want to correct my society or change my customs or traditions, no! i want to learn, to travel, i want to discover the world, i want to express what i want, and this is what i have now!
How long did it take you to get to where you are now? How long have you been involved with the theatre?
And before you came to the Freedom Theatre?
I was working with many institutions in Jenin, and i did not find the benefits i wanted. Most institutions, you have to be linked to a political party to work. Here it is different, you are free, it is up to you. To me, it is not like i care about politicians. This is my way, this is my life- so i have to not belong to any political party. Most institutions try to convince you to be on this political party, but in the end its my life. You cant push me to belong to any political party. So then I heard about the Freedom Theatre, i came here and i asked Juliano to be a volunteer, and he was helpful from the beginning, he said welcome, he welcomed me, he helped me and supported me from the beginning and i became a volunteer, and then in acting school, and then a coordinator of action school! i quickly jumped up! But I liked the work, and he supported me, he supported me alot.
I’m sure its been very hard for the camp since Juliano died. How have you guys struggled on and kept going?
When we had this crime, everyone was shocked about what happened. Its not easy to lose this man, its not easy for us. Everyone started to break down, you cant imagine what was our feeling, everyone started to be crazy. For the students- always we were sitting here, Juliano liked everything to be clean, the theatre, the place, for when the guests came- so he was very tough, to push everyone to work, and he was also like a kind father. So he had a balance, to be the tough teacher and director, but also very kind like we were his child. He gave us alot. So everyone cleaned, we looked to see him coming, we came just to look, we were waiting for him to come, because we had shock, we were still waiting for him to come. We made the coffee, and just sat. We were waiting until he came to drink with us- this is the way that we had here. Because its not easy for us- suddenly we lost a great man like this, like a father. For me it was three months, I sat here and waited for him to call me, because he used to call me five times a day, so I was sitting here waiting for him to call me. This is the feeling for us, for everyone here in the theatre. Its not easy for us to lose Juliano. It wasn’t easy for everyone. Then when we had troubles for leaflets against the freedom theatre, because all of us were close to him, because everyone had stories from him, he helped the people a lot. So because of him we wanted to continue. He loved this theatre, and he was also killed here, in jenin camp. So the people who loved him, we wanted to continue, we didn’t care- when we had leaflets, some people were afraid, they ran away and hid in their house, but for us, a lot of people stayed here and opened this theatre every day, when the people would visit us, we didn’t close one day. And we started to spread out about Julianos work, about what he did with us. In the beginning people were afraid about the dangerous situation here- the crime, leaflets, threats- and so some people didn’t send their daughters to the theatre, and I cant blame this, it’s a dangerous place here. But because we believe of what we have, because we believe in Juliano, so we continue. We first had problems, we had troubles here with the people in jenin camp- some people spread rumors against the theatre- but even that, step by step- we need time, of course, to refresh the work before. But we opened shows here, for children to come and see movies here, we had a lot of children come to the theatre. This is a good step, step by step, we have to be patient. What we have, its not easy, its not easy, and you cant imagine what we have. But even that, we are here. Even if we have threats- its ok, we do not care. I am a girl from a conservative family, I have family and friends who all push me to leave. But I don’t care, we lost Juliano, what else is there to lose?
On the hot afternoon of Saturday, September 3rd, I went with another ISMer and two members of PEDAL to the Jenin Freedom Theatre, to interview Acting General Manager Jacob Gough about the harassment inflicted on the theatre recently by the Israeli military. (PEDAL is an amazing group of European activists who bicycled through Europe spreading seeds, both literally and metaphorically, between different autonomous food growing communities along the way. Though their ultimate destination was Palestine, they also did alot of work with permaculture, food autonomy, and anti-imperialist struggle in general. They are wrapping up their 4 month long adventure now, check out their website to see what they have learned, and what they have to teach you!) From the very beginning, the hour-long interview, laboriously transcribed here in its entirety, touched on much more than just the theatre’s troubles with the IDF. I visited the Theatre with the ISM a few weeks ago, and then, just like now, Jacob, as soon as he sat down, apologized for his frequent pauses and occasional mumbling, saying that he hadn’t slept the night before. He is an extremely dedicated fellow, and I’m sure the Theatre is very lucky to have him around. This time, like last time, we hardly had to prod him with questions to get him to tell us everything!
Tell us about the Theatre!
The idea of the Freedom Theatre came from a project started in the 80s by a woman named Arna Mer-Khamis who was a Jewish Israeli woman, and she saw a need for an alternative education system in places like Jenin refugee camp and the Jenin area in particular. Alot of it was to do with the first intifada, schools were shut all the time, and if they weren’t shut it was very dangerous for children to get to them, and so she wanted to work on a project that could give these children a chance, some education, some hope, some life, instead of the normal views that children have of Jews, of life, you know, just give them something new to experience. So she started the Care and Learning project, so initially she would come with books, pens ,crayons, whatever she could bring, she would turn up on the streets of Jenin refugee camp and just give lessons on whatever, or just give children the change to learn, to draw, to play or whatever. This project carried on, she won the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize for her work. and with the prize money from that, with the help of a local family the Zubeidi family, they opened a theatre, the stone theater, which was on the top floor of the Zubeidi family home. Arna’s son Juliano, who was a famous actor in Israel, came and he started doing drama workshops, directing plays, taking drama therapy courses, and so her project carried on like this for several years.
In 1996 Arna died of cancer. After that, the project started going downhill. Juliano had returned to his career in Israel and so the project finished. the second Intifada started, and then the Battle of Jenin, and during the Battle of Jenin the theater was destroyed, along with the Zubeidi family home, and along with 10 to 15 percent of the refugee camp. The resistance in Jenin was so strong and well organized that the Israeli army had trouble defeating it, so in the end they just started bulldozing the camp to defeat the resistance. Alot of the boys that had been in the acting group with Juliano, most of them joined a resistance, nearly all of them were killed during the 2nd intifada, one committee a a suicide attack in Israel. And there was one survivor, which is Zakaria Zubeidi, who at that time was the head of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. So he was the head of a resistance in Jenin, and at the time Israel’s most wanted man. In 2004, a man named Jonatan Stanczak came to Jenin refugee camp, in fact he cycled from London to Ramallah, and then cycled up from Ramallah to Jenin, met with Zakaria, asked Zakaria what he could do for the refugee camp, and Zakaria said ‘start a theater’. He put him in contact with Juliano, and between them they opened the Freedom Theater.
So the theater started working in 2005, but officially opened in 2006. Since then the theater has started the first professional acting school in Palestine, we hold photography classes, film classes, creative writing, computer literacy, we do drama therapy. If you can imagine, in a refugee camp post traumatic stress is huge, and particularly [among the] youth, who grew up with some of the harshest fighting in the second intifada. So we hold drama therapy, in fact there is a stygmatism against mental health practices in Jenin, it is seen as weak to go to mental health. So through drama therapy we can reach as many of the youth as we can in a kind of subversive way. People don’t really see it as going to psychologist. And its very important, the violence, anger, frustration, physical effects of post traumatic stress- stutters, all sorts. So through this work we do what we can to counteract that.
The goals of the theater are several, which build into one- the idea that we provide a safe place for children and youth, not just children and youth, I mean we’re open to adults, anyone, but we concentrate on children and youth to come and express themselves and talk about whatever- talk about the occupation, talk about society, talk about domestic violence, talk about just growing up and what its like to be a teenager. So we provide a safe place where people can do that. The idea of them expressing themselves is also then to create a narrative, and to take the message of these people, and the Palestinian cause out to the world, but in a professional way. That’s why we give the courses and the training- to do it in a professional way. So instead of just getting the message out in whatever way, we create professional theatre shows, professional films, professional photography exhibitions that then go out to the world and spread the message. The other idea of this as well is that we create an honest dialogue with the world, in that we’re not just the classic propaganda machine of occupation occupation occupation. We’re also not afraid to talk about the problems that are inherent in our society- domestic violence and so on, like I said, the subjugation of women. And the point of this as well is so that we fight for the freedom of all people, but also so that when we go to the world and we talk, it carries more weight, because people see that we are honest. Instead of just having the narrative that alot of people just block out in the world, of just hearing about occupation, we find another way to get to people, because we talk about all women’s rights and children’s rights. And then obviously that leads into the rights of all people under occupation. So there’s that.
One of the things we’re trying to build now is reconnecting Palestinian civil society, which has become so fragmented. I mean, you have obviously the West Bank, inside ’67, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, and then the diaspora around the world. Palestinian civil society is really fragmented. Even in the West Bank there’s a stygmatism against people in refugee camps from people in cities. And then the thought is that to really be able to have a united Palestinian political front, then Palestinian civil society has to be united, otherwise it’ll just always fall down. Now this can be done in many ways, business and sport can do their part, but culture and art can really help. So the idea is that we are starting a moving theater company that will tour to refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, tour to Gaza, we want to start bringing groups from there here. We already do, with Alice in Wonderland, part of it is about breaking borders- we were busing people in from Haifa, from Netanya, from Nazareth, from Yaffa, buses of people were coming in to Jenin refugee camp to watch theater. It’s already starting to break borders.
And then really, all of these things come into the all encompassing, overall- freedom. Hence the name Freedom Theater, it’s all about freedom for everyone. And we don’t particularly advocate a political stance. We don’t go Hamas, Fatah, PFLP. We don’t do one state, two state, four state, six state, whatever. We advocate the freedom of choice, freedom to be able to choose what political affiliation you have, choose what solution you want to have. There’s not even any choice there for people to choose what solution they would like to see in the conflict. so that’s our thing, its about freedom, hence the name.
I’m sure you know our recent history- in April Juliano was murdered, less than 100 meters from the theater. We don’t know who and we don’t know why. And it put us here into quite a crisis, obviously, we didn’t just lose a friend, we lost the central structure of the management system, and also the artistic side of things, he was the director. And then also his wife left understandably- she gave birth to twins just two weeks after his death, and she didn’t want to come back, and that’s fair enough. And she was the main fundraiser and we lost her as well. So the theater went into quite a crisis. But we are still recovering from it, we started working again, i mean we have had two tours, we had one tour to France, the guys left this morning to Germany, Austria and Switzerland. We have another tour going to America, so we’re getting back, but its really fucking hard work, understandably. and then also the Israeli army getting on our ass as well has been not very helpful.
Can you tell us more about that?
Well the first event was about a month and half ago. At about 3 in the morning I got a phone call saying the Israeli army was coming, smashing windows, and very promptly got detained at the back of the theatre. They were throwing rocks at the windows, smashing the windows, and Ahmad, who is the security guard, when he went out he was confronted by Israeli soldiers who were like ‘lift your shirt, drop your trousers’, they detained him as well. And they proceeded to take Adnan, our location manager and head technician, and Bilal Saadi he’s the head of our board, they took him to Jarlemagne [sp?]. And initially they gave the normal rubbish excuses, like ‘theyre acting against the security of the region’. We then found out they are supposedly doing an investigation into the murder of Juliano. But then i dont count investigations where you kidnap people and treat them inhumanely, treat them to sleep deprivation- for a week they didn’t sleep- and then you try to get them to confess. Like this they work. That’s not an investigation, that’s trying to pin it on somebody.
Why do you think the IDF is cracking down on you at this particular time?
It’s very weird, i mean i dont know, the ins and outs of the security system are bits of a whole…there’s many theories. One theory is that members of our Swedish foundation board took part in the Gaza flotilla, i know he was questioned about the theatre’s involvement in the Gaza flotilla, there is a boat named after Juliano…that’s one theory.
Another theory is that the Freedom Theatre does do very much to dispel alot of Israeli propaganda. That’s one of our other fights. We use theater and culture as a form of resistance in two ways- there’s getting this message out and counteracting the Israeli propaganda, which is huge with large amounts of money behind it. And also as you know the occupation isn’t just about taking land, destroying homes, arresting people, killing people, it’s also about destroying an identity. Like you talk to the Zionist settlers, even people in the Knesset- they all say there is no Palestine, there’s no Palestinian, there’s no such thing. And this is where theater and culture come as a form of resistance, because it shows look! There is a Palestinian, there’s a Palestinian culture, what the fuck. And this doesn’t mean showing 100 year old traditional Palestinian art, which we incorporate in all our work, but its just a vibrant culture and community. Culture and art progresses, it changes, it transforms, and that’s what happens here as well as anywhere else.
So ideas like Black Box Theatre are quite new, but the idea of storytelling is very very old in Palestine and the Arab world, and music as well as dance. It’s there, Palestinian culture is there and that’s what we’re doing, we’re showing it. And also to counteract Israeli propaganda is a big thing. Jule as he was was a massive weapon, because he was an Israeli Jew who counts himself as Palestinian, he had served in the Special Forces in the Israeli army, but yet he was here living in Jenin refugee camp, working against the occupation. Arna as well was in Palmach, she was the driver for one of the most right wing Zionist groups during the war in ’48, and also hearing her sister talk about a massacre in Beer-sheva, where they massacred 300 Palestinians in a mosque, and how proud her sister was of this…
So could the IDF’s crackdown have something to do with the UN vote, and worries of a new Palestinian resistance springing up in Jenin and elsewhere?
It could well be. It could actually be that they are doing an investigation into the murder of Juliano, but then as a side bonus, they say ‘oh we can fuck the freedom theater up a bit!’ Also, after Juliano’s death it was shown how much support the Freedom Theatre has in the world, and not just people. Politicians, organizations, media as well- how much support the Freedom Theatre has- and that some of the most dangerous things for Israel, is showing that places like the Freedom Theatre can reach really far. Recently with the attacks so far, we’ve had the actor’s union in Britain, actor’s unions in America, France, Germany- its made it to Parliament in Britian, France, Germany, Sweden, at least- congressmen in America as well- people phoning in the Israeli embassies, and sending them letters all the time, asking them what’s happening, what are you doing to the Freedom Theatre- the Israeli embassy started sending back replies, which I’ve never seen before! I’ve never seen the Israeli embassy reply to these kinds of letters, they just go whatever, fuck you , we don’t care. It feels like we’re hitting a nerve, and we try to harness that. We’re starting a community website, which is like a social networking site based around the Theatre and then based around culture and art to do with Palestine, and from here, the idea is connecting people, connecting people all around the world who are interested, and want to do something, in a social networking forum, and talk to each other. And the more people meet in this kind of context, the stronger this movement can build. And our work in the Freedom Theatre is building this movement inside Palestine. Building the idea of making the third Intifada an Intifada of culture and art, along with the normal demonstrations and things, but really using culture as a means of dispelling all these things, dispelling peoples views in the world of the Palestinians. Palestinians aren’t terrorists. This is what the Freedom Theatre does. Zakaria shows that you can come here, as a Jew, as an Israeli, and if you’re against occupation, then you’re welcomed as a friend. It’s not like we’re throwing Jews to the sea.
Speaking of the third Intifada, Juliano said in April 2006, around the time the Theatre was officially founded- “In Jenin – especially in Jenin – something is happening, in the good sense of the word. There is a universalist discourse, an international happening. Zakaria Zubeidi’s influence has led to a international campaign around a new kind of resistance…we want to be part of this third Intifada which is on the way in a way to hopefully influence at least some of the people in Jenin camp, towards non-violent, cultural international resistance.” Do you think this movement in Jenin is even stronger today? Right now the theater is recovering from a big trauma since Juliano’s death, but it has survived even larger traumas- the whole Stone Theater was destroyed! Arna died and it got back on its feet! So is there an even stronger hope today?
I mean yea, i think so. With what’s happened in the last few months we still have problems, we still struggle, really struggle. But the Freedom Theatre is stronger than whatever can be thrown at it. Whatever, the Israeli army can come and take us all, but the Freedom Theatre will keep going. The people here really have the ideals of it, the resolve to carry on, and more and more people come. We’re not looking for a fix after one year, four years, six years- we’re looking at generations here. These children outside are five and six, those people are eighteen, nineteen,we’re working with these generations. So in ten fifteen years, when people see the Freedom Theatre is here, still fighting, people will start realizing- more and more people will join this idea. Palestine is overrun with organizations that come in and go, come in, do a short project and leave- the flash mob of NGOs come in, do something nice, get a nice booklet out of it to send to the EU donors and then fuck off. That’s not what we’re about- we’re here to continue, so we have to show people we’re here to continue. And that means being here for ten, fifteen , twenty years. And that’s what will hapeen.
What’s the refugee camp like now, I mean the massacre was 9 years ago-
I wouldn’t say massacre. Alot of people in Jenin refugee camp-
-would not like it being called massacre, especially people like Zakaria. It was a battle, and the massacre would mean that the Israelis came in and killed everyone. Jenin fought fucking hard, and Jenin was where many of the israeli casualties came from. But after that the camp rebuilt, I think you’ve gotta look at the second Intifada as a whole- people lost hope after the second Intifada. That’s the biggest battle with bringing people into organizations and ideals like the Freedom Theatre- first you have to give them hope. Even when I was here during the end of the second Intifada, even when the resistance was being beaten, the Israeli army was finishing them off, the PA were then coming in to clean up afterwards and keep the peace after the Israelis- even towards that, when people knew things were coming to an end, because it was still a fight, there was still a bit of hope. But a few years later, a few years of the PA and of nothing changing, people don’t know what they want, they don’t know hope. Palestinian statehood is a new thing, and so on and so forth, but most people in the refugee camp are rather apathetic to it, because they don’t feel that its gonna do anything for them. There’s a real apathy to it.
Do you think the UN vote for Palestinian statehood could have a positive effect for the resistance?
The best thing it can do is try to isolate American-Israeli policy more. To succeed it has to get through the UN Security Council.
This bid for statehood could mean alot for the refugees in Jenin camp and elsewhere, if the right to return is brought up.
The legal implications- they haven’t thought it through enough. It’s a great symbolic event, but they haven’t thought it through. There’s huge implications with the PLO as well- because making the PA the sole representative of the Palestinian people in a Palestinian state, what happens to the refugees in Lebanon , Syria, all over the world? That was the point of the PLO, to be the representative of Palestinians wherever they are. Also , how could the PA- which is a subsidiary organization of the PLO, who started the PA- how can the PA take over from, dissolve the PLO? There’s loads of stuff they haven’t thought about. The best thing we can hope for it is to isolate American-Israeli policy. If 144 countries say yes we agree to the Palestinian state, and there’s 2, 3, 4 that say no…
But is there a positive hope for things like the Theatre right now? Because if there is no hope for a violent revolution, a cultural 3rd intifada would promote the image of a Palestinian people who are strong, and have the means and desire to express themselves…
Yea completely, it’s all about that. It’s about fighting for the rights of people, and not just that, its about dispelling the Israeli propaganda and showing that Palestine is a mix, it’s varied…we are from a refugee camp but we have people from the cities, from Ramallah. When we go out we don’t just do shows, we do talks, alot of talks. In Germany something insane, like 6,000 people will come out to the show and stay for the talks afterwards. Also we have to get to the people who aren’t pro-Palestinian- we have to bring in people in the middle, people who are apathetic, people who don’t care one way or the other, and then we have to start to work on people who are pro-Israel- its a tug of war, isn’t it?
How did you get involved with the Freedom Theatre?
I was living in Nablus about six years ago, and while I was there the guy I was with had a friend who was working at the Freedom Theatre, and after being in Palestine I decided I wanted to come back with a more long term project. So i heard about the Freedom Theatre, and my background is in theatre, as a technician and production manager, so i contacted him and said i wanted to come out, and teach, and he said great, so i came out and lived here for a year, and then after i left i came back and forth for different projects, and after Jule was murdered I came back.
What is a good way for people, both in Palestine and internationally, to support the Freedom Theatre?
The obvious way is money. But alot more than that, when we start this community website, people can get involved in this. You can do blogs, you can do groups…then we’re starting up a UK Friends Of the Freedom Theatre, and the American Friends Of are really strong, they’re amazing, and the fundraising they manage to do is just phenomenal. And the people they reach- they reach congressmen, senators, big media people, they’ve really got it sorted. And these contacts with senators and politicians- when things happen, when people are taken from the Freedom Theatre by the Israeli army, and the manner they are taken, we can tell people about that. It’s a common thing for people to be taken in the middle of the night in this way in Palestine, there’s nothing new there, but because it was the Freedom Theatre we’ve managed to highlight it. So people get interested because its a theater, it doesn’t seem so politically controversial to be involved with a theatre, but then once they’re hooked, we kick them in the face with what the occupation is. And then also we want to tour to UK in the future, so UK Friends would help organize that, and can organize events for the Freedom Theatre- we can send you films, and you can organize an evening about Palestine maybe also based around the Freedom Theatre. Arna’s Children is always a good one to show. And one of us may be available to come speak at your event.
One struggle is against the occupation, but there is also the struggle within Palestinian society itself, as you said, there is alot of conservative religious resistance to having coed lessons, and even depicting a pig in Animal Farm, and some even speculate that Juliano may have been murdered by that kind of-
Yea, there’s also speculation that Jule was murdered for 3 million dollars, and he didn’t have 3 dollars…regarding speculations, we don’t deal with it. We’ll deal with the facts when we know who and why. We have often had threats against the theatre, against our activities, dealing with boys and girls on stage, things with Animal Farm, depicting animals as human, all these things, but they’ve never been so serious. Even after Jule’s death we had death threats immediately after, the week after. But it was the same kinds of things- foreigners leave, the theatre out- this group was using the situation. There is a small group of people who really don’t like the theatre, and they write these letters, and stick them in the mosque, and whatever, each to their own, we don’t count them as much of a threat. The largest thing in the camp is apathy. Apathy or slight fear, like there is fear of being associated with the theatre, we have had someone killed, lots of people arrested- and you have the extremes, you have people who absolutely hate us, and people who love us. So this kind of demographic isn’t anything particularly that we concentrate so much on. It’s always gonna be there, there’s always gonna be people who don’t like us. Hopefully there will be more and more people who like us, and who feel safe and comfortable to be involved with the theatre. I mean, they send their children here! During Ramadan we had 300 children in the theatre watching a show. So if they send their children here obviously they aren’t worried about it, whether they wanna get involved or not.
So this whole thing of women mixing and so on and so forth is a very touchy subject, a very difficult one to explain. I am a foreigner, I’m from Britain, but the majority of people working with the Freedom Theatre are Palestinian so you very much can’t have this idea of imposing Western ideals on a Middle Eastern population. It’s not that at all, it’s that these people believe in freedom for everyone. And it’s the same in the camp- it’s not like we’re going out on the streets and telling all these conservative people that they need to buck up their ideas. We’re just here and we show what an alternative is, we show that men and women mix and nothing bad happens, we show that people are equal, that children can come here and not be beaten, that there is another way and that if people want to come and have the support of the Freedom Theatre they can come. I saw a great event two years ago when we had some neighbors, some people from the camp come to the play, and they were fuming that one of the girls was j0king about having sex with a boy, and they were fuming, kicking off saying ‘all women in the theater are whores’…the best thing was the women! A very conservative woman was straight up in this guy’s face, telling him what’s what, telling him to get lost, that her and her daughters are here in the theatre and they’re not whores. Another 19 year old girl stood up to a guy 3 times her size, a violent guy, standing up to him and eyeballing him- it was an amazing thing to watch, that these women felt powerful, felt able to stand up for what they believe in. That’s what were here to do- its not like its Western culture or its Eastern culture, these are basic ideas, ideas of freedom and equality.
Is it important as you said, to sidestep the usual debate that happens when you start talking about the occupation, by attacking the problem from other angles?
Definitely. There is so much in Palestine that needs attention, and the thing is that people in the world get very bored very easily of conflicts like Palestine, unless its constantly in the news, and even then…and they back off as soon as it seems a bit controversial- like ISM is a controversial organization, you could say. Really, they’re not, they’re just an organization that works against the occupation in a very on the ground way, and a very getting arrested way. But the thing is, people in the West back off a bit from that. With ISM, the most people who will hear your media updates are ex-ISMers, which is important, i mean ISM reports also get to media quite often, which is good, and thats very important. But we still also have to come up with these ways to catch the people who back off a little bit fom the more controversial things- like hearing that people frm the ISM have been killed. Israel paints a very black picture of ISM and also its very easy for the Israeli propaganda to lump ISM with extreme environmental activists in France. Charges of anti semitism as well. But everyone- we get it, I am an anti semite supposedly, and all i said was i’m going to Palestine’, i just called it Palestine and i was called an anti semite! Some people in the West still have no idea what Palestine is, what the conflict is about- but food autonomy, if they are a farmer they know about food autonomy, so that sparks their interest, and if they hear about it in Palestine they think- this isnt fair!
And the right to education, also , its a gateway in for people’s understanding-
Yes, I mean alot of people back off from this thing about Palestinians being killed and arrested, and the wall, because they think ‘oh its Israel defending themselves’. So with these people its through stuff like food autonomy, like water consumption in the Jordan Valley, the water consumption is on a par with a disaster area!
Yes, its a 33-1 ratio between settlers and Palestinians.
Yes it’s mad. So stuff like that is a way in for these people. they read about it, and they get more into it, and they get involved.
A big problem with the Freedom Theatre and life in general here in the West Bank involves freedom of movement and the right to travel. What sort of repression in this regard have you experienced?
I tried to take two technicians from here to Britain four years ago, I had a four week work placement with them, everything was arranged, and it was refused by the British government- but this could have come from the Israeli government. They didn’t believe the grants would come back, but what can you say to that? They will? Most recently, we have had big problems with our third year group that will go to America in September. Problems with them being arrested and interrogated, one is still in prison now. Also they have all had to have visa application meetings with the American consulate. The American consulate doesn’t come to the west bank, so these students have to go to Jerusalem and Jordan. Jerusalem is alot easier. In the past these students have never had problems getting to Jerusalem, and suddenly- stopped. None of these children can go, they are all perceived as a security threat. And again, two of these students have been refused American visas- one of these students went through the Jordanian border, and got through the Israeli security, and then the Jordanian security turned him back. Its not only that the Israelis have this anti Palestinian thing, its the whole world’s security services. the Jordanians can be worse than the Israelis.
Within the ideological innards of both camps of the Israel-Palestine conflict, and connecting the two inextricably, there quivers a web wedding religious aspiration and political action, very tangled and dense, but not impenetrable. On the side of the oppressor (Israel), the religious idea of a ‘return to the homeland’ is the whole reason Zionism has chosen this patch of land over all others, and its process of colonization and displacement of the 1000-year native Palestinian population relies completely on the idea that Jews were ‘here before’, and so have returned to ‘resurrect’ their innate, divine claim to the land. Zionism colonizes this land through remembrance- it fleshes out the past and uses it to usurp and cover over the present Palestinian presence. The past is its sword and shield.
On the side of the oppressed (Palestinians), a religious rejection of modernity, and a deep-seated desire for the revitalization of the Golden Age of Islam, have taken in their stride, in the land of Palestine, a protracted anti-colonialist struggle to throw off the yoke of oppression. These spiritual desires in the Islamic world are part of a much larger religious and social movement that spans the last several hundred years; nonetheless, through radical, political Islam, they have taken shape, in the Israel-Palestine conflict, as a struggle to liberate the Palestinian people ‘from the river to the sea’, and to establish a self-determining Muslim state with Jerusalem as its capital.
We must remember that, among Jews and Palestinians, those motivated chiefly by such religious worldviews represent but a small fraction of the total population. Not all Jews yearn for a Greater Israel, and not all Palestinians yearn for a new Caliphate. In his 2009 booklet Obstacles to Peace, Israeli human rights activist Jeff Halper writes that “Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and other Palestinian “rejectionist” groups that reject peace with Israel and have turned to violent means of resistance represent about the same proportion of Palestinian society in the Occupied Territories – say 15-20% – that extreme settler and other right-wing rejectionist groups represent in Israeli society.” (28) Nonetheless, this small minority polarizes both sides of the conflict, paints the conflict with an air of divine irreconcilability, and grafts onto the conflict an irreducibly religious dimension in the sphere of ideology, that vast stomping ground of fantasy and mirage where humans manage to develop very confused ideas of what they are doing to themselves and to each other.
I will attempt here to tentatively explore the complex, interdependent relationship between the spiritual-religious beliefs of Zionism, and its national-political aspirations, focusing on the twin lenses of the Zionist revival of the Hebrew language in the early 1900s, and the archeological excavations in modern-day Palestine, in particular the 1967 transformation of the Western Wall into a vast secular spectacle. Looking at the deliberate revivification of ancient Hebrew in the 1900s as a modern, secular language for (what portrayed itself as) a modern, democratic nation-state, I will examine the intense Zionist drive to unleash and channel this religious well-spring for its own secular, nationalist purposes, to fashion a new beast out of old clay, at the expense of the day-to-day language of the Diaspora that, for a vast amount of time in between, separated the Hebrew of the past from the site of its purported rebirth- Yiddish.
This double movement within Zionism, at once remembrance of Hebrew and suppression of Yiddish, has as its parallel the colonization of Palestine, where the ground was literally dug up from under the feet of the 1000-year indigenous Palestinian population through the archeological recovery and recollection of an ancient Israelite presence, so that colonization appears as recolonization, settlement as resettlement, occupation as return. This is a peculiar sort of imperialism, which summons to life a new cultural and political beast clothed in remembrance of the dead letter, which calls on the skeletons of its ancestors to spiritually finance a deadly occupation, and draws all the power and might of Western arms and capital in its wake.
In ‘The Eyes of Language’, Jacques Derrida speaks of a 1926 letter from Gershom Scholem, a cultural-turned-political Zionist who was teaching Jewish Mysticism at Hebrew University in Palestine, to Franz Rosenzweig, an anti-Zionist, pro-diaspora Jewish writer who was then paralyzed on his deathbed in Germany. Though there had long been a friendship-rending disagreement between the two over the question of Zionism’s fidelity to (Scholem) or betrayal of (Rosenzweig) the messianic core of Judaism, Scholem, though he defends the validity of Zionism, confesses to Rosenzweig in this letter his startling and discomforting recognition of an evil that may lurk, unbeknownst even to its host, within the very essence of Zionism. In Derrida’s words, “It is a confession before Rosenzweig the anti-Zionist, because Scholem is a Zionist- that is what he wants to be, that is what he remains and confirms being. Yet, he cannot but recognize in Zionism an evil, an inner evil, an evil that is anything but accidental. More precisely, one cannot but recognize that the accident that befalls Zionism or that lies in wait for it threatens it essentially, in its closest proximity- in its language, and as soon as a Zionist opens its mouth….It is a matter of what used to be called then, in Palestine, the “actualization (Aktualisierung)” of the Hebrew language, its modernization, the transformation undertaken since the beginning of the century (Ben Yehuda) and pursued systematically toward adapting biblical Hebrew to the needs of everyday communication, be it technical and national, but also, for a modern nation, international and interstate communication.” (Acts of Religion, 194)
From the 2nd century CE, until the latter half of the 1800s, Hebrew was a language that for the Jewish people had virtually vanished from literary or spoken expression, and was reserved only for prayer, theological writing, and books of law. In the late 1800s, Hebrew enjoyed a somewhat obscure literary revival among Ashkenazi Jewry in Eastern Europe; at the same time, the spark of Zionism was struck among Eastern European Jews, as part of a wider European wave of nationalism and in response to growing anti-Semitism. Says Ghil’ad Zuckerman in his linguistic study Hybridity Versus Revivability: Multiple Causation, Forms and Patterns, “At the time, although territory and language were at the heart of European nationalism, the Jews possessed neither a national territory nor a national language.” (43) http://www.zuckermann.org/pdf/Hybridity_versus_Revivability.pdf In the soil of the Hebrew language, this spark of Zionism burst into a flame, propelling a fireball of cultural pride into a political movement that used the revival of Hebrew to foster a new national self-consciousness, a new Jewish identity that, in typical Enlightenment spirit, considered itself a soul birthed anew out of its past, and sought for itself a body in a new land- Palestine.
The glorification of Hebrew in the 1900s by Ben-Yehuda and others went hand in hand with the proliferation of Zionist Jews in the land of Palestine; the transformation of a language went hand in hand with the political expansion of a people. According to Wikipedia, “the process of Hebrew’s return to regular usage is unique; there are no other examples of a language without any native speakers subsequently acquiring several million such native speakers, and no other examples of a sacred language becoming a national language with millions of first language speakers.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revival_of_the_Hebrew_language
Scholem confesses his fear that Zionism, by transforming the sacred language of Hebrew, charged as it is with (what to him appeared as) holy potentialities, into an everyday secular tongue, thereby unleashed into the national-political scene of the 1900s an ancient monster beyond anyone’s control. “This country is a volcano”, says Scholem, “it houses language…if we transmit to our children the language that has been transmitted to us, if we-the generation of transition- resuscitate the language of the ancient books so that it can reveal itself anew to them, must then not the religious violence of this language one day break out against those who speak it? And on the day this eruption occurs, which generation will suffer its effects?…Hebrew is pregnant with catastrophes.”
Scholem senses that the Zionism in which he places his faith, the Zionism which has revitalized Jewish culture, is nonetheless also the Zionism which, by secularizing, modernizing and normalizing the Messianic forces that dwell in the holy Hebrew tongue, has injected a divine, schizophrenic and unpredictable energy into a national populace that, in 1926, was still working to birth itself into the political world as a nation-state among nation-states. This did not just occur on the abstract plane of language, rather, it took place as a process in history that began in Eastern Europe in the late 1800s and, by 1948, solidified into a political Event, the consecration of a new nation-state. Alongside this guided (forced) evolution of Hebrew, from sacred tongue to national-secular dialect, was a transformation of cultural Zionism, which sought to revitalize Jewish culture and identity in face of the threats of assimilation and anti-Semitism, into political Zionism, which took this cultural drive for renewal and turned it into a national-political agenda to conquer a land and form a militarized nation-state.
Today, as we look back upon and form the narrative of the past that has led us to this 21st century present, we must guard against a tendency to mythologize the past, to summarize it with the broad strokes of abstract historical ‘forces’. There is a deification of the force of language, in Scholem’s worldview and in Derrida’s interpretation of it, that leads to a reification of an immaterial essence- Hebrew and its holy potentialities- as the driving Spirit behind the history of Zionism. For according to Scholem’s narrative, the transformation in question here, from Hebrew as holy tongue to secular dialect, and from cultural Zionism as Judaic revitalization to political Zionism as nationalist project, is a transformation that occurs first and foremost in the former field of language, and only then trickles down to transform the latter field of ideology.
Or, if the two transformations in truth occur as a single evolution, they unfold, in ‘The Eyes of Language’, upon a field that, true to Derrida’s entire project (which, for all its beauty, is not Marxist), is not the concrete, immanent socio-economic field of politics and history, but is rather the semi-transcendent, partly-ineffable, infinitely-open play of interpretation and the letter. “There is a power of language”, Derrida claims, “at once a dynamis, an enveloped virtuality, a potentiality that can be brought or not to actuality; it is hidden, buried, dormant. This potentiality is also a power, a particular efficacy that acts on its own, in a quasi- autonomous manner, without the initiative and beyond the control of speaking subjects.” (213-14) If we wish to actually reconstruct the chain of events that constitute the history of Zionism and the Israel-Palestine conflict from which it cannot be disassociated, we are left with little time to leave our reasoning power at the door, slip off our slippers, remove our thinking caps and kneel before the altar of the Hidden Potentiality of Language. Derrida tries to account for all concrete political history by enveloping it within his Play of the Letter- “this catastrophe of language will not only be linguistic. From the beginning of the letter, the political and national dimension is staged.” Nonetheless, the latter two dimensions of politics and national identity are framed within, and bow before, the former dimension of the letter, so that the catastrophe of Zionism can be seen as ultimately a catastrophe of language, and so that the political-historical events which constitute Zionism’s unfolding become the playing-out of supra-natural, transhistorical essences.
As good materialists, we cannot rest easy with Scholem’s worldview that explains historical phenomena as the surface effects of ghostly, ephemeral, spiritual-Biblical processes that play themselves out behind the given socio-economic-political reality. Nor can we be satisfied with a Derridean picture that leads our eyes away from historical fact, towards a pseudo-theological play of signifiers (however tempting speculation regarding the latter may be). The danger in this is clear- throughout the 1900s, it was precisely the Zionist mythology that viewed its concrete imperialist project as a spiritual process, as God’s will manifesting itself on Earth. Zionism used this spiritual meta-narrative to justify and to cloak the oppression of Palestinians and the expropriation of their land. In addition, it is easy today to look at the Old City, where Al-Aqsa mosque sits so close to the Western Wall, and to become convinced that the Israel-Palestine conflict is a cosmic clash between divine forces, a Battle of the Monotheisms, in which the human narrative is mere puppet play. The radical factions within Judaism and Islam inflame and obfuscate this conflict by painting it with precisely these transcendent, passionate colors. Today, to dispel the tangled, illusory and confusing clouds of religious passion and tribal ideology that drive everyone into a deeper mess, we must see the historical facts of the Israel-Palestine conflict for what they are- historical facts, composed of the concrete interplay of social, economic and political relationships.
Though we must guard against romanticizing and mythologizing the stark reality of the conflict, we can nonetheless draw from Derrida and Scholem’s discourses on language important insights regarding the relationship between religious mythologies, national orientations, and political affiliations. We can see the intrinsic relationship between the Zionism which bends the sacred language of Hebrew for its secular nationalistic purposes, and the Zionism which twists and channels the Biblical passions of Judaism into a concrete political agenda. For while spiritual-metaphysical concepts do not possess any transcendental reality, and in themselves have no immanent causal effect in the realm of social-political configurations, they are used, within these latter configurations, as signifiers of extreme force and violence, so that, as elements of language and pawns of ideology, the forces embedded in religious ideas come to play a major role in world politics and history. As critical secular thinkers, we must affirm that there is no Judaic ‘God’ or divinely mandated ‘ingathering of the exiles’, we must affirm that there is no ‘Allah’ and no divinely mandated ‘jihad’; nonetheless, we cannot fail to recognize how these ideas play such a crucial role in inflaming political agendas and social movements. In the thought, word and deed of humans, these ideas seem to take on a life of their own.
This is the sphere of political theology- the study of how religious and theological concepts play themselves out in, and influence, the political patterns by which humans navigate and organize their shared social reality. For “those who believed that they secularized the sacred language did not do so in order to desacralize. They believed, thoughtlessly, that they were going to ‘resuscitate’, to reanimate the language of origin in a modern world and in a modern state.” (Acts of Religion, 206) Throughout the 1900s, the actors of political and cultural Zionism, as they pushed for the creation and sustenance of the State of Israel, believed either that they were fulfilling, in earthly politics, God’s will as written in the Torah, or that they were protecting and strengthening the Jewish people, as a nation and a culture. Be it cultural or political Zionism, be it in the practical atheist nationalism of Theodore Hertzl or in the all-Jews-to-the-Holy Land unification theology of Abraham Isaac Kook, we see one and the same drive to unify and uplift a people. Both camps sought to glorify the given, and so, consciously and unconsciously, they translated theological emotions into political motivations. They tapped into deeply-embedded cultural motifs of collective exile and redemption, not to ‘desacralize’ concepts previously only whispered in prayer or eyed in fantasy and longing, but to ‘resuscitate’ a scattered and battered people threatened by diaspora, assimilation and anti-Semitism, to raise this confused and secularized mass closer towards what they perceived to be a new state of sacred Becoming.
In this nexus of political theology that in the 1900s animated the Zionist project, we see the violence of a double inscription, carved atop a double erasure- first, on the surface of Zionism’s body, the land of Palestine, we see the forced settlement of the Jewish population, coincident with the forced suppression of the indigenous Palestinian presence; second, within the borders of Zionism’s self-identity, we see the forced revitalization of Hebrew, coincident with the forced forgetting of Yiddish. The parallels are clear as day- in Palestine, Jews had for centuries been a tiny minority among Arabs; in Diaspora Judaism, Hebrew had been for centuries the language of a tiny minority, spoken only in prayer, while the vast majority of Jews spoke Yiddish. As part of the national-political Zionist project, the former element was dragged out of obscurity and forced atop the latter in a deliberate, unnatural gesture of dominance. The movement which scarred the Palestinian people had also to scar itself; the mark of difference had to wedge itself between Jew-Arab on the outside, and between Hebrew-Yiddish, and in a larger sense Israel-Diaspora, on the inside; Zionism had to cover over both scars with the same brazenness, the same masculine over-assertion, the same all-encompassing cultural and political upsurge of nationalism and pride.
In the early 1900s, the Legion of the Defenders of the Language was established in Tel Aviv to harass Yiddish theater performances, ban and hinder the spread of Yiddish publications, and otherwise forcibly promote the development of Hebrew as the only acceptable language for what would become the Jewish nation. Zuckerman, cited above- “In the 1920s and 1930s, gdud meginéy hasafá, ‘the language defendants regiment’, whose motto was ivrí, dabér ivrít ‘Hebrew [i.e. Jew], speak Hebrew!’, used to tear down signs written in ‘foreign’ languages and disturb Yiddish theatre gatherings.” (48) As Sue Wright says in her book Language and the State- Revitalization and Revival in Israel and Eire, “The struggle with Yiddish continued even after Hebrew was firmly established. It was seen as a continuing threat during the immigration of the early days of independence in the 1950s. Yiddish was the prototype enemy of Hebrew. It was the language associated with the Diaspora, and so with the rejected identity of Diaspora Jew. It was the language of the religious anti-Zionists, a group seen as a constant reminder of another rejected identity. And it was the language espoused by an identity that rejected territorialism and the return to Zion.” (19) Or as Benjamin Harshav points out in Language in Time of Revolution, “The revulsion from [the Yiddish language]…[was] a recoil from Diaspora existence… [from] the mother tongue, intimate and hated at the same time, from the parental home of the shtetl, corroded by idleness and Jewish trading, and from the world of prayer, steeped in the scholastic and irrelevant study of Talmud, and the irrational and primitive behavior of the Hasidim.” (157)
Yiddish was rejected, and Hebrew was enforced, in the same Zionist stubbornness which spit out, like a bad memory, the thought of the Diasporic Jewish community, dependent on the bricks of another’s house, guests in a foreign land, too weak to determine itself like the rest of Europe. For the newly-forming Zionist consciousness, wrenching itself away from this reality meant violently shoving it into the past. This was accomplished in a double motion- on the one hand, breaking into and creating a new future, in a new land, with a new identity; and, on the other hand, digging up, as in an excavation, the comforting pretense of an ancient past, and clothing the forward march in the shreds of this past, thrusting the name of this past ahead as justification for the advance. The land of Palestine combined perfectly this motif of Enlightenment futurity with the trace of an anarchic, irretrievable, Biblical past.
To reconcile Zion the imaginary with the Real patch of land on the coast of the Mediterranean, required an immensely surreal, novel and traumatizing leap of forced familiarity. Writing of Gershom Scholem in 1926 Palestine, Derrida asks us to imagine “the paradigmatic scene of this Berliner intellectual from the diaspora, living two cultures, familiar, as are so many others, with sacred nonspoken texts reserved for study and liturgy, and who all at once hears, in the Palestine of the 1 920s, these sacred names in the street, on the bus, at the corner store, in the newspapers that every day publish lists of new words to be inscribed in the code of secular Hebrew. One must imagine the desire and the terror in the face of this outpouring, this prodigious, unbridled prodigality that flooded everyday life with sacred names, language giving itself out…” (209) He continues- ‘The demonic horror of these sorcerers’ apprentices gifted with an unconscious courage that pushes them to manipulate forces which surpass them-here is this horror commensurate with a kind of death, the death of the living dead…as if the return to life were only a simulacrum for which one was going to disguise the dead as a caricature of itself for the funeral home, a nonlanguage, the frozen grin of a semiotics, a disincarnated, fleshless, and formally universal exchange value, an instrument in the commerce of signs, without a proper place, without a proper name, a false return to life, a shoddy resurrection.” (209-10)
A perfect example of the Zionist drive to ‘disguise the dead as a caricature of itself for the funeral home’, to fix the past in a ‘frozen grin’, is what is now known as the Western Wall.
For 2030 years, this wall has stood; for nearly 2000 years, it has been the only remnant of the structure of the Jews’ Second Temple; for at least 1000 years, the wall itself has been for the Jews a supreme object of religious fixation.
Only for the last 44 years, however, has a magnificent open-air synagogue plaza paved the way to the wall for the Jews- paved, as it were, over the remains of 135 houses, a mosque, a school, and the 800-year history of the Moroccan or Mughrabi Quarter.
“Three days after Israel seized the Old City during the Six Day War, on the evening of June 10, 1967, 650 inhabitants of the Moroccan Quarter were told to vacate their homes on a few hours notice. Workers under the guard of soldiers then proceeded to demolish the quarter, consisting of 135 houses, the al-Buraq mosque, the Bou Medyan zaouia and other sites, with the exception of a mosque and a zaouia which were demolished two years later. According to Etan Ben Moshe, the officer in charge, several persons died following their refusal to leave their homes; one woman from the quarter who did not hear the calls to vacate was buried beneath the rubble, her body found the next morning under the ruins of her home. In the following days all of the Palestinian Arab inhabitants of the Jewish Quarter were also evicted…Almost a year later, on April 18, 1968, the Israeli Ministry of the Treasury officially expropriated the land of the quarter for public use, along with the Jewish Quarter, and offered 200 Jordanian dinars to each family which had been displaced.After the destruction, the section of the Wall dedicated to prayers was extended southwards to double its original length from 28 to 60 meters, while the original facing open area of some four meters grew to 40 meters: the small 120 square meter area in front of the wall became the vast Western Wall Plaza, covering 20,000 square meters over the ruins of the Moghrabi Quarter.The site of the Moroccan Quarter is now a large open plaza leading up to Western Wall, in use as an open-air synagogue.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moroccan_Quarter
The Western Wall has always been for the Jews a present symbol of an irretrievable past, the living remnant of a dead temple, the trace which persists in time to announce that which has passed, the visible sign of an invisible promise. It is the only remaining segment of the guard wall that once surrounded their Second Temple, destroyed almost 2000 years ago. Like any other religious site, the wall has been imbued over the years with what we can refer to as a ‘holiness’, not (for us seculars) by the will of God, but through the intense devotion of generations of human hands, hearts, words, and tears. To forcibly inscribe a new conquest and to markedly denote a new era, the Zionist movement bathed this living symbol in blood and artificially grafted a new limb onto it. Just as the Hebrew language persisted in a similar holiness for thousands of years, and then was hijacked, magnified and warped by the Zionist movement, so did this wall exist as a holy site for thousands of years before the Zionist project covered it with the flood lights of a nationalist spectacle. It is not that the holy presence has totally withdrawn from this wall because of Zionism; just as Yiddish today has seeped back into the Hebrew language, exists alongside it and has gained a new strength of its own- just as the Palestinian people have mounted a steadily increasing resistance since the occupation, illuminating and elaborating the cracks in the Zionist edifice- so the inherited holiness of the wall now coincides awkwardly with, hides itself as a trace behind, persists uncomfortably in spite of the ‘frozen grin’ of the occupation which has hijacked and transmogrified it for purposes which, were we religious, we would rightly call idolatrous. That which is suppressed cannot be forgotten, but inevitably returns again, first as a specter to haunt the oppressor, then as the ominous cracks in the edifice of oppression, and finally as a full-on revolution which tears down the wall and liberates the enslaved. We are reminded of the famous passage from Marx’s Capital, which describes how capitalist oppression cyclically spirals towards its own breaking point and creates its own self-supersession and the liberation of the proletariat- “Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital [read: Zionist oppressors], who usurp and monopolize all advantages of this process of transformation, grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows the revolt of the working class [read: Palestinian people], a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organized by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production [read: Zionist exploitation] itself. The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under it. Centralization of the means of production and socialization of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.” (Capital Volume I, Chapter 32)
The alternative archeology association Emek Shaveh has this to say about another Old City site (the City of David, currently excavated under/pasted over the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan), but it applies just as well to the Western Wall- “[The] incorporation of this site into the Jewish-Israeli narrative is multifaceted — mixing religious nationalism with theme- park tourism. The past is, of course, a palpable presence, used both to shore up the new Jewish settlers’ claim for primacy and to attract Bible-oriented tourism. As a result, conflict with local Palestinians occurs at the very basic level of existence, where the past is used to disenfranchise and displace people in the present.” http://www.alt-arch.org/silwan.php
In the West Bank city of Hebron (al Khalil in Arabic), we find a blatant example of how archeological excavation goes hand in hand with Jewish settlement, and thus betrays its underlying ideological motivations. At the site of Tel Rumeida, about a two minute walk from where I am currently sitting, seven Israeli families moved in with caravans in 1984, as part of a broader wave of settlement starting in 1980. In the face of mounting violent resistance, the Israeli government agreed to construct permanent housing for these settlers. This description, taken from a Zionist website, shows how the excavation, which unearthed 4,000 years of fascinating history, was undertaken explicitly for the purpose of settlement. Though this is an atypical example, framed in a context that unusually and dramatically weds excavation and settlement, it is still worth mentioning, if for no other reason than that it holds special significance for me right now, as I walk right past the settlement home every day.
“The archeological work was licensed two weeks before the Israeli general election in May as a “rescue excavation” to research the site before permanent homes are built there for the settlers…Dr Hamdan Taha, director-general of the Palestinian ministry for archeology, said the excavation had been politically motivated. “We think the site should be protected as an archeological site without any ideological attempt to threaten and endanger a cultural heritage that represents the ancient history of Hebron,” he said. Officials at the Israeli antiquities authority privately agree. “If such a significant site were inside Israel proper, the law would prohibit anything being built on it,” a senior Israeli archeologist said. Persuading the settlers to go, however, will be difficult. David Wilder, spokesman for the Jewish community of Hebron, said the excavation proved their right to live there. “We always knew this was the site of the ancient city; now these excavations have found positive proof of Jewish presence from the time of the patriarchs,” said Wilder. “In terms of Jewish roots and heritage, what more do you need?”
In most instances of Israeli archeological imperialism, the old is excavated gradually, as a groundbreaking first step that paves the way for the eventual new colonial settlement which, all along, was the implicit purpose of excavation. At Tel Rumeida, the old was excavated after the new was already set to be established; the fact of settlement explicitly caused the necessity of excavation; the structural order was inverted, allowing the overarching ideological motivation, teleologically oriented towards the establishment of the new, to emerge even clearer into the clear light of day.
David Wilder, mentioned above, had this to say, on the Jewish Community of Hebron web site, about the Tel Rumeida site, called by the settlers Beit Menachem-
“To me, this site could be called Tel Aviv. Why? Today’s Israeli metropolis is named after Theodore Herzl’s book, Altneuland, which literally means ‘old — new land,’ with ‘Tel’ [the name for a hill containing the remains of an ancient city-ed] representing the old and ‘Aviv’ (which means spring in Hebrew), representing the new. However, the authentic ‘old’ is here in Hebron, the roots of our existence, at the site called Tel Hebron. And the new is directly above the old — a beautiful new apartment complex, the buds of the rebirth of the Jewish People in the City of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs.” http://www.hebron.com/english/article.php?id=241#Hebron,%20the%20Real%20Tel%20Aviv
To repeat, what is unique to this Zionist colonization is that, like Hebrew in relation to Yiddish, what is newly asserted is both excavated under and pasted over that which it replaces- a Jewish presence in Palestine 3000 years ago is used as justification to butt out the Palestinians who have been living here for at least 1000 years; Hebrew’s presence as an ancient holy tongue is cited as a reason to elevate it and to suppress Yiddish; the Western Wall’s longevity is an excuse to turn it into a spectacle over the ruins of the Moroccan quarter. In each case, the former element is brutally enlarged and magnified, while the latter element is crushed to a pulp; but, like a parasite, the former element emerges from within the skin of the latter element, and empties itself out from within the host it has devoured. To conquer the given, the new posits the old as its ground, and then, rising up from this posited precedent, it breaks through the given and projects its unprecedented dominance upon the present and into the future. ‘We were here before in Palestine’ becomes ‘we shall now drive out the Palestinians’; ‘we have always been Hebrews’ becomes ‘we must now all speak Hebrew’; ‘this wall has always been holy to us’ becomes ‘it is now justified for us to decimate a community that has lived here for 800 years’. Most Western imperial projects of the last two centuries have approached a land from the outside, and conquered its native population as an external invasive force. To dominate its object, Zionism discovers itself already there before or beneath the object; it rises itself up from the depths of the ground upon which the object rests, and thus posits itself as always-already the hidden truth of the object.
Speaking again of the City of David, itself an archetypal example of archeological colonization, Emek Shavek writes- “Archaeology provides physical and symbolic capital for [Zionism’s] settlement project, in the form of a narrative emphasizing Jewish continuity and eliding other cultures, and of relics that testify to such continuity…The sanctity of the City of David is newly manufactured, and is a crude amalgam of history, nationalism, and quasi-religious pilgrimage. As such, it curiously incorporates many of the qualities used, according to Ben Israel (1998), by nationalist movements in the creation of hallowed land: a revised and selective history, cased in religious terminology (‘holiness’ imparted by the Bible, the kings and the prophets), with mystical overtones (invoking the ‘energy’ of the place; stating that ‘the wall is not just a wall’).” Throughout the short history of Israel, archeological excavations are not performed for the simple cultural Zionist purpose of learning more about the history of the Jewish people- the ideological subtext of excavation claims that Jews have God-given and historically verified ownership of the land, and the practical consequences of excavation are the Palestinian house demolitions and Israeli settlements that invariably follow the discovery of Jewish ruins.
There may have been a time in the early 1900s when it was possible to distinguish between a cultural Zionism which merely sought to revivify Jewish culture, and a political Zionism which coveted a militarized nation-state in Palestine; in today’s Israel, however, they are one and the same package. The celebration of Jewish culture leads directly to the glorification of Israel, and is thus always-already the oppression of Palestinian culture. Mainstream Jewish pride carries with it a clear Us-vs-Them mindset, and whereas in all previous Jewish history the ‘Them’ may have been ‘the goyim (non-Jews) who do not worship our God, who rule this state and social structure, and who at any time may deny us our right to worship, oppress us as second-class citizens, kick us out of this country, or worse’, today’s ‘Them’ is a single enemy, a single people who are either reviled and spat upon as sub-human by the extremists, or who are consciously feared and unconsciously demonized by the rest of the population. The modern excavation of Biblical ruins, like the adaptation of Hebrew as secular tongue, services cultural and political Zionism alike, and delineates the point where the two meet, where the harmless Judaic pride of the former is twisted into Fascist domination by the latter.
“Although you do not need Deleuze to attack Nablus, theory helped the military reorganize by providing a new language in which to speak to itself and others. A ‘smart weapon’ theory has both a practical and a discursive function in redefining urban warfare. The practical or tactical function, the extent to which Deleuzian theory influences military tactics and manoeuvres, raises questions about the relation between theory and practice. Theory obviously has the power to stimulate new sensibilities, but it may also help to explain, develop or even justify ideas that emerged independently within disparate fields of knowledge and with quite different ethical bases.
When the military talks theory to itself, it seems to be about changing its organizational structure and hierarchies. When it invokes theory in communications with the public – in lectures, broadcasts and publications – it seems to be about projecting an image of a civilized and sophisticated military. And when the military ‘talks’ (as every military does) to the enemy, theory could be understood as a particularly intimidating weapon of ‘shock and awe’, the message being: ‘You will never even understand that which kills you.’”
Last night, the Jenin Freedom Theater was attacked for the third time this month. At about two in the morning, IDF soldiers rolled up in army vehicles, surrounded the theater and invaded the home of Mohammed Naghnaghiye, security guard and technician of the theater. They arrested him and one other, and left an hour later. As they left, local shebab, who had gathered to watch, threw stones at the departing jeeps, and were rewarded with sprays of live ammunition. Read the Theatre’s article here- http://www.thefreedomtheatre.org/news.php?id=201
Two days ago, the ISM crew in Nablus visited the Theatre in Jenin, which opened in 2006 to bring performance, creativity, and self-expression to the refugee camp that, just four years earlier, had suffered one of the most horrible massacres related to the Israel-Palestine conflict in recent memory.
The Freedom Theatre has put on many local and international productions in its five short years, including a heavily politicized Animal Farm (which explicitly cast the Knesset and the PA as its oppressive characters), Alice in Wonderland, Fragments of Palestine, and, soon, Waiting For Godot (which will tour the US, once its lead actor, detained at a checkpoint and held under ridiculously fraudulent charges, is released from prison later this week). We were given a tour by Jacob Gough, volunteer from England, and shown several inspiring videos- check out their videos at their YouTube channel! http://www.youtube.com/user/thefreedomtheatre
There is theater which pleases the nobles, theater which entertains the bourgeoisie as it wines and dines; and there is theater which enlivens the masses, theater which speaks to the oppressed, theater which embodies a people’s sorrow and moves it to action. The Freedom Theatre pitches its tent with the latter camp. By opening the minds of Jenin youth to the joys of theatre, it embodies and actualizes the vital potential of art as collective therapy, performance as communal catharsis, and dramatic theatre as a vehicle for the self-expression, self-determination and strengthening of a battered community.
The citizens of Jenin, male and female, young and old, are given the space to act out the trauma inflicted on them by the occupation; they are given a space to assert themselves as independent, creative humans, to act out their imaginative potential; they are given a space to realize their community as one capable, in the midst of poverty, of producing theater that enlivens the imagination and emboldens the sensibilities. This heals the individual and binds the social body together, in one empowering stroke. This is the transformative, illuminative power of art in every human community, and it is especially necessary for an oppressed populace, who are told by the oppressor to keep their heads and hearts low, and their mouths and minds shut.
By creating culture, the populace realizes it has the power to create culture, that it has the culture, that it is culture- and this itself is a supreme act of resistance, for aside from demolishing homes and crippling economies, Israel seeks above all to cripple the soul of the Palestinian community, to occupy the mind and spirit of the people, to breed an oppressed populace that does not believe in itself, or that believes itself to be sub-human, subservient scum. Beneath the surface picture of the occupation, where Israel appears as the power that simply wants the land for itself, the power whose brutal oppression of Palestinians has as its final goal and driving purpose to create the conditions that will compel them to leave Judea and Samaria- there is a deeper, more sinister reality, whereby Israel actually needs the Palestinians around as a second-class proletarian workforce, as an ostracized Other apart from which the Israelis can concretize and affirm their group identity as a superior people, and towards which the Knesset can constantly wield its sword, so as to distract the Israeli people away from concrete social problems. In all modern instances of structural oppression, capitalism craves a culturally subservient proletariat that works hard and is paid little, that pays taxes and does not expect social services in return, that cleans the toilets of the bourgeoisie and stays silent, that accepts second-class citizenship, or no citizenship at all, without a struggle, that lives in the constant fear of unemployment or persecution, and so cleaves for protection to the very social system that dangles it over the abyss. To awaken this proletariat to the impossibility of its existence, and to the possibility of its liberation, is the task of revolutionary politics, whose audience is history and whose stage is the present.
Here is a video of ‘Drama Therapy’ at the Freedom Theatre, where group poesis brings out in the individual the traumas of the occupation, that they may be collectively expressed and healed-
At two thirty in the morning, I was the only one awake in the Nablus flat; everyone else, drained from the frenzy of last night’s 4 A.M. IDF invasion of Hebron, had passed out early. I, however, had sublimated my lack of sleep, through the aid of coffee and tea, into an even greater manic addiction to keeping watch on the Twitter feeds. For at midnight, the IDF had raided Hebron again, this time to surround a house, blow it up, and arrest a man inside for ties to Hamas. Local shebab rioted in reaction to this, and 30 were injured with rubber-coated steel bullets and high velocity tear gas canisters which, contrary to safety regulations, were fired not in the air but directly at the Palestinians. Like last night, I was assigned the task of watching Twitter feed after Twitter feed- ‘IDF invades Hebron, 30 injured’; ‘Zionist forces are in Hebron again! Anyone know what is happening?’; ‘while the world watches Tripoli, Israel bombs Gaza and invades Hebron’- and relaying any new info to the ISMers who were on the ground in Hebron, sneaking past the closed checkpoints, videotaping the soldiers. As this was unfolding, I had another Twitter page updating me on ‘al Aqsa’- a rally for Gaza which started around Damascus Gate had been suppressed by the IDF (after reports of a Palestinian stabbing a soldier), who were attacking Palestinian ambulances and medics and beating protesters; the situation climaxed when protesters made their way to Al Aqsa Mosque, and then were sealed inside by the IDF, who simultaneously closed several entrances to the Old city and flew Apache helicopters over the mosque. ISMers in Sheikh Jarrah went to the scene just as it was clearing up. Several Palestinians were detained and interrogated at a detention center west of Jerusalem.
At about 2:30 I got a call that the Freedom Theatre had been attacked. I woke up the rest of ISM at the flat, who rose like pissed off lions, stomped around on the telephone, smoked cigarettes, cursed the occupation and determined if we should take the hour-long taxi ride to Jenin. Then we got a Facebook message from a friend in Nablus, who (along with her family) had just heard gunfire and seen IDF jeeps in the city. Suddenly the air grew very tense. We walked out on the roof to listen very closely for sounds of the IDF in the city. We were all very sleep deprived, jumpy and paranoid. This was the second night in a row that the IDF had swept through the West Bank in the early hours of the morning, and we had been nervously expecting that they would come to Nablus. Eventually we determined that nothing was happening in Nablus, and we got a call that the IDF had driven away from Jenin with two detainees. I fell asleep as the sun was rising, with coffee in my veins.
As I said, this is the third arrest to strike the Jenin Freedom Theatre this month. A few members of the Theatre, due to be released later this week, have been held all month by the IDF on the absurd pretense that they are needed for questioning regarding the murder of Juliano Mer Khamis.
Juliano Mer Khamis, born of an Israeli-Arab intellectual father and a Jewish Communist mother, spent his life championing Palestinian rights, in the belief that, as he said in 2009, “I am 100% Palestinian and 100% Jewish”. In the 1980s, his mother established a children’s camp in Jenin, and in 2006, he established the Freedom Theatre. On April 4, 2011, he was driving in his car outside the Theatre when he was shot and killed by masked gunmen. As of yet, nobody knows who killed him, but his memory will live on forever as an example of an Israeli who saw through Israeli aggression, and went into the heart of Jenin to inspire the populace, to actively make a better world. Shortly after his death, the Freedom Theatre nearly collapsed due to the loss of its founder and chief organizer, but through a renewed will and determination it lives on.
I have a feeling that something will happen tonight, somewhere in the West Bank. Nablus is a perfect target, and I hope that the city, and the rest of the West Bank, remains safe tonight.
(This was just told to us by a very cute 12 year old boy from Nablus named Majd, who runs the cash register at his father’s shop down below our apartment, who visits us every day, with whom we are about to go to the park- ‘At the end of Ramadan, every one in Nablus goes out to the shop to buy clothes; in Gaza, everyone goes out to buy sheets to bury the dead.’)