August 14, 2008

Beth & Tel-Aviv's Women In Black

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[This is the third in a series of articles by Beth, an activist and friend of Fire on the Mountain, on her first visit to Israel in 41 years. The first two reports are here and here.]

The next morning, I went to walk around in the Old City. The streets are narrow; shops line either side. Tourists and local people are everywhere. I can't imagine finding my own way around. A guide approached me, asking, in English, if I wanted a tour, including a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the plaza of the Dome of the Rock, open for tourists for an hour that afternoon. The Dome of the Rock plaza is magnificent. I was not moved in a religious or spiritual way but by the splendor of the structure. Walking all around the plaza for the full time allotted, taking pictures from many angles, I just soaked in the beauty and historical significance of the place.

Yusef, my guide, was born and still lives in Silwan, a neighborhood of about 5,000 Palestinians, legal residents of Israel since 1967 as they are in the part of Jerusalem that is now occupied, or annexed, depending on who you ask. He was surprised by my concerns and more openly expressed his own as we walked. He said that thirty Jewish families have moved into Silwan. "We get along o.k., they are not the problem, the problem is the Palestinians who sold their homes to the Jews and moved away. Sadly, there will be more."

He was apparently not aware that in another part of his town, I learned later, a Palestinian home was recently exploded. The streets are so narrow that they could not fit a bulldozer so, because the Jerusalem master plan had that spot designated as "green" where a park would be built, a family's home was destroyed. He tells me he feels much more comfortable in the Jewish Quarter than in the Arab Quarter because, there, he can be who he is, a forty-year old unmarried Arab, formerly a teacher who now makes his living showing the tourists around, an alcoholic two years in recovery, who thinks politics is "a zero."

He likes all people, he says, but it becomes clear that he does not like what he calls the nudniks, Arab and Jew, who mess in each other's business and want to tell other people how to live their lives. As he showed me the religious sites and showed me the many beautiful crafts available in the Arab Quarter, he taught me a few words of Arabic. Now I know the words for: my name is, grandparent, water, butcher, vegetarian, respect and congratulations. I bought Palestinian pastry and beautiful glasses from the factory in Hebron.

I needed a break. We went to Tel Aviv to hang out with another friend who had lived in NY for a while. I wanted to see the beach. But first, I found my way to the office of the Hotline for Migrant Workers. Thousands of people have come to Israel from Eritrea and the Sudan, from the Philippines, Romania, Nepal and many other countries since Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza are no longer allowed to work in Israel. The Africans are usually fleeing war in their countries; others come to find work to feed their families back home. Others are under a form of indentured servitude: they are allowed to work for five years for the specific employer who brought them to Israel. If that employer treats them unfairly or even abusively, they have no legal recourse. If they leave the job, they can be arrested and deported. This organization works with all of them, as refugees, and then as workers.

Two attorneys are employed by the group, trying to get the government to change rules and to enforce existing legislation. In one recent case, a Filipina was taking care of an elderly Israeli Jewish woman until she died. The woman had not paid everything that was owed and when she died, 13,000 Israeli shekels (about $3,500) was owed to the home care worker but the son refused to pay, saying he didn't have the money. The lawyers are still working on the case.

There is sex trafficking in Israel, women with no legal status are confined in houses by their pimps servicing 30-40 clients a day. These women, mostly from Eastern Europe, are also clients of the Hotline, seeking help to get out of their desperate situations.

I met with N, a volunteer for the organization for nine years. She is an upscale secular woman, with fashionable clothes, jewelry and make-up. She used to employ a woman from Ghana to clean her house. She paid her well and "even" paid into the Israeli social security and health care funds on her behalf. One day, the woman called frantically from jail. She was picked up by the immigration police and someone had given her a card with the Hotline number. N called, got help to get her Ghanaian domestic worker out of jail and then went to find out more about the group.

She says, "How could I just keep living my life knowing there is such important work being done?" She has been involved ever since. She visits immigrant workers in jail when they are picked up for being in the country illegally. She lets them know what there rights are and finds donations of clothing and toys for when they are let out of jail after 6 or 8 or 10 months.

N explains that the country as a whole does nothing for the 150,000 migrant workers. While Israel initially took in many thousands of refugees after the Second World War, there has been no policies or programs put in place to deal with these refugees from the Sudan and Eritrea. The Tel Aviv-Yafo municipality does assume some responsibility for the estimated 35,000 foreign workers in the area. It is the first city in Israel that does not completely ignore the problems of its foreign residents, providing a center with staff to assist with employment problems, treat children at risk, and raise awareness among policymakers on a national level of the needs of these residents of Israel.

I reconnected with my friends and we went to the beach. We sat, drinking, looking out at the magnificent sunset, relaxing. And the next morning, Friday, we did it again, swimming and resting.

Friday and Saturday are the weekend here so Women In Black, which started in Israel in 1988, holds its vigils on Fridays, usually 1-2. I found my way to the Tel Aviv vigil in a busy shopping area. It looked similar to the one in Union Square where I stand every Thursday – a dozen women and a few men, dressed in black. But the signs, of course, were all in Hebrew. I stood with the group and watched passers-by. One young woman kneeled down to read 3 or 4 paragraphs on a poster headlined "Is this what we want for our country?"

I wondered what was going through her head. Most people, like in New York, ignored us. The women that day were in their 40's and 40's but I was told that two young women have recently gotten involved, having just refused military service. One woman, an academic, is writing a book about Women In Black vigils around the world. We will stay in touch so that she can ask questions about our group in New York.

While the people on the street in Jerusalem are overwhelmingly many varieties of religious, in Tel Aviv, in 24 hours, I only saw a dozen men with skull caps, (cipot), and one or two with earlocks, (payes). And yet, amid the din of throngs of shoppers, the vast majority of them secular Jews, across the street from the vigil, there were two ultra-Orthodox young men, missionaries to the non-religious, getting teenage boys to put on the prayer straps, (t'fillin), and say a few prayers.

One of the Women In Black, a native of Cleveland, offered to drive me back to my friend's apartment. She moved here from the States in 1958, part of the Habonim Zionist youth movement. She says that she has always been a fighter for human rights. When I ask if she is still a Zionist, she says "I'm not an anti-Zionist, I don't like how it's interpreted today. My interpretation is to strengthen Israel as a democratic state I can be proud of where human rights are maintained, where it is not controlling other human beings. A lot of mistakes were made in the name of Zionism. I'd like to see these mistakes rectified. At this point I am ashamed of my government, of my country as a whole. I want to live in a place I am not ashamed of."

As an American activist, I express that I, too, am ashamed of what my country has been doing. She says that the majority of Jews in Israel are so scared and this is fed by the religious community. And many people are angry that the ultra-Orthodox have too much power. When I ask if she feels hopeful, she says, "Sometimes, yes, but most of the time, no. What we do as women, the small things, the day-to-day meetings with Palestinian women, lays the groundwork for coexistence at the personal level but we really cannot influence policy."

Back to Jerusalem on Friday night, R explained that our best bet for the next day, Shabbat, would be to go to one of the Palestinian cities so we made plans to visit Ramallah.

[Beth's next report, Part 4, is here.]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your journals, Beth! I appreciate reading your first-hand accounts. Stay safe and keep writing.
yours, Peter L.