Tuesday, November 20, 2012

a few days in Tel Aviv

Tara at the bomb shelter.
Smile, Tara, at least you have a bomb shelter!

I've been seething, furious. It's easier (more dignified?) to get angry than to cry.

I spent last week in Tel Aviv--just north, actually--watching the latest Gaza-Israel conflict break out. I'm used to following this process from afar. I check the news and sift through social media, where angry posts from pro-Palestinian activists alternate with angry posts from die-hard Israel supporters. Maybe I read a press release from the White House. Write a letter to a representative. Go to sleep.

I arrived in Tel Aviv Wednesday evening, just in time to visit my friend's class at IDC Herzliya. The class was taught in English, and the students, half international, were on their laptops. During break we stole food from a neighboring event and chatted a bit. "There's gonna be a war," someone said. A Hamas leader was killed in Gaza, someone else confirmed. One Israeli guy in the class was drafted to Gaza the following day, and all of the other Israeli guys in the room were summoned back to the army. 

When we returned to class, the lecturer--a visiting professor from Harvard--awkwardly acknowledged the class's distractedness. "We don't live in a bubble," he said.

Over the next few days, I spent a lot of time in my friend's apartment. I had come to Tel Aviv for a wedding, but opted not to go because I was afraid of travelling south. At home, in the apartment, we checked the news constantly. Where had the latest rocket hit? Who had friends there? Were they safe? Rockets made it to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Were we in range? I learned what to do if I heard a siren, and located the nearest bomb shelter. The stairwell, I learned, was the safest place in the building. The ground floor was more dangerous, because it had lots of windows.

Intermittently, I slowed down to read whole news articles. I checked Al Jazeera, not just Haaretz. It was hard, while in an apartment above a bomb shelter, to find the emotional energy to read about the suffering in Gaza--the latest tally of Palestinians killed, the latest IDF activity. I was shocked by how quickly my orientation shifted, how seamlessly I had switched to an Israeli set of questions, news sources, and fears. No matter your political orientation or philosophy, personal safety comes first. And when you feel threatened, it's difficult to find the capacity to think of others--even those who are undergoing far worse.

On Thursday, the day I was supposed to go to the wedding, I stayed in Herzliya. My friend heard about a campaign going on at school, and I accompanied her to campus. A number of students were participating in "hezbara"--an advocacy campaign on behalf of the IDF. I realized this wasn't my scene, and started another project in the classroom next door.

My friend and I were desperate for something constructive--communication that could transcend the predictable, "soccer match" reporting dominating the media. We wanted to focus on the human impact of the conflict, in the hopes that, unlike traditional media/advocacy which merely "rallies the base," we might be able to encourage people to listen to each other.

So we started a YouTube channel dedicated to collecting the human voices of the conflict. We're calling it "OnTheGround2012," and we're asking people affected by the conflict to share their stories and, in particular  their hopes. We were inspired by the Hope Man Peace Man blog of the last Gaza War, and by the Israel loves Iran/Iran loves Israel media campaign this summer.

By collecting stories from both sides, I don't aim to paint equivalencies--we all know who's being hit the hardest. I don't anticipate we'll solve any political problems. But I'm eager to try to humanize this conflict a bit. Because it's so easy, when reading the news from outside, to lose track of the human reality. And it's so easy, when hanging out above a bomb shelter, to focus only on your own safety. 

Anyways, family and friends, I'm back in Jordan. The protests have calmed down here, so I'm quite safe. I've returned to watching the Gaza/Israel from a distance. I'm hoping that this all ends soon.

UPDATE: the idea (while noble!) was ultimately a flop. Turns out my friend and I were a bit less connected than we originally thought, plus there was the hurdle of getting people to talk without fear of retribution. Also, the electricity/internet situation in Gaza was not conducive to video uploads...But hey, worth a try! If anyone else knows of similar initiatives, I'd be eager to contribute.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

staying up all night

I feel a whole new sense of helplessness watching the elections from Amman. Normally, on election day, I am a bit afraid, knowing that I can do nothing to affect the outcome at this point. Theoretically I could be driving people to polls, but that's about it.

Here, I've got nothing. That desperation that keeps us watching election coverage into the night? It'll keep me up until at least six in the morning (CA polls close 6am my time).

People hailing from all over the world wish me luck, reminding me of how crucial, exactly, American elections are to the entire globe. So somehow, both the enormity of the consequences and my total lack of control over them resonate on a new level.

I'm about to walk over to an election party, wearing an Obama button and carrying a toothpick American flag. It's all I've got.

Hoping for the best.