January 7, 2017 Asael, Susya, Twaneh, Umm al-Khair

text David Shulman; photographs Margaret Olin

I.

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Asael, possibly the ugliest of all the illegal outposts in the southern West Bank—and the competition is fierce—is rapidly expanding. Yellow bulldozers, parked at the perimeter fence of the settlement, have carved out a huge swathe of intermeshed, criss-crossing gashes in the hill and valley just below. This wide, deep wound in the soil has been sliced, needless to say, through privately owned Palestinian land. We know the families. We’ve plowed here, on the edge of the outpost. There have been many bad moments with the Asael settlers, the ones we can see this Shabbat morning walking their dogs over the hill or praying to their rapacious god or swinging their children on the swings in the painted park just under their pre-fab caravans.

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Winter morning, sunny, ice-cold. Guy is photographing the earthen gashes meter by meter. The families who own the land will submit a complaint to the police, not that it will do much good. The Civil Administration stopped the bulldozers earlier this week, but the fact that they’re still parked here bodes ill. Each one of them costs a few thousands of shekels per day, and they’re still here. Actually, everything bodes ill here at Asael on this sun-drenched day.

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The soldiers appear on cue. Three of them clamber down the hill to put a stop to our intrusion. They’re in winter uniforms, black on top, with ski-masks and heavy weapons. Their officer, affable enough, asks for my identity card. I hand it over. He studies it. “You live near my grandmother’s house. What are you doing here, and why are you photographing me? You’re old enough to be my grandfather, aren’t you ashamed?”

“Why should I be ashamed?”

“I don’t like it when you photograph me. It’s impolite.”

I can see what’s coming. Harmless chatter, nothing worse. I turn off the camera. Peg is still photographing, despite the officer’s repeated demands that she stop. It seems this business of the cameras is all we have to talk about today. Over and over again he tells us that we’re not being nice.

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He consults his superiors on the phone. “There are four Israeli citizens here,” he reports, “they have the right to come here and photograph the bulldozers and the digging, they haven’t invaded the settlement, and they won’t stop photographing me.” By now this is becoming an obsession. I’m tired of it. Moreover, the cognitive dissonance is eating away at me, so wearily I say to him, “Look, forget this stupid thing about the cameras, I’m not photographing you now, just look around you at what is happening here. You know as well as I do that this outpost is illegal, and you can see that they’re now stealing more Palestinian land.”

“That’s none of my business. If you have a problem with the settlers, work it out in the courts. I have my job to do.”

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Later, thinking back on it, I find the conversation insane, and I’m sorry I got into it. A monumental crime is taking place, here and everywhere in the occupied territories. It’s picking up speed. The soldiers are complicit in it, though it’s coming from far above them, from the prime minister’s office on down. And on this bright winter morning, the officer on the spot thinks we’re being impolite.

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II.

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Volleyball in Susiya, 7 January 2017

Last week something unusual happened at Susya. A group of fanatical settlers had produced an inscription made of stones on what we call Flag Hill—Palestinian land, of course (newly plowed). The stones were stacked up to read, in Hebrew: “Revenge.” There was also a big stone-piled star of David. Our people came upon these rocks, and the settlers came at them, and the soldiers turned up, and the settlers attacked them, too. This was too much even for the soldiers, who wrestled them to the ground and arrested three of them. They let them go in the evening, but for a brief moment the tables were turned.

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III.

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These are violent days in South Hebron, also in the Jordan Valley. We reach Twaneh around 2:00 and find a Ta’ayush detachment still shaken after being attacked by masked settlers from Chavat Maon. The Ta’ayush volunteers were there to protect Palestinian farmers who had come to plow. The plowing was successfully completed, and the volunteers were on their way back to Twaneh when fifteen settler thugs attacked, hurling big rocks, lots of them, and assaulting our people with their fists. Dudy was hit in the head by a rock. Danny was beaten. One of the Italian volunteers living in Twaneh was hit, and her (expensive) camera stolen. By sheer good fortune, no one was badly wounded or worse.

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Guy calls the police, who eventually respond. We head uphill toward the site of the attack. The settlers are still flitting through the trees at the end of the path. We have good video footage, but it rapidly becomes apparent that there’s little point in submitting a complaint. The police will do nothing, the settlers were masked, to fill out the police forms is hardly more than a ritual gesture. We move on. Fifteen years ago, almost to the day, I was attacked, beaten, stoned, and shot at by the settlers of Chavat Maon at this same point. I know what it feels like. I know for sure that they are celebrating their splendid raid and reveling in their spoils. Maybe I shouldn’t care.

 

IV.

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Eid is waiting to welcome us to Umm al-Khair. He’s become almost famous, with exhibitions of his sculptures and installations in Tel Aviv and most recently Berlin. It’s been many months since I’ve seen him. We embrace. We run through the dismal litany of house demolitions from the past few months. For the moment—always only for the moment—the courts have put a freeze on further demolitions at Umm al-Khair. Eid says: “No matter what we do, the Israelis will never let us live here; sooner or later, they will take these lands too.”

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Post-Resettlement, exhibition by Ai Weiwei and Eid Hthaleen. Installation photographs courtesy of Ades Architectural Forum, Berlin.

The settlement of Carmel abuts the shanties of Umm al-Khair, and recently the settlers have invented a new form of torment for their neighbors. Their sewage now flows through pipes that open onto the fertile fields in the wadi and the Palestinian grazing grounds. We pick our way over the rocks to study the large open pipe.

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It’s one of those crystal winter afternoons. Every thorn stands out on the hills. Sheep cluster around the well on the next ridge. Ruins from the last four demolition raids are neatly stacked beside what used to be tents and homes. We’ve rebuilt a little, for the umpteenth time. The hills across the Jordan River turn to limpid mauve. It’s cold; one of the young girls, maybe four years old, in ponytail and a blue sweater, stands barefoot at the entrance to her home. Goats bleat; toward sunset, they get hungry. Tea appears. A wild parabola of pigeons swirls over the golden slope. Beauty is made from pain, great beauty from greater pain.

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Text © 2017 David Shulman;  photographs @ 2017 Margaret Olin except as otherwise noted.

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On Ta’ayush: http://www.taayush.org/

a lucid essay; an absurd topic; a real place

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The essay, “Kafka in Area C,” tells the story of the place in these photographs: here where the ‘Awad family sheep are grazing, is a spare wadi where members of Ta’ayush, the all volunteer group whose work in South Hebron I am following, is stopping briefly at the beginning of our day.

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In the photographs it is early June, 2015. We watch the patterns that the sheep make as they process down the wadi or gather in groups.

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We look across the wadi at a few makeshift houses on what had been the ‘Awad family’s hilltop. Maybe Israeli settlers, in their Shabbat morning peace, are looking back.

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I am told “we’ve been here hundreds of times,” but the visit is quiet. We leave within an hour to visit Susiya, a village of tents and caves where rough conditions are a constant, infuriating reminder of injustice.

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Today, a year and a half later, Susiya still stands, at least most of it, at least for now. But the ‘Awad family, its livestock and its livelihood, have been denied rights to their land. The article, by a Ta’ayush volunteer, explains the absurd circular process of dispossession that has become business as usual. If the comparison to Kafka fails to appeal to you, think “Catch-22.” But after you glance at the photographs, read it. here.

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photographs and text © Margaret Olin 2016

Germany’s Open Door Policy (padlocked)*

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A few days ago the New York Times published an article about the German pavilion at the Venice Architectural Biennale. This year the theme was Germany’s open borders; its heartfelt welcome to refugees; and consequent social changes. You may read it here. The exhibition represents open borders by cutting openings into its building. The pavilion’s website provides access to a database of projects for housing the new refugees who are pouring into the country in record numbers. Yet the reviewer notices that “Absent from the database are the voices of refugees or meaningful consideration of what it feels like to live in these spaces, something the curators acknowledge, but attribute partly to the fast-changing situation on the ground.”

The problem of housing the refugees, providing them with a permanent status and a way to seek work and education did not begin with the present crisis, however, as the curators of the Biennale well knew. The country is already crowded with thousands of refugees immobilized by bureaucracy, prevented from working, and isolated from society in facilities that the refugees refer to with the loaded German term “Lager.”

In the pavilion, you will find a selection of photographs by Stefanie Schulz, a young photographer with whom I had the honor of sharing an exhibition, “The Waiting Rooms of History.” The exhibition, at the Kunstverein Paderborn, is open until June 6, 2016. For a year, Stefanie followed refugees in a camp at Lebach. Originally intended as a first admittance facility for brief sojourns of a few months, the camp instead devolved into a long-term residence where some refugees have spent as much as fourteen years. Those who were born here are growing up knowing no other home. While her intimate portraits (you may view some here), do not substitute for voices from refugees themselves, they offer a glimpse into lives in stasis and contradict the idealized vision of Germany’s open arms and heart cherished by many on my side of the Atlantic. Her title “Duldung” means “tolerated” with the connotation of “but just barely,” or “endured.” It is the official status inscribed on refugee’s identity cards until they acquire permanent status – if they do. The feeling goes both ways. The refugees barely tolerate the stasis in which they are forced to live. Duldung is better than nicht geduldet (not tolerated), but in no way does the term mean “welcome.”

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Oranienplatz. No remnants of the demonstration remain today.

I visited a refugee in Berlin who has lived for more than three years in a facility in an abandoned school. In 2012, refugee activists themselves occupied the Oranienplatz, a square in the Kreuzberg neighborhood in central Berlin, where they camped out in tents and then wooden huts. The activists were eventually evicted from Oranienplatz; the tents demolished. The activist artist group Bewegung Nurr, built “the house with 28 doors,” a gathering place and resource center. Activists continued to meet there until March, 2015, when arsonists burnt it down.

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Late in 2012, some of the activists occupied the nearby Gerhardt Hauptmann School on Ohlauer Strasse. The plan was to live there and create a refugee center with facilities for workshops in music, theater and crafts. The refugees demanded access to German lessons, the job market, and education as well as an increased period of “Duldung.” There were several attempts to evict them and many left. But the refugees remaining in the school ultimately won a court order allowing them to stay and for now they remain.

Only residents may enter and leave the building. The ritual of locking and unlocking is repeated interminably. The guard rises from a chair

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or leaves the guardhouse

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unlocks the gate, locks it up again, and returns to his place.

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The rationale for the guards and the padlock is that they protect the residents from skinheads who would break in and attack them. They also protect the residents from visits by journalists, educators, and friends.

The police were adept at dodging the camera. If I return long enough to become better acquainted I will photograph the resident activist I met there.

But for now, a portrait of a wary padlock will have to do.

All photographs and texts © Margaret Olin, 2016.

 

20160525-IMG_5949-2crp*Thanks to Gregor Wendler for introducing me to the  Ohlauer Schule, Oranienplatz and other significant sites for refugees in Kreuzberg.

A Birthright Trip for Photographers? “This Place” at the Brooklyn Museum

I owe the comparison with Birthright to Abby Glogower, so this post is for Abby.

“I came to think that there was something very special in this land that a lot of people recognized and wanted to claim for their own.” Stephen Shore, about his contribution to This Place

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A pro-Palestinian, anti-gentrification protest. The protestors are standing in front of a projected photograph by Josef Koudelka, in the exhibition This Place, Brooklyn Museum, May 7, 2016.

It’s all about the land. The same land visited by young Jewish men and women in free trips organized by Taglit-Birthright with an eye to giving them a closer connection to that land and encouraging them to marry other Jews. Similarly, the project This Place brought twelve world-famous photographers to Israel and the West Bank for extended periods to offer them a chance to forge a visual relationship to “this historic and contested place.” The hope was that they would portray Israel in a “universalizing” way and transcend the “polarizing perceptions and familiar images of the region in the mainstream media.”

The introductory text on the opening wall of the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition This Place did offer a comparison, but not to Taglit. The text states that this project, spearheaded by Frédéric Brenner, rivals the photographic project of the Farm Security Administration, an undertaking of the United States government during the Great Depression, and the Mission photogtraphique de la DATAR, a French documentation of the French countryside in the 1980s. The differences here, according to the same wall label, are that This Place was privately funded, not publicly, and that its photographers were foreign, not Israeli. On the face of it this comparison is ambitious: I won’t speak to the French project, but the Library of Congress has put 167,000 Farm Security images on line.

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Frédéric Brenner, organizer of This Place, exhibited his own photographs in the exhibition along with those of the famous photographers whom he recruited for the project.

It might seem superfluous to enumerate the differences between it and This Place, but here are some anyway. Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Gordon Parks, photographers of Roy Stryker’s project, were in their thirties or even younger, much of their famous work still ahead of them. They came to document poverty amid an economic crisis in their own country. The photographers that Brenner has gathered are all well established; most are in their sixties, seventies, even eighties. They were not brought in to document a crisis, although one certainly existed and most of them wanted to see its effects. Brenner had to be persuaded to allow them to visit the West Bank as part of the project; he wished them to avoid politics. Several of them touched on it only obliquely. Certainly they did not come as part of a New-Deal-like effort to combat rural poverty and inequality out of a commitment to social reform. No Migrant Mother can be found in the exhibition, and although part of the bargain with each photographer included the publication of a book, no Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is likely to emerge.

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Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, 1936.

 

The photographers of This Place were strangers come for extended, but still limited times. The question, what can a stranger’s eye hope to illuminate in this situation, applies to me as well in my own ongoing project, and this is the light in which I see and worry about This Place.

 

 

 

 

 

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Photographs by Thomas Struth in the exhibition “This Place,” Brooklyn Museum.

Some of these photographers are my favorites, but their contributions to this exhibition are not my favorite work. Thomas Struth was well aware of the ethical situation in which he was enmeshed. His almost surreal look at the settlement Har Homa is perhaps the classic image of that terrible place. But within the framework of the exhibition it is little more than an example of one of his classic genres, along with others: monumental street photography made with a view camera, family portraits, cityscapes and landscapes.

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Josef Koudelka sought to portray Israel’s “security wall” as a force for the destruction of the environment. I appreciate Koudelka’s attention to the way in which the wall affects the landscape and I take his concern seriously. Yet his work, beautiful here as always, in the main shows me what I have already seen and photographed. Murals in the Aida camp, for example, the way the “separation” wall loops through the landscape, swooping to enclose a bit of land in a greedy fist, and the barbed wire that stretches and curves everywhere in the world, but for some reason, is almost irresistible to photograph here. All these subjects immediately strike my eye.

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Protesters in the exhibition This Place

But I could never have duplicated Faisal Sheikh’s series Desert Bloom. It sent me back to my own photographs to look at their subjects differently. He arranged his photographed traces of Beduin villages in the Negev, taken from the air, in a tile like grid format on one wall of the exhibit. I have no interest in making areal photographs; it is too important to me to stay down on earth among people. Yet I could not tear myself away from them.

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Demonstrators near the installation of Desert Bloom by Faisal Sheikh

The unremittingly pale brown, washed out beauty of these desert tiles pulled me in. Subtle deviations in the ground are indications of cataclysmic changes. They signify the nearly effaced suggestions of the people who once lived there. The ominous feel of the title, “desert bloom” alludes to Ben Gurion’s call to the Jewish people to “make the desert bloom.” Here the “bloom” looks less like fertility than like the cruel beauty that keeps a desert from sustaining life.

20160507-IMG_5872lvlcrpOnce I have looked at these distanced photographs, oddly similar to Alan Cohen’s photographs of boundaries in close-up, I can no longer see the ground in the same way again.

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Alan Cohen, Gila River Indian Reservation, 2004. From Lines of Authority

 

Sheikh has provided ample reading material to explain the subtle clues to large changes that have taken place in the land. I look for images like those that Sheik has photographed from far away but writ large that will explain for me patterns of dispossession and camouflage and the sheer effort to go on in the face of them.

 

 

 

 

I wonder what areal views of green strips of land might look like where Palestinians and their sheep are not allowed.

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A Ta’ayush action, 24 March, 2015, South Hebron Hills. For more, look here

I wonder also about areal views of green strips of land where only Palestinians and their livestock are allowed.

 

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From above, volunteers from Ta’ayush accompany a Palestinian grazing his sheep to protect them from nearby settlers. Israelis and, I was told, anyone eligible to become one are prohibited from descending into the valley. Soldiers ensure that we obey the rule.

Can you see isolated solar panels from the air?  abandoned fences and poles and destroyed houses?

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This Place, with photographs by Thomas Struth, Frédéric Brenner, Josef Koudelka

How does an exhibition with well-intentioned photographers fail to attain the complexity to which it aspires? The curators may have something to do with it. The calm, cold beauty, the isolated photographs, the laconic captions with little or inadequate explanations. Jeff Wall’s photograph of Beduins sleeping near a prison in the Negev desert, “where this traditionally nomadic Arab people has lived for centuries.” What exactly does he know, assume, about their centuries-long Nomadic life? Have they always lived in the Negev? What does it mean to be a nomad? Did they always sleep outside on the ground covered only with blankets? Wall himself explains, in an interview, that he sees and photographs in a bubble, but that the photograph “knows” more than he does. I am with him this far, but not when he goes on to say that he can detach the social conditions of the work from its aesthetics.

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Photographs of people Rosalind Fox Solomon met while traveling on commuter buses in Israel and the West Bank.

Sometimes there is no explanation at all.

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Stephen Shore, Nabi Musa, 2010

In an effort to bring to light some of what the photographs, if not the photographers might “know,” demonstrators on Saturday supplied new captions for Stephen Shore’s landscape photographs of “this land that a lot of people want to claim for their own.”

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Photographs by participants in workshops run by photographer Wendy Ewald in Palestine and Israel. What do the explanations say? A line on the floor discourages visitors from finding out.

There are other strategies. The small photographs taken by Wendy Ewald’s workshop participants are arranged on shelves. Wall copy is also arranged on shelves, but viewers cannot come close enough either to the photographs or to the written explanations to examine them and perhaps have their assumptions challenged.

The exhibition strives for complexity but what is complexity? For the most part it seems to suggest that complexity is even handedness. Once one side occupies the other, however, it is impossible to deal an even hand. Similarly, complexity is not universality. To universalize tends to normalize the unacceptable. Complexity demands a degree of nuance that some of these photographs possess but that the framework keeps hidden. All of the photographs “know” more than their photographers, just as my own photographs “know” more than I do. But the neutrality of the installation mutes this knowledge.

The private funding does, too. That the organizations and individuals that funded This Place are not governmental entities means that the organizers did not have to confront the cultural boycott advocated by BDS, the movement that uses cultural boycotts among other strategies to force an end to the occupation. But all the same the funders for the most part fund Zionist organizations; some of them funnel money to settlements and even the Israeli military. None of them fund initiatives to help Palestine or Palestinians. The exhibition itself, which prefers the term “West Bank” to “Palestine,” has tamed its subject.

Perhaps the funders of Taglit-Birthright felt some kinship between This Place and the mission of the Birthright trip to tie young Jews to the land and to one another. The co-founder of Taglit and several of its donors are among the organizations funding This Place. But sometimes a Birthright trip backfires. A young birthrighter may come to see the agonizing contradictions between the framing narrative of the trip and the intolerable ethical situation that confronts any visitor whose Jewish education taught her to regard ethical responsibility as its basis. If so, she might leave feeling that she has been used, and these photographers should do the same.

and one more thing: The demonstration on Saturday, May 6, yoked two protests together, a pro-Palestinian protest aimed at exposing the ideological “neutrality” of This Place and  another that targeted the museum’s role in gentrification through pandering to real-estate moguls on its board. For that protest, the demonstrators targeted an exhibit, Agitprop, about the use of art for social justice.

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Interactivity was built into the exhibition Agitprop

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It also featured numerous protest videos.

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Here, museum security closes Agitprop to actual demonstrators.

if not otherwise identified, all photographs and texts © Margaret Olin, 2016.

 

 

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Unlocking the Eruv: Asfar, 12 March 2016

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Photographs tend to personalize, not to visualize, as is the nature of microcosms. It is hard to avoid the temptation to focus a camera on the lone child standing beside one ruined house rather than on the systematic character of land appropriation as seen in borders and structures and other visual signs that articulate land through materials and shapes.

On this day the microcosm is a micro victory: The members of a Palestinian family were too afraid for years to enter their land next to the Israeli settlement Metzad (Asfar). But they realized that visual signs of neglect on the land could eventually lead to a declaration of abandonment followed by confiscation. They decided to risk returning.

20160312-IMG_0271lvlcrvcrpWith the promise of support from Israeli activists from the organization Ta’ayush who accompany them, they began to tend their land again. Last week, they made their micro victory visible. From a thicket of dense bushes they trimmed away years of neglect, first with a power hedge trimmer and then with more delicate clippers. 20160312-IMG_0199lvlcrv

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Watchers and learners helped make or gazed through piles of trimmed branches – – farmer’s child, volunteers, and soldiers from the civil administration

 

 

 

 

 

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and the shape of an orchard began to emerge like a statue freed from a block of marble.

20160312-IMG_0269lvlcrvThe land bears other marks of changing borders: barbed wire and the remains of fence posts

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20160312-IMG_0193lvlcrvcrp2flt And abandoned eruv poles. An eruv is a symbolic courtyard used by orthodox Jews. You may read a previous post about eruvin here or familiarize yourself with them visually here. For one day each week, Shabbat, an eruv turns a neighborhood encompassing many private dwellings into one shared home for anyone who lives there and wishes to take part. The transformation allows its inhabitants to carry things (a prayer book, a meal, a key or handkerchief) from their private homes into the public space and throughout the eruv, an activity otherwise forbidden on that day. For some people, Shabbat would be a somber affair without an eruv. To construct one involves a complex series of rules originating in a notoriously difficult Talmudic tractate devoted to the subject. In South Hebron, as in Israel, characteristic eruv poles connected by strings or wires high above the ground usually mark the “walls” of the shared home. People who do not need an eruv may never notice it, and often something must be attached to the line to make it even faintly visible to those who do. Yet the owners of the land through which the eruv runs, whether users of the eruv or not, must give permission for the boundary markers through their own authorities.

When I first heard of the eruv I thought it beautiful, a subtle way to mark space that makes community while acknowledging others among whom one lives.

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an eruv line in New York City

Yet when I first visited South Hebron two years ago, I immediately noticed differences in the eruvin. Eruv lines extend for miles through what appears to be wilderness, through farmland and uninhabited areas where I thought eruvin were not supposed to go.

20150321-IMG_5430lvlfltWhich authorities grant permission for the eruv to travel through these unsettled areas?

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In these settlements, or rather near them, an eruv helps create facts on the ground that can, like untended olive trees, encourage dispossession. I knew that it would be just a matter of time before I would cross an eruv line and have to show a passport. It happened sooner than I thought it would, about a year ago near the settlement Mitzpe Yair, not far from which some of these photographs were taken, as I passed  under the eruv shown in the photograph below.

5-10-20150321-IMG_5411-lvlcrvdistflt.jpgAn eruv is a sensitive border. Its movements, in relation to utility poles that it parallels and which tower above it, to barbed wire fences along which it runs; and to the movements of shepherds and the civil administration, articulate the land. 20160317-IMG_0844lvlcrvcrp

When the land changes, the poles are abandoned.

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Or they are abandoned because the symbolic walls are replaced with real ones

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The new, agressive significance of the eruv is well understood. When, in a rare move, the civil administration demolished a settlement building, it also uprooted and broke the eruv poles used to claim the land around the building.

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A few meters away settlers had uprooted olive trees.

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The day at Asfar ended badly. Fortunately the new walls and fences, if not the defunct barbed wire and eruv poles, kept the  young settlers far enough away to give us time to escape the heavy, slow moving rocks with which they celebrated Shabbat. 20160312-IMG_0358lvlcrv

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Later they taunted us

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while police and civil authorities ignored our complaints. You can watch the incident in Guy Butavia’s video here.

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We only hope that the farmers, who fled with their frightened three-year-old child, will return again.

In the long run, the most important spatial articulation involves stark juxtapositions like this one

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Susiya, a tent village under the eyes of the Israeli settlement of the same name

between a neat red-roofed Israeli settlement on the hill and a poor village of tents below. The authorities, after evicting the residents of Susiya years ago from their historic village, will not issue a permit for a single permanent structure in the village that the farmers reconstituted on their lands. If villagers look up they see a settlement and beyond that the huge power lines that service it. Perhaps they see the eruv lines. What do the settlers see when they look down?

Here the eruv allows residents to live against, rather than with, other people, and some residents make use of its blessings to carry, and to throw, rocks.

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text and photographs © Margaret Olin 2016

 

Ezra Nawi, Ta’ayush, and 30 seconds of video

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Ezra Nawi, May 31, 2014

“Just as they film, so we film as well”

 

How powerful is a photographic medium? In Israel, thirty seconds of it is enough to arrest a man and keep him incommunicado for days without access to his lawyer. Enough to prompt from the Prime Minister a vicious condemnation of those who would hide behind the hypocrisy of “caring for human rights,” and, from the Defense Minister and the Education Minister, even more extreme attacks against human rights organizations. At best, there are calls for the “moral left” to repudiate the man who is under arrest, to condemn him without a trial, as well as “to thank the two journalists for their courageous, professional work.” You can read this piece by Ari Shavit here. The officials posted their remarks on their respective Facebook pages.

So: how powerful is a photographic medium? The question has occupied me for a few decades. Most recently, on-and-off over the last year and a half, I have been using my own camera to investigate how human rights groups in Israel use their cameras. One especially has absorbed my attention, the group Ta’ayush, a rather small all-volunteer organization that works through legal channels to win back land stolen from Palestinians in South Hebron and prevent further robberies and demolitions. On Saturdays members accompany Palestinians to their lands to protect them from settler violence while they plow, graze their sheep, plant and harvest crops. Their cameras are always in action. You can see some of my results and a few of my anxieties in past posts on this blog. Their work is heartbreaking but still manages to inspire hope. To me the group means far more than an academic exercise.

But my epigram is not from my own research. It is a translation of some of the first spoken words in an incriminating half hour video that appeared on January 7 on Uvda, a major Israeli investigative news program. Author of the report is Omri Assenheim, an award-winning journalist. The report is about two members of a far right organization – Ad Kan – who “infiltrated” Ta’ayush, filmed its activities, and zeroed in on its most loud-mouthed member. The two, a young man and his girlfriend, eventually succeeded in goading him into saying something outrageous. He said that he hands over “them” (we eventually find out that “them” means Palestinians who sell land to Israelis) to the Palestinian Authority. The infiltrator asks him what happens to the people after that, and he answers that the Authority kills them, after first subjecting them to beatings. There are many problems with facts in the video, and some good commentary on the film points them out.  In English I recommend David Shulman’s report here. You might also read the report in Haaretz by Amira Hass here. I will add only that I know Ezra Nawi through Ta’ayush and while he might say anything at all, he would never knowingly send anyone to his/her death. Indeed this case is no exception.

Here I want to concentrate on the video itself. When I first saw it I found it hard to imagine that anyone could take it seriously; it has all the hallmarks of a hack job, a video tabloid. Clips taken on different days are bunched together randomly and accompanied by scare music and voice-over narration that romanticizes the investigators. Images of Ad Kan members setting up their cameras are interspersed with those of scary-looking Ta’ayush volunteers. There is a faint possibility that one of those alarming “lefties” hiding behind a camera could be this writer, a not-very frightening aging scholar like several other members of Ta’ayush. The founder of Ad Kan says he was horrified to hear a few such people make demeaning remarks, right in front of a young soldier, about his failure to remember the values he must have been taught in high school. The identities of the moles are hidden. The young woman’s face is blacked out in an interview, but not before we are treated to a tantalizing silhouette of her slim body in profile as she tosses back her long silky hair. I have seen many similar videos, some, for example, from anti-abortion groups in the United States seeking to discredit Planned Parenthood. The word “heavily edited” was on everyone’s lips concerning these videos, but other methods are often used to enhance such editing. Shooting so as to conceal the lips of the speaker for example, can hide the cuts that leave out words central to the speaker’s intentions. Most of the planned-parenthood videos are far more subdued than this sensationalized video by Uvda, however. While watching it eyes roll. At least they should.

The crux of the video from Uvda centers on Nawi. There is a good deal of discussion of a putative land sale by a Palestinian who, we are given to understand, Nawi wishes to lead into a trap. But perhaps the decisive moment takes place in a car, in footage made with a hidden camera and first aired two minutes into the program. There, in less than 30 seconds, Nawi makes the above-mentioned incriminating remarks. The visuals are terrible. It is impossible to see him as he talks. Lights flash twice in the middle, blotting out everything.

But this is just a teaser toward the beginning of the program. The same conversation reappears twenty minutes later in the course of a longer discussion of the deal with the Palestinian selling land.

Or rather, the same audio reappears, but the video is different. This new video, also in the car, has a different time stamp about 15 minutes later than the first one. Or perhaps it was taken on a different day altogether, since there is only a time stamp and no date stamp on the first video. The camera angle is different. A paper in the foreground on the first run-through has mysteriously vanished and there are no blinding flashes. Only in the later video does Nawi wear sunglasses. In the middle of this new video, after Nawi says that he turns people over to the Palestinian Authority, but before he is asked what happens to such people next, there is a cut, and suddenly the time stamp registers a six-minute long gap. Were there two – or three – hidden cameras? I doubt it. Did Nawi repeat the same words with exactly the same inflection after fifteen minutes, then after another six minutes, or on other occasions altogether? I doubt that as well. Only the speaker, whose mouth is invisible in both versions, connects the visuals. At the end of the new 30-second clip you can finally glimpse his mouth and it is smiling. Is Ezra’s “vicious smile” (in the words of the Jewish Press) the reason that the conversation was attached to these visuals and not to others?

Why does the altered video matter? Am I acting like an academic book reviewer who discredits someone’s hard-won argument because of a misplaced comma or a typo? I don’t think so. At best the discrepancy reveals sloppiness in the television producers and at least one place where the video takes words out of context. We should consider the possibility that there may well be more. The incriminating words could have been spliced into the program at nearly any point. Perhaps this thirty seconds is indicative of the false premises on which the entire thirty minutes were constructed.

On this basis, a man has been subjected to death threats and then arrested. Worse, all human rights groups and especially Ta’ayush are immediately drawn in and subject to wholesale condemnation although there is no suggestion that they had anything to do with the land deal. And this at a moment when the government is in the midst of a campaign against them. As I write, Ezra Nawi is about to come before a judge. His guilt or innocence or whether he is charged at all will presumably be decided without the help of this doctored video. I hope he is released unharmed and soon, but whatever happens, it should not affect the work of Israeli human rights organizations. Any Jerusalem resident reading this might consider accompanying Ta’ayush to South Hebron one Saturday.

*since I wrote this, two more arrests have been made; two more dedicated activists are held behind bars with no access to lawyers, no formal charges, and their names under a gag order.

Thanks to Yagil Eliraz for assistance with Hebrew.

Text and photographs © Margaret Olin 2015Project20140531_0532-crp2

 

 

 

 

Photographic Aggression, Trust, Shame: Susiya, Sheikh Jarrah

20150626-IMG_6883lvlcrvYou won’t see the touching photograph I took at a memorial wall in New York after September 11, 2001, when a woman’s smile gave way to tears as my shutter clicked. It amounted to inadvertent aggression. Some regard all “street photography” categorically as aggressive and unethical. But I think photographic aggression needs to be judged on a case-by-case basis, even when that can be difficult. Such moments arise frequently during and between my intermittent visits to Palestine this past year, where I have been thinking about and documenting photographic practices while engaging in them. As a foreigner I learn local customs slowly. In my effort to do no harm, I navigate photography’s interrelations and worry about breaking photographic taboos.

For my last post (here) I emailed a photograph to a subject who had not wanted me to take her picture. I planned to add it to an urgent report by David Shulman about the immanent demolition of the Palestinian village Susiya in area “C” in the South Hebron Hills. David has been sharing and following the travails of these families for years, but I am only beginning to know them. It might make sense to illustrate his post with pictures of ragged tents and sad-eyed children. But those images could feed into a patronizing justification for the demolitions, according to which villagers, and especially women (“to improve the(ir) status” in the words of the Civil Authority) would be better off further straining the resources of an already over-crowded, under-served town elsewhere. I prefer to visualize the villagers’ determination to make their tents and temporary structures into a livable town in the face of settler harassment and Civil Administration obstructionism, and even under the shadow of immanent demolition. Fatma’s picture could help me add a hint of this subtext with the face of a strong woman. She granted permission almost immediately; to me the photographic exchange signified trust.  You may learn more about Fatma’s organization, The Rural Woman’s Association, here.

The rest of this post is the one I dropped last week in order to concentrate on Susiya. It also concerns street photography and photographic interaction around it, but on a real street, in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem. While my own worries remain with Susiya, still in grave danger, Sheikh Jarrah is worth a detour if only because it involves patterns of appropriation similar to those of Susiya, patterns that involve refusals to issue construction permits to Palestinians, eviction on the basis of missing permits, court cases that drag on for years, and settlers who are welcome in the meantime to stay and build on the “vacant” property and live in the “abandoned” homes, with or without permits. I won’t, however, discuss the details, readily available on the internet, for example, here.

Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem, June 26, 2015

20150626-IMG_6889crpcrv2Local residents are waiting for me on a sidewalk on Othman Ibn-Affan street in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem. They are members of three families who were evicted in recent years from homes behind us and across the street.

20150626-IMG_6877distcrvSix years ago, Israeli Jews took over the houses, aided by an NGO that seeks to turn East Jerusalem into a Jewish neighborhood. They set off a complex series of legal proceedings as well as Friday afternoon protests at a nearby intersection. A few years ago, these protests were large and boisterous, and attacked by an equally loud and boisterous police force. They were “a scene,” I am told. The court cases and the protests continue and the families remain locked out of their homes, but the land grabs have slowed. The demonstrations, now smaller, are thought to have had an effect. 20150605-IMG_5803crv In early June the anniversary of the occupation attracted a larger crowd of peacefully chanting protesters.

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A panicky police force arrived and set off a stun grenade

that injured a fourteen-year-old girl.20150605-IMG_5850lvlcrp 20150605-IMG_5867crp

There were three arrests.

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Saleh, a Palestinian activist, promised to tell me about Sheik Jarrah over coffee after the rally but he was arrested. Although no charges were filed, no one was released until after midnight. I did not manage to return for three weeks, but finally I am back and Saleh still remembers. Now it is Ramadan, so we have our discussion without coffee – but with, and about, photographs. He flips through a bundle of well thumbed pictures at a breakneck speed that makes them as hard to focus on as the confused action they depict. They are faded and crinkled, but with them Saleh relives moments in the story and he pulls each one out like a trump card. They show evictions. 20150626-IMG_6882crvOr they show settlers on the same sidewalks where we are now, with police or soldiers or Palestinians

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“The photographs are proof.”

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“That’s this yard right here. Can you believe what he’s doing?”

I would photograph the settlers now living in Palestinian homes across the street,

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but they are leaving for Shabbos.

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“These people have other places to go. They don’t even live here on the weekend.”

Eventually a settler parks a motorcycle on our side of the street.

“Please photograph him,” requests Nabeel al-Kurd. “He lives in my house.” The settler turns around as I raise my camera. The other settlers are Americans, but apparently not this one. In labored English, asks me not to take pictures:

“They forget something. The house it is not Jewish, but isn’t the land Jewish? I know, I know. These houses are Palestinian. But anyway I do not want to live here. This is uncomfortable. It is too hot. I want to move. I have only lived here six months.”

He is pleading now.

“Do not take my photograph. It is my private self. I am really no more than just a visitor. It is not my fight. I do not want it. We are friends, right?”

He addresses all this to me. He says nothing to Mr. al-Kurd. After he leaves Nabeel says, “He knows what he is doing is wrong.” He fears that his picture could be used, like the one in Salah’s pack, as photographic ammunition. Any photograph is like an assault, a small thrown stone, and the man with the motorcycle does not want one aimed at him.

But sometimes photographic aggression is warranted. “My camera is my weapon. No one should go into the field without a camera,” I am told by Guy, who works with the human rights organization Ta’ayush and Rabbis for Human Rights. What weapons should they use instead? No one would argue that it is unfair to film or photograph a crime in progress. In the United States, film and now videos have played an important role in the opposition to police brutality. Maybe they will help to reduce it some day. Even an aggressive, hostile look deserves an aggressive, hostile look back through the eye of a camera.

Is photographic aggression called for today in Sheik Jarrah or is this settler’s near admission of wrongdoing, his awareness of the complexity of the situation he has waded into, enough to justify deleting the photograph? Will he move out soon? When he does, will the al-Kurd family get its home back? If I show it, will my photograph follow him wherever he goes and cause him harm? And why is the prospect of the photograph so frightening? After all, unlike Saleh’s photographs, mine can show nothing but a man parking a motorcycle on a city street. The only explanation we can come up with is that he does not want to face his own shame.

“May I take your picture?” I ask Mr. al-Kurd.

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text and photographs © Margaret Olin 2015