A Tale of Two Accordionists

February 24, 2010

Robert Resnik is one of the most well-known figures in the Vermont folk music scene, a multi-instrumentalist and the host of the fine Vermont Public Radio show All the Traditions. We have been friendly acquaintances for years. Robert has favorably reviewed my albums, helped me to get gigs, and generally encouraged my musical development. I have always enjoyed dropping in on him at the library were he works as a reference librarian, to geek-out about accordions, a subject of which we never tire. I have always spoken well of him to others. All of this good will came quickly to an end when I began to speak openly about Israel and Palestine. I am planning to give a talk this weekend about the Gaza Freedom March, and was surprised when the director of the studio where I will be giving my presentation received a rather snide email from Robert, which brought about the following exchange. I post it here because it is illustrative of the way the “antisemitism” bomb is thrown around casually whenever anyone talks about what Israel is doing to the Palestinians, even by otherwise reasonable, liberal people. My friend Yonatan calls such people PEPsis, which stands for Progressive Except Palestine. Needless to say, no one is ever hysterically accused of “anti-Arabism” (yes, I know Arabs are Semites too, but I’ll ignore that for reasons of clarity) for criticizing the actions of an Arab government.

Robert: oooo- does this mean I get another chance to hear that groovy young “Klezmer” musician David Symons go on and on about how he doesn’t like Jews….?

Me: Hi Robert,

It’s come to my attention that you have been saying some extremely nasty and unfounded things about me behind my back, no doubt because of my public criticism of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. This is particularly sad for me, as I had considered you a friend and respected you as colleague. I would be happy to have a rational, fact-based discussion with you sometime about the Israel/Palestine conflict. Tell me, is it really useful or necessary to call me names? I can’t imagine encountering such a reaction were I talking about any other heavily-documented abuses committed by any other nation. Are you interested in human rights, or only Jewish rights? My views are not especially controversial or extreme. My information comes from mainstream human rights groups like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, or the Israeli group B’Tselem, or the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, or from U.N. reports, or from the pages of Ha’aretz. Are you willing to believe that these organizations are simply made up of “Jew haters”? I have also visited the occupied territories (as well as Israel) and seen first-hand the daily, run-of-the-mill terror that is has been inflicted on the Palestinians there by soldiers, settlers, and the Israeli bureaucracy for the past 43 years. One doesn’t have even have to look for it. Anyone who spends even a day in the West Bank with open eyes, an open mind and heart will be overwhelmed by the clear and ubiquitous injustice of the situation, to say nothing of Gaza, next to which the West Bank is a paradise by comparison.

I believe in reading widely and skeptically, and since the horror I felt watching Israel’s offensive in Gaza last year, this conflict has been my main area of study and concern. However much you may disagree with my conclusions, I would hope that you could at least assume that my activism is motivated by a genuine concern for human beings and a desire to help, in some small way, to end a conflict in which my own government and taxes play such a decisive role. To call me a “Jew-hater” without basis is irresponsible, hateful, and slanderous. It’s ridiculous. I have never called someone an “Arab-hater” because they criticized the Hamas government or some other Arab government, or a “Muslim-hater” or “Persian-hater” because they criticized Iran. If you, too, would like this conflict to end, wouldn’t it be more productive to attempt a rational, respectful discourse? I would like to invite you come to my talk on Saturday and ask dissenting questions. If you would prefer not to do that, I would be happy to meet with you one-on-one to talk about the issue. Please, our little folk music community is much too small for such name-calling.

Respectfully Yours,

Robert: Hi David,

No, I haven’t called you a “jew hater” – yet.

You’ll have to forgive some of us who barely escaped being furnace fuel
for the Nazis from being a bit sensitive – being anti-Israel means the
same as  being anti-Jew in much of the world – I just spent 2 weeks in
Barcelona, where they hacked and burned the Jewish community out of the
city about 200 years before Ferdinand and Isabella outlawed and threw the
Jews out of Spain once and for all.  You won’t catch me defending many of
the things that the Israelis have done (or for that matter, what everyone
on all sides have done in the Middle East), but you should choose your
words and deeds carefully.  Plenty of people think you are Jewish because
of the music you choose to play, which gives your words more weight, and a
greater burden of responsibility for what you say.   I have always
respected you as a musician, and have also told you before that I am not
interested in your politics.  When you provide extra fuel for
anti-Semites, however, I will do what I can to stand in your way.

Robert Resnik

Me: Robert,

You’re right. You did not say “Jew hater”. I remembered incorrectly. What you said was that I don’t like Jews, which would seem to be almost the same thing. You say that you respect my music, yet call me a “klezmer” musician in quotation marks of suspicion. Am I no longer a real klezmer musician because I have decided to speak out about Israel’s crimes? Also, I have never in any way represented myself as being Jewish any more than you are pretending to be Irish. Whenever anyone has asked me if there is any connection between the music I play and my advocacy of Palestinian rights, my answer has always been that there is no connection, except perhaps for the very tenuous connection of wanting to bring some joy into the world through music, and my discomfort with the fact that millions of people are being denied joy or any semblance of a normal life because they happened to be born Palestinian. Also, I suppose my interest in Jewish music led me to a general interest in modern Jewish history, and in the nazi holocaust in particular, and that I concluded that the moral challenge it posed was not to stand around condemning already near-universally condemned crimes of the past, which takes no courage and which anyone can do without lifting a finger, and is no help to the victims now in any case, but rather to confront the outrages of my own time. There is no shortage of injustice and cruelty in the world, and I wouldn’t claim that the plight of Palestinians or the crimes of Israel are the worst of them, nor do I think its even appropriate to compare the suffering of one oppressed people with that of another. Still, I think it is fair to say that, after our own wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is not another major crime in the world today in which my own country is so deeply complicit. When I speak about these things, it is not as a Jew or a Gentile, but as a human being and an American. And yes, I do choose my words carefully. I have not said anything that I am not prepared to back up with evidence, or else admit was a mistake (see the beginning of this letter). Can you say the same, Robert? Forgive me for what you will no doubt see as my insensitivity, but might I suggest that it’s just a teeny, tiny bit of hyperbole to say that you “barely escaped” being incinerated by the Nazis? I could be mistaken about your biography, but I remember reading on the VPR website that your mother’s family came to Vermont in the 1880’s, and if you are old enough to have lived through World War 2, then you are a remarkably well-preserved man. I have known people who came much closer than you to being killed by the Nazis who took from that experience the lesson that we must “never again” remain silent while a whole civilization is being destroyed in front of our eyes, whether that civilization is Jewish or otherwise, whether people or being herded into gas chambers or otherwise. That’s not an exaggeration, by the way. I ask you to take a little time to read some of the credible reports coming out of Gaza, in which 1.5 million people have been imprisoned and reduced to a “subhuman existence” (John Ging, director of operations for the UN Refugee and Works agency said this in 2008, even before the Israeli attack made things immeasurably worse). I was in Cairo recently with an 85 year-old holocaust survivor, a wonderful woman named Hedy Epstein, who went on a hunger strike to try to compel the Egyptian government to let us into Gaza to deliver aid and march against the blockade. This is a woman who’s parents and entire family were exterminated, who escaped from Germany at the age of 12 by the skin of her teeth and who literally could not bear the thought of what Israel is doing to the people of Gaza. When I was in the West Bank, at a demonstration on land being confiscated by Israel to build yet another illegal settlement, I met an Israeli man whose daughter had been murdered by a Palestinian suicide bomber. I also met his two sons a couple of days later. I get choked up just writing about this family. All of them were passionately committed to ending the occupation, all the more so because of the unimaginable loss they had suffered, the same loss that so many more Palestinians have had to endure. If an Israeli man who has lost his daughter can understand that Palestinian terror does not happen for no reason, or because of “antisemitism”, but against a context of incomparably greater Israeli terror and dispossession, why can’t Americans, who are so far from danger, see this? And no, I don’t accept that being “anti-Israel” (which I am not, by the way, any more than I am “anti-American”) is the same thing as being “anti-Jew”. Antisemitism is characterized by irrationality, nonsense like “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and so forth. There are perfectly rational reasons for opposing, even militantly opposing, Israel’s very real and well-documented crimes, particularly if you are on the receiving end of them. No one in their right mind today would accuse Native Americans of “anti-Europeanism”, though they certainly committed atrocities in their battle to hold onto their land. If you are so concerned about fuel being given to anti-Semites, you should be attacking the policies of the State of Israel, not people who are trying to call attention to them. You say that being possibly mistaken for a Jew gives my words more weight and places on me a greater burden of responsibility for what I say. If that is the case, then you, as a real Jew, have an even greater responsibility to peer through the veil of propaganda learn the truth about what Israel is doing to the Palestinians in the name of all Jews, and to loudly denounce it. I know that you have told me you are not interested in my politics, and I have respected that, but if you are going to go around telling people that I don’t like Jews, you are going to get a response from me. I assumed that you would prefer a reasoned and thoughtful one to a brief obscenity.

Respectfully Yours,

Robert: I won’t tell anyone anything more about you – good luck.

And there our dialogue, and friendship, appears to have ended.


January 9, 2010

First, I would like to apologize to you, dear readers, for my lapse in communication. The last few days have been unusually full, and I’ve had little time to write. By the way, did you know that you can subscribe to this blog? I notice that only a couple of people have done so. Rather than tediously checking seven or eight times a day to see if I’ve sent yet another riveting report shooting across the universe, only to be disappointed once again by the stale posts of days gone by, you’ll receive an email informing you of my latest efforts. Just a suggestion.

It took some time, but I made it out of the gorgeous, suffocating, dirty fish tank of Cairo. I planned to leave on Monday, but was told that I had to get a return-entry visa in order to come back for my return flight. To get this visa, I had to enter El Mogamma, an immense, grey eminence of  a government building which appeared to have been designed for the movie Brazil. After winding my way through a labyrinth of corridors, mountains of files (no computers anywhere), metal detectors, human beings wrapped in colorful blankets mysteriously sleeping in hallways on cold, marble floors, the usual heavily armed police, and being sent from one window to another, and another, I was finally given a form and was told “come back tomorrow”. I returned the next day, paid 50 Egyptian pounds, had my passport taken away, and was told “come back tomorrow”. I returned the following day and finally got my visa. The man who handed me my passport back was a devout Muslim, as was clear from his beard, long robe and zebibah, a large, dark callous on the forehead which is the result of pressing one’s head against the floor dozens of times a day in prayer, a religious fashion statement unique to Egyptian men. With my passport, he handed me a book awkwardly entitled How My Great Love For Jesus Christ Led Me To Embrace Islam. “For you” he said, smiling.

Then I was in a cab . . . at the bus station . . . on a bus out of Cairo! Amazingly, the woman sitting next to me on the bus was the same woman who had sat next to me on the flight from America 10 days earlier. There was also another American on the bus who had been on our flight. We had not gotten into Gaza but, by god, we would visit her sister, the West Bank – via Israel, of course. Crossing the Sinai desert, we discussed potential problems with Israeli customs. Of course, it couldn’t be revealed that we had any political purpose or Palestinian sympathies, or we would not get in. I had already gotten rid of my subversive literature and torn out of my notebook all the writing I had done about the events in Cairo and Gaza. I had removed the “I Support Palestine” sticker from my accordion. I was prepared to play “Hava Nagila” (derisively known in the klezmer world as “the ‘H’ tune”) for the border guards if necessary. I was concerned about the pictures in my digital camera, many of demonstrations, and I took out the little information disk and fretted about what to do with it. “You should keester that” said Joseph, a college student who had a Noam Chomsky tee-shirt that he was going to have to get rid of. He also had gotten Chomsky’s autograph one time, for some reason, and told us so. Rather than try shove a hard, plastic rectangle up my ass, as had been so helpfully suggested, I put it in my wallet and hoped it wouldn’t be an issue. I had heard many bad stories about Israeli border guards. It is not unheard of for them to fire several rounds through your laptop computer if they suspect you might be an activist. Once again, however, there were no problems. After passing through Egyptian customs where, as it turned out, I could have gotten in five minutes the visa for which I had waited days in Cairo, I easily lied my way through Israeli customs, the bored young conscripts only half-heartedly searching my bags. Then I took a taxi into a little neon tourist-trap of a town on the Red Sea, ate a shawarma pita the size of a Torah scroll, and took a bus to Tel Aviv.

I was there to meet up with Yonatan Shapira, one of the most remarkable people I know. For those who don’t know him, his story is worth recounting. Yonatan was a captain in the Israeli Air Force, a Black Hawk helicopter pilot who, in 2003, caused an uproar in Israel and around the world by instigating 27 Air Force officers, including himself, to draft and sign a letter, in which they refused to fly “immoral and illegal” missions any longer in occupied Palestine. There had been earlier Israeli refuseniks but, though courageous, they had been mainly young conscripts of low rank. The Air Force is the most elite branch of the military here, and pilots have an almost mythic reputation. Since this act of defiance, Yonatan has become one of the most informed, passionate, and wise of Israeli peace activists. He’s also a very sweet man, and a fine musician and singer, with a deep, sexy voice.

My bus was early, so I pulled out my accordion and played a little bit, standing near the cab stand outside the bus station. Oddly enough, when I had played my Jewish music on the street for the Arabs in Cairo, people were delighted. Now, in the land of the Jewish People, someone almost immediately began yelling at me to stop. Fortunately, Yonatan soon pulled up, waving a Palestinian flag out the window and grinning.

To be continued soon . . .

Tales from Gaza

January 4, 2010

The other night, the “token delegation”, the handful of activists who chose to accept the Egyptian government’s offer, returned from Gaza. Some of them gave a short presentation in a hallway at the Lotus Hotel about what they had seen and experienced there. The overwhelming impression that I got from them was that, if anything, the conditions there are even worse than I could have imagined. A “tour of horror” is how one woman described it. One after another, the stories came, most of them unbearably sad:

An entire, huge extended family exterminated by the “most moral army in the world”. A man who spent 15 years saving to buy a house, only to watch it turned into rubble in minutes after he had gotten to live in it only one year. The drawings made by young children: blood pouring from dismembered bodies, a giant eye crying tears of blood. Children disfigured by white phosphorous, children with hunks of shrapnel still lodged in their small bodies. There were many stories like these, and several people wept as they were telling them. Fareed, my Palestinian poet friend, talked about a family of 17 living in one room. Though giving handouts to individuals was discouraged, Fareed tried to slip a little of the money he had raised to the head of the family. He refused it. “That” said Fareed “is a proud Palestinian”. Some spoke of a “siege within a siege”, that is, the Hamas government, which has grown more repressive under the Israeli siege. How can democracy exist under such conditions? There were nicer stories too. A German man spoke of playing marbles with some children, who were having a great time, just like kids anywhere. Afterward, they insisted on giving him their marbles, and he held them in his hand as he spoke to us, overcome with emotion. A couple of people spoke about a hip-hop group they met in Gaza who, to their amazement, had perfectly mastered the mannerisms, dress, and attitude of American rappers. “They manage to do so much with so little” someone said. “While we do so little with so much”. I wish there were more such stories.

This is the reason we were not allowed to go to Gaza. It was never just about preventing a protest march. The Israelis and Americans do not want the world to see what they did there, and what they continue to do. It is for the same reason that all journalists were barred from Gaza during Operation Cast Lead.

We live inside a fog of lies. We are engaged in a battle between the testimony of witnesses, and well-funded lies. The more money is spent on a particular lie, the more often that lie will be repeated. For the truth to become overwhelming, many people will need to bear witness and, scorched by what they have seen, deliver the truth to those who trust them. Either Israel is a genocidal crazy state, or its detractors are anti-semitic liars. The UN is anti-semitic. The World Court is anti-semitic. Amnesty International is anti-semitic. Jimmy Carter is Anti-semitic. Nelson Mandela is anti-semitic. Arabs are anti-semitic (though they are themselves Semites). 59% of Europeans (the percentage, according to a 2003 poll of 7,515 people all 15 EU countries who identified Israel as the single greatest threat to world peace) are anti-semitic.

Stephen Colbert had a line, when he was roasting President Bush at a White House reporters’ dinner: “Reality has a well-known liberal bias.” Is it possible that reality has an anti-Israel bias?

David Symons

Notes on a Debacle

January 3, 2010

I have received a number of comments and emails praising me for my participation in what was intended to be the Gaza Freedom March. As a group, we have gotten a couple of letters from organizations in Gaza, offering their sincere thanks for our efforts on their behalf.

I, for one, do not accept their thanks.

For the sake of morale, it is generally best to stress the positive when examining the results of an effort involving months of work and great personal investment by many good and brave people, and I will try to do so. In the case of the fiasco in Cairo (and “fiasco” is the only word that can do justice to the past week) it seems to me that if we are to dredge anything positive from this experience, it must be the lessons we take from it. This will only work if we are ruthlessly honest with ourselves, and refuse to applaud the sort of self-congratulatory speeches that people are apt make in the midst of a decisive defeat.

For those who have not been following this in the international press (there has been little in the US media, with the exception some extensive coverage by Democracy Now!) I’ll give a short recap of December 31st:

At dawn, the police surrounded the Lotus, the hotel where the largest number of GFM delegates have been staying, including most of the leadership. They set up metal barricades, behind which they formed the now familiar human wall of young men wearing body armor, helmets, and clubs the length of baseball bats. The activists in the Lotus awoke to find themselves prisoners, unable to get to the big march that had been planned to coincide with the march in Gaza. I had gotten up in the early morning, and had gone out to buy food for what I was anticipating would be a multi-day stand-off with police. There was a precedent for this. The 300 person French delegation, in an inspiring display of endurance, had been occupying the sidewalk in front of their embassy for the past four days, surrounded by literally hundreds of police in their own mini-Gaza Strip, refusing to disperse. Their ambassador had even come out to spend some of the first night with them (unlike ours, who not only would not deign to meet with us, but actually asked the Egyptian police to detain us). I had already packed everything else I would need to live on the street for several days and had attended a non-violent resistance training the day before. We were expecting arrests at the very least, and had written the phone number of our legal team on our arms. I happened to pass by the Lotus which, at 8:00 in the morning was already surrounded by 50 or so police officers. I forgot about my shopping and ran back to my hotel, the Sun, to tell people what was happening. I assumed that our hotel would meet with a similar fate, since quite a few of us were staying there as well but, in an affront to our sense of importance, the police never showed up. It was decided that, in spite of the Lotus blockade, we would stick to the original plan, which was to leave our various hotels individually or in small groups at different times, protest paraphernalia hidden, posing as tourists. Taking different, circuitous routes, we would all arrive at the Egyptian Museum, a massive building in a prominent location, where we would begin to march in the general direction of Gaza, until we were stopped, at which point we would all sit down and refuse to move.

Of course, the police already knew what was happening, and were waiting. When they closed in, people decided to sit down, blocking traffic. Naturally, the police dragged demonstrators away. A couple of people were beaten, dragged by their hair, or had their shoulders dislocated by police dragging them from the street. I don’t want to harp too much on the violence against protesters, as it is barely worth mentioning in the context of violence against Palestinians by Israelis, and Egyptians by their own government. Torture of dissidents is common here and I am always aware of the privileges I enjoy as a member of the powerful USA gang. My sympathies lie more with the police than with the protesters, who are probably very poorly paid and have far less freedom than any of us visitors. To make a long story short, we were corralled on a sidewalk in the usual “free speech” cage made of hundreds of cops. People were even allowed to enter and leave the cage eventually, though only individually, and if one left, one might have to wait to get back in. It worked out better for the police to have us quarantined in one area, rather than wandering around and causing trouble. Their main objective, I realized throughout many of these sorts of demonstrations, was to keep Egyptians away from us, and vice versa. If any locals seemed curious about what was happening, they were immediately chased away by the police. They are not afraid of us, I thought, they are afraid of their own people. They did not want anyone photographing or filming the demonstrations, and there were always plainclothes guys all over the periphery whose only job seemed to be to stop people from taking pictures. Some were fairly intimidating, while others would simply wave a hand irritably or wag a scolding finger and say “No photo. No photo.” as if they were just camera-shy. There was no way they could stop it, of course, since everyone had a camera, and taking pictures therefore became a form of protest in itself, or a least a way of irritating the police. After about six hours of a couple of hundred people occupying a filthy piece of sidewalk, chanting, singing protest songs, chatting, delivering rousing speeches, and dancing to the sweet, sweet music of someone who had thought to bring an accordion, a vote was taken. Should we stay for days, as the French were doing, stay until after midnight and the beginning of the new year, or quit right away? The vote was overwhelmingly in favor of quitting right away, which I found disappointing, personally. If the French could do it, why couldn’t we? Still, I have to admit that it did seem a bit futile to take over a sidewalk indefinitely, albeit one at a busy intersection. I watched everyone leave, one by one or in small groups, and played my accordion. The police told me to leave too, and I refused. After all, I was the only one left, what harm could I do? I continued playing as they surrounded me. A couple of the cops tossed coins at me and laughed, and I thanked them. When it was clear that I wasn’t going to stop playing the accordion, they started to drag me by one of my arms, though I was able to keep playing with the other. They started to take my bags away. I looked around, and there was no watching except maybe thirty or forty police. This is stupid and pointless, I thought. I got out of there while the option was still open.

Later that night, a New Year’s Eve gathering was called in Tahrir Square. We tried to walk to the Nile, but were stopped by police, and so instead stayed in the square to ring in the new year with candles, and a large number of our old club and gun-wielding friends in attendance. Some people made speeches. I can’t recall ever feeling so sad on New Year’s Eve before. I left the crowd, to sit alone on a bench and look at the moon, which was full and hung directly overhead like a dim, yellowish light bulb. There was no one in the huge square except the activists and the police. Everyone else knew to keep their distance. Eventually, people started calling for music. “Where’s the accordion player?” people were shouting. I tried to slip away, but was caught. They wanted something upbeat. They wanted to dance. My heart wasn’t really in it, but I did my best to help people forget the sadness that we all must have been feeling. It was the least I could do.

No one had really been ready for the incredible challenge of trying to organize a large, physically diffuse and philosophically and linguistically diverse group of people in a totalitarian police state. Making decisions by consensus is difficult, time-consuming, and exhausting, as anyone who has tried to do so knows. Trying to do so without even being able to hold a general meeting is still more difficult. The night before, I attended a planning meeting which filled several hotel rooms, the hotel hallway, the stairwell, and the hallway downstairs. It was simply impossible to hear what anyone was saying, or to see or get anywhere near those who were speaking. The hotel staff tried to squeeze past us to perform their duties. Every so often, a loud simultaneous “Aye!” would be heard as some decision was made, yet there was no way for most of us to find out what was being decided. Nearly every bit of information that one heard from one person would soon be contradicted by another from someone else. It’s likely that the Egyptian police had a clearer idea of what we were going to do than 2/3 of the activists did. It did turn out that some of the supposed hotel employers were actually police spies, though this was hardly a surprise.

Added to the communication problem was the fact that no one had really prepared, psychologically or tactically, for the possibility that we would not be able to get into Gaza. This was no accident. Though we all knew we might not get in, the Egyptian officials with whom the March organizers had been negotiating for months had given indications that we would be allowed in, as long as all of the proper protocol was followed. When it was announced, a week before we were scheduled to enter Gaza, that we were being denied, long after everyone had purchased plane tickets and many delegates were already in Cairo, a sort of panic began to emerge. There had been no discussion of a “plan B” among the larger group and, in fact, such discussion was strongly discouraged by the organizers of the March, who had invested everything in a diplomatic, non-confrontational strategy with the Egyptian government. We had to assume that our emails were being read, our phones tapped, and our meetings infiltrated by Egyptian intelligence, and we were told by the organizers that any discussion of possible protests in Cairo would only antagonize the government and lessen our chances of getting into Gaza.

This strategy of diplomacy, though nobly intended, was a failure. In retrospect, I believe that Egypt never had any intention of letting us in. I suspect that as soon as organizing began for this march, the governments of the US, Israel, and Egypt decided how they would handle it. Their strategy was to continue to negotiate until the 11th hour, withholding an answer but giving every indication of their willingness to cooperate, while for months thousands of activists squandered millions of dollars and untold of hours of labor, and then to clamp down suddenly and completely once it was too late to divert those resources, making it impossible for us to gather or move in large groups, or even to travel out of Cairo. A further divisive tactic, that of offering a deal to the organizers, at the last minute, to allow 100 “good” activists to enter Gaza, to be chosen instantly by edict or not at all, while denying the 1,260 remaining “hooligans” proved extremely effective at damaging the solidarity of the movement, and the credibility of its leaders.

From the beginning, and at every crucial step, we walked directly in the traps that were set for us. Noble intentions, when ineptly applied, are not especially heroic. Therefore, I will not accept the thanks of the people of Gaza, who will continue to rot in a maximum security prison, reduced to what the director of operations for the UN Refugee and Works Agency calls a “subhuman existence”, until they are freed by a less diplomatic, less credulous, less easily divided mass movement.

Did we accomplish anything? Certainly. There was some press, which will help at least to get a few people thinking about Palestine, which may lead to a desire for more knowledge about it. The more one learns about the historical record and the current situation (I’m speaking of actual facts, not the propaganda that passes for responsible discourse in the US) of Israel and the US’s behavior toward Palestinians, the more appalled and outraged one becomes. That sense of outrage occasionally leads to action. Perhaps more importantly, I hope that our little effort, combined with the simultaneous demonstrations that took place all over the world on the 31st, will help the people in Gaza to feel less alone. It’s true that the world has turned away, has forgotten about Gaza. It was thought by many that the especially barbaric and sadistic character of “Operation Cast Lead” would finally shock the world into taking the side of Israel’s victims, but this has not happened. I imagine being at the bottom of a deep well, calling out for help. I can hear voices, and see shadows of people walking past, but no one stops. Also, gratifyingly, many Egyptians have quietly expressed to us their appreciation for our efforts on behalf of their “brothers”, as well as envy that they are not able to do same without grave personal risk. I have been inspired, personally, by the remarkable people I have met here, people whose conscience and bravery and dedication are humbling. If we can make a million more of these people, we will win.

Could our resources have been more wisely used? Without a doubt, though it’s easier to criticize than to envision.

Thank you for reading,

David Symons

Pure Vanity

January 2, 2010

The Gaza Me-dom March (more substantial post coming soon):










All, or Nothing? Appendix

December 31, 2009

This is the letter from the organizers of the March in Gaza, regarding the events I wrote about in my last post. I thought it might be of some interest. Oh, and to all who have left comments, thank you. It feels good to know that people are paying attention. I look forward to having the time to answer some of your comments.

Dear Gaza Freedom March organizers and participants,

After a lot of hesitation and deliberation, we are writing to call on you to reject the “deal” reached with the Egyptian authorities. This deal is bad for us and, we deeply feel, terrible for the solidarity movement.

We initially felt that if representatives of all forty plus countries can go to Gaza and lead a symbolic march along Palestinians it would convey the message to the world public opinion, our main target. However, after listening to the Egyptian Foreign Minister’s press conference last night on Aljazeera and the way he described the deal in details, we are unambiguous in perceiving this compromise as too heavy, too divisive and too destructive to our future work and networking with various solidarity movements around the world.

Mr. Abu Al-Gheit described the 100, that they graciously accepted to allow to enter Gaza, as those from organizations which Egypt considers “good and sincere in standing in solidarity with Gaza the same way as we [the regime] do.” He described the rest as “from organizations that are only interested in subversion and acting against Egyptian interests, to sow havoc on the streets of Egypt, not to stand in solidarity with the Palestinians.”  He also said that the Egyptian public was wise enough to see that those were hooligans and stayed away from them. Other than the obvious divisiveness that agreeing to this deal would cause, what’s wrong with this picture:

1) The Egyptian government in this press conference painted a picture of the great majority of the internationals participating in the GFM as hooligans and agents provocateurs, not real solidarity groups. This is a grave insult to all of us, to all our partners and to the entire GFM, as it depicts us all as partnering with “fanatic,” “destructive” forces, not forces for ending the siege and for the rule of law;

2) Arab and international public pressure on countries imposing the siege on Gaza are rising dramatically due to the actions that you ALL have engaged in and the excellent media messages that you have sent. This deal is being used now to release pressure .

Either they allow all 1400 participants into Gaza (if they are “hooligans,” best to get rid of them from Egypt and “ship” them to Gaza, right?) or we strongly urge you to reject the deal out of hand as too little, too late, too divisive and too ill-conceived.

We cannot possibly decide on this matter, as ultimately this is up to ALL of you. If a CLEAR majority among the international delegations feel that you want to go through with the deal, we shall always welcome you in Gaza and deeply appreciate your solidarity. But we feel your solidarity without coming to Gaza, exposing the siege against you and us, may bear more fruit for us and towards ending the siege, at least from the Egyptian side.

We have repeatedly argued that the march itself is not supposed to be only a symbolic gesture, but rather a key part of a process, a series of events, which may ultimately lead to lifting the deadly siege. We want to intensify and continue building an effective solidarity campaign, not divide it.

We salute you all and thank you from our hearts for the indescribable work you have all done for Gaza!


Haidar Eid,

Omar Barghouti,

All, or Nothing?

December 30, 2009

So much has been happening, that I’ve gotten behind in my writing. There have been some dramatic 180 degrees turns in the past day. Just as I start to write, that which I am writing is already obsolete. I’ll try to convey a bit of what is happening in the limited time I have:

Fareed woke me up in the middle of the night. “Do you want to go to Gaza?” he asked excitedly. Fareed is a Palestinian poet and percussionist (which makes for a lot of Ps) now living in New York. We have become friendly over the past few days. “What?” I said, half-asleep and confused. “You’re David so-and-so, right?” “No. Symons” “Oh. Sorry” he said, and dashed off, presumably to find the correct David. To everyone’s surprise (and immediately after the Israeli Prime Minister had left Egypt) the Egyptians suddenly announced that they would allow two busloads, or 100 people, to enter Gaza. Apparently, a protracted appeal to Suzanne Mubarak, the wife of the Egyptian Premiere and Chair of the Red Crescent, who seemingly wields significant power in this otherwise macho country, had paid off in the 11th hour. She arranged this offer to the delegation, reportedly enraging the Foreign Minister, who felt his authority to have been undermined. The March coordinators on this side of the border consulted with their counterparts in Gaza, who urged them to move forward with the offer. They were given less than two hours to submit the names of those who would be going. With such a small window of time, and everyone spread throughout the city and unable to meet, a consensus decision was obviously impossible. The organizers quickly selected 100 people, attempting to proportionally represent as many countries as possible, while giving priority to people who had never been to Gaza before, particularly Palestinians who had never been to Gaza. The list was submitted to the government and accepted, and the 100 packed their things and prepared to board a bus at 7:00 the next morning. As word got around, a strong dissidence began to emerge. The Canadians refused to go unless everyone was allowed to do so. A meeting was called (which I did not know about and did not attend) that went into the wee hours of the morning and apparently was very emotional. Many felt that the government was trying to buy us off with a cheap token delegation, which obviously rendered absurd all of their pretexts for denying entry to the whole group, i.e, that it was not safe and that certain documents had been filled out incorrectly. It was felt by some that Code Pink, the women’s peace group which has been the main organizer of the March, had sold out the movement. As the mini-delegation boarded the buses to Gaza, a regiment (or “mob”, according to one of the woman on the buses) of dissenters headed to the bus depot to stop them from leaving. I was not there, and cannot go into detail, but there was a vehement stand-off between the two factions. This went on for about three  hours, with the dissenters surrounding the buses and chanting “GET OFF THE BUS!” over and over, and many of the people on the buses getting off and on again in anguished indecision, and many ferocious arguments going on at once,  until a remarkable thing happened. An organizer on one of the buses received a phone call from Gaza. It seemed that a parallel debate had been taking place on the other side of the border. The Gazan organizers had just seen the Egyptian Foreign Minister’s press conference on Al Jazeera, in which he explained the “deal” that had been made. According to the Foreign Minister, only the “good and sincere” activists were being allowed through the border, the rest were just “hooligans” who sought to “sow havoc on the streets of Egypt”. The absurdity of his remarks hardly needs to be pointed out, particularly as all of the 100 delegates were chosen by the “hooligans” themselves. The Gazan organizers, though stressing that it was our decision to make, urged the international delegation to reject the “deal”. When this was announced most people (apart from a handful of hold-outs) immediately got off the buses and unloaded their bags. It was becoming clearer that this had been a tactic to divide the movement and, intentional or not, it succeeded beautifully. We had walked into a trap, and the movement was devouring itself. The steering committee immediately issued an apology to all of the delegates.

I was in a meeting at my hostel as this was unfolding, and we kept getting reports from visibly upset people who were coming from the bus stand-off. The meeting was interrupted by a phone call, from which we learned that the 100 delegates were getting off of the buses. After that, more and more emotionally strained people began pouring into our meeting in the small, dingy, smoke-filled lobby of the Sun Hotel. The room was completely packed and chaotic. Code Pink was no longer in a leading role, that was clear. Some new-age type person tried to take charge, to get everyone to hold hands and feel each other’s energy or some bullshit. I was doing my best to keep my mouth shut, as everyone was trying to talk, as I fantasized about catching the next bus out of town. I had been feeling more and more ineffectual and frustrated since it became clear a couple of days ago that we would not be going to Gaza, and that all we could hope to do was hold increasingly fragmented performances for audiences of police officers. I had lain awake the past three nights agonizing over how to do something useful with my time here, to not let down everyone who has supported me on this mission, to say nothing of the suffering Palestinians, who seemed so far away now in the midst of our struggles with Egypt and with each other.

A thin, mild-looking older woman, one of several who had been on a hunger strike for the past couple of days silenced everyone with a story about a man she had met in Gaza a few months before. This man was the mayor of a town which had been literally levelled. The Israelis bombed nearly every building, and then obliterated everything that was left with giant bulldozers which, incidentally, are custom-made by the US Caterpillar Corporation for this exact purpose. The mayor had lived in a large, multi-story building with 30 members of his family. Showing her around the remains of the town, he pointed to an unrecognizable pile of rubble. “That is my house” he told her flatly. The story put a lump in my throat, indeed, it does now as I am remembering this woman telling it, yet it is an utterly unremarkable one in Gaza. This was the reason we had all traveled across the world.

Eventually, our commonality of purpose began to edge out our differences. It is testament to the righteousness of this cause, I thought, that so many people of so many different types, philosophies, ages, and persuasions are all here, so far from their homes. Irish anarchists, Palestinian poets, grandmas from the American mid-west, holocaust survivors, Egyptians (the bravest of all, to dissent here), at least one Chasid, new-age nut jobs, old, bearded hippies, South African anti-aparteid activists, lawyers in khaki pants, professors, and taxi drivers are all here. The energy in the room began to focus on what may be our “last stand” in Cairo, the march we are planning hold tomorrow, to coincide with the march in Gaza. We are going to march “toward” Gaza. It’s possible that you won’t hear from me for a few days, but please don’t worry. The Egyptian police have shown a great reluctance to arrest or in any way harm the foreigners. A passport from a wealthy country acts as a sort of magical protective amulet, and we have a responsibility make use of a privilege that Palestinians and Egyptians do not enjoy. I would like to suggest to whoever is reading this, that they should feel free to contact the Egyptian Embassy at 202-895-5400 and ask for Omar Youssef, or ask your congressperson and senators to do so, and let them know the world is watching.

Thank You,

David Symons

Artificial Zebras

December 28, 2009

It is no simple matter to transform a run-of-the-mill donkey into a zebra. It takes two days, and a lot of sticky tape and hair dye. Of the 400 animals at Gaza’s “Happy Land” zoo, only 10 survived Israel’s assault last year. Some were killed when Israel bombed the zoo, others were shot by soldiers amusing themselves. The rest died of starvation or dehydration when an Israeli tank was posted at the entrance for three weeks to prevent zookeepers from tending to the animals. Among the few survivors are a lion and two ostriches, smuggled from Egypt through tunnels when they were babies, like trees grown inside a bottle. And of course, one can always make more zebras. The animals are on near starvation diets, and are often sick, with no medicine available. “If there was an animal protection group here, they would have us all arrested for mistreating the animals,” says the zookeeper. “I tell myself that it’s a sin not to take care of them properly, but I try to do my best.” The zoo was extremely popular before the offensive, with hundreds of children visiting every week. There is simply very little in Gaza in the way of leisure. The other main diversion, Gaza’s beach on the Mediterranean, is barely tolerable now. Since Israel destroyed the sewage treatment facilities, Gazans have no choice but to pump millions of liters per day of untreated sewage directly into the sea. I learned the story of the “zebras” from some filmmakers I recently met who were hoping to get into Gaza to make a documentary about the zoo.

Here’s one article about the Gaza Zoo: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7897385.stm

And some nice pictures of the ersatz zebras: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/10/14/gaza-zoo-too-poor-to-buy_n_321019.html?slidenumber=2

The lives of the animals in the Gaza Zoo are not so different from the lives of most of the humans in Gaza. It’s simply a matter of the size of the cage. Also, unlike other animals, humans are either gifted or cursed with a sense of justice, and know when they are being treated unjustly.

This Thursday, the 31st, tens of thousands of Palestinians will march in Gaza to call on demented Israeli zookeepers to stop starving, freezing, and killing them. The international delegation, 1,360 people who traveled from 43 different countries, will not be there. You have to hand it to the Egyptian authorities, they are extremely competent when it comes to being a pain in the hair-dye-striped ass. We are prohibited from traveling outside of Cairo. The buses we chartered were canceled, and no bus company will risk the consequences of dealing with us. The several dozen activists who managed to make it to el-Arish, which is the Egyptian city closest to the Rafah border crossing, were placed under house arrest in their hotel. 8 others were detained at the el-Arish bus station and are still being held. When activists have attempted to leave el-Arish by taxi, the police have stopped them and unloaded their luggage. In spite of this, many of the people to whom I have spoken are still determined to get into Gaza, although the organizers of the March have finally conceded that it is impossible. So overwhelming is the police presence here, it seems that every activist has their own, personal, heavily armed cop. Every gathering we attempt, no matter how small, is immediately encircled by dozens of them, many with machine guns. Yesterday, to mark the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the Israeli assault, a small contingent tried to tie little pieces of paper with names of the victims to the railing of one of the bridges on the Nile, but was broken up by police. Then, at sundown, we were prevented from chartering boats in order to float hundreds of candles in little paper cups down the river, and I missed what would have been a gorgeous photo-op. Maybe they were worried the river would catch fire. Instead, there was a sort of candlelight vigil/protest on the side-walk next to the bank where we tried to rent the boats. The police have an odd tactic, which I have experience several times already, of completely encircling the demonstrators by holding hands, and not allowing anyone to leave for half an hour or more. I’m not sure what the purpose of this maneuver is, since I should think they would want us to disperse, but I suppose it’s a kind of quarantine. Apart from a woman who said she was punched in the face by one of the cops today, I’ve not seen or heard of any violence. 

In spite of all this, there have been many smaller actions and demonstrations throughout Cairo. Many people have been going to their respective embassies and requesting their governments to ask Egypt to let us through the border. I spent a while outside of the US embassy this morning with a group of Americans, as they would only let two of us inside. There was a relatively large demonstration in front of the United Nations building today. Netanyahu is coming to Cairo tomorrow to discuss the “peace-process”, and one can’t help but wonder if Egypt’s stance originates in part from a desire to not embarrass the leader of this region’s superpower by letting us into Gaza. There will be a demonstration tomorrow centered around Netanyahu’s visit, though the location of his meeting is, of course, a secret.

I can’t help succumbing to a creeping sense of futility. It’s important to not let Egypt become the focus of our efforts, as I’m sure Israel would prefer. They are collaborators, but they are minor criminals in this scandal, a seal trained to do unpleasant tricks, compared to the US and Israel. The main difference, apart from the vastly different levels of military power, is that most Egyptians, probably even the police, hate Israel and sympathize with the Palestinians. Egypt just happens to have a corrupt, unrepresentative government. The same cannot be said for the US and Israel. We actually are responsible for the crimes of our governments, and we look the other way at our peril.

Thank you for reading.

David Symons

Nothing To Declare

December 27, 2009

Cairo is beautiful, grimy, delapidated, swarming. Everything is bathed in a dreamy, golden veil of smog, as well as the aural smog of non-stop car horns. There are armed police everywhere, looking intimidating with their black berets and large guns, yet seemingly no traffic enforcement. The “walk” signals feature a little animated green man, running frantically for his life. The Cairoans are a well-dressed, sharp-looking bunch. No tee shirts for them. It is easy to spot the peace activists, as they tend to be the most slovenly-looking people around.

I am here to try to get into the Gaza Strip with 1360 people of conscience from 43 countries (44 including Vermont) to march with 50,000 Palestinians to the Israeli border on December 31st. We are calling on Israel and its indulgent parent, the U.S.A, to end their near-universally condemned siege of Gaza. Today is the one-year anniversary of Israel’s 22-day Gaza massacre (let’s not euphemize by calling it a war), which ended the lives of around 1,400 mostly unarmed people, including over 300 children, left more than 5,000 maimed, many with permanant injuries, and nearly the entire civilian and industrial infrastructure in ruins. A year later, Israel maintains its 3 year-old blockade on the strip, and not one building has been rebuilt, and many thousands remain homeless. Gaza’s already fragile economy has been rendered nearly extinct by the bombing and siege, and 97% of factories remain closed. One could go on and on, but I’ll instead recommend reading one or more of several extensive investigative reports that have come out, such as the Goldstone Report, or Amnesty International’s “Operation Cast Lead: 22 Days of Death and Destruction. One should also read the report by the National Lawyers Guild, which conducted a fact- finding mission to Gaza just days after the “war”, and easily demolishes Israel’s self-defense argument. All are available on the web, of course.

I was a bit nervous going through customs, because the Egyptian government, no doubt reacting to U.S./Israeli pressure, has taken a hard line in recent days against the Gaza Freedom March. The organizers of the March have been in negotiations with the government here since September, but it was not until just a week ago when they announced that we would not be allowed to enter Gaza. Why they waited until over 1,360 had already bought plane tickets to Cairo, and many had already arrived, to announce this decision, is anybody’s guess. Shortly after officially refusing the international delegation permission to enter Gaza, Egypt continued hardening its position. Our permit to hold an orientation meeting was revoked. It is illegal to hold a political meeting in groups larger than 6 without permission. The March organizers had already rented fifteen 50-passenger buses to take some of us to the Rafah border crossing, and our permit to travel was revoked. The officials have made it clear that those planning to come to Cairo should either come prepared to be tourists, or they should stay away. Any public protest or dissent would be met with zero tolerance, we were told. People in the U.S. have a hard time understanding this, so much do we take for granted our right to meet and speak freely. I had no idea to what lengths the Egyptians would go to suppress our movement, and before my plane landed, I ripped out all the pages from my notebook in which I referred to Gaza and/or the March. I still had several books about Palestine with me, and it wouldn’t be difficult to figure out why I was there if I was searched. My paranoia proved groundless, though. The customs officer raised an amused eyebrow at my passport, which got wet and infested with mildew some years ago, and is probably the worst-looking passport he had seen, and suggested that I might like to get a new one. Nothing else to it.

We have not given up on trying to get into Gaza. Egypt’s embassies have been flooded with phone calls and emails asking them to let us in. The March organizers are appealing directly to President Mubarak to reverse the decision. We have been meeting in smaller groups in the lobbies of the various hotels where we are staying, since we cannot hold a general meeting. Everything is up in the air right now. Rumors are flying around, and our understanding changes hour to hour. Today there will be a few memorial demonstrations to mark the anniversary of the beginning of the massacre, and I will most likely write about these in my next post.

Thank you for reading.

David Symons