israel: dec 08/jan 09

In December 2008 I received a grant from the Dorot Foundation to photograph migrant workers in Israel, in collaboration with the Hotline for Migrant Workers, Tel Aviv.  I spent a month going back and forth between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv producing this work.  I also took a brief detour to Beirut to meet with one of OSI’s Doc Photo Project grantees – a very cool project from a Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon.

The timing became a little complicated when the Israeli army decided to invade Gaza.  See below for some thoughts on that.

Snapshots from the journey are here.

not in Gaza, but close enough.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008 at 1:47am

Shalom from a war zone.

It’s ironic that the very word you use to greet people here means “peace” when the young Israeli activists I had lunch with last week told me “peace” is outdated – the goal of an older generation. The new rhetoric of the left is “struggle” and they work to find an uneasy way to accomodate it.

It’s no secret that I was reluctant to travel here this month. I didn’t want to leave my warm Brooklyn bubble to immerse myself in some of this planet’s less cozy details – didn’t want to open myself up to the difficult stories I knew I would hear. I read your Facebook status updates and I’m jealous, even when you bitch about the snow and ice. Yet right now it’s starting to feel symbolic – the apathetic American, forced to face the harsh reality of war in the Middle East. And I’m *still* not open to it, really – but this is the deal.

When you’re 30 minutes away from an international conflict zone, you don’t get to opt out. Those cliché images they’re printing in the papers – tanks, smoke, anguished faces – those don’t look foreign and remote to me right now. The color palette matches what I see out my window, the license plate fonts what I see on the roads here. The buildings in rubble are made of the same stones as the apartment I’m sitting in right now. I’m new to this psychological habit of living with a vague humming fear of death, of getting on a crowded bus or having lunch in a cute Tel Aviv café and remembering stories about suicide bombers targeting sites like these. But guess what – it’s real, and it doesn’t help to read that Hamas has encouraged the martyrs to do their thing. Or that Israel is stoking the fire by bombing the shit out of Gaza and currently refusing to consider non-violent options. *They have to cut that shit out. It’s not going to make the Palestinians – or this conflict – go away, nor will it make them more amenable to considering a non-violent solution.*

And fine, okay, all I can do is do my thing, because the likelihood of anything actually happening to me is slim, and really I just have to live my life. I have migrant workers to hang out with and photograph, and I haven’t been to the contemporary art center yet. New Year’s Eve is coming and I have to find a party to crash. I skip the anti-war demonstration in Tel Aviv and sign an internet petition instead. I take the sherut (shared taxi) back and forth between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and listen to the Filipina caregivers chatter with each other. I ride the bus north to Netanya to meet with Hillel students and surreptitiously check out the teenager next to me writing notes with a pink fuzzy-topped pen, her giant gun leaning casually between her legs. I go to Bethlehem for Christmas Eve in Manger Square and pass through a wall – a WALL, people, you’ve seen the pictures but they don’t prepare you for how it feels to pass through a thick, graffiti-covered cement barrier with layers of razor wire on top, flashing your blue American passport at the irritated bureaucrat, passing security barriers on the other side which are there to protect you but only freak you out more due to the presence of Uzis. It’s no wonder the Palestinians are so angry – the whole system is designed to make you feel like a powerless cow. And it’s humiliating to feel like a walking cliché – the poor American, not used to living with the thinly veiled potential for violence, the poor Jew, it’s your people who created this mess, the progressive American, have fun flashing how with-it you are before going back to your life where you can avoid all this mess – but I can’t help being who I am. Or the fact that I like my life at home, and have no intention of making aliyah. I suppose I am grateful for the ability to have these experiences here – being here was a choice I made for a reason – yet I can’t help counting down the days until I get out of here.

It’s really weird to be here and to try to absorb it. Especially when I’m here to get my head around a different situation – the migrant workers who are a by-product of the conflict, brought in to do the work (agriculture, care-giving, construction) that Palestinians can no longer reliably access due to the unseemly presence of walls in their lives. But I’ll tell you more about the migrant workers when I’m done taking pictures next week – it’s been interesting but also predictably intense and difficult.

I wish I were home in Brooklyn, guys. But instead I’m off now to meet Thai farmworkers in the Galilee. Sorry for the inconclusive nature of this note but that’s sort of the deal, isn’t it?

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