Kids with guns

I’m too tired to write a detailed account of today’s thrilling journey to Jerusalem and back (and the content would be predictable anyway) so I am posting this song instead.

It’s an accurate summary.

Conscription of teenagers is a wicked thing.

If you pray at all, please pray for them.

And on that note, goodnight.

Anne Braden

Lyrics to ‘Anne Braden’

from the color of the faces in sunday’s songs
to the hatred they raised all the youngsters on
once upon a time in this country long ago
she knew there was something wrong
because the song said yellow, red, black, and white
everyone precious in the path of christ
but what about the daughter of the woman cleaning their house
wasn’t she a child they were singing about
and if Jesus loves us black or white skin
why didn’t her white mother invite them in?
when did it become a room for no blacks to step in?
how did she already know not to ask the question

left lasting impressions
adolescence’s comforts gone
she never thought things would ever change
but she always knew there was something wrong

she always knew there was something wrong

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Why I will no longer argue with child abusers and their apologists

In England I used to work with young people who had often suffered terrible abuse – physical, psychological, and sexual. When I mentioned that work to new acquaintances, the reaction was usually one of uneasy sympathy. “That’s so awful. I don’t know how anybody can treat children like that, I really don’t.”

Talking about Palestinian children who have been abused in custody, with the abuse even including outright torture, I encounter another response. “So what were the kids doing? The army wouldn’t arrest them with no reason.”

Dr Seuss poster.

I’ve had it up to here with the excuse-making and the equivocations and the rationalisations for inflicting deliberate harm on those who are most vulnerable in any society. I am sick of people’s sheer pig-headed selfish insistence on prioritising the protection of a country’s reputation over the protection of these children. And when I say sick, I mean sick – nauseous, down, and above all just plain tired.

So I have come to a decision. From now on I will have nothing to say to the apologists. Not online, and not in real life. (Not in a box. Not with a fox. Not in a house. Not with a mouse…) I used to believe that there was something to be gained from debating the issue with them. Now I have come to realise that it’s pointless. To begin with, it’s not an ‘issue’. Children beaten up in jail and threatened with rape are not ‘issues’. Children torn from their beds in the middle of the night and taken away without charge, without a parent, without even a lawyer are not ‘issues’. They’re not up for debate in the same way that logical positivism is. A person who grasps this does not need convincing that what happens to kids in military custody is very wrong. A person who does not grasp it will never be convinced. To them the kids only exist in the abstract. They’re not real. They don’t matter. And if you point this out to the apologists, they’re quite shocked, because OF COURSE they oppose child abuse – REAL child abuse. But this isn’t real, not really, and if it is, it’s an isolated incident. Not enough to matter. Of course, in deploying these arguments – common to abuse apologists in all contexts – they become complicit in the abuse itself, as one of its most hurtful consequences (in many cases even its purpose) is to teach victims that they do not matter. I remember one young disabled woman from New Zealand, a victim of serious physical and psychological violence, telling me, “Sometimes I hold myself and keep telling myself, ‘I am real, I am real’.” Speaking at a conference I attended, an Irish woman who was repeatedly raped and exploited through prostitution said that as she sat on the pavement she used to wonder if any of the people passing by really saw her. Abuse apologists do not see. They’re the same all over the world.

I have a choice: to argue ad infinitum with these people, becoming increasingly tired and sad in the process and achieving nothing, or to turn instead to the kids and their families. The time I spend giving my fiftieth detailed explanation of how military law affects children could be better spent in writing a comforting bedtime story for a child who doesn’t sleep well any more. Instead of spending hours enumerating the reasons why he can’t sleep for the sake of people who just brush them off like so much dandruff, I could write a book for people who actually want to know, or I could learn more up-to-date practical techniques for the management of sleep disturbances in trauma, or I could just make the poor kid a hot chocolate and sit with him through the night. All of this would be a far more worthwhile use of time. It might not bring about an end to army child abuse, but it would at least demonstrate to these children that they matter.

Finding Bethlehem in East London: a Christmas journey

I’m not a London sort of person. Before I left for Palestine I lived in a remote Northumberland hamlet (population three people and a sheep) with a mile-long walk across the fields to reach the nearest bus stop. London has an awful lot of people and no sheep, and I have several grievances against it. It always seems so easy to navigate when you look at the Monopoly board, but when you actually get there nothing is arranged in orderly squares and you’re lost before you even know where you are.

Last year, one late December day, I alighted at Euston Station and caught the Tube into the East End. I was introduced to this part of the capital through Rachel Liechtenstein’s book Rodinsky’s Room, a semi-autobiographical work that tries to solve the mystery surrounding the disappearance of David Rodinsky, a reclusive man who lived above the old synagogue on Princelet Street. My present-day destination was a flat on the thirteenth floor of a tower block in a densely populated housing estate.

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Just a thought

Earlier today this picture appeared on the Facebook page of the Israeli Embassy in Ireland. It is an image of the Sacred and Immaculate Heart, with the festive caption, “A thought for Christmas…If Jesus and mother Mary were alive today, they would, as Jews without security, probably end up being lynched in Bethlehem by hostile Palestinians. Just a thought…”


My initial reaction was, “Smooth move, directing this picture and caption at a country where the population is a.) predominantly Catholic and b.) generally sympathetic to Palestine. PR skillz, u no have any.” Then I thought of something else.

This image of the Holy Hearts is hanging on the wall of my host family’s house in Bethlehem (only ours is kitschier and better). When I saw the embassy’s Christmas message, I thought of the family’s experiences during the Intifada, when the house was constantly being requisitioned by Israeli troops. They used to corral everyone into one corner, and my landlady was never allowed to be the one to wake her children: the soldiers pulled them out of bed at gunpoint. When the soldiers got thirsty my landlady used to give them water. Occasionally some of them became distressed and she and her husband would try to comfort them. There were times when the curfew lasted so long that the family ran out of food. Soldiers would bring their own meals into the house (sometimes hot pizza, with its appetising smell) and the kids just had to sit there and try to bear the hunger until such time as curfew was lifted and they could go to the shop.

Last year I ended up bringing an Israeli friend who was then performing his own military service into the house. (He was off-duty at the time, obviously, and before you ask – it’s a long story. I may tell it some day.) I was worried about how the family would react to him. Sure enough, my landlady wasn’t best pleased – but not because he was an Israeli Jew and a soldier to boot, but because, “If the army find out he has been here they can hurt him. You need to look after your friends, Vicky, he is a good boy.” She sat in the living room and talked with him, underneath the Holy Hearts image and the equally kitschy representation of the Last Supper.

That picture on the wall of one Bethlehem family home has witnessed a lot of things, but never hate of the sort that was exhibited by the embassy this afternoon. Just a thought.

When in crisis, drink tea

I am very tired after a couple of nights without sleep. Precipitated by the assault on Gaza and helped along by the chain-drinking of tea (when in crisis, drink tea – it is the British way), this bout of insomnia isn’t exactly wild fun.

This autumn Sameeha’s course of study in England drew to its close. We travelled to the Lake District together (I didn’t think she should leave England without seeing it) for what would be our last visit together for neither of us knows how long. Her house in Gaza City is barely a three-hour drive from me in Bethlehem, but getting into Gaza is still so hard, even with the easing on Rafah, that the best way for us to see one another is to jump on a plane.

“I need to do something radical with you before I go back home,” was her greeting.

I felt nervous. The last time she decided we needed to do something radical she attacked me with her makeup bag and tried to drag me into a nightclub. My toenails bore traces of scarlet nail polish for months. (It looked exactly like blood.) Fortunately this time she was content to hire a boat and row it out on Windermere. Considering that she can’t swim and I have a disability that means my arms and legs sometimes like to act autonomously of my brain, you would have thought that bobbing about in the middle of one of Britain’s largest and deepest lakes would have been an alarming experience. After the makeover it was positively relaxing.

Once we were far enough from shore, I laid down my oars. We sat in silence (an unusual condition for Sameeha). The lake swelled and sighed beneath us, cradling the boat. There was no sound apart from the waves on the wood and the occasional creak as an oar shifted in a rowlock. It was hard to believe that we only met in person just over a year ago; before that our friendship was based around our blogs and our Twitter accounts and the late-night Facebook chats that took place when both of us were being prevented from sleep (by drone strikes in her case, caffeine in mine). Levinas and Derrida, radical versus liberal feminism, inconvenient crushes on political Zionists (“Clarify that was you, not me!” I can hear her saying indignantly), the size of our backsides – you name it, and we have probably discussed it in the middle of the night. She feels like one of those people I’ve known forever.

“I’m OK,” she wrote. “I’m with family, all staring at the TV to anticipate what’s next. Habibti, this has been a hell of a week. I can’t sleep.”

“Probably just as well. It would hardly be reasonable for your family to have to cope with your snoring on top of everything else.”

Then she lost either Internet or electricity or both, and I was left in my cold room in the middle of the night, staring at the screen and wondering what I could possibly do. Apart from boil the kettle for the sixth time in three hours.

Ever-resourceful and knowing that she would not be able to reach my mobile in England, she has communicated her safety and unflagging spirits to me by texting one of my Israeli friends and cheerfully asking him to ask me if she might have my permission to kidnap him for ransom. Ever-obliging, he has done so. (You might think that getting his permission would be the more pertinent thing to do, but Sameeha and I are working on the establishment of the matriarchy.) “She says that she loves you, despite the unpleasant reminder of her snoring at a time like this, and she promises to treat me well and not feed me to any crocodiles.”

That wasn’t much, but it made me smile and will give me a slightly better sleep. I wish I knew that she had enjoyed the same. One of the last things I read from her before she lost Internet: “The sky is burning tonight. They’ve gone insane.”

I hope she has a kettle to hand. And some means of boiling it.


Talking about child trauma in Palestine

I’ve written an article about childhood under military occupation for the Israeli web magazine +972. After saying I’d write it, I hesitated. I sat down to write it every day and left the document blank every time. Two weeks went by before I finally got out what I wanted to say.

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Beware of my hunger

Write down!
I am an Arab
And my identity card number is fifty thousand
I have eight children
And the ninth will come after a summer
Will you be angry?

Roughly 1,600 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails are on hunger strike. Just over a week ago, one of them collapsed during his court hearing after going for sixty-six days without food. He is Bilal Diab, and today marks the seventy-fourth day of his fight.

This wave of resistance from within the prison system itself began with Khader Adnan, a baker from the West Bank village of Arrabeh who started to refuse all food after he was arrested by the military and placed in what is euphemistically known as administrative detention. Prisoners are held without charge or trial, and their detention can be renewed indefinitely. Adnan had already been imprisoned multiple times. In a letter he gave to his lawyers during his hunger strike, he wrote, “The Israeli occupation has gone to extremes against our people, especially prisoners. I have been humiliated, beaten, and harassed by interrogators for no reason, and thus I swore to God I would fight the policy of administrative detention to which I and hundreds of my fellow prisoners fell prey.” His case captured international attention, with a close friend and co-activist of Bobby Sands writing from Ireland to offer support and call for Adnan’s immediate release.

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Art and apartheid: worlds apart

Dear Sir or Madam,

I am an MA student in Jewish Studies. A few weeks ago students taking Hebrew were encouraged to book tickets for Habima Theatre’s Hebrew-language performance of The Merchant of Venice as part of the ‘Globe to Globe’ Shakespeare festival.

During my undergraduate years (as a student of English literature) I practically lived at the Globe, developing incredible calf muscles as I stood through half of Shakespeare’s repertoire. The opportunity to see one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays presented in Hebrew by a theatre company intimately acquainted with Jewish history and heritage could have been a strong incentive to make a return trip (and maybe even invest in a seat this time).

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The least of these: a reflection on a bad choice

It was only half-eight in the morning, but it was already too warm for comfort. I could feel the acrid salty heat rising from the tarmac as I headed up the hill. The chapel was going to feel like an oven. Once again I caught myself fantasising about air conditioning, which not many people have in Palestine. Just imagine walking into a building and being met by a beautiful blast of cold air, and getting some iced grapefruit juice, and…


The order was issued in an American accent and preceded by an earsplitting whistle. I didn’t stop for the whistle. I never do. If people want to talk to me, they can start by addressing me as though I’m a person too and not an errant sheepdog who needs to be brought to heel. At “Stop!” I reluctantly obeyed. I hadn’t eaten any breakfast yet, and you don’t pick fights with M16-wielding men without at least having had a cup of tea beforehand.

The entrance to Bethlehem, viewed from inside the checkpoint complex.

He was not a soldier, but a civilian employee from the company that has been contracted to manage this particular checkpoint. (Military occupation is big business.) The sun glinted on his dark glasses and the barrel of his rifle. Behind him was a female guard who was gazing up at him adoringly from beneath her baseball cap. I know that look, and it’s never pretty. The way some guys start parading around the checkpoint like peacocks in flak jackets if there happens to be a female colleague anywhere in the vicinity is like something out of a David Attenborough zoological documentary on mating rituals. And what better way to demonstrate power, manliness, and general desirability than by harassing the odd passer-by? Frankly I don’t know how the female soldiers and guards manage to keep their legs together.

“I don’t want to go through the machsom,” I called out wearily, resigning myself to the game. I tried to step forward so that I could talk to him in my normal voice, but he gave another shrill blast of the whistle (ow) and held up the palm of his hand.

“Where are you going?”

“To church.” I pointed at the road that sloped off to my right, skirting the separation wall. The guard turned away and said something to his colleague. I took this as permission to move. I was wrong. The resulting whistle was loud enough to make my heart jump skittishly. “Wait!”

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