Indonesia’s Krakatoa may have had its most historic explosion in August 1883, but thanks to years of civil conflict in Sri Lanka it managed to find its way back into the news this week. “About 260 Sri Lankan asylum-seekers detained in Indonesia have threatened to blow up their wooden boat if the navy forces them to disembark,” reported the AFP. Their vessel, which had been en route to Australia, was stopped in Indonesian waters near Krakatoa.
Reading this story—and any number of other stories about people undertaking dangerous journeys out of desperation—may remind one that many of the world’s travelers aren’t backpackers, explorers, or jet-setting businessmen; they are refugees. Other writers have pointed out the etymological connection between the words “travel” and “travail”, but surely few understand the link better than refugees. Travail, according to one dictionary, is
1. painfully difficult or burdensome work; toil
2. pain, anguish or suffering resulting from mental or physical hardship
3. the pain of childbirth
The UNCHR annual report released earlier this year put the worldwide refugee population at 42 million. Most are internally displaced, meaning they’ve not left their country of origin but have had to move within the country. For example, there has been mass displacement in Pakistan this year because of internal conflict.
The photo above wasn’t taken at a refugee camp, on an overcrowded ship, or in a war zone, but it does represent the pain of displacement, the pain of travel when it is not entirely a voluntary undertaking. The girl is Tibetan, protesting outside the Chinese embassy in Washington DC on a spring day in 2008. I don’t know the story of her own experiences, but she was protesting with other Tibetans who would have known that travel isn’t always cruise ships, beaches, and the occasional stomach bug. For some more than others—for at least 42 million people this year—travel is firmly rooted in the word travail.
Protests and demonstrations can at times be a little extreme in both method and message. For example, there are sometimes tragically far right Christians on street corners who spew verbal manure into bullhorns, the better to amplify their messages of judgment (and nothing else). Or sometimes, like at a 1995 NOW rally on the National Mall in Washington DC, there are women who display loud slogans on bare breasts—which has the effect of sending at least one other woman, who didn’t know she would stumble upon this while on family vacation, scurrying for a detour as she covers her children’s eyes.
Perhaps placards make for better mediums than bullhorns or breasts, but here too things can go array. A demonstration becomes more a spectacle than a message when jutting above the crowd are placards exclaiming “Exterminate Terrorists” (at a pro-Israel rally) or “2-4-6-8, Israel is a terrorist state!” (at a pro-Palestinian rally). Such demonstrations become pep rallies for those who already embrace the cause, but they don’t reach those outside.
And then there is the occasional placard that is factually problematic. This photograph, taken at a demonstration in the Palestinian village of Bil’in, offers an example. Mandela, unlike King and Gandhi, didn’t believe nonviolence was a moral imperative, and he was willing to employ violence when he thought it more effective. He writes in his book Long Walk to Freedom:
In India, Gandhi had been dealing with a foreign power that ultimately was more realistic and farsighted. That was not the case with the Afrikaners in South Africa. Nonviolent passive resistance is effective as long as your opposition adheres to the same rules as you do….For me, nonviolence was not a moral principle but a strategy; there is no moral goodness in using an ineffective weapon.
Mandela had much respect for Gandhi, even choosing him when Time magazine asked him to write about one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. In 2007 he would even say that “Gandhi's message of peace and nonviolence holds the key to human survival in the 21st century.” But I wonder what he’d say about this placard?
In Barack Obama’s landmark speech in Cairo today, after rightly chastising those in the Muslim world who deny the Holocaust and peddle harmful stereotypes about Jews, he went on to say this:
On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people—Muslims and Christians—have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations—large and small—that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.
This speech was a breath of fresh air. It marks not only the first time I heard a President describe the situation for Palestinians as “intolerable”; it also is the first time I saw a President who really seemed to mean it. Obama’s words will have ruffled the feathers of hundreds of thousands of hard-line Israelis (and not a few U.S. Congressmen). But these Israelis—and this is important to understand—are not the only Jews in Israel. There are other Jews who have been yearning for an American President to say just such a thing (and to mean it). There are others who have refused, as Obama says the U.S. has refused, “to turn their backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.”
One such person is Olga Ginzbourg, who you see in this photograph pleading with Israeli soldiers in the West Bank village of Bil’in. The village is an example of why Israel’s ongoing occupation is intolerable: half of Bil'in's agricultural land has been stripped from it in order for Israel to build an illegal settlement and a separation barrier; it has lost the ability to sleep soundly because of frequent midnight raids meant to harass its residents; and just a few weeks ago it lost a son, who was protesting nonviolently, when a solider slammed a teargas canister directly into his chest.
To read an article I wrote about Olga, recently published in Tikkun magazine, click on "An Israeli in Bil'in". Voices like hers are brave, essential, and in urgent need of buttressing by balanced U.S. policy. They also illustrate the power of travel—even journeys of only a few miles, especially when they take you from places like Tel Aviv to a tiny Palestinian village.
For a four-minute YouTube video narrated by an Israeli woman who also yearns for a more balanced U.S. policy and which shows scenes of occupation, click on "Letter to Obama"
Their numbers have been small in recent years, and understandably so. Not only does peace feel remote, but they sometimes get cursed at, spat at, or shown a variety of crude hand gestures. They are routinely called naïve and accused of being unpatriotic. A few have even experienced the sting of rubber bullets and tear gas.
I’m describing Israelis who actively oppose their government’s actions and policies in Gaza and the West Bank. These people were upset long before rockets began falling on Israel. To them, it was and is no less upsetting when Palestinians are dispossessed of their land in villages like Bil’in and Ni’lin. To them, condemnation is called for not only when Hamas perpetrates violence against Israel; it is also necessary when Israeli soldiers stage mock executions or beat civilians at checkpoints, or when Israel’s own extremist settlers terrorize and even murder Palestinians. (And so on.)
Most of us only get indignant and angry when wrong is done to us, not when we are doing wrong to another. People like the woman in this photo, however, are an exception. She was one of maybe 100 Israelis demonstrating at Israel’s border with Gaza in November 2006, angry at both the blockade and Israel’s firing of missiles into the Strip. Given the degree to which she was going against the grain of her society by simply standing with such a sign at the Gaza border, I suspect she would have resonated with the words of Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador from 1977 to 1980. For Romero, violence wasn’t just that which caused physical harm; it was also a government’s twisting of societal structures and law so that the powerless were kept down and oppressed. He said:
I will not tire of declaring that if we really want an effective end to violence we must remove the violence that lies at the root of all violence: structural violence, social injustice, exclusion of citizens from the management of the country, repression. All this is what constitutes the primal cause, from which the rest flows naturally."
Romero was assassinated while celebrating Mass in 1980, the day after preaching a sermon in which he called upon Salvadoran soldiers to stop participating in government repression.
I received an email this morning from a Venezuelan friend who had been celebrating New Year’s Eve at a nice hotel in Panama City, Panama. She wrote, “The dinner was great, a lot lot lot lot of food it was, but at the moment I ate my food I just can´t stop thinking about the 400 people killed in Palestina, and how it was the new year for that families. The party was awful…I just can´t imagine that the rest of the world were celebrating yesterday while a lot of moms, dads, and sons were crying about their lost in Palestina.”
She writes about a tension with which many of us are familiar. How does one celebrate while knowing that at the same moment someone else is mourning, or living in absolute fear?
There is no space here to delve into that question. But like her, the events in Gaza and Israel have been on my mind in recent days. Of all the places I’ve traveled, none were as difficult as Gaza. I thought it an often claustrophobic strip of land (at least in the cities and refugee camps) that had taken not only the lives of Gazans but also amazing (and controversial) people like Rachel Corrie—and where one afternoon, in my desire for a photograph, I had feared it might take mine as well. I had never been to a place where even for a mere 72 hours it was so hard to stay sane. Unless you’ve been there, you simply have no idea what it means to live in Gaza, to live in a cage.
The photograph above was taken in the West Bank town of Ramallah in late 2006. The Palestinian boy was part of a protest against Palestinian-on-Palestinian violence, which the day before had left three Palestinian children dead in Gaza City. Some eyes on this Earth take in an incredible amount of suffering. They take it in, even while many of us celebrate.
I was struck by this soldier's eyes. It was late November 2006 and I was photographing a protest in the West Bank village of Bil'in, where Palestinians, along with Israeli and international activists, were protesting the route of Israel's Separation Barrier. The barrier had separated the Palestinian village from more than half of its land, and the protest, carried out each Friday afternoon, was a largely nonviolent response to this confiscation. During these demonstrations (which continue still today) a palpable and sometimes frightening tension filled the air. The stress, of course, is handled differently by each person.
The soldier pictured here is an Israeli who had likely been tasked many times before with keeping the protestors from crossing the barrier, and in the three hours I saw him he never seemed fully present. As much as one can know another through mere observation, I thought he was gentle and kind. His watering eyes, his forced smile, his entire body language indicated that he didn't like what was happening to this village. And so the conflict this day was not only taking place in the fields of Bil'in; it was also occurring in the heart and mind of a soldier.