The Siege vs. the Surfboards

Israeli and international surfers are trying to help out their Palestinian counterparts. But because of the siege, their donated surfboards aren't being allowed into Gaza.

When people's homes are being destroyed and other people's children are taken away from them for years at a time, a few pieces of foam-core that float in the water hardly seem like the most pressing cause to fight for. But that's exactly where a rag-tag group of Israeli beach boys, international activists and a founding father of surfing have decided to draw their line in the sand.

Surfing for Peace is a loose-knit community that coalesced around a project to supply surfboards to people living only a hundred kilometers south down the coast from Frischman Beach in Tel Aviv, but completely cut off from the culture and the sport of surfing. The anemic economy prevents people in Gaza from buying their own boards, and the Israeli officials that control the borders won't let any donated gear get through, either.

In its own modest way, Surfing for Peace has laid the foundation for the cross-cultural citizens initiative. "Surfing has given us all so much," says S4P's Arthur Rashkovan, "It's the least we can do to give something back to surfing, to help Palestinian surf culture evolve." Rashkovan, working with other Israelis and international donors, secured surfboards and surf gear, shipping costs and storage space. Now they just need to be delivered over the border.

It's not the intention of anyone involved with the project to force a foreign or Israeli idea onto Palestinian society. Matthew Olsen, director of Explore Corps, the American NGO on the ground in Gaza that co-founded the Gaza Surf Club, utterly rejects the concept of cultural imperialism. "We let the kids who are already into surfing come to us," Olsen says, distancing himself from conventional development work. "I would much rather have a big impact on twenty kids than a small impact on 1000 kids."

But unless political pressure is brought to bear on the border authorities in the next few days, Olsen isn't going to make nearly any impact at all. After a stack of paperwork and a lot of shuttling back and forth between bureaucrats, Olsen finally got all the proper permits to bring the boards into Gaza. But when he arrived at Erez crossing with the surf gear in tow, Olsen says border guards rejected him out of hand, claiming that surfboards were on a "secret list" of unacceptable items that cannot be brought into Gaza.

Three years ago, right after Hamas took control of Gaza and Israel began to tighten its economic blockade, Surfing for Peace managed to get a few boards over the border, thanks in part to a high-profile surfing celebrity. The man that actually carried the very first donated surfboard over the border into Gaza in 2007 was the same person that brought the very first surfboard into Israel, exactly 50 years earlier: the plucky patriarch of the 'First Family of Surfing,' Dorian 'Doc' Paskowitz, an American Jew.

A Brief History of Surfing

Today, most people see surfing as the nautical equivalent of skateboarding: an opportunity to hot dog on the water, a sexy extreme sport. Today, surfing is a $50 million a year business in Israel. About 30,000 Israelis buy the name-brand wetsuits, try out all the acrobatic tricks, participate in the cash contests. But the modern sport of surfing and the enormous amount of commercial activity that surrounds it is an invention of the twentieth century, a colonial co-opting of a rich indigenous culture that understood itself very differently.

In the beginning, surfing wasn't a competitive sport; it was a Hawaiian lifestyle. In fact, it would be even more accurate to say that it was a spirituality, a religion with no pope or bible. For those who regard riding a good wave as a peak spiritual experience, every day is a potential holy day, every perfect forecast could possibly become a Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). In this, the spiritual surfer is similar to a seaside Sufi, an oceanic shaman.

The relative quality of surfing waves is completely dependent upon the weather, which is, of course, entirely unpredictable. So a truly dedicated surfer cannot possibly hold down a regular 9-to-5 job; he or she must be free to take off at a moment's notice if the opportunity presents itself. A surfing fundamentalist definitely doesn't live to work -- they don't even work to live -- they simply live, in the water and the waves, whenever possible. Everything else is incidental.

Doc Paskowitz was one such surfing fundamentalist

Dorian 'Doc' Paskowitz earned a doctor's degree from Stanford University, considered then, and now, one of the most prestigious medical schools in the United States. He was so highly regarded by his fellow doctors that they elected him president of the American Medical Association, Hawaiian chapter. If he had pursued the path of capitalism like countless others, he would have lived a life of luxury for the last half-century.

But the only reason that he had studied to become a doctor was that he wanted to discover a cure for asthma, the disease that he and his mother suffered from. Paskowitz believed that health is a human right, and thus medical services should be free of charge for one and all. So he raised his family in a camping van on a California beach, surfed every day of the week, and practiced medicine pro bono.

To earn enough money to provide for the basics, he held surfing workshops for kids from the suburbs. He home-schooled his nine children and raised them on a raw food diet, like bonobo apes. Today, Paskowitz would be called a primitivist in the positive sense of the word, a post-industrial gypsy trying to rewild himself and retrain his tribe to live like all the other animal species on the planet, the ultimate environmentalist.

The Paskowitz children grew up and eventually entered mainstream America, because the gene pool was too shallow at the water's edge; there simply weren't enough hippie kids for them to mate with. Doc may have more or less successfully raised his children without the benefit of a village, but when his children reached puberty one after the other, there weren't any other spiritual surfer families to marry them off to. His socialist utopia wasn't sustainable because it never reached a critical mass.

Surfing goes mainstream

Once it realized the financial potential of mass-marketing a modified version of surf culture to white kids all over the world, corporate capitalism gobbled it up and commodified it. Today, it's perfectly possible to be a surfer in your spare time, and still be a 'productive member of society.' Matthew Olsen says that compared to other countries, Israel has some of the smallest waves, but probably the most surfers per capita anywhere in the world.

Nir (Unger) Adin, the founder of EKG, Israel's first surfing organization, recounts with frustration how local surfers first embraced Paskowitz's philosophy, but then gradually assimilated into the market economy. "If they were spiritual surfers, if they still worshipped the water, they would be fighting to stop the state from pumping raw sewage into the sea," Adin insists. "Today, most surfers are only interested in paying off a mortgage, so they can continue to live not far from the beach."

Capitalism may have crushed any animist alternatives, in Israel and almost everywhere else, and the beaches all along the Mediterranean have long since been turned into industrial waste dumps. But a few hours in the water still provides a temporary refuge from the fast pace of the rat race. And those Israelis that know the peace of mind that comes from riding out a wave want to share that wealth with their Palestinian counterparts. After all, the daily reality in Gaza is at least as harsh as it is in Givatayim, and probably a lot harsher.

Because Gazans are culturally cut off from the rest of the world, their surfing culture is developing in a bubble, it hasn't been penetrated by any international clothing companies looking to make a buck. It's ironic that in one of the only places in the world where the locals can't tell a Quicksilver logo from Billabong brand -- where they surf purely for the love, on simple polystyrene planks -- they can't get their hands on any new equipment. They may have a Facebook fan page, but not nearly enough boards to go around.

If Surfing for Peace wanted to use the underground tunnels linking Egypt to Gaza to smuggle in the donated surfboards, they could have gotten the goods in a long time ago, and saved themselves a big hassle. But Olsen says that they're trying to do everything above board, so to speak. They don't want this to be just a one-off publicity stunt, they're trying to co-create real relationships and a Palestinian surf culture that will stand the test of time. But maybe that's exactly what some people are actually afraid of.