Talking About the Occupation at a U.S. Jewish Summer Camp

The American kids were attentive and polite as Sayed Kashua spoke. The Israeli 'emissaries,' however, were a different story.

Sayed Kashua
Sayed Kashua
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An illustration showing Sayed Kashua's face wedged in between the faces of Golda Meir and Theodor Herzl.
Illustration. Credit: Amos Biderman
Sayed Kashua
Sayed Kashua

It was a long day. I left the house close to 5 A.M. in order to catch the first of three flights I needed to reach my destination in Pennsylvania. It’s not that Pennsylvania is all that far, but living in a town from which you can only fly to Chicago – and the fact that I’d been invited to address children at a Jewish summer camp located somewhere in a nature reserve on the shore of Lake Como – meant taking three flights followed by an hour-long drive by car.

For the long trip, I took a book I’d started to read a few weeks earlier but had not been able to get into properly because of pressures of work, summer and children. It’s a prison diary written by a young Iranian student who was active in a communist organization during the Islamic revolution, and had been arrested along with many others after Khomeini took power.

The book, “Remembering Akbar,” by Behrooz Ghamari, is a sweeping narrative about a brilliant young man who believed in equality, freedom and justice. A student who endured brutal torture, both physical and psychological, during interrogations and in a detention facility. A student who’s sitting in a dark, crowded prison cell, waiting for the warder to utter the line, “Take your stuff and move out”: It’s a sentence everyone on death row knows well, and they know equally well what it means: that the time to carry out the judgment, the time of execution, has arrived.

But this is a book about values, about poetry and music; about the spirit of youth and a deep bond among those awaiting the hour of death. At times, particularly when the writer describes the visits of his mother and father to the prison, I cried – and sometimes I also laughed aloud.

The upshot was that I found myself losing control in the tiny plane of six rows, with propellers instead of jet engines, that took me from Philadelphia to Binghamton, New York, and unable to stifle my laughter over the description of an argument between the prisoners after one of them decides to become religiously observant in order to impress the warders, in the hope of being spared the death sentence.

The penitent Marxist tries to refute Marx’s notion of the value of labor with the aid of the “pickled garlic theory.” It’s known, after all, that the value of pickled garlic increases by the very fact of its aging. In other words, its value is not a function of the labor that was put into it. Seven-year-old pickled garlic is a delicacy for which some people are willing to pay through the nose, whereas the same jar of newly pickled garlic isn’t worth a thing. The fact is that no labor was invested other than to place the jar of pickled garlic on the shelf, yet its value soared without any “proletarian” effort. But the argument doesn’t help the penitent, who is executed by firing squad.

Armed with a book about revolutionaries waiting to be executed, I arrived, after a nine-hour journey, at the Jewish summer camp on the lake. The camp was dotted with American and Israeli flags, and the walls of the assembly hall were painted with portraits of Herzl, Ben-Gurion, Golda and Begin. The words “Hineh ma tov umana’im, shevet ahim gam yahad” – “How good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together” – were inscribed on the wall like a banner headline.

“It’s supposed to be ‘shevet’ with the letter tav and not the letter tet” – because with tet, the word means “tribe” – I told one of the American organizers of the encounter I was participating in. He was surprised. “Actually, the Israelis wrote that,” he said.

It’s a summer camp straight out of American movies: log cabins, playing fields, dining room, indoor sports facilities. “We have time if you want to see the lake,” one of the organizers said, but I declined politely, preferring coffee and a smoke. The campers are high-school kids, my hosts told me: They’ll learn a lot about Israel in the weeks ahead, but we wanted them to hear a different viewpoint, too, to challenge their thinking. Naturally, it’s essential to talk about Israel’s right to self-defense, and it would also be useful to describe the situation today in the Middle East, with all the rampant violence there, I was told.

To be on the safe side, they’d invited an Israeli intellectual to take part in the meeting with me, for the sake of balance. As though these B’nai Brith kids hadn’t been raised on Zionism and weren’t nourished by pro-Israeli media and dialogue.

For a moment I wondered what I was doing here, under an Israeli flag in this godforsaken place. I tried to persuade myself that this is the least I can do: I’ll say what I have to say in my allotted half-hour, and then answer questions, and maybe I’ll manage to stir doubt in a few hearts, or at least induce a few kids to ask questions and have second thoughts. And anyway, I’m being paid.

The American kids were extremely nice, they listened to what I had to say. I talked about ruling another nation, about discrimination, about the problem with the state’s character and about the practical implications of that character on the lives of the minorities living in the country and on those who live under its occupation. I talked about the need to acknowledge the other’s pain, the obligation to recognize the Nakba [what Palestinians call the “catastrophe” of the creation of the State of Israel in 1948] and the hope that a democratic state would arise where all citizens would be equal.

The Israeli intellectual lamented the rapidly fading values he’d been raised on. He talked about the trend toward Haredization, the danger faced by democracy; he spoke of his love for the country and about the Arab world raging all around, about women and gays whom the Muslims are killing, about radical Islam that is making Israelis feel threatened and enclose themselves in a bubble.

The Jewish children were attentive and polite. In the question period they asked about writing – for example, when does a person know he’s going to be a writer, and also what did we speakers think about the American media’s coverage of Israel-Palestine. One kid asked what he, as a 17-year-old, could do.

“Join the Communist Party,” I wanted to tell him. But ultimately – as I scanned the landscape and conjectured what the parents’ incomes must be – I said: “Try to enjoy life, until you can’t anymore.”

At the end of the discussion, the shlihim, or “emissaries,” as they call themselves (post-army Israelis whom the Jewish Agency scatters in Jewish summer camps), crowded around me. They’re the ones who had misspelled shevet and who didn’t know the difference between West Bank Palestinians and those who are citizens of Israel. The emissaries were totally unaware of the violence they were projecting. They were “stunned.”

“You expressed your opinion as though you were speaking about facts,” one of them said, and I was not sure I took her meaning fully. The group accused me of not mentioning the fact that Israeli Arabs kill Jews all the time and that Israelis can’t walk on the street safely, and asked how I even dared to talk about the Nakba without mentioning the UN partition plan or the fact that the Palestinians started the war.

“I was in a state of shock,” one of them said, “and I’m not even with Bibi or anything like that – but for someone to talk like that about Israel? What organization are you from, anyway?”

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