Michael Riordon

the view from where I live

4. What do they think I am


I don’t consider myself particularly naive, but on my travels in Israel-Palestine to gather material for Our Way to Fight, my familiar sense of what’s normal kept getting disrupted.  Eventually it collapsed.   As in this brief encounter which I couldn’t fit into the book:

Waiting for the van to fill, I’m struck by the weary patience of my fellow passengers.  We sit in silence, looking out the windows.  I assume that the others also assume we are being watched.  Being watched and waiting, who knows how long, are facts of life under military occupation.

At Qalandia, among the largest of the 59 permanent military checkpoints across the West Bank, Palestinian passengers must disembark to be herded through steel chutes, metal detectors and varying degrees of interrogation inside “the terminal.”  If they have the correct permits, if the occupiers haven’t arbitrarily lowered the age of those to be allowed through today, if it isn’t a Jewish holiday or an election day in Israel – or a range of other even less predictable ifs – then they may board another bus and continue their journey to East Jerusalem.

My own passage through Qalandia was smoothed by a Canadian passport.  After all, the government of Canada is a devoted ally to the state of Israel.  As Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman put it, “It’s hard to find a country friendlier to Israel than Canada these days.”

Aside from its imposing bulk, Qalandia is not unusual.  We are ringed by razor-wire fence, two-storey concrete walls, a guard tower and the central terminal through which thousands of Palestinians have to pass morning and evening.  Suspended over ranks of steel chutes is a prominent sign: Have a nice and pleasant day.

The man seated beside me on the van has close-cropped grey hair and a finely drawn profile.  Probably in his late 50s, he wears a short-sleeved dress shirt open at the neck, and on his pants I notice the straight line of an ironed crease. 

While we wait, we watch medics pull a blanket-wrapped woman on a stretcher out of one ambulance, and lift her into another.  Under a white hot sun, surely this can’t be good for the patient, but here a simple straight run from one place to another is not permitted for Palestinians, including the sick.  It’s another fact of life under occupation.  I exchange a glance with the man beside me.  In his watching eyes I see grief, or anger, or perhaps just a reflection of my own.

Eventually the van is full, and we leave the grey fortress.  It’s a relief to be moving, going somewhere.  Soon my fellow traveller starts to talk, quietly, in fluent, accented English.  To hear him over the engine I lean into his shoulder.

He is Palestinian, born in a small village whose name, he assures me, I would never have heard. Since 1987 he has lived and worked in North Carolina. He came to Ramallah for the wedding of his American-born son to a Palestinian woman. Last time, three years ago, he came here for his daughter’s wedding.  I nod and smile.

Each visit, he tells me, it gets harder to enter Israel, for him the only way into Palestine, his native land. This time he came through Jordan via the Allenby bridge, rather than through Ben-Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, a route now closed to Palestinians who live in other countries. Israel’s Law of Return declares that any Jewish person from anywhere in the world belongs here, but not Palestinians who were born here.  On each arrival, the man tells me, he encounters more suspicion, more contempt from Israeli officials, many of them younger than his children.  This time it took him eight hours to negotiate entry.

He shows me his US passport. “What do they think I am, a terrorist?” His voice trembles with indignation.  This passport, issued by Israel’s most powerful patron, should carry weight here. But due to the man’s name, his origin – who he is – no passport could ease his way as mine does.

I want to comfort him, but I don’t know what to say.  What I’m inclined to say would be no comfort to him: From everything I’ve seen and heard here, it’s not that they think you’re a terrorist, it’s that they know you’re Palestinian.  Being hyphen-American counts for nothing here; once a Palestinian, always a Palestinian.  Starkly put, they don’t want you here.  Not for a visit, not at all.

In 1914, Chaim Weizmann, who would later become president of the World Zionist Organization and then first president of Israel, explained in a Paris lecture: “Zionism was conceived by the pioneers as a movement completely dependent on mechanical factors: there is a country that happens to be called Palestine, a country without a people, and on the other hand, there exists the Jewish people who have no country.”

In 1923, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Russian writer and first commander of the Zionist Irgun Tzvai Leumi (which Britain considered a terrorist organization), wrote: “We cannot offer any adequate compensation to the Palestinian Arabs in return for Palestine…. Zionist colonisation must either stop, or else proceed regardless of the native population. Which means that it can proceed and develop only under the protection of a power that is independent of the native population – behind an iron wall, which the native population cannot breach.”

In 1937, David Ben-Gurion, later the first Prime Minister of Israel, said in response to a British proposal for the partition of Palestine: “We shall accept a state in the boundaries fixed today, but the boundaries of Zionist aspirations are the concern of the Jewish people and no external factor will be able to limit them.”

In 1940, Joseph Weitz, head of the colonization department of the Jewish National Fund, wrote in his journal: “Between us, it must be clear that there is no room for two peoples in this country…. There is no other means but to remove the Arabs to the neighbouring countries, all the Arabs.”

In 1969, Prime Minister Golda Meir told an American journalist: “It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them.  They did not exist.”

In 1970, Minister of Defence Moshe Dayan told students at the Haifa Technion: “We took an Arab country and made it a Jewish one.”

In 1998, Ariel Sharon, then Foreign Minister and later Prime Minister, said in a speech: “There is no Zionism, colonialization, or Jewish State without the eviction of the Arabs and the expropriation of their lands.”

But the Palestinian-American beside me must know all this.  And surely he also knows more deeply than I do that it is not just the presidents and prime ministers.  In 2006, the Israel Democracy Institute reported in its Democracy Index, a nation-wide poll: 62% of Israelis want the government to ‘encourage’ all Arabs to leave the country.  Elected in 2009, the Netanyahu-Lieberman government is proceeding with this task.

In the past few years, Israeli and Palestinian right-to-enter groups report a sharp increase in the refusal of entry visas to people with joint citizenship, Palestinian plus any other.  Next time the man beside me may not get in at all.

As he tells me about his son’s wedding in Ramallah, we are driving beside the wall.  Here is another fact of life, more compelling than any quote or speculation.  But perhaps he doesn’t see it; the way we’re seated, he’s looking at me while I look – can’t help looking – half at him and half at the wall.  It looms over us, puts us in shadow, snakes along the road beside us, around corners, over hills, down valleys.  Flashes of defiant graffiti enliven it here and there: Wall of apartheid. Ctl + Alt + Delete.  This wall will fall.

Passing by like this in a moving vehicle, it can almost seem transient.  An Israeli friend told me that she doesn’t see it anymore, she has to remind herself to look.  I imagine this is part of the intent: The wall becomes normal.  At the same time, it prevents people from seeing beyond it.  It arrests vision.  This leaves prime ministers free to define what is on the other side: The Other, The Enemy.  The man beside me.

The van drops us at the Damascus Gate in East Jerusalem.  As we shake hands, the man leans close and says quietly, “I have to tell you something.  This is my country.  No matter how many walls they build, I will come back.”

Then we part.  I forgot to ask his name.

Author: Michael Riordon

Canadian writer and documentary-maker Michael Riordon writes/ directs/produces books and articles, audio, video and film documentaries, plays for radio and stage. A primary goal of his work is to recover voices and stories of people who have been silenced or marginalized, written out of the official version: First Nations (aboriginal) youth, Mozambican farmers, inmates in Canadian prisons, traditional healers in Fiji, queer folk across Canada, Guatemalan labour activists. Michael also leads courses, workshops and seminars for community organizations, trade unions, schools, colleges and universities.

3 thoughts on “4. What do they think I am

  1. Michael: As I continue to read your postings (each of which makes me all the more eager to read your book, when it is published — and especially this one, with its early quotes from Zionist leaders), I remember back to when I was a boy in the early 1950’s growing up in my upper-middle-class, assimilationist, essentially liberal, well-educated, Reform Jewish community in Cincinnati, Ohio. What I learned from my elders, people I admired and trusted and from whom I forged basic values, was that the new socialist state of Israel was and would continue to be a tolerant place, as welcoming (sic) to and respectful of its (we called them) “Arab” (not “Palestinian”) citizens as its Jewish citizens, newly returned to their rightful “homeland”. It was in that spirit that I and my friends contributed our coins to Bonds for Israel, happily danced the hora, sang Israeli folksongs (the Weavers’ “Tzena Tzena”, etc.), aspired to visit a kibbutz and cemented our commitment to this wonderful experiment in enlightened democracy. A decade later, when I was a graduate student in sociology at the University of Michigan in the mid-1960’s, I can still recall a friend there telling me that Israel was an “expansionist state”. I was appalled at such a ridiculous idea and replied, “Oh, no, that can’t be true.” I’m still angry today at the story I had been told in my childhood community, and at my gullibility in believing it so completely. Continued thanks for the important work you have done.


  2. Thanks, Jeff, for your clarity and your anger. More voices like yours need to be heard, and increasingly they are being heard. My hope is that Our Way to Fight will help to amplify some of them.


  3. Just released, the Israel Democracy Institute’s 2010 poll reports that 53% of Israeli Jews believe “the State is entitled to encourage the emigration of Arabs.” The change from 2006 is more easily explained by the nature of the question than by an actual decrease in hostility toward Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, which would be contradicted by many other indicators, including polls, media reports and legislation.

    In any case, given that it is Arab citizens of Israel who are to be encouraged to emigrate,
    this is not encouraging news for the man beside me on the bus.


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