Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Choice

The history of the Jewish people is not a particularly positive one – wars, genocide, and discrimination are major parts of their experiences.  Some of my travels here have particularly impressed these experiences on me. We visited the Anne Frank Huis in Amsterdam and saw firsthand a memory of the Holocaust. Today we were able to visit the Independence Hall in Tel Aviv and hear about the history of Israel. Even in this brief history of Israel, which begins with the first Jewish settlement of Israel in the 1880s, Jews could not escape animosity. Jews in Israel were exiled by the Turks, then taken over by British Mandate, and then the atrocity of the Holocaust in the 1940s –which leaves very little time when the Jewish people could feel accepted anywhere – until the birth of the Jewish State, Israel. In more recent history, Israel is constantly under attack by surrounding countries.  Bomb shelters and rockets are not uncommon for the people who live here. With this past and present of injustice and intolerance, Israel could easily turn to hate as well. It would almost be understandable if the Jewish people sought to destroy all who have perpetuated unfairness and violence against them. If they chose revenge and vindictiveness against their oppressors (which are many) I cannot say I would have blamed them. However, after spending just a short time in Tel Aviv, it seems that these people have made a very different choice.

Upon visiting the ancient city of Yafo, the first sight that struck me was a theater entitled “The Jew-Arab Theater of Jaffa” whose mission is to unite both Arabic and Hebrew speakers in the creative and performing arts, and to celebrate the contributions of both peoples.  During my visit to the port in Yafo, I saw a group of Muslim families boarding a boat to tour the harbor. Walking down the streets of Tel Aviv, I can easily see the diversity among the people. Not only with Jews of all kinds, both reformed and orthodox, but Arab women wearing hijabs, and even blonde, pale people like me! It is fascinating to see how the Jewish people have endured such injustice and yet broken the cycle and are striving to create a tolerant and accepting homeland. Even in the face of current oppression, Israel seeks to push forward and create a brighter future for all who live in Israel.

There is nothing unusual about the purpose of Israel. Simply, it is the desire to have a homeland and basic human rights – something that I, and many others, are privileged to have both of.  What is incredibly unusual, however, is that these people wish to do this through patience, humanity, and tolerance. In the face of everything, the people of Israel have done something incredible.  In the face of violence, of intolerance, of pain, these people have chosen peace.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Fifteen Seconds

In fifteen seconds I can type, “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” twice on my iPhone—with the help of autocorrect. In fifteen seconds I can do about fifteen jumping jacks. In fifteen seconds, I cannot wash my hands for the CDC-recommended amount of time (it’s 20 seconds, in case you were wondering). And had the “Red Color” alarm gone off while I was in Sderot today, we would have seen if I—and the approximately 24,000 others in the city—could have reached the safety of the nearest bomb shelter.

Fifteen seconds. That’s all the time the people of Sderot have from the moment the “Red Color” alarm begins until the Hamas rockets explode, shooting knives, glass, rocks, and other skin-piercing materials through the air in hopes of striking anyone who was not quick enough in those fifteen seconds.

School children know only a reality of hiding from these rockets. They have been trained to run as soon as a woman’s voice announces, “Red Color” over an alarm system. It is not a drill, the alert notifies these children and the rest of the population that a real rocket has been launched and will be exploding in fifteen seconds. That’s quite different from the earthquake drills I grew up with, when a woman’s voice did appear over the intercom, merely saying, “this is a simulation of an earthquake.” My classmates and I responded by rowdily crawling under our desks and tuck our heads under our hands, often while laughing and not taking the situation seriously, until the woman’s voice came back to say, “end of simulation.” In my 15+ years of public schooling I’ve experienced three real earthquakes, and only one large enough for the alarm to go off instructing us to crawl under the desks. And I can tell you that it took us all much longer than fifteen seconds.

For the children and adults of Sderot, of Israel, their most recent reality is a constant repetition of these fifteen. I find it hard to demonize a country that spends millions of dollars on the construction of bomb shelters, including caterpillar-shaped ones for a playground, in order to try to make those fifteen seconds tick just a little bit slower. 

Normal Life in Sderot

Yesterday we said goodbye to the beautiful metropolitan of Tel Aviv and headed south to Sderot. The city of Sderot is incredibly unique for a number of reasons but in order to understand this place, it is important to understand its position. Located just next to the border of the Gaza Strip, Sderot has been under rocket fire for the past thirteen years. Hamas, the extremist organization that runs the Gaza Strip, fires Qassams (rockets) into the civilian population as part of their ongoing mission to destroy Israel.  As an American citizen who has never lived elsewhere, life in Sderot was a complete and utter shock.
When I recall entering Tel Aviv I remember spectacular skyscrapers, twinkling lights, luxury vehicles on the populated highways, the welcoming waves of Mediterranean, and how similar it was to any other city I had been to or imagined. My first visual of Sderot was a bomb shelter with the word “Guest” painted on the wall. 
As we travelled into the city, the shelters became more frequent than bus stops, with 1 shelter per 2 people. We met our guide for the day, Sivan, at the Sderot Media Center. She shed some light on what its like to live in Sderot. Sivan explained that there is currently a ceasefire, which means that less bombs than usual are fired into the city from the strip. She assured us that we were safe-Sderot had not been hit since Shavuot (Jewish holiday) a month ago- and that if an alarm went off we would have 10-15 seconds to find a shelter.  The alarm system, called the Red Alert, was developed in 2005 by the Israeli Defense Force and is used all over Israel for protection again enemy fire. Doing the math I realized this left about five years before an alert- five years without any protection from Qassams that were launched up to fifty times a day. And yet people continued to live here. Sivan explains that leaving Sderot is difficult. She showed us a map of Israel and drew circles showing how far the Qassam rockets can reach – all the way up to Tel Aviv and into the east as far as Beersheba.  Instead, the people of Sderot stay and try to create as normal a life as possible.
Almost every bomb shelter had been reworked to include street art and some of the leftover shrapnel from Qassams were used to make artwork. We visited a children’s playground where the shelters had been built to look like caterpillars.  The schools here are protected as well, with bomb shelters built inside.

I couldn’t help but notice children playing in the schoolyard and knowing that at any moment a ‘Color Red’ alarm could go off and they would know exactly where to run and what to do. Even with as much incredible work as the people here do, they have been robbed off any ‘normal’.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

New Type of War

Words have great influence on the way people perceive the message you are trying to convey, leading to a gap between what is meant and what is perceived to be said. The struggle I face on my campus, and one that I feel is shared on most campuses, is the fact that anti-Israel organizations claim Israel is evil. The struggle, though, is that Israel has history th
at leads to such events and claims, and as a Pro-Israel activist I need to teach people the entire history for them to understand the true reasoning behind.
 My whole life I have been integrated with the conflict happening here in Israel, yet today was a changing perspective. We were introduced to Yinon Tagner, Israeli activist, who talked about ways to properly speak when addressing an issue. His methods can easily be applied to every day conversation, as Tagner emphasized the use of terminology while speaking. I realized now how much terminology can influence the audience, for instance the “Apartheid wall” separating Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. This is the problem: calling this fence of separation as an Apartheid wall. Most of the fence with the West Bank is 93 percent fence and the rest a wall.
Anti-Israelis can just say there is a fence and people find it horrible, having the conversation stop there. What people are quick to forget though is that the Second Intifada happened in the early 2000’s. A time when Palestinians used deadly force aimed at civilians and not at Israel’s military. Ariel Sharon, Israel’s Prime Minister at the time, made the decision to put up this fence. With his actions, almost immediately innocent Israeli casualties were avoided, and the number of terrorist suicide attacks dramatically decreased. The fence has remained since then keeping Israelis’ safe and making life a bit more worry free.

What I truly hope is for those who take a side or have an opinion about the conflict do their research about the issues. Read from multiple sources and become educated on your own, and not fall victim to misleading terminology or bold statements without context. 

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Welcome to My Neighborhood

“Welcome to my neighborhood.” These were the words our tour guide, Shai, spoke as we stood in the Golan Heights of Israel, looking down on Syria. The first time he said this phrase, he had just finished describing the civil war that is currently taking place directly over the border. He repeated the phrase again, after explaining that he could often hear bombs and gun fire throughout the night. And, again, he repeated it after claiming that there are people dying a few miles from his home, and no one is doing anything about it. 

Shai lives in Israel, right along the border of Syria. Seeing “mushroom clouds,” as he described it, is not an unfamiliar sight for him. Each of these clouds signifies the explosion of a bomb --- a bomb that could (and often does) kill hundreds at a time. 

“Welcome to my neighborhood.” In the north of California, I grew up falling asleep with clear skies above me. There were no bomb shelters lining the streets --- I didn’t know what a bomb shelter was. No casualties on a daily basis, no fear of not seeing tomorrow, no understanding of hardships. My greatest fear was oral surgery. 

“Welcome to my neighborhood,” in reference to my hometown, is usually a positive phrase. It suggests that my neighborhood is a comfortable place, and those visiting should feel free to enjoy it as well. “Welcome to my neighborhood,” in reference to the area surrounding Shai’s home, more so reveals the grim reality of this country. It suggests that the “visitors” are living in a bubble and need to acknowledge the horrifying lives of those residing in Syria. The phrase is, essentially, a wake up call to the rest of the world.

I’m not asserting that it is Israel’s sole responsibility to “do something” about the war in Syria. And I’m not asserting that it’s the U.S.’s responsibility. Rather, I hope to merely acknowledge the atrocity. I hope to communicate this truth to those back home in California. I hope to convey a simple truth, regardless of one’s political beliefs. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Painting my Pain

I always wanted to be in the army, but there was an obstacle in my way: my parents. They didn’t think it was a right choice for me so they strongly disagree with my decision of joining the United States Army. In the end I didn’t join because I wanted to honor my parents’ wishes. I might neve];r join the army but I got the chance to experience the combat level of being in it from the Israel perspective.

I got the chance to paintball at Caliber 3, a counter-terrorism training academy in the West Bank. Caliber 3 works closely with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in the field of counter-terrorism. In America, paintballing is considered a game or a sport while having the illusion you’re in the military. In Caliber 3, it was a whole different experience. I got the chance to learn how to clear a house of an enemy and the ready position- so you could snap into combat mode in less than three seconds. When we got the chance to actually play paintball I felt my adrenaline kick in and I was ready for battle. I wanted to win every game because this would be the closest I would get to being in combat. Even though we were wearing protective gear I got shot on my left thigh. The irony of it is that I have an AK-47 tattoo on my thigh which is a symbol for my desire to join the army and I got shot right next to it. For me, that shot was filled with a bullet instead of paint. To me that wasn’t a paintball shot by a member of the other team but an actual bullet by a terrorist.

The Caliber is a very important resource for Israel because it not only does it train top elite solider but help civilians understand how the Israeli army go out to the enemy land and make sure there are no civilian casualties and get the job done in an efficient way. I am glad that something like Caliber 3 exists so people like me can experience and learn the combat zone.


A journey into northern Israel

The chance to see country in Israel similar to my native far Northern California stomping grounds was exciting.  High hills and green vegetation awaited us in northen Israel.  For the penultimate day of our ten day trip to Israel, while on the bus ride to the Golan Heights, our guide gave us a brief backstory on how the Golan Heights became a part of Israel through the Six Day War in 1967.  He pointed out that Israel nearly doubled in size during that brief war with four other nations surrounding Israel.  Much of the captured land was given back to the former enemy countries after the war, yet the Golan Heights were kept. Our first stop was to a lookout point where a battle involving Israeli tanks and soldiers took place around a hill overlooking a valley.  He described several sacrifices that Israeli soldiers made to win the small battles that enabled Israel to win the Six Day War, despite many problems arising with the Israeli military and how they overcame those problems.  One soldier was said to have risked direct enemy fire by jumping on a barbwire fence in order that his fellow soldiers could easily make it over the fence to attack the hill.  Stories such as those are remembered by the Israelis, and continue to inspire them.

We then went farther northeast to see the border between Israel and Syria.  We were shown where the border between Israel and Syria curved throughout the valley, and the identifying features that separate the two countries.  Big black portions of ground where the vegetation had been burned are defining marks of the start of the Syrian country. 

Our final stop was to the beautiful Sea of Galilee.  The water was warm, and the atmosphere was even warmer.  Our trip leader, Pini, informed us of the strategic necessity of the Sea of Galilee to Israel, and how it is a good source of water to the country and people.  The Sea of Galilee is a freshwater body of water that is continually filled from the north by the Jordan River, and then water flows out the south end into the Jordan River, which continues south to the Dead Sea.  Of course, our group didn’t leave without spending some time in the water. 
Tyler Pochop


Roses and Honey

Politics are never easy. Everyone has their own opinion, their own political affiliation and their own perception. Trying to explain what it means, or where you stand, can be confusing and infuriating. Trying to understand these explanations can be downright maddening.

The last 6 days have been a whirlwind of political emotions for me. I came here thinking I was set in my self-declared right wing opinion. But, as the speakers progressed I felt more and more drawn to the left. Why? We heard many speakers, but until today I did not feel that any speaker was being honest or forthcoming. I felt that I was hearing the opinions that were convenient to convey, rather than all sides of the story. The speakers we heard until now, although all very intelligent, spewed out a lot of right-wing, sometimes narrow-minded facts. Sorry, that doesn't cut it for me. I want to hear the meat, the details, and yes, the ugly truth.
I am a critical thinker. How can I critically approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or properly advocate for Israel on my campus, when I don’t have the truth, the whole truth, and nothing BUT the truth? Up until this point, I felt like I've been getting half-truths. When I asked one of our speakers about the ethics of the settlers in Hevron, Rather than giving me a proper, evidence-based answer, the response I got was “That’s simply nonsense; the Israeli settlers would never do that.” Some of the other questions were partially answered, a lot of politically correct terminology had been thrown around, but I hadn't gotten the meat, the honesty.

Today, that changed. Today we got to converse with Inon Tagner. Among other things, Inon told us about the struggles the Israeli-Arabs face in Israel. He spoke of the discrimination, but also the privileges. We heard about the intricate and sometimes exasperating legalities and parties in the Israeli Parliament. Most of all, we heard another side. He told us why the 1.4 million Palestinians living in the West Bank do not have Israeli citizenship, and about the tensions between the Palestinian-Arabs and Israeli-Arabs. Nothing was sugar-coated or made to sound like “roses and honey” as Inon explained. The half-truth we had been getting until now suddenly fit into the whole truth.

Not to say that one side is more correct than the other or that there is a more “truthful” truth. But, no story should be taken at face value; no ‘truth’ should go unquestioned. We should always feel like we are getting all the facts, not just the convenient ones. We need to arm ourselves with every piece of knowledge and information we can. If we don’t let ourselves hear every side of the truth, even the ugly parts, how can we truly advocate for Israel?

In my journey in the last 7 days, I did not once doubt my desire to be a pro-Israel advocate on my campus. I love Israel. For me, asking tough questions, and getting painful answers is the best and only way to advocate for Israel in the most honest and effective way possible.