Category Archives: conflict

Inconclusion Jerusalem

By Diana Saverin

Old City, Jerusalem (Saverin/TYG)

JERUSALEM—My last days in Jerusalem left me far from comfortable. I saw many infuriating things, but one that especially sticks out in my memory was actually one of the most benign.

As I wandered around the Old City, I saw one young Jewish boy with a kippa and payot on his bicycle and two Palestinian boys with sticks. As I walked, the back-and-forth taunting intensified. They must have been 7 years old, and they faced off on the empty stone street. They backed away from each other, and they all seemed to be waiting for the other to make the first move, just as their respective leaders always seem to in peace talks. Eventually, my comrade scattered the kids, but I couldn’t help feeling defeated. They were so young. The mutual hatred and fear felt inevitable.

This one moment may be insignificant; kids fight all over the globe. But it did fit in with the plethora of hopeful and discouraging experiences I had over my ten weeks in the region. Now that I’m home, it feels appropriate to write “concluding thoughts,” or something along those lines, but my thoughts so far have been anything but conclusive.

I left the Ben-Gurion airport—after spending four hours in priority security procedures because of a Palestinian kafia and documentary on the West Bank found in my bag—feeling a web of contradictory emotions. After witnessing the numerous injustices in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, I could not help feeling anger. I felt anger for the man in the town of Siswaya whose village shrunk from 500 families to 43 as Israeli forces filled their caves and settled their land. I felt anger for the Bedouin village of Umm al-Kheir in the West Bank, where even out houses are demolished by the Israeli government, when yards away red tile roofs and cookie cutter houses mark the settlement Karmel next door. I felt anger for the disproportionate distribution of resources in the “united city” of Jerusalem. I felt anger for the checkpoints in the city of Hebron, where settlers cut down Palestinian olive trees and videos reveal settlers attacking Palestinian schoolchildren and even the aid workers there to protect them.

Olive trees owned by a Palestinian family in Hebron cut down by settlers. (Saverin/TYG)

A Bedouin village in the South Hebron hills, where any permanent structures built is demolished, with the Karmel settlement in the background (Saverin/TYG)

A Palestinian man looking at his and his ancestor's caves that have been filled by Israeli authorities (Saverin/TYG)

I felt anger for these and many more injustices, but this is not the whole picture. I went dancing in Ramallah, a thriving city in the West Bank. I even visited a hilltop, caravan settlement in the desert of the West Bank, and was welcomed with open arms. And I love so much of Jerusalem: the shuks and the suqs, picking figs and rosemary on my walk home, the hidden gardens, watching tourist groups at the various holy sites, the quiet of Shabbat, the mix of sugar and sage in Bedouin tea, arguments of who serves the best hummus or falafel, and the excitement of living somewhere in the paper almost every day.

And now that I am home, everyone wants to know “how it was.” Every time this question arises, I feel torn between giving a tirade on all the pain I witnessed that I want everyone else to understand, talking about my long walks through streets that smelled like cardamom or nectarines whose juice would spill down to my elbows, and everything in between. I haven’t mastered a party line to get both messages across, but my goals moving forward are the following:

1)   Show Americans what their government is supporting. This isn’t a distant conflict that Americans can claim they have no place to meddle in: our tax dollars fund many of the atrocities I saw. The Israeli army protects the settlers in the West Bank, and don’t protect Palestinians when these settlers use violence against them. While many Israelis claim that these settlers are extremists and terrorists, they cannot be so ostracized as long as Israel continues to protect them and sponsor their continued development. As long as Israel is supporting them, so is America.

2)   Encourage constructive criticism. As an often-fierce critic of Israeli policy, I have been stunned by and unhappy with much of the criticism I hear in America. This is not a one-sided conflict by any means, and in order for a viable peace to be possible, both sides and perspectives must be recognized as legitimate. One frustrating criticism I have encountered is gaffs at Israel’s security claims. Israel does have security concerns, and while I disagree with many of the actions done in the name of security, the answer isn’t to dismiss the fact that there are security concerns. Outright criticism is not helpful. The situation is complex and deserves no one-sided oversimplification.

3)   Don’t speak about Israelis as one unit. As with any society, there is a wide political spectrum in Israel. Further, the civil society is more vibrant and active than I’ve ever witnessed. From soldiers who give lectures and tours about their experiences in the occupied territories, to the weekly protest of the settlements in Sheikh Jarrah, to the women of Machsom Watch who watch over the checkpoints in the West Bank each day, to the bereaved families on both sides who discuss their loss together, the variety of organizations working towards peace are numerous and differ in strategies. Even for opinions I don’t support, there is a plethora of organizations working for change.

4)   Read multiple sources when it comes to the Middle East, especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s astounding how different the narratives are, and how seemingly vital “facts” can be overemphasized or omitted. I no longer believe objectivity exists, which is fine, but more than one voice must be heard to at least hint at the reality. On this note, avoid hard to define and loaded words, such as “terrorist.”

5)   Keep learning, and talk to people. This conflict, like most, so easily becomes numbers and figures, and thus dehumanized, but any “solution” from the top would be futile if the situation on the ground remained the same. The other issue with the media portrayal of it often depicts it as hopeless and never-ending, but being there and witnessing the constant agency warrants hope. Hearing from the people who experience the conflict day in and day out reminds me that peace and coexistence are possible. At least talking to some people does.

As time puts more distance between me and those enlightening months, maybe I will have more definable goals or conclusions. For the time being, I will keep learning, keep an open mind, keep hope, and encourage others to do the same. Jerusalem is the most fascinating city I have ever been in, and I hope to find myself in this region again soon.

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Imagining the 1973 War

By Diana Saverin

JERUSALEM – This past weekend, I headed to Cairo to see pyramids and ancient ruins. While I did gape at 5,000-year-old artifacts, look into the seemingly boundless Sahara desert, and float down the Nile, my touristy adventure couldn’t escape certain political surprises.

Everywhere in Egypt, people speak of the war with Israel from October, 1973. In Israel, it is called the Yom Kippur War. In Egypt, it’s a national holiday. On October 6th, Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel on Judaism’s most holy day, Yom Kippur. While I am no expert on the war, my impression of it from Israelis was that Egypt and Syria were able to get farther than usual due to the timing of their attack on the first day, and it was an intelligence mistake not to know and prevent the war before the attack that led to unnecessary casualties, but that within days Israel was able to take back the lead as usual. Almost three weeks after the attack, Israel was 40 kilometers from Damascus, and 101 kilometers from Cairo. The peace Israel eventually made with Egypt through the Camp David Accords and Israel’s giving back the Sinai is emphasized as an example of Israel’s concessions for peace.

In Egypt, though, the war was a victory. Every Egyptian I spoke with brought up the war. Streets are named after October 6th. It was described to me multiple times as the most proud moment in modern Egyptian history. In the military museum, several murals and descriptions of the war would make one think that the Egyptians slaughtered and humiliated the Israelis. In descriptions, though, Israel’s name isn’t even mentioned. Allusions to the “phantom,” “the enemy,” and “the planes with blue stars” describe the apparently disgraced Israeli army as the valiant Egyptian army showed the world the courage of the Egyptian people, and won back the Sinai after the 1967 6-day war.

While the reality probably lies somewhere in between the two narratives, I was struck by the overwhelming fanaticism with the war in Egypt. In Israel, it’s another war amongst the many in the past 60 years: the War of Independence in 1948, the Suez Campaign in 1956, the 6-day war in 1967, the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the 1982 Lebanon War, the First Intifada in 1987, the Second Intifada in 2000, the Second Lebanon War in 2006, and the Gaza War in 2008.

As I received a huge hug from an Egyptian after saying that I knew about the victory of the 1973 war, I was inundated with the sense of the impossibility of objectiveness in this conflict. Maybe it’s the same with others as well, but Israel’s 60-year existence has been so densely filled with complicated events, not to mention the history stretching back at least 2,000 years, that one can pick facts to support almost any opinion. It’s impossible to not to have any opinion, I know that my interpretations of events is often clouded by fierce biases, but these systematic and dialectic viewpoints reveal the divides and lack of mutual understanding throughout the conflict.

Egypt and Israel have made peace, but the vastly different narratives reveal a greater trend with Israel and all of its neighbors. These mass inconsistencies pose a threat to any sustainable peace, and put future generations on both sides in danger of growing extremism.

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Fasting for Peace

The Kotel on Tisha B'Av

By Diana Saverin

JERUSALEM–Starting last night, the Jewish fast of Tisha B’Av began. At 7 P.M., restaurants closed, and a strange quiet hung over the city. Recreational spots across the country have also been shut down for the 25 hours of the fast.

The fast honors the destruction of the two Holy Temples in the Old City, which are said to have been demolished out of a senseless hate. They were destroyed over 600 years apart, but both on the ninth day of the month of Av. Today I watched as hundreds of Jews congregated at the Kotel to commemorate the loss, and read from the Book of Lamentations.

The fast has been expanded over the years to mourn other hardships the Jewish people have faced over thousands of years, which are said to have happened all on this one day. From the Roman conquerors in the city of Betar, to the Crusaders in France, to Jewish expulsion from England and Spain, to the beginning of World War I, to deportations during the Holocaust, to a bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, the withdrawal from Gaza which forced Jewish settlers to move in 2005, and more, the fast honors mass suffering of the past.

Today in Jerusalem, the concept of a baseless hate seems pervasive. Hundreds have flocked to the Gilad Shalit protest tent, where I attended a march last week, to lament his captivity, and hope for his return. At the same Wall where hundreds of prayers from the Book of Lamentations will ring today, just last week a woman was arrested for carrying a Torah because of her gender. Just outside of the Old City walls, the residents of Silwan I wrote about a couple of weeks ago await demolitions of their households. Is baseless hatred truly a thing of the past to commemorate, or a continuing characteristic of this crazy city?

For where else in the world do two nations live together on one land, and fight on the battlefields of civilian neighborhoods with construction and demolition? And where else does a religious minority control a democratic government to the point where prayer, religious conversion, and marriage have to follow the rules of the most extreme sector of the religion? And where else do all three of the most prominent religions of the world flock to visit holy sites within yards of each other?

These unique qualities of the city are pulling it apart. A Ynet-Gesher poll of 505 Hebrew-speaking Jewish Israelis revealed 42% of respondents believe the religious-secular divide causes the most tension in Israel and 41% said it was the Jewish-Arab situation. The baseless hatred is palpable amid these divides: 54% believe Arabs are the most hated in Israel, while 37% believe the Haredi Orthodox are the most hated. Jerusalem is a microcosm of this polarization. With the city 35% Arab and 22% Haredi, racial and religious divides are everywhere.

None of this is news. We are all at least vaguely aware of the constant tragedy and complexity of this ongoing conflict, and can recognize the baseless hate on both sides. I often think of the different sides as looking through mirrored windows, only reflecting back the very real pain each has experienced as a result of the continuing tension and the absence of any sustainable or long-term solution, without being able to see past the wall to the suffering on the other side. The tragedy for me lies in this blindness. Both sides have blood on their hands, both sides have pain in their hearts, and both sides bear the responsibility of making it better.

On this holiday, though, I appeal specifically to the Jewish people. Among the many Jewish traditions I have learned to love and admire this summer is the social justice teachings in Judaism. In a lecture last week, a religious man spoke about the role of this Jewish morality in the conflict, and used the metaphor of a grasshopper to describe the respective positions of Israelis and Palestinians. He said that for centuries, the Jews have been the grasshopper, and continue to ask for sympathy for this terrible position they were in for so long. On Tisha B’Av, it’s impossible not to be aware of the gross hardship the Jews have faced, and I sympathize deeply with this position. As the lecturer said, though, Israel is not the grasshopper in this particular conflict anymore; Israel has the upper hand and has become the aggressor. The Palestinians are now the grasshoppers, and Israelis, he says, have a responsibility to realize their privileged position and incorporate Jewish values into their actions moving forward.

This is not to say Jews or Israelis do not continue to face hardship inside and outside of the conflict, or have not in the past. They have, they do, and they will continue to face baseless hatred and adversity. Today, though, I implore Israelis to look past the mirrored window, and see the hatred and adversity Palestinians are facing in this conflict. Israel’s success enables it to change the ongoing tragedies in the region. The Jewish state has been created. Israel has internal and external problems, but it is a recognized and developed nation. Today, Jews can celebrate their promised land, but what can Palestinians celebrate?

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Gilad Shalit and the Absence of Face in American Wars

After the march with Gilad's parents from the North, thousands gathered to listen to different speakers, performers, and children on why his release of immediate concern. (Saverin/TYG)

By Diana Saverin

JERUSALEM – Thousands of people gathered between King David and King George Street on Thursday night in the culmination of the march from the north of Israel to Jerusalem advocating for the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held captive by Hamas. Two hundred thousand civilians joined at some point, and the blur of shirts and posters with a blue outline Gilad’s face cultivated a sense of unity.

In many ways, the march could have appeared in support of anything. Jerusalem is a constant hub of protests and marches given the tense political climate that spans a range of issues relating to land, religion, Zionism, education, gender, modesty, and more. This particular gathering struck me as incredibly unique, though, and exposed a great deal about what makes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict something difficult to relate to as an outsider.

First of all, the relationship between citizens and the army is completely different from that in the United States. Because of the obligatory service, almost everyone here has, is currently, or will serve in the army. Further, everyone’s sons, daughters, neighbors, and colleagues will serve. The service cuts across socioeconomic lines. This dynamic creates a different culture surrounding the conflict, and makes it intensely personal. Instead of figures and numbers used for election purposes, faces from next-door infiltrate people’s understanding of war. One eight-year-old girl stood up in front of the thousands of people to refer to Gilad as her brother, as every soldier could easily be her brother, and because of this, she prays each night for peace. While the different sizes of the countries clearly influence this relationship, I have never confronted this sentiment in the U.S. The American army does not proportionally represent the population, as it runs almost systematically on socioeconomic lines, and sentiment towards it thus varies greatly.

The army and the conflict were fittingly shown through a humanistic lens. Gilad’s parents were the focus of the event, as speakers asked, “have they slept in four years?” His mother spoke of the pain of waiting for so long, and a woman whose whole family died in a terrorist attack expressed her desire to have a prisoner exchange, even if that meant the release of her family’s killers, because if Gilad can return to live a normal life that is worth more than anything. Saving a life, she said, is saving a world.

Would such a claim ever be made in the United States? How many prisoners of war are there in Afghanistan and Iraq? I don’t even know the number, let alone march for the return of each one. On both sides here, almost everyone knows a bereaved family. Even Prime Minister Netanyahu’s brother was killed in a hostage rescue mission. This tragic reality makes the implausible possible, hundreds of thousands of people marching for the life of one.

Proximity also affects the nature of this relationship. The conflict does not hide; people live it everyday. Just walking around Jerusalem, and seeing the settlements, protests, racially divided neighborhoods, walls and towers left from each conqueror, venerated monuments, divides between the religious and the secular, the wall to the West Bank, soldiers everywhere, different organizations educating the public about the conflict, graffiti, posters, and more constantly reveal the issues pulling the city apart. The reality is inescapable. In the U.S., the reality is all too escapable, and I know I could effortlessly pass days without thinking about the wars. We are fighting two, and while I am quick to criticize the conduct of the Israeli army, what about my own? Are the war crimes any different? Do I feel that each soldier is my brother, and think of their parents’ lost sleep each night as the wars carry on?

The intimate feeling with the conflict is true to both sides. Palestinians and Israelis live and feel it together in Jerusalem, and both are deeply affected by casualties. Palestinians face stark facts in terms of prisoners of war as well, as administrative arrests for security can keep them in prison for up to five years with no court, and Palestinians arrested in the West Bank are subject to military court. As of May 2010, Israel is holding 213 Palestinians in administrative detention.

The pain that ensues this mutual grief brings cohesion and passion. Often, it polarizes people further into stringent views, but it can also unite them to work together to effect change. The Parent’s Circle brings together Israeli and Palestinian bereaved families to tell stories of their experiences losing a loved one to the conflict, side by side.

I have not witnessed this humanistic relationship with conflict in the U.S., for where is the feeling that what the American army does matters in my everyday life? Maybe it is an unfeasible desire, to want to truly understand the effects of “shock and awe,” Guantanamo, and the past decade of pain caused by the two American wars. Without knowing the faces, though, how can I hope to hold a genuine opinion on the wars, let alone work to implement my vision of them? I am grateful to not have lost anyone in the wars, but the loss and pain exists, and I believe there is an obligation to at the very least witness it.

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Moving, Shaking, and Surviving: A Bedouin Woman Stands Up Against Polygamy, Honor Killings, Arranged Marriages, and Unfair Divorce in the Negev Desert

By Diana Saverin

JERUSALEM – This past weekend I stayed with a woman in a town in the Negev desert, Rahat, who used her own hardship and lack of rights as an impetus to assist women in similar positions. Between jokes about hating the beards in Rahat and delicious tea, her story left me with a great deal of hope.

The Bedouins in Israel have lived in the Negev for generations, but have faced a great deal of issues under Israeli governance. With several villages living without recognition from the Israeli government, impermanent structures dominate the expanding landscape of the desert.

Beyond the poverty and racial issues provoked on the surface of this controversy, women face an especially difficult fate. Honor killings, in which family members kill women for such crimes as sex outside of marriage, go unreported, save for a blank grave away from the village. Men take multiple wives, and since this is illegal under Israeli law, the second and third wives technically don’t exist. This leads to several issues, especially for their children who need identification cards. Most marriages are arranged, and when they fail, men automatically gain full custody of the children.

In this disempowering landscape for women, Mona found her voice. Faced with losing her six children in a divorce, she fought for four years to gain joint custody. She was confronted with fierce opposition within her town, but her unpleasant experiences led her to create an organization, Amerat, for Bedouin women in the desert. While many noteworthy organizations offer women economic empowerment and improve quality of life, Mona has crossed into more controversial waters to challenge the destructive status quo in the region.

NGOs are often deterred from addressing cultural practices that violate human rights because of the values of multiculturalism and respect for traditions, but Amerat is taking on this daunting task with passion, and avoids such controversy with a grassroots approach. Mona’s bravery astounds me; as men claim that she isn’t a true Muslim and threaten her, she continues to protect and speak up for women in the area.

Just as I expressed wonder at the bravery of Women of the Wall, who work within Judaism to create reform, I am awestruck with Amerat’s valiant battle within Islam and the Bedouin community for equal rights for women.

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Municipal Discord: East Jerusalem settlements and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

By Diana Saverin

JERUSALEM-Around the world, the phenomenon of settlements captures headlines. Before coming to Israel, such headlines for me provoked images of Haredi families living in caravans in the middle of the dessert or old-fashioned couples in Oregon trail-esque wagons settling beyond the “green” frontier. My understanding of the situation was an oversimplification of the reality; I thought of a narrative of the greedy, Israeli, extreme right-wingers who wanted to take away any possibility of a Palestinian state. In some cases, especially in the West Bank, this narrative holds, but living here has shown me that, like with most of the conflict, it isn’t always so simple. So far from simple, in fact, that on Friday I found myself amid a crowd of extremely well armed police and protesters screaming “1, 2, 3, 4, occupation no more!” and other various Arabic and Hebrew chants, debating whether the two bangs I just heard down the road were gunshots fired at protesters.

After weeks of seeing the Israeli flags in Arab neighborhoods, hearing from Palestinians and left and right wing settlers (and everything in between), I remained unclear about the nature of settlements in East Jerusalem. Last weekend, though, I spent a day touring these neighborhoods with a human rights organization, Ir Amim. Throughout the internationally unrecognized conquered land beyond the green lines, settlements have continually grown and developed.

Contrary to my image of them, there’s quite a wide range. There is Gilo, which is beyond the Green Line, but home to 30,000 Jerusalemites and looks identical to West Jerusalem, if not even spiffier. Stone complexes are surrounded with ample parking, sidewalks, overflowing gardens, and more. The area boasts the addresses of many left-wingers, including people I know. Many don’t realize it’s technically a Palestinian settlement; they live there because it’s cheaper, not for ideological reasons. More than half of Jews live in neighborhoods beyond the green lines.

View from the settlement of Gilo (Saverin/TYG)

Moving closer to the headline narrative, enter: clear-cut Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem where Israelis have bought “outposts.” On face value, these unofficial Israeli settlements appear obnoxious. They wave huge Israeli flags, post menorahs the size of houses in their backyards, and offer absurd amounts of money to buy out current Palestinian residents (unless they take over the land illegally). One resident in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan told me about dozens of times settlers have offered up to $7 million for his father’s small plot of land.  Those who sell, though, often face violence if they stick around: a Palestinian who sold his house to a settler on top of the Mount of Olives was found butchered in the back of a car a few years back. Beyond the obvious appearance of invasion, though, the government differential treatment of the two demographic groups becomes stark in such neighborhoods.

A settlement on the Mount of Olives, whose seller was brutally murdered (Saverin/TYG)

A settlement in the Arab neighborhood, Sheikh Jarrah, where Israelis and Palestinians protest together every Friday (Saverin/TYG)

In the Palestinian area, 1,200 schools are missing.  Roads in Arab neighborhoods haven’t been repaved since an American project in 1966 and disallow two cars from comfortably passing each other. They are marked by an absence of sidewalks, and are lined with run-down shops and political graffiti for Hamas, Fatah, and Popular Front.

Most Arab-Israelis refuse to vote because they do not recognize Israel’s occupation of the area, and this leads to little representation in the government. Without representation, trash doesn’t get picked up, schools don’t get built, permits are not given, and the systematic racism perpetuates, but this happens largely within Israeli law. Palestinians are only allowed to be permanent residents, not citizens. Only Jews, spouses of Jews, or citizens can own land.

75% of children in East Jerusalem live in poverty, and seeing such poverty in any context is disturbing. The moment the area becomes a settlement, though, the road becomes perfectly paved with multiple lanes, the previously nonexistent sidewalks arise with perfectly striped red and white paint, and the view is filled with stones and flowers. The suddenness of this change is not something any headline could depict. The difference between this and typical juxtaposition with wealth and poverty is that it is based on systematic racial differences, and thus begets the question: can Israel continue to stake a claim to shared values of liberal democracy and a Jewish state? I had just heard the Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem speak a few days back defending the demolitions because the houses are dangerous and illegal. Perhaps this is true, but it is the system based on racial inequities that is causing this.

The poverty and lack of infrastructure that characterizes many East Jerusalem neighborhoods (Saverin/TYG)

The tour ended in a Jewish settlement, which faces the Shuafat refugee camp across the wall. Since it was a Friday afternoon, Muslim sermons filled the air. The amplified Arabic rang off the divisive barrier, and even though all sermons must be approved by the Israeli government to prevent incitement, I felt incited.

Shuafat refugee camp (Saverin/TYG)

The injustices I had just witnessed felt reactionary, and I was compelled to do something. That afternoon, I stumbled upon a friend attending a protest against demolitions in Silwan, and joined. Every Friday, the same group marches to Sheik Jarrah, as reported in Peter Beinart’s explosive article about American Jews and Israel, but this time Silwan residents requested the group’s presence to shed light on the 22 demolitions that were just approved by the local municipality, to move onto more committees for approval.

Friday protest of the 22 Silwan demolitions (Saverin/TYG)

This situation is complex, and deserves no oversimplification, but for Israel to hold the party line that it is legal ignores the flaws in the current system. It is unsustainable. Following the protest, Israel’s blatantly false coverage of the event reveals its unwillingness to face the current situation in Israel and its territories. Before change or peace can be brought about, there must be truth, and mutual understanding. How can two viable states coexist, when their representations of one city differs so dramatically? There is the Israeli settler Hebron, and the Palestinian Hebron where Israel is mysteriously missing from the map.

I would like to disagree with Foreign Minister Liberman and believe that peace is possible soon, but the settlements reveal to me what stands in the way. Extremists on both sides block peace.  However, I don’t think they’ll have enough power to deter it if the majority of both populations commit themselves to a solution.

The settlements clearly provide a physical barrier to peace as their scattered nature makes dividing the city in the case of a two state system nearly impossible. They reveal a larger wedge between the two groups, though: the unwillingness to acknowledge the truth, whether it is Israel writing off settlers as extremists that have nothing to do with the state and pretending Jerusalem is a united and equal city, or Hamas and other groups holding onto hope that Israel will evaporate from the Middle East. To get to a point where peace is possible, there must be open dialogue at every level from the entire spectrum on both sides.

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Culture and the Cup, Dispatch 4: Paris

algerian flag

One of France's spirited supporters of the Algerian team is interviewed after France loses to South Africa on June 22. (Parker/TYG)

By Charlotte Parker

PARIS — “Defeated by chaos,” “Disaster,” “Journey to hell and back.”

The headlines would be funny if their meaning didn’t carry real implications for France. They reference, of course, the country’s humiliating first-round elimination from the World Cup, an outcome caused by a Molotov cocktail of big egos, large salaries, and lack of national pride on the part of the players. World Cup fever still reigns in France, but alas it’s not the delirium of dreams. Instead, it’s a frenzy built of disillusionment and vituperative bitterness. Newspapers are just the beginning; even President Sarkozy called a special meeting to discuss the situation.

The flop potential of Les Bleus was first hinted at in their third preparatory match before the actual Cup began, when they lost to China. My host father turned off the match in disgust and said something along the lines of, “this doesn’t bode well.” Indeed, France went on to tie Uruguay, and then lost to Mexico.

I watched that match on a giant screen at the “FIFA FanFest” area set up under the Eiffel Tower (nice view). The place was absolutely packed, but among the rowdy crowd there almost seemed to be more Mexican that French supporters. Even more surprising was the number of Algerian flags, knotted around young men’s necks like capes. Here they were, in Paris, presumably born in France, watching France — and yet they didn’t root for France.

By the time les Bleus faced off against South Africa on the 22nd, most people had already lost interest and pride. I don’t totally blame them — the team had imploded, refusing to practice as protest against the expulsion, by Coach Raymond Domenech, of one of its players (I won’t go into much detail here, as the story is all over the media). The captain refused to sing the national anthem.

Nonetheless, I found it rather upsetting that the public at the FanFest arena booed when the camera panned to Domenech. When South Africa won, most of our fellow match-watchers erupted in joy.

What happened? In 1998, the team was fondly referred to as “Black-blanc-beur,” or “black-white-arab,” a nod to its diverse makeup. When they won the Cup, it seemed a victory for the new, ethnically varied French identity. A friend’s host mother said she couldn’t go out into the streets for weeks without being hugged by her joyful countrymen. Now, the comportment of the players — 13 out of 22 of whom are from immigrant backgrounds — brings into question how strong that national identity actually is. I suppose it remains to be seen if the lack of patriotism belonged simply to one group of bratty football players, or if it is an indicator of the situation of immigration and society in France in general.

Since the Cup started, I’ve been fascinated by the “Algeria Factor.” As I’ve mentioned, Algeria fans (until Algeria’s elimination — thanks to a last-minute defeat by the US!) were by far the most visible fans of any team, arriving at the FanFest arena hours before matches, faces painted and flag capes waving. Of the 5 or 6 Algerian men I talked to, all barmen at various cafes where I watched a few matches, every one — whether born in France or Algeria — supported Algeria. My friend’s host brother, born in France of a French mother and Tunisian father, and calling himself French, was also supporting Algeria. I’m sorry Algeria is out of the running because I would have loved to see how an Algerian victory was greeted by people here; it would have made an interesting contrast, I think, to the utter failure of France.

One lesson learned from the approximately 14 hours of soccer I have watched over the past week: “football” really does have the power to both divide and to unite, to humiliate as well as to burnish national pride. I’m sad for France, and concerned by the cracks in what has seemed to me (from my Metro observations of cultural co-existence, at least) a society that welcomes immigrants, and in which those immigrants are happy to belong.

But I have also been made proud of my own country, which is not a feeling I have often experienced. The spark with which the US played these first two rounds of the Cup brought us a little closer to the rest of the football-obsessed world, I think. I will always remember the feeling of quiet satisfaction that passed over me when one of the Algerian men with whom we were watching the US-Algeria match began to root for the US towards the end of the game, when the determination to win on their part was just so gloriously evident.

If we can get them to root for us in soccer, maybe there’s hope…

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