Monday, August 25, 2008

What about the Palestinian backpackers?

Amongst backpacker circles, the inevitable whinge about the "Israeli backpacker" often comes up in conversation. I first encountered this curious subculture in a Bogota hostel in 2006, where many a traveller clashed heads with an Israeli backpacker clique who, enveloped in a constant hash cloud, occupied the hostel lounge for months on end, monopolising the precious DVD player by watching endless Seinfeld reruns, and refusing to venture outside to see the sights...that is, until the Israeli army rudely cut their OE short and recalled them back to Israel to invade Lebanon (talk about "duty" coming a-knocking!!!)

There is a general perception that Israeli travellers are blunt and aggressive, as well as angry bargainers who are so tightfisted with their money that they will haggle to the bitter end with Indian and Thai stallkeepers over what amounts to a few cents to them (but a few meals to the stallkeepers' families). Travellers and locals alike think that they are rude, and I myself have witnessed Israeli consumers in action, clicking their fingers at locals, barking orders in condescending tones, "please" and "thank you" seemingly missing from their vocab. And I've also seen some Israeli travellers who have exercised extreme indifference to the country and culture that they are travelling in, preferring to hang out in Israeli packs at purpose-built Israeli joints. This has led to the proliferation of "Israelis Not Welcome" signs by peaceful, usually tolerant peoples, such as the Nepalese in Nepal and the Tibetans in their exile town, McLeod Ganj, India. As a result of the McLeod backlash, Israelis have moved out to the satellite villages of Bhagsu and Dharamkot, set up especially for them by enterprising Indians, where they are greeted in Hebrew by the locals, eat hummus to their hearts' content, and lay in a weed-induced coma for months, if not years, conducting minimal relations with the local community. Israelis are now fighting disgruntled Indians in Dharamkot, and there have been riots at this once peaceful mountain spot. Hindu Indians love to make a buck, but even they are taking a stand against the all-night LSD and ecstasy-fuelled raves at the local waterfall, the destruction of local property, the incessant, thumping trance music. No wonder the Indian government has recently signed a deal with the Israeli government tightening the rules around Israelis obtaining Indian visas.

Other backpackers often theorise about why Israelis leave on their mass OE exodus straight after military service (three years for boys, two years for girls). The main consensus is that they must be traumatised by their wartime experiences, and feel fully justified in "escaping it all", strung out on drugs for months or even years in a foreign land, with hardly a nod to the locals. There is also a palpable sense of "how dare you question me", a sense of entitlement to "cope" with their situation in any way they please, or, as the Israeli prime minister, Golda Meir, put it: "The nations of Europe who did not help us during the Holocaust are not entitled to preach to us."

Although groups can be intimidating and difficult to get a peep out of if you don't speak Hebrew, I have approached the more amenable individual Israeli for a chat. The Israeli occupation is a touchy subject - speak with a young Israeli who has just served at your own peril. All of the Israelis I have met have, of course, fought the good fight against those pesky Palestinians. One of the things that continually strikes me is just how little dissent against the Israeli army there is amongst the Israeli backpackers that I have talked to. In fact, a quick Google search reveals that those extremely brave and admirable Israeli youths who have conscientiously objected to serving in the military have been thrown in jail.

The only traveller I’ve ever met who criticized the war, so indignant and traumatized was he that his government had made him kill Palestinians, was a backpacker in Bogota who had grown up in a kibbutz. Kibbutzes are small, Jewish, agricultural pockets in Israel, which operate based on the principles of socialism and equality. In other words, a system that challenges the capitalist, war-mongering style of government that most of us in the West are indoctrinated to accept without challenge. Noam Chomsky has cited the kibbutz as a successful example of anarchism. The guy was also the only Israeli I've met who has left his country for good after serving in the military. Perhaps this alternative way of living to the American consumer model had caused him to question Israel and to leave behind his beloved homeland?

An Israeli girl I met, who I was excited to learn considered herself "liberal", told me that she had been dating a Palestinian boy. I imagined her, bravely sneaking to a Palestinian refugee settlement camp every night, defying societal standards and the war for her love. In fact, her boyfriend was an Israeli citizen living in her town who eventually disappeared into the ether due to constant persecution by the Israeli authorities. She had kept the relationship secret from her parents and friends for years. By the time I talked to her, she said that she had given up on the idea, because the only way that it would work was if they both left Israel...and she was not willing to give up her family or her life for him. And to be honest, it was hormones, rather than the broader notion that Palestinians deserved a home too that had occupied her mind during their relationship. Being the truly "liberal' girl that she was, she had, of course, served in the Israeli army against the Palestinians for two years.

Her "liberal" views on the Israeli occupation were revealed when we walked past a poster outlining the record of human rights abuses meted out by the Chinese to the Tibetans. Sitting a little too close to home for comfort, she walked away from the poster in a huff, saying, "I refuse to read or believe such rubbish. There are two sides to every story. "

What “two sides” was she speaking of? As my partner likes to bring up in response to the phenomenon of the Israeli backpacker, "What about the Palestinian backpackers?" The answer is, there is no such thing. Israel (and the Quartet on the Middle East, consisting of the US, the EU, Russia, and the UN) have cruelly squeezed on the West Bank and Gaza Strip for years in order to isolate the democratically-elected Hamas (that’s right, the party that the Palestinian people chose). And after Israel illegally blockaded the Gaza Strip over a year ago, slashing electricity and fuel supplies and limiting the flow of humanitarian aid, 1.5 million Palestinians are starving to death, with Gaza's economy in tatters. Patients in desperate need of medical attention have died because they are not allowed to leave, students who have won scholarships to foreign universities, including the prestigious Fulbright, have been stopped from taking these up, their brains stagnating and their hopes of a bright future slipping away from them. As Michael Shaik of the humanitarian group "Australians for Palestine" puts it, "Israel's siege of the Gaza Strip is one of the great crimes of the 21st century, which the governments of the West and the Arab League are abetting by their silence."

Part of the Israeli story is that Uncle Sam's got their backs. Yasser Arafat once said “The weapons used are…American helicopters, American armoured cars, American missiles, American shells, American bombs.” So while Palestinians throw rocks at, ahem, Israeli tanks, the, ahem, Israeli government continues to develop nuclear weapons and build up an, ahem, Israeli military base that is strategically important in dealing with the Middle East problem to the Bush, McCain, Obama, or whichever administration happens to be the warlord in charge (they're all the same).

Another part of the Israeli story is that the words "never again", uttered after the Holocaust, have once again been forgotten, just as they were in Bangladesh, East Timor, Cambodia, Guatemala, Argentina, the carving up of Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Darfur, and potentially Tibet.

But in the case of Palestine, the irony is just too bittersweet for words.


kinakoJam said...

hmm... i've met some very nice & mild-mannered Israelis.... both musicians who live in Israel, and some entrepreneurs in Japan (there is a network of people who sell jewellery there).

The occupation is really awful & bad,
but maybe the kids who go listen to trance in India are not the best foreign diplomats for their country!

Lisa Loves Life said...

Yes - of course, Israels are just humans, and there are good humans and bad humans in every group. I was interested in why they have such a bad reputation in India and Thailand, which is why I talked to a number of them. Some Israelis even think that their bad rep is well deserved. There have been studies to show that the aggression they show in places like India is linked to having to serve in the military in the formative years, and not to be seen as "weak" by the rest of the world due to how much their ancestors were trodden on. Studies have shown that they think of their ancestors from the Jewish Diaspora era as weak, and they do not want to be viewed in the same light.

My main interest was in why there was so little dissent amongst young Israelis about military service, and the fact that most of them are willing to accept that their actions are killing Palestinians...even the mild mannered, nice ones. Particularly due to their history.

Lisa Loves Life said...

It's like meeting nice and mild mannered South Africans who supported apartheid.

Things just do not stack up.

kinakoJam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.