Rebecca Sullum is Co-Director of Kids4Peace Jerusalem.
“Rebecca, How are you? How has Kids4Peace been managing during this very difficult summer? My hopes and prayers are with you.”
Every day, friends from around the world reach out to me. They want to hear how I am and how my Kids4Peace community is coping during this very violent time.
This post is an attempt to share with you how a Jewish Israeli Zionist who is also a mother, wife and peace activist, is coping. I want to share my insights as Co-Director of Kids4Peace, where I engage daily with hundreds of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish, Palestinian and Israeli families.
Six weeks have passed by since the kidnapping of the 3 Israeli youth, Gilad, Naftali and Eyal, in Gush Etzion on June 12. Since that morning, I can no longer answer the question “How are you?” It is just too complicated.
My cousin studied at Yeshiva (Jewish religious boys’ school) with two of the kidnapped youth. Friday morning when it had become clear that the 3 boys had been kidnapped, my sisters and their daughters spent the morning picking berries in Gush Etzion, just a few kilometers from the location of the kidnapping. I wasn’t there. My husband Itai requested that I do not pick berries in occupied Palestinian territory, since weeks earlier the IDF detained Palestinian girls for picking cherries on their way to school. Itai thought that it would be too ironic, too cruel, to exercise my freedom in a way that Palestinian girls cannot. So I spent that Friday morning at home. As the Shabbat approached and the youth were nowhere to be found, I fell into despair that lasted for 18 days.
During the 18 days of searching for the three Israeli youth, a complete siege was held on the Palestinian people of Hebron and surrounding areas. Twice during those days, I reached out to a Palestinian friend and colleague who lives in Dura, a small village next to Hebron. On both occasions, the IDF had searched his home the night before while his entire family was there. He told me, “They even went through my underwear drawer and pulled out all my t-shirts. I couldn’t help but smile to myself as they threw my Kids4Peace shirt from the drawer.” Speaking to him, across what many people view as the lines of conflict, I felt a moment of hope in our ability to keep communication open during these times.
June 22, 2014- 19 years ago my family made aliyah from Allentown, PA to Israel. This year I couldn’t celebrate my Zionism. My return to the land of the Jewish people. It was far too difficult.
June 29, 2014– The Ramadan fast begins.
June 30, 2014– 18 days glued to Facebook and Israeli news, until Monday evening the media posted that the 3 youth bodies had been found. Complete and utter despair came over me.
July 1, 2014– I read warnings via Facebook from Kids4Peace Arab youth: “Don’t go to downtown Jerusalem, since there are riots and attacks by Jews on Arabs and it isn’t safe. “Avoid Jaffa street”- a Palestinian Christian youth remarked.
July 2, 2014– The next day I head into Jerusalem to work from the Kids4Peace office in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheik Jarrah. Upon entering the city, I hear on the radio that the light rail has been suspended due to heavy rioting in East Jerusalem by Palestinians. I then learn that a Palestinian boy’s body has been found in the forest, after he was kidnapped and burned to death by Jewish Israelis. My heart fell past my stomach and fear began to take over me.
I posted on Facebook: “Helicopters overhead, sitting alone in the Kids4Peace office, as the roads are blocked for Mohammad to join and the fear has left Meredith and Reeham at home on the other side of town. I am sitting in the midst of a war zone paralyzed from all sides.”
I scan through my Facebook to find Kids4Peace youth from all sides, posting messages of anger and fear. I begin to watch my beloved city of Jerusalem fall apart. All attempting to cope and make sense of it all:
“This morning: Palestinian youth Mohammad Abu Khdeir found dead in Jerusalem. He was first kidnapped and then killed by criminal terrorist settlers. Mohammad was 17 years old from shu’fat in occupied East Jerusalem. He was going to the morning prayer. May his soul rest in peace. You possibly won’t even find his name in today’s news stories, he is just a Palestinian youth. Nothing else. Today, the world will not mourn Mohammad or any other Palestinian waiting to be killed. Same old same old. Today, the world shall continue to mourn Eyal, Gilad and Naftali. Yes, I know their names. But just like always, we the Palestinians shall mourn alone. Not only the innocent lives we lost today and yesterday, but also humanity. Now a moment of silence to mourn the dead.”- written by a Muslim Palestinian female youth
I try to find some bit of light and decide to attend a Jewish Israeli Anti-Violence demonstration organized by Tag Meir. Rather than being uplifted from the speeches and the crowd, I am upset by how few people attended, and I recognized far too many people in the crowd. I suddenly feel that I am alone in this work.
In an attempt to find others that want to end the violence and claim back Jerusalem – to make it a place that belongs to all – Kids4Peace launched the #ViolenceStopsWithMe online campaign and decided to have an interfaith Iftar gathering, a moment of hope.
July 8th 2014– Haaretz Conference on Peace: I was privileged to be among 2,000 or so people gathering to hear, learn, share ideas and be inspired to understand how peace is possible. I was honored to hear speeches from Israeli President Shimon Peres and an interview with PA Prime Minister Abu Mazen. I heard him at a gathering of Israeli peace activists in Ramallah only a month earlier, but now that feels like a life time ago. A surreal atmosphere hovered in the air, as we speak about peace and just that morning Israel launched an air attack in Gaza in response to the rockets that were being shot into the south of Israel. This too was in response to previous violence, but I can’t contain it all.
The day ended literally with a BOOM. During the final session, sirens went off throughout Tel Aviv warning us that a rocket from Gaza from Hamas was heading our way. In that instant I had already forgotten everything that I learned that day and all the ways that I was inspired. At the conference, I heard the deepest authentic reasoning behind my work in Kids4Peace, but with that siren it all got left behind.
All I wanted to know was “where are my family?” Text messages on my WhatsApp app immediately came in to check on me, from my family and my colleagues Mohammad, Reeham and Meredith. But Mohammad and Reeham are Palestinians. Aren’t they on the “other side?”
We residents of Tel Aviva aren’t accustomed to sirens, rockets and running to shelters, unlike the south of Israel that has been under attack on and off for many years. So when that siren caught us all by surprise we panicked!
Almost daily since then, I have been running in and out of the shelter in Jaffa, the mixed Arab-Jewish neighborhood in Tel Aviv where I live. At first I was frightened to leave my son Yair (nearly 3 years old) at kindergarten, but I find that I can adapt much more quickly to the situation than I thought. Although the cosmopolitan city of Tel Aviv has quieted down a lot due the situation, people can still be found on the streets, coffee shops, beaches and bars. It is almost to say “Hamas you are not going to win”. We are going to keep on living our lives.
One evening at home with Yair, a siren went off, so we headed to the shelter. He has become great at following directions, and even remembers to bring our dog with us. We wait until we hear the loud BOOM, which is the sound of the Iron Dome intercepting the rocket. Then we go back to regular life.
An hour later as the call to prayer from the mosque next to our house was blasting from the loudspeaker, Yair ran up to me and told me we need to head to the shelter. In that very moment, all my liberal and pluralistic education for Yair crumbled in front of my eyes. How do I tell a 3 year old that some loud sounds are sirens warning us that rockets are coming and some are a prayer to g-d, one g-d just like we believe in?
Yair also saw the political satire in the paper. It was one of the Israeli Air Force bombing mosques and buildings in Gaza and the Israeli politicians turning their backs to the devastation. Yair wanted to know, why are there airplanes and helicopters on top of “Ramadan,” which is his word for mosque. Again I am lost for words.
July 9th, 2014- Despite my fear of leaving Jaffa, Yair and Itai are at home. I leave my house for the first time in days to attend the Kids4Peace interfaith Iftar in Jerusalem. Although many media agencies wanted to cover the event as a scene of light in a time of darkness I didn’t allow them to attend. Tonight is for the Kids4Peace Jerusalem community, this is for our time for internal healing and coming together as a community not for public consumption. The evening was incredibly inspiring. I confronted my fears and spoke to Palestinian members about how they are coping with their fears in what has become a hateful Jerusalem. I felt supported, heard, listened to and grateful for the evening that over 60 people attended, despite the fear of leaving your home due to rockets or hate crimes/violence.
July 10th 2014- Arab-Palestinian Muslim Israeli moderate writer that portrays in Hebrew to the Israel Jew what is it like to be Arab in Israel, Sayed Kashua decides to leave Israel and heads with his family to Chicago. Part of me screams to him to come back because I know that he takes with him insight and hope that only he has given, but part of me also screams please let me come with you!! Get me out of here! And I begin my countdown to Kids4Peace camp, one month to go.
July 11, 2014- I turn 33 years old. I jokingly blame my parents for not teaching me as a child from Allentown, PA to run to shelters and ways to cope with post-traumatic stress. How I am going to teach Yair? I read this morning a piece by Israeli writer Etgar Keret, suggesting that instead of working towards peace let’s work towards compromise. Since peace is perceived as a gift from g-d that we do not need to work hard towards. As compromise is clear that we will need to give up something to make it happen and it won’t come on its own, we need to work for it. I then decided to dedicate my 34th year of life toward fighting for peace, since working for it peacefully hasn’t succeeded so far.
“Thank you for the birthday wishes! It is especially meaningful to receive birthday and peace wishes together from my friends from the USA, Palestine and Israel. As my friend Rula said it is hard not be celebrating a summer birthday at Kids4Peace which is certainly more fun and inspiring then spending part of you celebration in the shelters and stairwell. I am committing this year to promoting and advancing tangible peace in Jerusalem and Jaffa. As Etgar Keret wrote, peace isn’t a godly present that we are waiting for. It is something that we need to work hard for and that we will need to make many sacrifices along the way.”
July 12th, 2014- Encouraging Yair to pick out his own clothing in the morning, he choose his favorite t-shirt: Kids4Peace, of course. I also put on my very stylish t-shirt. With some fear of promoting peace via our shirts during this difficult time, especially in diverse Jaffa, Yair and I head off to kindergarten following the morning rocket attack. Only a few hours later I ran to pick him up after the second alarm. As we left, a few of the teachers thanked us for reminding everyone that peace is possible and for inspiring them to hope again. Yair and I highly suggested reading David Grossman’s article “On Hope and Despair“.
July 13th– World Cup Final, I think to myself, maybe tonight will be quiet, doesn’t Hamas want to watch the World Cup? My sister attended the Left Wing Anti War/Violence Peace rally in Tel Aviv. Shortly after she left, right wing extremists attacked the protesters.
I have begun to fear sharing my ideas, thoughts and feeling publicly. “Left Wing” has now become a curse word. I over hear people telling each other, “don’t think that I am left wing, but I feel badly for the people in Gaza.”
I too can’t stop thinking of the people in Gaza, as every day goes by, the death toll rises. Sometimes, I need to step away or I would go into deep depression seeing this loss.
July 14th, 2014– An unmanned aerial vehicle (uav/drone) entered from Gaza to Israel this morning. I call Itai a million times in panic, thinking he will get called to reserves.
July 17th, 2014- Itai and I have been married 6 years. We were hoping to celebrate at the Neil Young concert in Tel Aviv, but he canceled a few days earlier. At least he donated money to two peace music programs. That night Israel launches a ground incursion into Gaza. I will forever remember my anniversary as the day that marks the beginning of this horrible escalation of violence. And I can’t keep thinking that next year when it is Ramadan again, we will carry in our hearts the sadness and anger from this year.
July 20th, 2014- Days of news and FB. Caught somewhere in the middle, as I too was once a combat soldier. I pray for their safe and fast return, but I hate my government for putting them there in the first place. Why? Why? Netanyahu couldn’t you have kept up your end to the Peace Negotiations??? There are other alternatives to violence.
Sometimes I wonder, if Netanyahu, Bennet, Lieberman, Lapid and other political leaders had a Palestinian friend then maybe they would act differently. Maybe if they had a child in the IDF they wouldn’t so hastily send them to Gaza.
Friends and family are separating themselves from me. Upset that I condemn this invasion. “Rebecca, we had no other choice the Hamas forced us to doing this”. I can’t decide if “we” Israel had to do this (or not) for our safety. What I know for sure is that this cycle is never going to end through violence, “We” the peacemakers, humanitarians and activists need to pursue much more forcefully other channels. I find that I am pushed away from the national “we” that I thought I belonged to and now need to find my “we” that is beyond national identity and relays on values and ideals to bring us together.
In a loss of what to do and how to move forward I post:
Spent the morning between FB, news and phone calls to my incredible Kids4Peace Jerusalem staff that are still keeping lines of connection open during these very sad times. I keep asking myself what can I do? I found this as a suggestion from scholar Marc Gopin:
July 21, 2014- Two failed attempts to bring the Kids4Peace older youth, 9th-12th grade together. It is easier for them to hide behind their Facebook pages than to come together for dialogue in person. Honestly I understand them. Every time I see my Co-Director Mohammad, I take a deep breath and pray that we do not find ourselves in an argument that we won’t be able to get out of. An argument that wouldn’t allow us to continue to work together. Looking beyond my personal fears, we arrange for an Emergency Staff Meeting, so our 30 staff members in Jerusalem can come together.
July 22, 2014- WhatsApp text message from my boss, Josh in the USA: “Yikes, Delta just suspended flights to and from Israel”. I head to the news to see that a rocket/rocket fell near the airport and very quickly international airlines suspend their flights. I become claustrophobic. I can’t breathe, I can’t leave this country. I’m trapped here! I feel like I am under occupation, but in real life I am the occupier.
I won’t let this feeling stop me, I won’t let this stop Kids4Peace, we will have contingency plans, we will move on, we will have camp. Yes, camp. The great savior for all of us during this time! I went out with friends for the first time since June 12th. I actually had a drink and smiled. I need a moment’s break. Luckily my phone battery ran out, so I can’t check the news, I didn’t know that the area surrounding the airport was under attack. I decide not to check the news or Facebook for a few days. I need to live in a bubble for a moment – to breathe.
July 23, 2014- Since I haven’t been reading the news I actually get a lot of work done. I discover that none of my Palestinian staff can obtain permits due to the situation to travel through Israel to their Kids4Peace camps in the USA. I work with the team to reroute them through Jordan. At night I meet with a group of 12 Kids4Peace families in Beit Safafa. The meeting is so relaxed, calm and quiet. I realized how we all need a break. Families and youth took the opportunity to talk face to face, human to human. I didn’t want the evening to end.
July 24, 2014- Walk into the office ready for the Emergency staff meeting, only to hear: “Rebecca, Qalandiya checkpoint is closed, many of our Palestinian staff can’t come into Jerusalem”. At this point I have learned not to panic. We will move ahead with our meeting and update them afterwards. I try to gather sympathy from my Jewish Israel friends and tell them, forget about politics, imagine if you were the director of a company and every day your workers couldn’t come to work because of your government. I am certain that you would also be frustrated. So beyond my political frustration is my challenge as a director not having a third of my staff available to work.
The emergency staff meeting brings with it an incredible hope and want to move forward. I feel that I am in my community, one made up of Christian, Muslim and Jews that want to live in Peace, sorry Etgar Keret, I refuse to live in compromise.
July 26th, 2014– On my way to the non-violent anti war protest, I was verbally attacked on the bus by 2 Israeli men that cursed my very existence and wished that a rocket fall on me and the entire protest. They also felt that they have more “claim” to Israel then me, since they were combat soldiers. I too was a combat soldier I told them, and this quieted them for at least a minute. Given me just enough time to share with them one of the pillars of democracy, freedom of speech which they can’t take away.
I was petrified the entire demonstration, scared from the right wing demonstrators. I wanted to take one of their Israeli flags and bring it to the left wing demonstration, this is my flag. Everything that I do is what I think is best for Israel. We, the Israelis clearly have a lot more internal work to do. I do not want to become one of the lefties that hate Israel, that hate religion, that are apologetic. I love my Judaism, my nationality and I am proud to be an active Israeli citizen.
And I found another article by Etgar Keret: Israel’s Other War