The Photo Set is Complete!

Photos from the Israel/Palestine portion of the trip are now live on Meiner in the Middle! Click on any picture under “2012 Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Project” on the right to view my Flickr with the complete set of photos from the entire trip! I’m still working on adding captions to everything, but all the pictures following the one from Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv were taken in Israel and Palestine. As the next few days’ blog posts go up (especially the forthcoming post on my tour of the Old City in Jerusalem), it’ll be pretty easy to follow along with the photos! I hope you all enjoy looking at these as much as I enjoyed taking them.

Safe Travels! – Jake

June 12, 2012: Jerusalem, Israel and the West Bank

Today was another busy, busy day in Israel for the six of us! We started early this morning with an 8:00 AM departure for our day of two intense tours that are important to understanding some of the narratives and history behind Israel and Palestine (and the IPC, too) – a tour of the Jewish settlements and other areas of the West Bank in the morning and a tour of Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial, in the afternoon. Today was an extremely thought-provoking and solemn day but an extremely important one for all of us. In the flurry of emotions, information, history, and politics that I experienced today, I have a lot to discuss. So get ready to join me on this journey through some very important stories.

Our morning started out by meeting Lior Amihai at our hotel right as we headed out for the day. Lior works for Settlement Watch, a project of the organization called Shalom Achshav (or “Peace Now” in English). Shalom Achshav was started in 1978when 350 reserve officers in the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) signed a letter asking Prime Minister Menachem Begin to try to settle a peace with Egypt following Anwar Sadat’s visit to Israel. They are a security-conscious “dove” camp that has become one of the most famous and well-respected peace groups in the region. Settlement Watch, the project that Lior helps to run, is considered one of the most accurate sources for information and statistics on the growth of settler populations in the Occupied Territories.

Lior (whose father, for the record, works for the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a diplomat) started our conversation off with an explanation of how Settlement Watch and Shalom Achshav define Zionism since they brand themselves as a Zionist organization. According to Lior, Zionism is self-determination for the Jewish people coupled with an understanding of the necessity for democracy and human right. This specific definition promulgated by Shalom Achshav is different from the one given by more right-wing organizations that define Zionism in the context of service to the State of Israel and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.

The first stop on our tour of the West Bank settlements was a village called Nabi Samuel, which is the archaeological site of the prophet Samuel’s burial and a Palestinian village behind the Green Line. The Green Line, according to Wikipedia, refers to the demarcation lines set out in the 1949 Armistice Agreements between Israel and its neighbors (Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria) after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The Green Line is also used to mark the line between Israel and the territories captured in the Six-Day War (including the West Bank and Gaza Strip). This first stop served as our orientating point for the rest of the morning. Lior gave us all maps prepared by Settlement Watch that provide statistics and geographic representations of Jewish settlements, Palestinian localities, illegal outposts, as well as the route of the separation barrier/security fence and wall (more on that in a little bit), the Green Line, the Jerusalem municipal border, and several roads for both the West Bank as a whole and Jerusalem in specific. With maps in hand, we began exploring the historical narrative of the development of the West Bank.

From 1949-1967, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan controlled the West Bank, following the borders of the Line of Armistice from the Israeli War of Independence, or the Green Line. In the War of 1967, Israel gained all of the territory that had been controlled by Jordan. Since that time, Israel has struggled with exactly what to do with the land. Israel has not annexed this land outright. The question is, why wouldn’t they annex it if they had gained the territory? The answer has to do with the demography vs. geography tradeoff that I’ve mentioned a few times before. While annexing the land would have been a geographic gain for Israel, it also would have meant a huge demographic gain of the large Palestinian population living within the territory, which in turn would mean that Israel would have to grand citizenship to the Palestinian population. If Israel did grant citizenship to the Palestinians, then the demographic balance of a Jewish State of Israel would shift away from the first adjective I used to describe the country – Jewish.

It’s also important at this point to explain an important part of the logistics of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. The entire area is divided into 3 areas, named Area A, Area B, and Area C (how creative), as a result of an interim agreement on the West Bank from the Oslo Accords. In each of these three areas, there are two types of authoritative power that a government can hold: civil control and security control (to make a complicated issue incredible short). In Area A, the Palestinians (today, the PNA – the Palestinian National Authority) hold both civil control and security control. In Area B, Palestinians hold civil control while the Israeli military holds security control. In Area C, the Israeli Military holds both civil control and security control. Together, Areas A and B account for around 40% of the land in the West Bank (meaning around only 40% of the land is in Palestinian hands), and Area C accounts for 60% of the land (meaning 60% is controlled by Israeli military). In terms of statehood, Areas A and B are currently on the road to Palestinian statehood (with A being the closest, naturally). Area C is highly contested. Palestinians want it part of a Palestinian state and settlers and other Israelis hope that it can be part of a greater State of Israel including Judea and Samaria (more on this right now).

Although Israel has not annexed the land, from 1967 to today, Jewish settlements have been popping out all throughout the territory. These settlements are pockets of Jewish citizens of Israel who are living within the West Bank and East Jerusalem for a variety of reasons (a few of which I mentioned in my post from Washington, DC). For some, settlement is entirely economically motivated – it is simply less expensive to live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. For others, it’s a much deeper ideological issue concerning an absolute Jewish claim to the biblical lands of Judea and Samaria, which are geographically located in the area where the West Bank is today. These settlements are recognized by most of the international community as an illegal occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which are the lands designated for Palestinian communities following Israeli independence in 1948 (and between then and 1967 controlled by Jordan).

Thus, today more than ever, there are dual narratives emerging amongst Palestinians and Jews over to whom the West Bank and East Jerusalem belong. Many Jewish settlers say the land was promised to them in biblical times as Judea and Samaria, and these lands must be part of a greater expanded State of Israel from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Many Palestinians living in the territories feel differently, of course, from the Jewish settlers. Some feel that the land has been designated for them and that Jewish settlement there is an intrusion upon their right to the land as understood by the creation of the Green Line. Right now, this issue more than perhaps any other, is at the crux of the IPC. These two narratives represent to very different ideas of the physical land where two national entities are both struggling to exist. It is my belief that any resolution or agreement to reach a two-state solution must address the issue of settlers and the occupation of these territories. Indeed, the issue is a critical piece of all past, present, and future negotiations, as every single person we have met with thus far has confirmed.

Please note that this explanation of settlements and the dual narratives that I have just provided is incredibly basic. One could write on and talk to this issue extensively for hours on end, and I’ve just tried to summarize it in two paragraphs. Thus, I can promise you that my definition is not complete. I encourage you, if you are interested, to do more research on this fascinating debate. It’s certainly something important to be aware of, especially if it does become a crucial part of the peace process, which I believe it will.

Anyway, back to our tour with Lior. The next topic of conversation was the “separation barrier” between the State of Israel proper and the West Bank built by Israel following the Second Intifada in response to public outcry following terrorist attacks. There is a wide range of terminology used to refer to this barrier; some refer to it is as the “separation barrier,” others the “security barrier,” and still others the “apartheid wall.” The terminology that one uses usually is reflective of his or her own political beliefs and opinions. For the sake of my writing, I will be using the somewhat neutral term “separation barrier,” which is also used by Settlement Watch. In reality, the actual “wall” portion of the barrier is only one-fifth of the total structure. The remainder of the barrier is a fence; the wall only goes up in mainly urban areas where the fence cannot. Regardless of your politics on the issue, it is clear that there is a barrier that was built by the Israel that separates the State of Israel proper from the West Bank. At least that I think we can all agree upon.

East Jerusalem also falls under scrutiny in this discussion of settlements and occupied territories. I was unfamiliar with the story of East Jerusalem until Lior explained it, and I’ll be able to get a bit more intimate view of the situation there on Thursday on our tour of East Jerusalem with Danny Seidemann (more on that on Thursday). Here are the facts as I understand them. In 1967, the municipal borders of the city of Jerusalem were expanded beyond the Green Line. Technically, this new expanded Jerusalem is a part of Israel and its capital. However, the twelve Jewish neighborhoods in the expanded area of Jerusalem are not considered “neighborhoods of Jerusalem,” but rather “settlements” like I’ve discussed above. In East Jerusalem today, there are around 200,000 Jews and 300,000 Palestinians. Essentially, Jerusalem today is a combination of the Jerusalem pre-1967, Jordan’s East Jerusalem (from 1949-1967), and further expansion into the West Bank as well. Some people in Israel feel that the Mayor of Jerusalem, if he were to give Jerusalem lands to Palestinians, would be breaking up a “unified Jerusalem” for Israel (despite the fact that the current mayor is right-leaning). The separation barrier also does not exactly match Jerusalem’s municipal borders, often carving further into the West Bank.

Our next stop was the Ofer Camp/Court/Prison, controlled by Israel, which handles all military procedures and courts within the West Bank. The base is only about five minutes from Ramallah and a corresponding checkpoint called Beituniya, which is only open to trucks carrying cargo, not civilians. Checkpoints are an extremely interesting part of this whole discussion of occupation, but more on that in a little bit. The reason Lior took us to Ofer was to point out a difficult question that is often brought up in any discussion about Israel’s role in the West Bank. How do you reconcile the human rights issues associated with Israel’s existence as both a Jewish and a democratic state? By that I mean, how can Israel be both Jewish and democratic without disadvantaging those members of its population who are not Jewish? The Ofer Camp demonstrates that the West Bank is under military occupation. This occupation is notdemocratic, according to Lior, because a democracy should have three parts: an executive, a legislature, and a judiciary (think American government). In the West Bank, there is only one – the military – and the seat of that power in the West Bank is Ofer. Interestingly enough, an Israeli would not be tried in Ofer, only a Palestinian who was arrested by Israeli military within the West Bank would be tried here. Ofer was an eerie sight. The family members of Palestinians being tried pace around within the high walls and fences of the compound waiting for word of the decisions in the courts. We didn’t stay too long (the point Lior was trying to make was clear to all of us), but it was definitely important that we saw Ofer and discussed what it was.

When we got back on the bus, we started discussing some of the political implications of the occupation of the West Bank and the role of Netanyahu’s right-leaning government in the West Bank. Netanyahu’s government is supportive of settlements in the West Bank. At the current moment, there is no plan or no negotiations in the works to reach a peace settlement. But, despite this, Netanyahu does believe in economic peace. According to Lior, this has involved the removal of checkpoints to boost Palestinian economics in the homes that this will lead them to abandon their desire for a state. It’s a way to keep the Palestinians quiet and put off the issue of Palestinian statehood.

We visited the Qalandia Checkpoint as our next look into the West Bank occupation. Interestingly enough, security on entrance into the West Bank is pretty low key. Lior explained that leaving Israel is not of much concern for the Israeli military, who are more preoccupied with entrance from the West Bank into Israel. Exiting the West Bank is a difficult process involving both Palestinian and Israeli security in many cases. Palestinians trying to get across the Green Line from the West Bank into Israel must park their cars and go on foot across the checkpoint into Israel with a special permit granting them access. If the Ofer Camp was eerie, the Qalandia Checkpoint was downright depressing and, frankly, scary. It looked like a prison, surrounded by fences topped by barbed wire, complete with metal cage-like holding areas that Palestinians walked through to enter Israel. Being there made me reconsider Lior’s question about human rights and I was, and still am, having trouble reconciling in my own head the immense human rights implications (and violations) of these checkpoints. I now understand when people say that the checkpoints are dehumanizing and disgracing; you’d feel disgraced too if you were required to walk on foot across a border that others can cross by car, led through metal cages and surrounded by high fences. It’s not okay. It’s not easy. It’s scary. But people cross the Green Line in these conditions everyday. Trust me, I understand why the checkpoints were put there in the first place. It’s a security concern. But when does it stop being an issue of security and start being an issue of human rights violations?

Now that I’ve thrown all that into your lap (my apologies, but I think that this issue is one that everyone must understand in order to speak correctly about the IPC), I’m going to move onto the remaining part of our discussion with Lior: the settlements. Once we cleared the checkpoint (all staying in the bus, mind you), we started discussing the recent history and issues involving the Jewish settlements in the West Bank. In 1996, Netanyahu officially announced that Israel would not build any more settlements in the West Bank from that point forward. However, the population of settlers in the West Bank has nearly tripled in this time period from around 110,000 to around 330,000. So how do you account for these new 220,000 settlers? They are living in unofficial settlements that are not recognized as legal by either international or Israeli law (remember that all settlements are considered illegal by much of the international community; these settlements are also considered illegal by Israel). These settlements are referred to as “illegal outposts” because they are not authorized by the Defense Ministry of Israel and are, thus, not legal.

One of the most highly contested of these illegal outposts is called Migron, which we had a chance to drive through. If you haven’t heard of it already in the media (and there’s been a bit of coverage on the Migron situation), Migron is an illegal outpost built on privately owned Palestinian lands that the military has ordered to be demolished. In August 2011, the Israeli Supreme Court said that Migron needed to be demolished by March 31, 2012, but four days before the demolition deadline, the State of Israel asked to reopen the case after “reaching an agreement with the settlers there.” The Supreme Court refused to reopen the case, but did postpone the demolition deadline to August 1, 2012.

With definitive demolition plans on the table for Migron, the settlers there have started to establish backup plans for themselves to continue living in the West Bank. The first of these backups is the new “Winery Hill” settlement, which is still under construction (thanks to Palestinian labor, mind you). Workers are rushing to finish Winery Hill on time before the August 1, 2012 demolition deadline at Migron so that the settlers from Migron can move in immediately. You may be thinking: wait a minute, I thought that no new settlements could be built! Isn’t that why Migron is being demolished? How is a new settlement at Winery Hill possible? A loophole in the orders banning further settlement allows for the borders of existing settlements to be expanded to include new neighborhoods. Winery Hill would essentially become part of a nearby pre-1996 settlement whose borders would be expanded to swallow the new neighborhood. (Kind of a big loophole, don’t you think?). If Winery Hill is not finished in time, then the settlers of Migron will move into an existing neighborhood in a pre-1996 settlement called Adam.

So let me back up for a second again and lay out how land in the West Bank is categorized. I needed Lior to explain this to me so that I could fully understand what exactly the issue was with settlements, and this helped to clarify a lot of questions for me (and I hope it helps you too). Land in the West Bank falls into two categories: private and public. Private lands are lands that someone, usually a Palestinian, actually owns outright. It is illegal to build a house on these lands (see: Migron settlement). Public or state lands are lands where the occupier is not allowed use the land for anything unless it is for a public need (such as a hospital, school, etc.). Public lands follow the ideology of “eminent domain,” in which whoever has authority of the land is the ruler of the land. In the case of Area C of the West Bank, for example, the Israeli military has eminent domain. Prior to 1996, Israel would build settlements on public lands, but post-1996, Israeli military has seized some of these public lands to expand the borders of existing settlements to include new neighborhoods. This method of seizing public lands to expand settlements is a major loophole around the building of new settlements (see: Winery Hill).

Back to the tour, our last major stop in the West Bank was another controversial neighborhood called Givat Ulpanah in Beit El, another Jewish settlement. Beit El was built in the 1970s completely on private Palestinian land under a military order that stated that the seizure was for a security need. In 1979, the Israeli Supreme Court said that building on private land in the West Bank was no longer legal, so Beit El was a huge exception to this rule (still under the military order). Ulpanah was recently built outside the borders of Beit El (so outside the lines of the land appropriated by the military order) on private land, making it illegal by Israeli law. There is a current Supreme Court case regarding the illegality of five of the buildings that are under construction in Ulpanah. A decision to demolish the five buildings is in place, but it won’t be acted upon until July 1, when the High Court is set to order the military to carry out the demolition.

Interestingly, legislation was brought forward in the Knesset to legalize the building of Givat Ulpanah. According to this legislation, if owners of the private land have not complained within the past four years or proved their ownership in that time, then these privately held lands are turned over to the new occupiers. This would mean that Givat Ulpanah would be the new legal owner of the land on which it is trying to build. This legislation did not pass in the end. Ministers in the coalition threatened to leave Netanyahu’s government over the issue of the legislation (i.e. if Netanyahu did not support it, they would leave the coalition), but Netanyahu challenged them to end their own power in government in exchange for a measure that wouldn’t pass, and all of the ministers who made these threats were “absent” from the vote on the legislation. In the end, they backed down and the settlement at Ulpanah was not made illegal. However, they ended up getting more than they bargained for, because the settlers in the west bank received benefits to make up for the failed legislation. As part of this benefits package, 850 new housing units were promised in the West Bank. It’s an interesting concession when you consider the failed legislation that led to its existence.

Once we saw Ulpanah, we started wrapping up our actual tour with Lior. Before heading for some delicious falafel at a small place that only sold falafel right by Hebrew University (I swear to God I’ve never seen anybody make and fry falafel balls so quickly in my life like I did at this restaurant), Lior made his final point. There is a blurring of the Green Line currently with the growth of settlements throughout the West Bank. The Israeli military in the area are responsible for “defending law and order” within the West Bank. Sometimes the come into conflict with the settlers, but more frequently conflicts occur between the military and the Palestinians. In any case, the main message of this tour was that the settlements are tearing apart any hope for a peace between Israel and Palestine. And I’ve got to say: if settlements continue to grow and infringe upon Palestinian land in the West Bank, we really won’t be able to reach a lasting agreement between Israel and Palestine.

After our tour of the West Bank settlements and lunch, we headed over to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and museum. I had been to Yad Vashem twice before – once with my family and once with NFTY in Israel, but I was really excited to see it now with such a diverse group of people with different backgrounds. Previously, I had only ever seen the memorial with those who were of Jewish descent and who had been educated quite thoroughly on the Holocaust before. Especially right after a controversial settlement tour of the West Bank, I was really looking forward to seeing a memorial to one of the largest catalysts of the creation of a Jewish state: the Holocaust.

I decided not to take a notebook with me into Yad Vashem. Something felt inorganic and wrong to me about trying to take down notes there. Since I had been there twice already, I knew most of the information that I would be hearing already anyway, so I chose to make this visit a more contemplative one than an academic experience. Reflecting on the afternoon, this was definitely the right choice. Not having a notebook in my hand allowed me to examine and listen with every ounce of attention that I had, which resulted in a really unique experience that was unlike my other two visits there.

This was the first time that I toured Yad Vashem with a tour guide who worked for the museum. She led the eight of us around the entire memorial, highlighting all of the most important exhibits and spots and providing some really intriguing commentary about the history and the museum, while bypassing other exhibits for the sake of time. (We ended up arriving a little bit later than we had expected, so we didn’t get as much time at the memorial as we originally hoped; luckily, I had seen the whole museum before so I was able to fill everyone in on what we missed). Throughout the tour, I found myself asking a lot of questions about the artifacts and history and also answering some questions for everyone else I was with.

Interestingly enough, the actual museum at Yad Vashem is set up so that you are travelling in a tunnel through time. Although the museum appears small, it can take hours to move through the whole thing as you wind around from exhibit to exhibit. The museum is designed in such a way that as you hit the more graphic and horrific sections, you are standing in the middle of this “time tunnel” at a point that is lower to the ground than where you started. I once had a conversation with a friend about which Holocaust museum I found more impactful – the Washington, DC memorial or Yad Vashem. Although the DC museum is quite symbolic as you start on the fourth floor and descend deeper and deeper into hell throughout the exhibits, I find Yad Vashem to be a much more disquieting and meaningful experience. The end of the museum is a huge glass vista that overlooks the Judean Hills and Jerusalem. The symbolism here is clear: you exit the horrors of the Holocaust into the beauty and the joy that is Israel for the Jewish people. However, as close as that final goal may seem, as near as you think you are to the Judean Hills and reaching a Jewish homeland, you keep getting sucked further and further down into this maze of depressing, dark, and horrendous history. It’s an experience unlike any other.

For me, it’s the same three exhibits that get me emotional every time I’ve been to Yad Vashem. Two of them sit right next to each other: a collection of confiscated shoes from a concentration camp and a clay model of the extermination gas chambers at Auschwitz. The first is presented in a simple enough manner: a collection of old shoes of all shapes, types, and sizes, men’s, women’s, and children’s, that are set below a pane of glass in the ground. These are the shoes that people wore as they entered the camps and would never again place on their feet. Among all the different artifacts that were collected and later retrieved from the camps, shoes are perhaps the most symbolic. Shoes are very personal items that often can reflect your style, your occupation, and your life. In this case, these particular shoes carried many people on their journey to death. Our tour guide explained that most of the time people walk around the glass that lies on top of the shoes, fearing that they will disturb the collection. I had been one of those people the past two visits I had at Yad Vashem. However, the exhibit was designed so that people would walk on the glass and look down at their feet among the collection of shoes, showing that it could have been any one of us who suffered the horrors of the Holocaust. Overall, an incredibly powerful image. The clay model of the gas chambers is pretty self-explanatory, but perhaps the most disturbing part of it are the small figurines of people lining up above ground, entering the chambers, undressing, and dying on top of one another in the extermination rooms. I think the imagery here is clear enough. You are watching a progression toward death in a very crude way.

The final exhibit that we visited just before leaving (and the third exhibit that always makes me emotional) was the Children’s Memorial.  Hollowed out of a dark cavern, the memorial is incredibly simple. A dark room filled with the light of only a few memorial candles that are “reflected infinitely” in mirrors that cover the walls and ceiling, the memorial was built by a donation from Abe and Edita Spiegel, whose son Uziel was killed at Auschwitz at the age of two and a half. There is a carving of Uziel right outside the entrance to the cavern before you are enveloped by darkness and the reflected candlelight that gives the illusion of thousands of stars. As you walk through the memorial, which takes less than a minute, names of children who were murdered in the Holocaust are read aloud from the Yad Vashem Pages of Testimony, along with their ages and countries of origin. It’s a grim, upsetting, and meaningful memorial, but one that really makes you consider just how horrific the Holocaust was.

When our stop at the Children’s Museum, we bid farewell to our tour guide and sat together on a wall within the compound just reflecting for a few minutes. It was clear that Yad Vashem had left its impression on everyone and had touched us all deeply. It was really interesting to see how people not of Jewish descent reacted and were moved by the museum. Then again, it’s a human emotional response to seeing horrific, inhumane, and evil events, so maybe it wasn’t so interesting after all. It didn’t matter what our religious affiliation was at that point, our political opinions, or anything. The Holocaust was a terrible event. Period. And it was important that here in Israel, a place so filled with politics and war and argument, we took a step back to recognize together a horrendous piece of Jewish history.

Of course, there are also political implications of the discussion of the Holocaust in Israel. Just the design of the museum alone begs a discussion about a Jewish homeland in Israel being the light at the end of a tunnel of horror for the Jews. This, of course, will lead into a discussion about the Holocaust being a reason for the creation of Israel as a Jewish state. But that’s exactly what it was: a single reason. A compelling one, yes. But the Holocaust is not the reason that Israel exists. Did it push the cause for Israel over the edge? Yes, and only a short while after the end of the Holocaust, Israel was founded. But is it fair to say that the Holocaust is the only reason Israel exists? I don’t believe so.

I think for all of us, seeing a very real depiction of one of the critical reasons for Israel’s creation put a lot of our meetings and the debate over Israel into perspective. The Jews were a battered people in need of a homeland, and that’s what Israel became – a homeland. Are there still issues with Israel? Yes. Are there human rights issues in Israel today that are difficult to reconcile when you consider the country’s foundation and the plight of the Jewish people? Yes. Does that mean that the Holocaust is any less horrible or that it’s less important to understand what happened during the Holocaust? Absolutely not. Israel is a country that is constantly in motion, evaluating and re-evaluating its policies and issues, trying to reconcile a treacherous and difficult history with a promising yet challenging future. I’ll be the first to say that Israel still has a long way to go in terms of reconciling these two things. But for me, the important thing is that Israel is on its way to making that reconciliation. Israel is trying. Israel is moving. Israel is dynamic. It is not a stagnant nation.

After a long day of politics, debate, discussion, emotion, and walking, we headed back to Rehavia to unwind a little bit for dinner. At around seven we walked to a nearby kosher Mediterranean tapas restaurant and shared a delicious meal of all sorts of fun small plates from duck to steak to fish. It’s always nice that at the end of a day, despite our differing opinions and ideas, the eight of us can all sit down at a table and just laugh and have a good time. Being a part of this group has showed me how essential it is to be able to laugh with friends and create strong relationships regardless of political views and opinions. Sometimes the best political arguments by day can happen between people who laugh louder together than you’ve ever heard in the evening. Anyway, we had a really fun meal together and the owner of the restaurant became our new best friend. By the end of the meal, he was having such a great time with us that he insisted on buying us all a round of Arak, a ridiculously strong alcohol that’s served in shot glasses with dry ice. The whole table looked like an ice cloud had descended upon us when he put the glasses down. We politely sipped our drinks and left to walk back to the hotel to get a good night sleep. Tomorrow we have a tour of the Old City with Avi Ben-Hur (who is on the faculty of the University of Haifa Tourism School) and a meeting with Aviva Raz Shechter, the Deputy Director General for the Middle East and Peace Process at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, so it’s going to be another challenging and interesting day. But hey, what day in the Middle East isn’t?

Safe Travels! – Jake

June 11, 2012: Tel Aviv, Israel, Herzliya, Israel, and Jerusalem, Israel

Laila Tov from Jerusalem, Israel! We covered a lot of ground today and met with some really fascinating people from a former Chief of Staff of the IDF to a former Mossad officer and current blog editor with some other great stuff in between. The two main topics of all of our conversations today seem to be Iran and Israel (with some Arab Spring implications and explanations thrown in, too), and the Israel-Palestinian Conflict. Since the discussions we had were so dense and full of information and opinions, I’m just going to jump right in and explain what we talked about. I’ll also share my own opinions along the way with some commentary per usual.

In our hotel in Tel Aviv, we got two rooms for the three boys, so Jake and Dillon made me take the single because I was the only one who shared the bed all three nights in Dubai. I woke up at around 8:30 (although I slept rather restlessly because I stupidly turned the AC off before bed because I was cold; I kept waking up covered in sweat), got ready for the day and met the girls upstairs for breakfast at around 9:15 AM. We ate breakfast fairly quickly (I had toast with Israeli chocolate sauce – my absolute favorite! I could probably down an entire jar by myself) and went back to our rooms to pack up and meet in the lobby for a 10:30 AM departure.

We had an 11:00 meeting scheduled with Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, the former Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, at his office. Mark thought that Amnon’s office was in the building where the two had most recently met only a few months ago, but it turns out that he had moved offices fairly recently and there was some sort of miscommunication that led to us having to drive half an hour around Tel Aviv to the new office to get to our meeting. Despite the fact that we were already half an hour late, Amnon was excited to be with us and share his thoughts, and even stayed an extra half hour with us to make up for the lost time.

Amnon got right down to business and started his discussion off with Iran, which has been the first priority of Israeli media (aside from domestic politics) for the last two to three years. According to Amnon, Israelis are convinced that the Iranians are deep in an effort to reach nuclear weapons (not just attain nuclear capabilities). This is because although the Iranian economy is down, huge amounts of money have been invested in attaining nuclear capabilities in Iran, which could signal a desire to harness these capabilities for weaponry. If this nuclear capability were to be used for nuclear power, this would be an entirely different story (and an understandable and acceptable one at that!). However, nuclear power does not require 20% enrichment, which the Iranians have recently reached. Instead, that number is a signal that Iran has more in mind then just nuclear energy power plants.

Iranians know how to make nuclear weapons. And they are harnessing the required nuclear enrichment to do so. So the question now becomes: Is Iran actually willing and serious to go through with a nuclear weapons program? Israeli intelligence says yes. The rise of nuclear capabilities, coupled with Ahmadinejad’s inflammatory comments that Israel has no right to exist, has left Israelis worried about Iran and Ahmadinejad’s declarations. With most of Israeli power and economy concentrated in a small 50-60 kilometer area, Israel “cannot afford his [Ahmadinejad’s] threat.” Not to mention that Iran supports the existing Syrian regime and sent weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, both of which have created problems in Israel.

Which brings us to a new series of question. At the top of the list: should Israel do something? Amnon argues that the real threat of Iran is not to Israel but to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, which are just as frightened by nuclear development in Iran as the Israelis, if not more. The difference is, though, that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf nations are not as ready as Israel to defend itself. So is trying to eliminate Iranian nuclear power worthwhile for Israel? What if it only defers the entire problem and doesn’t end it? Should the first priority be to avoid war? Nobody wants a war, but what’s at stake here? These are the important questions that are shaping the policy of Israel toward Iran, and right now their answers are rather unclear. But one thing is certain for Amnon (and I must say his argument is very appealing), who said that, “I hope there is no need for an Israeli attack or an international attack.” Whatever happens, Israel should not be the only country involved and bearing weight in this situation. The entire international community must pay attention to this issue, and if any sort of impact is to be made in Iran, then international sanctions must continue.

Once Amnon finished speaking about Iran, he started discussing the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (which I will from this point forward refer to as the IPC in an effort to save some typing time). Compared to 1995-1996 and 2000, we seem very far away from reaching any sort of concrete agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Every day, the political gap between the two groups is widening, as mistrust between the Israelis and the Palestinians grows as well. Without trust, nothing will ever happen.

With the gap widening and the need to reach an agreement growing each day, why is attention leaving the IPC? Why are we farther away today than we were only twelve years? Amnon points to three main reasons for the (hopefully temporary) abandonment of the IPC. First, Iran has become more of a priority in Israeli affairs than the IPC for the reasons I discussed above. Second, with the rise of the Arab Spring, attention is elsewhere within the region and no longer on the IPC. People are paying closer attention to places like Libya, Egypt, and Syria where revolutions are occurring and progress is occurring each day. On top of this, while there is Arab momentum throughout the region, there is no momentum in support of Palestine for the moment. People’s attention is simply concentrated on their own countries’ issues rather than those of the IPC. Finally, things in the area (Israel and Palestine) have been relatively quiet lately. And by that I mean there haven’t been any killings recently.

In addition to the abandonment of attention to the IPC, Amnon points to the divide between Hamas (which controls Gaza) and Fatah (which controls the PA in the West Bank) as bringing hope for a resolution to the IPC to a further standstill. Hamas is a terrorist organization in Gaza (see: bombings in Sder0t, etc.) with relatively low conventional capabilities. Life in Gaza (and Israel, too) is not normal. In the West Bank, there isn’t “normal” life either with severe limitations on movement throughout the area. However, the difference lies in the fact that people like PA President Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, and Salam Fayyad, Prime Minister of the PA, realize that they cannot gain anything by terror. So there’s clearly a discrepancy between Hamas’ approach and Fatah’s approach to reaching an agreement.

Amnon is not optimistic about any of the current prospects, but he feels that it is in pure Israeli interest to reach an agreement. While some think that a “one-state solution” might work (in which either Israel or Palestine becomes the sole nation on the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea), Amnon does not think this is feasible. The Palestinians will never give up their will to have a state. Neither will the Israelis. But one thing is for sure: the situation as it currently stands cannot last much longer without something happening. It’s clear that terror and counterterror cannot solve the problem, but the issue now is that the leadership on both sides is not strong enough to reach a lasting and meaningful agreement.

Which brings us to an entirely new issue: leadership and the Israeli political system and politics. I could write and discuss this for hours (and perhaps I will at some point in another post), but in order to understand the implications of the Israeli political system for the IPC, first you need to understand a few things about the system itself. The Israeli political system is very different from that in the United States. The Knesset, which is the parliamentary body of Israeli government, is composed of 120 members that represent about twelve to thirteen different parties. The existence of a multiparty system in Israel means that in order for anyone to receive a 61-vote majority in the Knesset, the parties need to form coalitions. In this “coalition government,” the highest vote-getting party is offered to form a coalition to reach the 61-vote threshold. If they are unable to do so, then the offer is extended to the next highest vote-getting party, and so on. This was actually the case in the most recent election in Israel where the Kadima party received 28 seats, beating out Likud, the right-moderate party, by only one seat. However, Kadima was unable to form a coalition, so Likud heads up the current coalition government and, until recently, Kadima (the largest party in the Knesset) was out of the coalition (more in that in a little bit).

As Amnon said, “Any coalition has to compromise.” But the problem is that the coalitions are not very stable. At any given moment, someone can leave the coalition, lowering the coalition to below the 61-vote threshold and creating a need for new elections and a turnover of the entire government. Today, however, the coalition is now at 94/120, which is incredibly large, because Kadima recently joined for a variety of political reasons that I’m not going to get into right now. This new expanded coalition allows for significantly more opportunities for dialogue with the Palestinians and eventually reaching an agreement. (A stronger coalition theoretically means more universal support for a plan that would be put in place by the existing government).

Despite the new, expanded coalition, though, the basic problems within the Israeli political system are still not solved, according to Amnon’s point of view. Amnon believes that the minimum required percentage of the vote a party must receive to be eligible to participate in government should be raised from the current 2% to 5%. The two party system cannot work in Israeli society simple because there are two many interests and groups represented within the current political framework (4 religious Jewish parties, 3 Arab parties, a Russian party, etc.), but a smaller number of parties in the government overall would theoretically allow for more stability and cohesiveness. The issue is that the largest parties (like Likud, Kadima, and Labor) are afraid to do anything because if a plan to change the requirement threshold like I discussed above is brought to the table and it fails, then they lose the support of all the small parties who feel that legislation like this hurts them and undermines democracy. The good news is that a new government committee was just created to bring new idea to change the government in the hopes that changes will bring about more stability in the Israel political system. Interestingly enough, Amnon feels that the public is either not full aware or indifferent to the changes in government as long as their daily life is undisturbed. For now, we’ll just have to see how the matter of Israeli domestic politics continues to play out in the IPC and, if the government does alter the existing political system, how it will affect negotiations in the region.

The final issue we discussed with Amnon was the issue of unilateral action in the IPC. Amnon firmly believes that unilateral action (as in the Israelis or the Palestinians seeking to make decisions regarding the IPC without a partner or the consent/approval of the other) in this conflict will not solve anything. As evidence, Amnon presented the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, saying that while it was good that Israel got out of Gaza, it solved absolutely nothing except give Hamas control over the area. Amnon believes that unilateral action is unnecessary, as he also thinks that Israel can reach an agreement with Abu Mazen. However, an agreement with Hamas is another story. Going quickly back to the Hamas and Fatah divide, is it possible that two Palestinian states could emerge (essentially creating a 3-state solution)? One under Fatah in the West Bank and one under Hamas in Gaza? Amnon says no. If Israel were to reach an agreement with Fatah in the West Bank, then Gaza will want to receive the benefits of statehood as well and will join with Fatah in a two-state solution. Amnon believes that if free elections occurs in Gaza, the population will vote for whoever they feel can offer them a better future, and this point, that’s Fatah. One thing is for certain in this mess, though. A solution can only be reached through dialogue. And, hey, isn’t that why the six of us are here in the first place? Only through dialogue can we reach a lasting peace.

I’m now going to fast forward a few hours so I can provide you with a second narrative on both Iran and the IPC that we received only a few hours after our meeting with Amnon Lipkin-Shahak. When we finished with Amnon in Tel Aviv, we headed up to IDC Herzliya, a small private university just north of Tel Aviv, where we were schedule to meet with a couple of people. The final person we met with at IDC was Yossi Alpher, a former Mossad officer and current producer and editor of the bitterlemons.net, a series of online publications that reflect a joint Palestinian-Israeli effort to promote a civilized exchange of views about the Israeli-Arab conflict and other prevalent issues in the Middle East. Interestingly enough, Alpher opened his discussion with us by explaining that there would be no new posts on bitterlemons because they lost funding from governments and philanthropic organizations that previously supported the project, and it is also increasingly difficult to get people from the Arab world to write given the current political climate. The fact that bitterlemons has lost its funding is indicative of the fact that donors funding dialogue, especially for the IPC, are becoming frustrated because it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what they have accomplished. In any case, check out bitterlemons. It’s a really great collection of writing and is a nice way to learn about important issues in the Middle East in a short and interesting way.

Anyway, Alpher jumped right into a discussion on Iran to begin the afternoon. Alpher believes that Iran is actively seeking to expand its influence wherever there are Shiites of proto-Shiites in the Middle East (or Sunnis willing to jump ship and support the Iranians). Iran is on Israel’s borders in Lebanon (by the transitive property: Iran supports Hezbollah, Hezbollah is in Lebanon, and Lebanon is on Israel’s borders), and so Iran is a growing concern to Israel. Most Israelis in security don’t feel that Iran will bomb Israel directly, but the larger issue at hand is the clout and influence that a nuclear Iran will play throughout the Middle East in countries like Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, and Iraq (interestingly enough, the same countries that Alpher pointed to as being more at risk than Israel if Iran were to have nuclear weapons).

Alpher then expanded the conversation to include not just Iran but the greater Arab world. He discussed the implications of the Arab Spring in the region and Israel’s responses to this revolutionary period. Essentially, Alpher narrowed down Israel’s responses to the Arab Spring into two categories. The first type of response is Netanyahu’s “keep your powder dry” method, in which Israel is cautious and avoids new initiatives during this time, choosing to wait out the Arab Spring before it continues forward with its own policy agenda. This method has been in Turkey and in Saudi Arabia with mixed results. In Turkey, which held a “zero problems strategy” at its borders, there are now problems on all of its borders. Turkey has said that they are an example of how Islam and democracy can coexist, which has boosted Turkey’s reputation and made them popular among the revolutions, but still, Turkey was unable to keep the Spring out. In Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, a “zero revolution strategy” at its borders, in which the Saudis refuse to let any of the revolutions of the time affect their internal structure, has allowed the country to inject money and armies into Jordan, Bahrain, Yemen, and other countries to ensure their own welfare. The second type of response, promulgated by Peres and Barak, says that Israel must continue talking about the peace process so that it can start to form strong relations with the new leadership in these countries. This, however, is the minority opinion between the two views.

Nevertheless, Israel has cautiously chosen to side with the Syrian revolutionaries amidst the ongoing struggle in Syria (see: current massacres and devastation throughout Syria in any credible news publication). And here’s where this all ties back into Iran for Alpher. Assad is a symbol of Iran in the region, and pushing him (and the Alewites) out of Syria will lead to a weakening of Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon. However, if Assad is removed from power, who replaces him? Presumably, it’s the Muslim Brotherhood, but they won’t necessarily be friends of Israel either. The Brotherhood refuses to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist and nobody in the Brotherhood is prepared to meet with Israel in an official capacity.  If the Brotherhood also comes to power in Egypt, then there is the risk of a downgrade in the Egypt-Israel peace as well.  The peace with Egypt has allowed Israel to reduce its defense budget and boost Israel’s economy. If the Brotherhood comes to power, Israel’s economic prosperity could all go down the drain. So what would happen if the Brotherhood in Syria? The answer is: we don’t know yet. At least that’s my answer. Only time will tell here. But the bottom line, from Alpher’s view, is that Israel had been sitting on the fence for a while, but that’s starting to change now. It’s taking action and making decisions regarding whom to support in the tumultuous political struggles throughout the region.

Once we finished discussing Iran, we moved onto the IPC. In contrast with Amnon’s dovish and hopeful views on the conflict, Alpher is incredible pessimistic. Alpher believes that nothing will happen between Netanyahu and Abu Mazen, and part of this is because nobody in the United States is rushing to help solve the IPC any more as the Middle East agenda is focusing on Iran and the Arab Spring instead. With the change of agenda, no institutional or educational sources are prepping a new administration in Washington for the IPC, and the political risk of getting involved in the conflict during an election year is too large.

Alpher firmly believes that “without serious American intervention, seriously nothing can happen.” Netanyahu’s party and coalition won’t give up the West Bank, and Netanyahu has learned how to manipulate the American and Israeli political scene. But his solutions are short-term and he continues to allow settlements in the West Bank (which is definitely not helping if Israel is to reach an agreement with the Palestinians any time soon). At this point, Abu Mazen understands that he will never receive as comprehensive an offer as Olmert’s 2008 plan from Netanyahu or any other Israeli leader in the near future. So where does that leave us?

Alpher thinks that we need a new peace paradigm (along the lines of Oslo) that does not try to agree on every single issue on the table at once. Essentially, Alpher believes there are two sets of issues on the table that are difficult to reconcile. The first set, the post-1967 issues such as borders, settlers, and security agreements, is possible to reach an agreement upon and is relatively easy when compared to the second set. The pre-1967 issues, on the other hand, which include larger ideological issues such as right of return, refugees, and whom the land truly belongs to, are downright impossible to reach an agreement on. “Just getting to the table,” as United States Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta advocated, will not work in Alpher’s opinion. Neither will Blair’s idea that the outline of the solution is understood already and that both parties simply need to confirm it. On top of this, Washington has failed to acknowledge that there could be a Palestinian state already if only the post-1967 issues are taken into account. So essentially, Alpher believes that a decisive agreement can be reached if the post-1967 issues alone, and not everything all at once, are the issues put on the negotiating table. Once both sides are recognized, then we can start to talk about the pre-1967 issues like the Temple Mount and the right of return. But having a conversation about a two-state solution only talking about the post-1967 issues and leaving the pre-1967 issues on the table, despite it being Alpher’s best hope for a peace plan, seems difficult at best and in his opinion will take a whole other generation to sort out. (I guess that means us!)

Perhaps the most important part of Alpher’s argument is that Israel and Palestine cannot reach an agreement alone (see: Alpher’s op-ed in the New York Times on the IPC). A majority of people in Israel and Palestine would support a two-state solution and are starting to soften up on the issue. Alpher also agrees with Amnon that unilateral decision-making here won’t work. For Alpher, though, this is because there’s simply not enough political will on both sides to reach any unilateral decision.

In terms of the Fatah (PA) and Hamas divide and how a possible Israel/Fatah reconciliation might affect Hamas, Alpher forwarded two different views. The first view is that Hamas today is where the PLO was fifty years ago, and if reconciliation were to happen now between Israel and Fatah, then Hamas would jump in and want to receive the benefits of a two-state solution as well. The second view (which Alpher leans towards) is that Hamas comes from the Muslim Brotherhood and thus will never recognize Israel in any capacity. As a result, Hamas will either be left out entire or a three-state situation would emerge (as I already discussed and which Amnon said would never happen, in his opinion). Gaza is clearly a key piece in these negotiations, but Israel refuses to talk to Hamas and vise versa. Not to mention that if Israel did talk to Hamas, then it would be undermining Abu Mazen’s authority and power, which could also be a backwards move. So again, we have a big mess.

Unlike Amnon, Alpher does not the Israeli domestic political system and politics shifting at all. He believes that there is no revolutionary change that could make a huge difference in the process at this point and that there is no strong Israeli leader on the horizon. At this point, only a third party leader from an external government (like the United States) could help settle this issue. There is no doubt that the IPC needs to be solved sooner rather than later. Indeed, as Alpher suggested, if Israel does not solve this issue soon then it is liable to pay two heavy prices: it’s status as a Jewish and democratic state, and making the Palestinian issue a renewed rallying point for the Islamist movement.

I think it’s really important that we understand that there is not just one narrative on each side of this conflict. There are many different opinions on all sides of the conflict, and I have tried to provide you with two of these narratives as I have understood them. Personally, I lean more towards Amnon Lipkin-Shahak’s dovish, optimistic narrative than Alpher’s more pessimistic view of the situation which, in my opinion, places too much blame and importance on the rise of “political Islam” and the Brotherhood, as well as the desperate need for a third party. I do think that a third party is needed to broker a final agreement, but I’m a little more optimistic than Alpher seemed to be about the entire conflict. But that’s just my opinion, another narrative among the many. Take from it what you will and draw up your own conclusions and narratives. After all, dialogue and debate are, as I see it, the only way we can move forward.

But I don’t want to leave you thinking that the Middle East is all one big mess! I also think that it’s critical that aside from all the conflict and struggle occurring here, there is also great innovation, development, and growth. Sometimes, with the prevalence of war and struggle in traditional media, we forget that the Middle East is also a place where some incredible things happen. Which is why I am so glad that our first speaker at IDC Herzliya, immediately prior to Yossi Alpher, was Michal Divon, the Public Relations Chair for a really awesome website called NoCamels.com that I highly recommend you check out.  NoCamels is a website that covers Israeli innovations in technology, health, environment, and social awareness (essentially everything that traditional media doesn’t). NoCamels “highlights local solutions to global problems,” and is written by twenty top students at IDC who travel all around Israel to find cutting-edge innovations and write about them. They have partnership with major publications in Israel such as the Jerusalem Post, but their main audience is foreign journalists and they try to make sure that the majority of their readers come from outside of Israel. If you have a second, please go take a look! It’s a great site with a great mission and I truly feel that it highlights some shining moments in the Middle East in a time of conflict and revolution throughout the area.

After our meeting with Yossi Alpher, we got on the bus in Herzliya and headed straight for Jerusalem. I was so exhausted from our conversations that day that I fell asleep almost immediately on the bus and woke up just as we were approaching Abu Ghosh, a small Arab Israeli town right outside of Jerusalem that has some delicious, authentic restaurants. Every time I’ve been to Israel, I have visited Abu Ghosh for a meal. Mark suggested that we have dinner at a well-known Lebanese restaurant in the town, and so we stopped for a fun meal of hummus, pita, falafel, kebabs, and about a thousand other dishes until we were completely full. We finished our drive to our little hotel in Jerusalem (which is literally called the “Little House”) and all checked into our final rooms on the trip. It seems so weird that we’ve reached the last destination on our journey. Of course, we still have a lot to look forward to in Israel and in Ramallah when we go visit on Friday, but there’s definitely a sense of the end drawing near. But I won’t get all nostalgic on you just yet. Anyway, our hotel is in a great neighborhood only a short walking distance from some of the important spots in Jerusalem including the Old City, Ben Yehuda Street, and the Knesset. We weren’t quite ready to turn in on our first night in Jerusalem (and it was still on the early side at around 9:30 PM), so the six of us decided to take a walk over to the Knesset and check it out. Of course, at that time of night it was closed, but the building was lit up beautifully with blueish-purple lights and the walk was really nice – only about 20 minutes there and a little shorter on the way back (which is downhill). I’m glad we went out for a little adventure, though!

So that’s June 11, 2012 for you! Three cities, two narratives, and one whole lot of information to process. Stay tuned for tomorrow, when I’ll get to talk about my experience driving around in the West Bank through checkpoints and to the Jewish settlements there for the first time, followed by my third visit to Yad Vashem. But for now, it’s time to get some sleep. It’s going to be a busy day tomorrow.

Safe Travels! – Jake

P.S. This post was completed and posted on June 13, 2012 but concerns events that took place on June 11, 2012. This is the post that was partially erased last night (June 12, 2012), but thanks to the wonderful detective work of Shereen, I was able to find a draft copy saved on the WordPress server and start over from there. I’ll be playing catch-up with blog posts for the next few days, but I promise that as soon as I have a post finished, I’ll have it up it for you all to see! Thanks for your love and support throughout this entire project. I’m loving every second of it.

June 11-12, 2012: A Work in Progress, and New Pictures are Live!

Okay, so it’s 1:00 AM now in Jerusalem and I am absolutely exhausted. I’m about to head to bed, but I need to explain to you where my blog posts from the past 2 days are before I leave you hanging for a third day. About two minutes ago, I was putting the finishing touches on a rather lengthy post about our day on June 11 with Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and Yossi Alpher discussing Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict when the entire post erased itself from the website and this was the one post that I didn’t copy and save into and Word document and I can’t get it back anywhere. (I wish I was kidding, but instead I am sitting in my bed in Jerusalem basically hyperventilating that my hours of work are now for naught).

Luckily, it won’t be too difficult to recreate everything that I wrote because I have really in-depth notes on the issue, but it’ll take a little bit of time for me to rewrite everything and get it up on the blog. So bear with me for a little bit – it’s  a work in progress but I promise that by tomorrow night you’ll have something substantive to read again. Trust me: I’m more frustrated right now than you can imagine.

In the meantime, I loaded some new pictures up (so click away on the sidebar for some great snapshots of the trip)! I’m having a great time and I can’t wait to fill you all in on the incredible stuff we’ve been doing. Thank you for being so patient and understanding; I love you all.

Safe Travels! – Jake

June 9-10, 2012: Dubai, UAE, Amman, Jordan, and Tel Aviv, Israel

Erev tov m’Tel Aviv! Good evening from Tel Aviv! I’ve been here in Israel for about five hours (but actually for closer to seven and half hours – more on that in a little bit). It’s just about midnight and I’m finally getting a chance to settle down after a long day of travel from Dubai to Tel Aviv. Since today was entirely a travel day, I don’t have a ton to report on, but I still owe you a report on my day yesterday, June 9, 2012, in Dubai!

It was an early morning for us on June 9, 2012 because we had a 9:30 AM meeting at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding in Old Dubai. Jake and I dragged ourselves out of bed at around 7:50 AM to make it downstairs for breakfast (Dillon chose to sleep in a bit – he definitely had the right idea), and after shoveling breakfast down our throats with Shareen, we still had about 15 minutes to spare before meeting up with everyone in the lobby at 8:50 AM. We left at around 9:00 AM for the Cultural Center and arrived about twenty minutes later to a small house in a cute little traditional neighborhood that looked pretty out of place next to the skyscrapers that dominated the skyline behind it. But still, it was pretty cool to see a small pocket of traditional Emirati culture in the midst of developing Dubai.

We headed into the house to meet our tour guide for the first part of the morning around Old Dubai, which is also called the Bastikia. While there are a little over 52 houses in Old Dubai remaining, only one of the original families from the area remains. Today, the government in Dubai protects the original homes and restored them after people left. The homes are now being used as museums, restaurants, hotels, and galleries in an effort to enliven the area and preserve it. The entire neighborhood is made of two types of homes: one kind made entirely of stone, and the other (called “Barasti houses”) are made entirely of palm fronds. The neighborhood presents an interesting contrast to the heavy modernization of nearby downtown Dubai and provides a look into simpler life in the area where alleyways served as wind tunnels to create cool air and shade, windows were small and high to let in wind and maintain privacy, and courtyards were build inside house to allow natural light to enter. It’s a really great experience and I highly recommend checking it out if you’re ever in Dubai. It’s nice to see another side of the city.

After our tour of the neighborhood, we visited the Mosque at the Centre for a discussion with Nasif Kayed, the General Manager of the program. I guess I should back up a little first and explain what the Centre does. The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding is an organization that “strive[s] to bring different cultures closer together promoting mutual understanding and acceptance.” Their motto is “Open doors. Open minds.” The Centre provides presentations on Islam and helps to facilitate cultural discovery and tolerance in Dubai. They also provide services to new foreign nationals in the country, such as Arabic classes and other assimilation seminars. Check them out online at www.cultures.ae.

Anyway, we had a really interesting discussion with Nasif at the Mosque, who stressed the importance of piety and maintaining a commitment to religion in Islam. A lot of what he told us about Islam and its central messages, practices, and traditions we had already heard at the many other mosques we have visited, but our talk with Nasif was about to come markedly different. Somehow, we ended up on the issue of LGBT rights and Islam’s view on the LGBT community. Let me begin this by saying that the views reflected by Nasif in no way shape or form reflect the views of the entire global Muslim community, and to imply that they do would be wrong and immoral. However, the conversation that all of us had on this subject was definitely interesting.

I read a book entitled Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East by Brian Whitaker for Professor Sharkey’s class first semester. The book provides an analysis of the treatment of and views on the LGBT community throughout the Arab and Muslim world. In the process of reading the book, I got so angry at several points that I ended up chucking the book across the room and venting about my anger during our next class period. As a bit of a loud-mouthed liberal (who still can maintain social boundaries and respect others’ views), I was excited when this conversation came up in the mosque, as it was totally unexpected. However, I found myself getting progressively frustrated more than anything else throughout the talk. I kind of felt like in talking about the LGBT community, we were kind of avoiding the entire topic at hand. Let me explain.

In Islam, public display of affection of any kind is not allowed, be it between a man and a woman, two men, or two men. Personal preference, desire, and affection are personal, meaning they concern only you and your partner and thus should be kept private. Alright, I understand that. Normally my response would be: okay, so it’s not that the LGBT community is being put down while other heterosexual couples can flaunt their relationships in front of everyone else – this is, rather, an issue of privacy and all partners, regardless of their sexual orientation, keeping their thoughts and affections private. However, the entire conversation ended up turning on itself with small comments thrown in there that suggested that in some Muslim communities, the LGBT community, regardless of the fact that nobody can publicly display affection, is not necessarily supported even if they are keeping relations private. Being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered was discussed as if it were a “choice” that a person could make, and I almost got the impression that some in the Muslim world think that maybe an LGBT person could just choose to not be gay, as if it were only phase or a small moment in time, but that eventually they would find their way back to heterosexuality. Now, none of this was explicitly said in that manner. Rather, comments like “If someone chooses to be gay…” and “Nobody will bother you about your choice…” somehow crept into conversation. The talk ended with Nasif saying something along the lines of: “If God has a problem with the LGBT community, then why has nothing been done to them yet? Why has God not struck them with lightening if God has the power to take and give life?” I understood the sentiment (which kind of reminded me of the concept of b’tzelem elohim in Judaism, which says that everybody is made in God’s image, often used, including by me, as a Jewish textual support for the LGBT community), but still the whole conversation left me with this weird feeling.

Of course, this is an issue that does not only effect Islam. It’s in every religion, including Judaism and Christianity. It’s certainly a prevalent topic right now in the United States, with states fighting about LGBT rights and same-sex marriage constantly, and throughout the world. I just found it interesting that here I am, a Jewish guy from New York in the middle of Dubai, UAE, having a discussion with a man who runs a Centre for Cultural Understanding in a Mosque. Just take a moment to take that all in it. It’s kind of a powerful thought. But I couldn’t have been more glad that Nasif and all of us were able to have this discussion. Although I felt the issue was circumvented rather than address completely, it was still addressed, which is always a step in the right direction. We should be having discussion and not be afraid to speak up for what we believe in. For me, it ended up being speaking up for LGBT rights in a mosque in Dubai. But hey, how many people can say that something like that happened to them too? All good life experiences.

After the Mosque, we went back to the Cultural Centre’s main house for a lovely homemade Arabic lunch with lots of chicken, lamb, rice, chickpeas, and, of course, coffee and dates. Everything was delicious, and we got to continue our talk with Nasif for a little longer over lunch. This time we changed gears from Islam to the United Arab Emirates and got to ask some of our questions about the relationship between Islam and the developing UAE and the role that the Emirati vs. foreign national population dynamic plays in the country.

According to Nasif, everything in the UAE is currently changing with the expansion of wealth, trade, and industry. Everything happened so quickly (keep in mind, the country was founded only in 1971, and before that Dubai and Abu Dhabi were nothing like they are today – image desert and small villages where great modern cities now stand) and now people are trying to reconcile their lives with the new, modern country they live in. When I asked how the material wealth in the UAE has affected people’s practice of Islam in the country, Nasif shared that he felt that it is a struggle to reconcile the two, but that the youth are definitely starting to create a new culture that merges both, which I found to be rather refreshing. Nasif also spoke about “Emiratization,” a term that Gian used as well to talk about giving advantage to Emiratis in society and helping them to get more jobs (and more important and prevalent ones at that) and become a larger part of the community. Nasif felt that it was an obligation within the country to push Emirati employment so that Emiratis could grow with their country rather than shrink in size as a minority while the country continues to expand. I definitely understand the Emirati need to keep up with their developing country; after all, if they want to keep the city and the country distinctly Emirati, then they need to be an important part of its economics and development. It was just interesting to hear Nasif, an Emirati, talk about this so openly because one could draw parallels between Emiratization and “affirmative action” in the United States, which is pretty highly contested and controversial. But this almost seemed like a no-brainer to Nasif, and I get why. He’s a proud Emirati, and like Gian said, Emiratis are some of the proudest people around when it comes to their heritage and background.

After our lunch, we left the Centre and headed out for Dubai Souk. Again, being in the Souk was a completely different experience from being out in the city center of Dubai because rather than being surrounded by the huge skyscrapers and commerce that you see downtown, in the Souks, you see small shops trying to sell you every little trinket imaginable. It wasn’t, however, like the Muttrah Souk in Muscat, Oman that we visited, with small alleyways with little booths selling the wares. Rather, it felt more like busy main streets crowded with small storefronts that were run not by local Emiratis but rather by local foreign nationals. At one point, Shereen even commented, “Wow, I feel more like I’m in India right now than Dubai.” She was right; it was a little strange to see a Souk, which you normally connect with local craftsman and merchants, run and managed by people who were not local. The boys and girls split from each other so that the girls could go handbag shopping or something like that, and Jake, Dillon, and I went around looking for small souvenirs and “keffiyeh and egal” sets (the red and white patterned headscarves with the black rings around the head that many Arab men wear). Our shopping efforts, however, were unsuccessful, in part because we didn’t see anything we liked, and in part because we were so overwhelmed by the number of times men kept coming up to us on the street saying, “Do you want copy watches? I have Rolex, Omega, Tag Heuer…” We heard that sentence so many times, at one point I almost turned to a guy who asked me “Do you want copy watches?” and responded “Do you have Rolex, Omega, and Tag Heuer like everyone else?!” But I refrained and just kept enjoying being in the Souk. We went back to the bus at around 2:30 PM to drive over to the Dubai Mall and the Burj Khalifa for the rest of the afternoon, and by the time I got back to my bus, I literally had soaked through the button-down I was wearing with sweat from my backpack and the crazy heat. Luckily I had a huge bottle of water and I dried off quickly in the AC.

We drove over to the Dubai Mall and got caught in a little bit of the Dubai city center traffic on the way there. We had a 4:00 PM reservation to go to the “At the Top” Burj Khalifa observation deck, so by the time we had actually figured out where to park at the mall, we only had about 40 minutes to actually get into the mall and look around before heading to the Burj. It took us nearly the whole time to figure out how to get into the mall (which is colossal), and once we were inside, we were so overwhelmed by the sheer volume of stores and different directions you could go and things you could buy that we decided to head straight for the entrance to the “At the Top” Burj Khalifa experience. We walked around the waiting area for a little, which featured a bunch of interactive screens with all the fun facts and information about the building, as well as a huge Lego recreation of it (so cool!). Then, at 4:00 PM, we started heading up to the observation deck.

The Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world as well as the tallest structure and the tallest free-standing structure. For more information on the Burj, check out www.burjkhalifa.ae. We jumped into the elevator and zoomed up the 124 floors to the observation deck (which was not even close to the top of the entire building) much closer than I imagined, and suddenly the doors opened up on huge floor-to-ceiling glass windows overlooking all of Dubai and revolving doors out to the exterior observation deck. It was much cooler way up in the clouds than it was on the ground once we were out on the deck, and it was a gorgeous day! Although it was a bit hazy, which made it difficulty to see things really far into the distance, we were able to see Dubai in all its glory as well as the desert stretching out in every direction from the building and the Dubai waterfront. It was absolutely stunning. And of course, I got some great pictures up there! There was even the famed Gold ATM at the top of the building, which was pretty cool, too. The Burj was really fantastic and I’m glad I got the chance to experience it (considering the fact that, despite that I am a born and bred New Yorker, I’ve never been to the top of the Empire State Building). I think its a wonderful symbol of the transformation of Dubai into a city of great wealth and commerce from nothing in the desert, and you can literally see the progression of desert to bustling city all from the top of the building.

After the Burj, we had about an hour and half two wander around the mall, and so again we broke into two groups – the girls and the guys. Jake, Dillon, and I barely had enough time to cover about half of the ground in the mall, and that’s without going into very many stores at all. We started in the Arabian Court first, because we still wanted to get the “keffiyeh and egal” sets that I talked about earlier, and luckily we found a nice souvenir shop that sold the Emirati version for pretty cheap (only about 54 dirhams, which is a little more than $10). Dillon got a really nice one, though, from a store next door that was the Arabic equivalent to Men’s Warehouse. It was actually pretty cool. After we did some souvenir and gift shopping, we tried to see as much of the mall as we could. We wandered around for the next hour or so, taking in all the high-end shops (seriously, every brand name and label you could ever image in your wildest dreams is in the Dubai Mall), drooling at the Sega Arcade, food courts, and gelato stands throughout, and seeing the many landmarks within the mall, including the world-record winning fish tank at the Dubai Aquarium, the Grand and Star Atriums, the Waterfall, and the famed Dubai Fountain. Everything was amazing. The sheer amount of wealth that went into this project can’t even be described fully – you just need to see it for yourself (so I captured it in a bunch of pictures). It’s truly unreal. In order to really shop the mall, you need at least a full 10-hour day, possibly a golf cart, and an unlimited supply of cash. You could go crazy in that mall. Their ad campaign is literally “Dubai Mall: Everything you could ever desire.” And it’s true! The Dubai Mall has everything. It could be one of the Wonders of the World. It’s that impressive. And also another great symbol of the influence of foreign nationals and wealth in Dubai; almost all of the stores represented were foreign brands, and the wealth is evident in every hallway and crevice of that mall.

After I grabbed some original tart and black currant frozen yogurt with strawberries, raspberries, and chocolate crunches (not a surprise at all) for 30 dirhams (okay, maybe I overpaid a little, but it was quite possible the best frozen yogurt I’ve ever had), we met up with the rest of the group and started heading back out to the bus (which took 15 more minutes) and then back to the hotel. Once we got there, we were all exhausted from a long day of walking around Old Dubai, the Souks, the Burj, and the Mall. We had the night on our own anyway because Aaron and Mark had to catch up on some work, so Jake, Dillon, and I decided to stay in and order some delicious room service and just relax and do nothing for our last night in Dubai. It was the best decision ever. We sat and watched CSI and Criminal Minds while pigging out on two pasta dishes that Jake and I shared that were delicious (Penne Arrabbiata and Farfalle with Grilled Vegetables and Pesto), a bunch of appetizers, and some chocolate cake and tiramisu. A perfectly indulgent end to our visit to the Emirates. It was so nice to have nothing to do but just sit around and lounge a little, just talking about our lives and laughing and watching ridiculous crime-scene television dramas. We had a really fun evening just doing nothing, and we even got to bed a little earlier than we usually do!

All in time to wake up for our rather uneventful (at least at first) day of travel this morning. I packed all of my bags last night so that in the morning we could wake up at around 9:00 AM, be down at breakfast by 9:30, and be ready to leave the hotel at 10:00 AM. After we ate and checked out (oh, by the way, did I mention how fantastic the breakfast buffet at the Sheraton Dubai Creek is? They had everything I love from fresh eggs to toast and Nutella to turkey bacon and pancakes. Yum.), we jumped on our huge coach bus that we’d be traveling around for the past couple of days (for only the eight of us – how’s that for over-consumption) and headed for the Dubai International Airport. We flew threw check-in and security and even had some time to kill in the terminal before our gate opened for 1:00 PM flight from Dubai to Amman. Jake and I looked around some of the duty-free gift shops and the food court a little before going to board the plane at noon and make sure that Royal Jordanian had our frequent flyer information (don’t want to miss out on any miles! And RJ is a oneworld airline, so that means American Airlines miles!). The flight from Dubai to Amman was a little over three hours long and pretty uneventful. I listened to music, slept a little, and then ended up watching “The Vow” with Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum because the woman in front of me was watching it and it was bugging me that I was basically watching the whole thing without any sound.

Anyway, we got to Amman, Jordan early, meaning we should have had more time than we originally expect for our 4:15 PM connecting flight to Tel Aviv (in case you’re keeping track of time, Amman is an hour behind Dubai). However, the RJ Transfers desk in the terminal was ridiculously inefficient, and we stood in line from around 3:00 PM until around 3:30 without moving anywhere basically when Mark heralded us to the front of the line. The entire RJ staff, it seemed, was now frantically trying to get us all ticketed in time and to the gate, because the flight was leaving in 45 minutes, meaning the gate would close in 30, and we still needed to get through security. We were pumping through everybody’s passports and tickets pretty quickly at this point until we realized that Jake was booked on a different flight much later that day from Amman into Tel Aviv. After a brief moment of panic (read: Jake was totally fine but Mark looked like he was about to punch someone in the face), they got Jake re-ticketed and quickly hustled over through security and down to our gate to get on the shuttle to our plane. We hopped on the shuttle with time to spare and hopped on the small airplane that would take us on the 25-minute flight from Amman to Tel Aviv.

I pretty much slept through the entire flight to Tel Aviv, because I fell asleep right as we were taking off and woke up about five minutes before our final descent. We waited on the runway at Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv for about five minutes because another plane was at our gate, and finally we disembarked and started heading toward passport control and baggage claim.

The second we landed in Israel, I was immediately happy to be there and see all the Hebrew around me and be back in a country to which I feel a very deep connection. As a Reform Jew from New York, I truly do feel that Israel is a second homeland of sorts for me. Albeit, a very contested and imperfect homeland with frustrating realities, but still, a homeland. My Hebrew kicked in immediately and I felt an immense need to read everything that I saw and say hello to every Israeli I encountered. As we started walking toward passport control, I started to get a little anxious about the group: two Jews, two Christians, two Muslims, and our two guides. What if some of us got separated and questioned? Will they let us all through without problem because we were a group? Mark asked me if I would get in line right before Sundus, who is an Egyptian Muslim (but an American citizen, too), and see if I could emphasize that we were all together. Mark got at the head of the line so that he could explain to the passport agent that we were all together on a study tour, hoping that the introduction and explanation might help alleviate any challenges that passport control in Israel might normally present.

Mark got through almost immediately. Jake was next up in line, and it was only a matter of seconds after he said “Shalom” to the woman behind the counter that he had is stamped passport in his hand ready to go. Then I went up, said a friendly “Shalom” to the passport agent as well, and within maybe ten seconds she had looked through my passport, found the page with the existing stamp from my NFTY in Israel trip, and stamped a new Ben Gurion International Airport entry visa in right next to it. So all three of the Jewish guys made it through in a total of about three minutes, I believed. That’s also about where it stopped being so easy, though. Sundus was next and got flagged for further passport control questioning despite Mark’s attempt to explain that she was a student and that it was unnecessary. Talene and Dillon, the two Christians, didn’t have much trouble at all and joined me and Jake as we waited for the rest of the group for baggage claim. Shereen, the other Muslim of Pakistani descent, was also flagged for further questioning, and next thing we knew, Mark was taking the two of them, with a passport and immigration officer, over to the mysterious questioning area while the other four of us and Aaron were charged with the task of finding and gathering everyone’s luggage and waiting for them to be cleared.

Well we waited. And waited. And waited. And I got hungry and bought myself some Bisli from the vending machine (I really do think that Bisli tastes better in Israel, although the machine was out of pizza flavor – my favorite!). And Talene bought some Bamba. And we just kept waiting. One hour. Two hours. We had landed at 4:45 PM and it was now around 7:15 PM. Where were they?!

Finally, Mark, Shereen, and Sundus cleared through immigration to baggage and joined us. Mark seemed annoyed and frustrated, and Shereen and Sundus just seemed tired. We gave them their luggage and asked what had happened, what kinds of things they were asked, etc. None of us really wanted to push it because at this point they were so tired and it’s pretty much a huge downer way to start a trip to Israel (nothing says “Welcome!” like interrogation at border control), but they told us that basically after waiting for a pretty long time, there were just asked a whole series of questions about their families and their lives and what they were doing in Israel. As appreciative as I am that Israeli security is so thorough and strict, this entire situation made me feel awkward and uncomfortable. As a Jew and supporter of Israel, to see two very harmless friends of mine so tired and subjected to profiling was disheartening and not my idea of showing them my homeland. They are students with a study tour with no reason to be flagged except their names, both of which are of Arabic descent. I understand Israeli security policy, I really do. And I get that this is for all of our safety and the safety of Israel and her people. But the two plus hours that Sundus and Shereen went through to prove that they were students with a study tour was completely unnecessary. Their cases deserved fifteen minutes at most, not two hours. It definitely presented a rough start to our time here.

We left the airport and drove to Tel Aviv to check into our hotel, Hotel Gilgal. It’s only a few blocks from the beach and the Mediterranean Sea, which you can see from right outside my window! We drove into Tel Aviv from a rather weird angle, I think, because we came through a pretty gross neighborhood before pulling into the beautiful waterfront neighborhood that we’re in now. But as we were driving, the sun was setting over Tel Aviv and it was absolutely beautiful. Everything from the past two hours seemed to kind of drift away in the Israel sunset (poetic, I know). It was beautiful.

Once we were all checked in at the hotel, we started walking over to the beach for dinner at one of the restaurants along the boardwalk of sorts on the beach. I suddenly realized that I knew where I was and recognized a restaurant that I had been to in 2007 with my cousins who live in Israel and my family, a cute place called Cafe Metzada with delicious food that’s right on the boardwalk. I mentioned to the group that I actually had been here before and it was delicious (from what I could remember of it, anyway), and after ruling out another restaurant that Mark had been to recently, we decided to stay at Metzada for dinner! We all shared some salads to start and I had an absolutely delicious shakshuka, a kind of castiron pan filled with cooked tomatoes, poached eggs, basil, and feta cheese. Look it up on line, it’s absolutely one of the most fantastic dishes ever.

Over dinner, we chatted a little bit about our itinerary over the next couple of days and who we’d be meeting with tomorrow in particular. We reviewed a little bit of our Israeli geopolitical history and talked about Israel, Palestine, Hamas, Fatah, the PLO, etc. and how they all interact. Mark shared some stories about his mother, who lives in Israel, and her experience with all of the many parties involved, and of course provided us with he wisdom and guidance on the entire issue (and that’s no joke – Mark is always available for us to give any information we ever could want). Mark also apologized to Sundus and Shereen profusely for what had happened at immigration and explained that while they were being questioned, he threw a bit of a fit with the agents, explaining that the girls were student-scholars with the program that he was leading and going through the entire itinerary with them. Eventually, Mark threw enough of a fit and was able to prove that the girls were not a danger to anybody at all, and so they let them out of two more rounds of questioning, which probably would have taken another two hours. Mark could not have been more apologetic and expressed the very sentiments that I was feeling this afternoon. But he also explained the need for security here and how important these checks have been for maintaining security and safety within the country, proving us with a little context to the whole situation. But still, Mark was horrified that this happened to two American students and expressed how upset he was with everything and how embarassed, angry, and frustrated the experience made him. I was, and in many ways still am, feeling very similar.

But the conversation at dinner was light-hearted, we were all laughing and smiling again per usual, and I even got to practice some Hebrew with the wait staff at the restaurant! We came back from the hotel and all went to our rooms to get ready for our first day of meetings tomorrow in Israel! We’re meeting with some really amazing people in Herzliya, a town just north of Tel Aviv, but exactly who you’ll have to wait until tomorrow to find out! I am so excited to be back in Israel, albeit just for a little white, but I can’t wait to speak Hebrew, eat great food, and show everyone a country that I really do love. But for now, it’s bed time. Laila tov!

Safe Travels! – Jake

P.S. And, of course, a very, very HAPPY BIRTHDAY to my best friend, Sam. I wish I could have been with you today to celebrate! Even halfway around the world, I’m thinking of you today! Love you to the Middle East and back again.

June 8, 2012: Abu Dhabi, UAE and Dubai, UAE

Hello again from Dubai, UAE! Although we started and finished the day here at our beautiful day, we didn’t spend very much time in Dubai at all today. Instead, we spent the day in Abu Dhabi, UAE, the country’s capital and second largest city, which is a little under two hours away from Dubai, the country’s largest city. But before we embarked on our day trip to the country’s capital, we spent a few hours in the hotel this morning having breakfast, debriefing a little about our time in Oman, and discussing a familiar topic more in depth that we’ll be focusing on for the next couple of days – the Arab Spring/Awakening.

At 10:00 AM, we all gathered in Mark’s room for our first major lecture from him since we left DC. Since we’re at about the midpoint in the experience, it was as good a time as any to change gears a little bit and get some more background about what we’d be talking about for the next few days. As I mentioned last night, we decided to make a concentrated effort to avoid talking about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict for now in an effort to broaden our scope of discussion to the larger Arab world. Especially because these are our last few days in the “Arab world” rather than Israel, now seemed like a perfect time to start taking apart the sociopolitical challenges that comprise the Arab Spring, or (as it might be more appropriate to call) the Arab Awakening.

But before we delved into any of that, Mark opened his talk with some closing comments on Oman. After sharing with us today’s headlines from the Oman Observer, which concerned allegations of rumors against the Sultan (“His Majesty is the Pride of the Nation, Rumors Deplored”), he talked about his opinions of the media in Oman. This is already something I’ve mentioned a bit earlier in talking about our lunch with HE Sheikh Abdulla and Jihad, the woman who works in Omani news as an anchor and journalist, but essentially there is a feeling that Omani media is self-censored by its media outlets in order to respect the sacredness of the Sultan and the country. This leads to what some might argue is a non-independent media. This, in combination with the lack of a party system based on values and commonality in Oman, could be problematic.  Oman’s lack of a “completely free media” seems surprising when one notes that countries like Israel and Egypt have free press, but I also think that self-censorship in Omani media is very reflective of the anti-inflammatory culture and society in Oman, which I do appreciate greatly. As for the free media question, I’m unsure whether or not self-censorship to protect the Sultan can constitute completely as “restrictive press,” but I don’t really know enough about it to make a definite comment. I guess I’ll have to keep looking into it. Oman also has complete suffrage, where the UAE most certainly does not. And here’s where we started to shift gears away from Oman and toward the rest of the Arab world. In the UAE, the incredible amount of oil money has created this image of the country as being extremely modernized, but it too has its fair share of sociopolitical issues.

It is not a surprise to anyone that the UAE has an enormous foreign national population. In fact, only 15% of the population is actually Emirati. So what happens with the other 85% of the population that is not Emirati and composed of other foreign nationals? Here in UAE, this question of demography vs. geography is extremely important as different nationalities compete with each other to gain status within the social and economic framework of the developing country. So the question is, in this trade-off between demography and geography, how do the Emiratis feel about their place in society? How do the foreign nationals feel? I was able to get a bit of a better sense of the foreign national point of view today (more a little later on that), but with the small size of the Emirati population, I don’t know if I’ll be able to get a firm grasp on their understanding of life in the UAE.

For a really great explanation and analysis of the developmental trajectory of the UAE (i.e. its history, politics, and government), please check out the United States Department of State Background Notes on the UAE at http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/5444.htm. Unfortunately, because we don’t have as much time here as we did in Oman, I’m not going to be able to completely analyze the political construct of the country for you like I did previously. But I’ll do my best to tell you what I do know!

After our brief introduction to the UAE, we shifted to a discussion about the Arab Spring/Awakening. I’m going to preface this with the following: I’m still trying to understand the many events, people, places, interactions, and conflicts that form what people are referring to as the “Arab Spring,” and might better be referred to as an Arab Awakening. I am not an expert on this in any way shape or form. In fact, I can say with confidence that I came into this very aware of the fact that I did not know as much as I want to about the Arab Spring, and so this will be a learning experience for all of us. I left today with a resolve to start reading and researching more about the many political episodes and interactions that characterize this period in Middle Eastern history, and I as soon as I can actually form an educated summary of everything that I understand to be happening, I will share it with you. But for now, I’ll share some of what we discussed today and what I’m still grappling with.

American interest is currently shifting from Israel/Palestine to the Gulf. As we start to examine the political happenings and interests in the Gulf and throughout the region (aside from Israel and Palestine) more closely, we must keep in mind a few critical ideas. First, the roles of God and religion, oil, water, and weapons of mass destructions must be part of the discourse about the Gulf and the Middle East in general. Second, there is an overarching theme of the “clash of civilizations,” be that between the West and Islam, Christianity and Islam, or Judaism and Islam, among others, of course.

What we are looking at could be the start of an Arab Muslim “cold war” of sorts in the Middle East that is directly linked to America. Some of the major authoritarian regimes that were brought down in the recent revolutions throughout the region, including Egypt, Tunisian, Yemen, and others, were tied to the United States by America’s interest in things such as oil. However, as these Sunni regimes fell and America began supporting the people of the countries rather than the overthrown regimes, other countries with authoritarian Sunni leadership in the region such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain became wary of Washington as a reliable partner. Not to mention all of this is occurring while the United States is embroiled in a heated election cycle itself, which is perpetuating the idea that Washington is distracted and can’t be relied upon.

Saudis are now looking for possible ways that a new Sunni movement can exist independent of Washington in an effort to protect themselves. In theory, they are looking to loosen ties with American without being anti-American. As part of a new Sunni movement, Egypt, under the possible leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, could play an important part (although there has historically been tension between the Saudis and the Brotherhood as well). However, Egypt has its own issues with a run-off election coming up between candidates representing the Muslim Brotherhood on one side and the autocratic military power that characterized the Mubarak regime, but without Mubarak of course, on the other.

So where does that leave all of this? In extremely oversimplified terms, there’s a two-sided struggle emerging with the remaining autocratic Sunni leaders, Egypt under the Brotherhood (possibly), Hamas, Jordan, and the Gulf (all moving away from America toward other rising powers) on one side, against Iran, Hezbollah, Syria, and Lebanon (sort of) on the other. Again, this is totally oversimplified and my very basic understanding of this issue from our lecture today that I’m still trying to piece together. But from what I understand, the next big battle to be played out is over Syria in trying to determine who will replace the minority Assad regime and where the country is headed. This is especially of interest in light of the current political climate in Syria and the massacres occurring there. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt are forming a sort of Sunni coalition to keep Iran in check throughout all of this as well.

I guess what I’m getting at is that this entire thing is one big mess and that everybody is kind of unsure about how to explain the different relationships and conflicts, and how to track the trajectory of this revolutionary period. I can tell you that I am top of the list of people who are unsure about how to process and understand all of this information, and I expressed that to Mark who assured me that this was complicated and would take time. Jake has been amazing too in helping me to understand this (as Israel and Palestine are really where my strengths and knowledge lie). And so I will keep moving forward with my commitment to read and research more about the Arab Spring to become less ignorant and more informed. And as soon as I can understand it, I will provide you with a summary of these understandings in a more coherent manner.

Anyway, after our lecture, we hopped on the bus to Abu Dhabi at a little after 11:00 AM. At first, Mark, Jake, and I were still talking about the Arab Spring and the many complicated pieces within it, but after about 45 minutes my head felt like it was going to spin off its axis, and so I decided to let it rest for the day, come back to it a little later for reflection and discussion, and take a nap for the rest of the ride. When I woke up, we were just pulling into Masdar City in Abu Dhabi where we met with Gian Vergnetti, an independent researcher with the Fulbright Program who is studying the sustainable technology initiative at the Masdar Institute. Gian is a friend of Rahilla Zafar’s (remember Rahilla from Washington, DC?), and so we were all looking forward to meeting up with him for lunch at Sumo Sushi!

Immediately upon pulling into Masdar City, I knew that this was no ordinary city neighborhood. On the contrary, it looked like something out of Star Wars. Everything was futuristic and high tech with crazy but beautiful architecture, a giant wind tower/tunnel in the middle of the entire complex, and directional signs pointing to buildings like “Institute Laboratories” and “Knowledge Center.” It also sort of popped up out of nowhere – a high tech hub in the middle of the desert.

Gian couldn’t have been nicer and we had a fantastic afternoon with him. Specifically, Gian is looking into water management in the UAE and examining different desalinization methods in an effort to make the country more sustainable. He shared some information with us about Masdar (the parent company of all the many component pieces I’m about to introduce) and the Masdar Institute, which is a fascinating project. The Institute invites people from all over the world to work and research for the company while simultaneously earning their Masters or PhD on a full scholarship. The academics are run under the guidance and support of MIT. Essentially, according to Gian, Masdar had created a “nucleus for study in advanced energy science and sustainable technology.”

Aside from talking to us about Masdar and his research there, Gian answered some of our questions about the sociopolitical development of the UAE. We talked about the place that Emiratis hold in society and, despite their comparatively small number, they represent an extremely important and influential part of the population. They way I understand it, the statistics that place foreign nationals in such high numbers over the Emirati population are simply circumstances of the developing nature of the country as it continues to become a major player in global economics and business. As Gian shared with us, every Emirati he has met has shared the same basic appreciation for their background and where they came from as Emiratis. They are proud people with an air of kindness and tolerance about them that is reflected in the developmental miracle of their country and the amazing boom that it has experienced over the past few years. Again, this view is from somebody who is part of the foreign national population and not Emirati, so I don’t know exactly what an Emirati point of view on their place in society when compared with foreign nationals might be. But it’s certainly interesting to consider in a country with a demographic make-up as interesting as the UAE’s.

After lunch (Mark and I shared the Chef’s Special sushi combo – yum!), we headed into the Masdar complex to check out all of the incredible things that they were doing. And that’s really the only way I can describe it – incredible. It’s hard to believe that the entire Masdar project was only started in 2006. In six years, Masdar has created a new world in Masdar City surrounding sustainable living and energy research with academic, commercial, and residential interests. The idea behind the entire project was to make a destination that people want to experience and live in. And that’s exactly what Masdar has accomplished, in my opinion, because it is easily one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. Gian showed us all around the campus and we were all wowed by the brand new classrooms and laboratories (in which Mark felt the need to pull every single lever – I swear he almost activated the emergency shower on himself). We got a chance to see all of the amazing research projects they’re working on for sustainable energy in a variety of fields from mechanical engineering to economic and business development. They are clearly doing important, impactful research at Masdar, and it was absolutely fantastic to get to experience first hand the things that they were working on. Not to mention the physical sight of the whole campus. If the exterior architecture of all the buildings wasn’t interesting enough, the amazing, futuristic interior of the building was awesome. The Knowledge Center (a fancy way for saying the “library”) has a double helix shaped spiral staircase; it was like a science nerd’s dream come true!

But by far the coolest part of our visit to the Masdar was getting a chance to ride in their Personal Rapid Transit system. Imagine a small pod with nothing but four seats and a computer screen that at the touch of the button will drive you to the destination of your choice. The PRT system at Masdar City currently only runs between two spots: one of the main parking lots and the main building at the institute. These driverless cars follow magnetic paint in the ground and so do not need a driver to direct them. They just take you to your destination, giving you time to relax a long the way with some friends. The idea behind the PRT is that it eventually will be a sustainable (and frankly, more enjoyable) alternative to public transportation. The pods get recharged at their home stations and don’t require any gas. They were also just SO much fun to ride around in. I felt like I was in the middle of some futuristic society or Star Wars again, but this is just one example of the amazing things that make up life at Masdar. It was absolutely fantastic.

We said goodbye to Gian and Masdar after our ride to our bus in the PRT and headed off to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Named after the first President of the UAE (who served from the country’s founding in 1971 to his death in 2004) and the Ruler of Abu Dhabi, the Grand Mosque is an impressive, colossal sight that is completely different from the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque that we visited in Oman. The Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi was significantly larger and more ornate than in Oman. There’s no denying that it was spectacular and breathtaking. From the Moroccan-style interior and Indian-style exterior architecture to the in-laid colored stones from around the world, stunning Greek marble, gold-capped columns in the shape of palm fronds, and the unbelievable German chandeliers, every single detail was clearly taken into account when building this Mosque to make it as grand, impressive, and beautiful as possible. And those are exactly the traits that I would use to describe it – grand, impressive, and beautiful.

There’s something kind of fitting about the fact that the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi was built from pieces and inspiration that come from cultures and places other than the Emirates. After all, the country’s Emirati population only makes up a small minority of the country’s entire population. But at the same time, I almost felt that there were too many foreign pieces in the Mosque, and not enough Emirati influence on its own. Of course, the grounds were absolutely stunning. And I think that the Mosque is a very appropriate representation of the relationship between Islam and the UAE. (By that I mean that as the UAE develops more and becomes a wealthier nation, its relationship with Islam needs to adjust accordingly. The physical beauty of the Mosque, a key feature and symbol of Islam, and the many foreign components that comprise it reflect the growing wealth of the nation and a possible need to display that wealth.) However, to me at least, it did not feel as personal or as intimate as the Grand Mosque in Oman. Perhaps that’s because it was filled with tourists, unlike the one in Oman. Perhaps it’s because we didn’t have as in depth a conversation about Islam and the country with our tour guide in Abu Dhabi like we did in Oman. While it was absolutely beautiful, and I love that we got the chance to see such an amazing sight, I just felt that it was more of a tourist destination than a place of worship. Of course, both of those things are true: it is both a tourist’s destination and a place of worship. But it definitely was a different and interesting experience.

We left the Grand Mosque at around 5:45 PM to head back to Dubai. I was absolutely exhausted by the time we got to the bus, but some of the other people in the group were full of energy. That’s pretty typical for us: we all hit various high-points and low-points in our energy that don’t necessarily match up with each other, but that’s totally okay. I listened to some music on the way back before we stopped at a gas station along the road to pick up some water and change some money over to UAE Dirhams. We got a really great exchange rate again at 1 USD to 3.65 Dirhams, and I was even able to turn over a little extra money from Oman that I had (but of course, I kept an Omani Rial for myself!). This wasn’t an ordinary gas station – they had every fast food joint that you could imagine from Domino’s to Popeye’s. I didn’t even know they had Popeye’s in the UAE, but apparently they do! We stopped in the small store at the station to pick up a few things. I love visiting gas stations and their stores in other countries because I think it’s a really interesting window into foreign cultures and their purchasing habits. After the gas station, we got back on the bus and drove straight to Dubai, where we finally arrived back at the hotel at around 8:15 PM.

We had already decided by the time we got back that we were going to have dinner at the award-winning Indian restaurant in the hotel. I enjoy Indian food, but I don’t really know how to order and what to get as I don’t have it frequently. Luckily, Shareen made some recommendation and Aaron ordered appetizers, and it was a really fun evening. We were laughing the whole night with Mark cracking jokes and finally singing happy birthday to Dillon (who has earned the new name “Phil” from the group), whose birthday was the day before. Despite the fact that we were all exhausted, the food was yummy, the company was great, and it was a nice evening.

After dinner was said and done, I came back to the room and, per usual, started writing and relaxing with the guys. I’ll be uploading pictures from the Mosque soon, too! Well, that’s all for now. We have a busy day of shopping in Dubai ahead of us and you know I’m always down for a trip to one of the largest malls in the world. It’s sure to be a sight unlike any other we’ve seen in the Middle East so far, and I promise to keep you posted!

Safe Travels! – Jake

NOTE: This entry was posted on the evening of June 9, 2012 but recounts the events of June 8, 2012. The delayed posting is due to me needing to add in a few more portions of the entry and review it before I posted it, and I was just way too tired last night to finish it. I hope you enjoyed it anyway!

Photos are Live!

Fantastic news! Photos are now live on Meiner in the Middle! Click on any picture under “2012 Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Project” on the left to view my Flickr with all the pictures from my travels so far! Over the next view days, I’ll be adding captions to all the pictures with their matching location. And of course, I’ll update the gallery as often as I can!

Safe Travels! – Jake