Sailing skills and human values
In an article commissioned by the Jewish Socialists’ Group and just published in Jewish Socialist no 60, Diana Neslen describes why, in the wake of the Israeli military’s lethal attach on the Mavi Marmara, a group of Jewish activists took to the high seas on the 10-metre catamaran Irene
The idea developed in Germany, through our partners, Jüdische Stimme für Gerechten Frieden in Nahost (Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East). After the Israeli forces boarded the Mavi Marmara, part of the flotilla to Gaza, and killed nine passengers, a protest march was held in London. Glyn Secker, a member of the executive of Jews for Justice for Palestinians, told the assembled crowd that a Jewish boat would be sailing to Gaza. This statement went viral and within days international support was pouring in. There was no turning back.
Our goal was to reach Gaza with aid, and to show the world another face of Jews and Israelis. Too many people see the violent, brutal and aggressive face of Israel and hear the voices of mainstream Jewish organisations providing unqualified support for human rights abuses. They wonder what has happened to the Jewish tradition of identification with the oppressed and action against inhuman abuses. It was our goal to make this tradition visible to a world unused to alternative Jewish voices.
After discussion, we agreed with our German partners that it would make sense for the organisation to be based in London. We had skills here and the contacts that could be mobilised at short notice. Only dreamers could have imagined that with our limited human resources we could achieve such a historic breakthough, but that is the nature of struggles. You fashion the rules as you go.
We were lucky that donations poured in to give us some ballast and, just as important, we had some skills available to give us a fighting chance to make a success of this. We had an experienced boat skipper, in the shape of Glyn Secker, a press strategist, accountants, administrators and managers. We could call on the assistance of press agencies. However, looking back, it was only the fact that we were inveterate dreamers that gave us the incentive to continue through the stormy seas that confronted us. We were mostly retired, or between engagements, which gave us the space to take on what was a huge undertaking for such a skeleton crew.
We knew our adversary, an organisation with no compunction about killing, theft, or sabotage. So security was our watchword. We met in anonymous cafés, took out our mobile phone batteries when we consulted one another, developed codes and secret means of communication. It felt like something out of a cold war thriller. Maybe it did make us feel self-important, but we would not have a second chance so this one had to work. Which meant that we had absolutely to prevent sabotage, and information was strictly guarded. This was hard on our supporters who wondered whether anything would materialise. But even those of us involved were kept in the dark as to boat’s location and sailing information.
If you stand on the banks of a river and watch a swan gliding regally by, you imagine everything is running smoothly, but underneath the swan’s webbed feet are frantically moving. Thus it was with us. The boat, with its crew of four, was sailing from the Greek island on which the yacht was bought, from north of the Peloponnese through the Corinthian Canal, the Cycladic islands. They had to deal with ongoing misfortunes: the engines overheated and died; the wheel suddenly became detached; the anchor got stuck; the sail tore; there was a storm; and more. Each problem was overcome through the experienced engineer, Dave, who had to leave for family reasons, or through the knowledgeable crew. Contact with London was maintained through text messages – a not very effective means of communication.
In London, the problems were different and at times they seemed almost intractable. Media interest was vital. We had an excellent team working without rest to engage the world’s media. Unfortunately, the media group to which we originally gave exclusive access pulled out on discovering that because the boat was so small, it was impossible to broadcast whilst on board. In the event, such was their commitment, that they broadcast nothing at all about the voyage or its outcome.
Tension mounted, and there were many occasions when we believed that our aspirations would be thwarted, not for want of trying, but perhaps because our ambitions were greater than the personal and professional resources at our disposal. However we could not surrender at this crucial juncture, and ploughed on regardless. It was a gamble. Either we would achieve our outcome, or we would end up in a heap somewhere in the Mediterranean, creating an opportunity for our adversaries to crow.
We gave much thought to the choice of our port of departure. Cyprus was the best option, but we understood that the Greek Cypriots had been pressured by Israel not to allow boats to leave for Gaza from their shores. So we had to find a place where our arrival would not attract much attention. Famagusta seemed a practical choice.
Over a period of four days our passengers and backroom stalwarts assembled. Each passenger had something unique to contribute. There was Edith, our German comrade, who was instrumental in building the idea of a Jewish boat to Gaza, and was a committed peace activist who saw her mission to build bridges not walls; Lilian, the American daughter of German Jewish refugees, poet, writer, activist, psychoanalyst; Reuven, Holocaust survivor and Israeli patriot, who wishes to see another Israel, one that believes in the ideas that have moved him throughout his long life, ideas of equality, of justice and of peace between peoples; Rami, the peace campaigner, whose reserved exterior hides the pain of his daughter’s death at the hand of a suicide bomber. Rather than letting vengeance destroy him, it has encouraged him to redouble efforts for justice and peace, so that no one else, Jewish or Palestinian, will suffer as his family has.
Our thoughts turned to our objective and this is a distillation of the ideas expressed. We talked about our views on peace, on justice and our sense that Israel and the larger Jewish communities throughout the world had lost touch with their common humanity and could no longer empathise with the people over whom Israel holds awesome power, and whom she treats with contempt and derision. We felt that our mission could act as a beacon to those Jews who felt alienated from this arrogant and aggressive state without a moral compass. We wanted to show the world that there are other Jews, who believe in equality and justice. We understand that peace can only come when the powerful accept the other as their equal, are sensitive to their needs and wishes and deal justly and with humility with their partners in this endeavour.
We also needed to say to the world that there is another Jewish tradition, one of commitment to human rights for all, one that encourages civil disobedience when the need arises and one which is at ease with its place in the firmament, as one among many, without demanding to be treated as a special case. Jewish history is alive with people who remember their own persecution, use this memory as a lodestar to challenge inhumanity wherever it is found, and refuse to be bound by tribal ties. Above all, we talked about the prisoners of Gaza, waiting with impatience for our arrival, and the Israeli forces of occupation arraigned against them and against our tiny efforts to show solidarity. We knew we could not fight a Navy, but we could be a symbol of the human demand for freedom and of the desire of free people to make a difference. When you stand against the flow of bigoted opinion, you have made a different sort of journey, often solitary, but always emancipatory.
We waited around, engaged in conversation, slept fitfully and wondered anxiously when the boat would come in. Suddenly a taxi discharged young bearded, tall fair men. Our crew had arrived. Peace campaigners, Yonatan Shapiro, known as the instigator of the Pilots’ Letter in 2003, and Itamar, his refusenik brother, Glyn long time activist, our skipper. Many extremists wrote to us afterwards, and in their puny efforts to insult us, stated that we were not true Jews. In response, the words of the Bundist cry returned hauntingly: ‘Vos mir zaynen, zaynen mir, ober mentshen zaynen mir’. (What we are, we are, but we remain mentshen – human beings with moral values).
After a period of boredom, everything went into overdrive. There was little time for reflection; instructions for the voyage were handed out. The press briefing would take place the following day, and immediately afterwards the boat would sail. Not plain sailing though. The press were one step ahead of us and asked the Turkish police for permission to film. That rather put paid to the idea that the boat could make a decent and quiet departure. It meant police intervention and serious negotiation. Preparation perhaps for what was to follow.
The boat left in a hurry, flying the flags of all the Jewish organisations that supported us, and carrying bunting etched with the names of those many people who wanted to sail with us but who could not be accommodated. It was laden with symbolic cargo, children’s toys, medicines, a water filter, books, musical instruments. Our mission was simple. Above all it was to show that Jews could try to build bridges rather than walls, come with an olive branch and not with a bulldozer to destroy olive trees, come in a simple frail catamaran, not an F16 bomber, to bring the gifts of life, not the instruments of death, to come as supplicants for peace, not as merchants of war. We knew that the next 48 hours would be crucial: ‘If they are intelligent,’ said Rami, ‘they will let us through to Gaza.’ But thugs need no intelligence; brute force is their method. Why not, as long as the world appeases them?
We kept in touch with the ship until the dread signals of engagement arrived. Fortunately we had people on board who could witness the violent attacks and give the lie to the Israeli army’s self serving account of a ‘peaceful’ capture.
Let us return to Rosa Parks. She sat at the front of the bus as a gesture of emancipation from oppression, discrimination and racism. It was also reclamation of her identity as a full human being. As Jews and Israelis we too need emancipation – from the arrogance of dominion, from the blindness to suffering, from an ersatz victimhood we have no right today to claim, and for the world from the misapprehension that all Jewish people support the oppression of the Palestinians. When you can destroy another community’s future and blame them for your actions (Golda Meir said: ‘We do not blame them for what they do, but for what they make us do to them.’), then you have lost your humanity. Humans blind to the needs of the other are lesser beings.
We are symbolically acting for all the Jewish community in the hope that it will spur some to capture this moment and begin to turn towards humanity, towards justice and human rights, and against bigotry and human abuse. Only then will emancipation truly be accomplished.
It was once said that the birth of the Israeli state showed that the image of the passive ghetto Jew was now a thing of the past. Jews would now fight back and no one would in future lay a finger on them. Sometimes it seems that this is all the the Israeli Defense Forces do, preferably against defenceless civilians and with rules of engagement which place the safety of their armed forces above that of civilians. This they call ‘courage’.
Real courage is shown by those who take a tiny catamaran into the seas of the Mediterranean in the hope of reaching a safe harbour, but aware that they could be targets for the overkill that only Israel knows how to produce. We salute and honour the brave sailors and passengers on that little boat and hope that their voyage will act as a beacon of valour for young Jews and Israelis in the future.
See testimonies at www.jewishboattogaza.org