PeaceCast #205: MachsomWatch (Transcript)

This transcript corresponds with Episode #205 of PeaceCast, which can be found here. It is an interview with Aviva Hay and Anat Tueg of MachsomWatch.

Aviva Hay 0:02
You can't give up. There has to be commitment and hope.

Ori Nir 0:18
Hello and welcome back to PeaceCast, Americans for Peace Now's podcast. Today is Friday September 3. I am Ori Nir and with me is my co-host Claire Davidson Miller.

Claire Miller 0:28
Today we will be talking to Aviva Hay, and Anat Tueg of MachsomWatch. MachsomWatch was founded in January of 2001, when three Jewish women from Jerusalem first saw a military checkpoint in the West Bank. Seeing for themselves the harm that the occupation brought to Palestinians, they realized that the majority of Israelis, those who live in Tel Aviv, and Haifa, and Be'er Sheva don't see it. MachsomWatch is composed of hundreds of Israeli women who have taken it upon themselves to bear witness to the occupation, to checkpoints in particular. Their goal is to recount the reality of the occupation, to publicize it, and to pass it on to the rest of the Israeli public. Aviva, Anat, thank you for being here with us today.

Ori Nir 1:17
So what we usually do is we ask guests to just briefly introduce themselves, say a few words about yourself about your background, profession, and so on. This is more of a personal thing that we'll get later to your role in what you do in MachsomWatch. So maybe, Aviva, do you want to start?

Aviva Hay 1:38
Well, I am an American Israeli. I was born in Israel and grew up in the States and spent various attempts coming back and forth. But about 11 years ago, I came back to Israel permanently. And this is now my, my home. Professionally, I have been a desert farmer, a writer, editor, a systems engineer in banking from for many years in New York. The least suitable job for me, also a community organizer in New York, and those are like the big items.

Ori Nir 2:21
And where in Israel do you live now?

Aviva Hay 2:24
I live in central Israel, in Natanya.

Ori Nir 2:29
How about you, Anat?

Anat Tueg 2:30
Eh, I was born in Ramat Rachel, aKibbutz near Jerusalem and grew up part of the time in another Kibbutz, Urim in the Negev. My father was born in Israel, and my mother in Bulgaria, I studied chemistry, but never did any work with it. I work as an editor, editor of texts, of books and things like that. And that's it. You know, I joined MachsomWatch in 2004. We live now in Kfar Saba.

Claire Miller 2:30
Thank you. Thank you both. And that's now that you segued us into MachsomWatcha little bit. Would you like to tell us a little bit more about MachsomWatch? What is it?

Anat Tueg 3:22
MachsomWatch is a group of women, you know, we had the they started with a checkpoint. And you know, until 2009 I think we used to go mostly to the checkpoints. In later years, we started doing lots of other things. You know, Aviva will tell you more about it.

Ori Nir 3:24

So maybe we can we can backtrack a little bit by talking about this whole issue of Machsom, what is a machsom? In Hebrew, it means checkpoint or roadblock or something like that. Barrier. Exactly. So it has a broader meaning. Interestingly, I, you know, I noticed that it was one of the first words in Hebrew, kind of occupation words, to infiltrate into spoken Arabic, it's the the Palestinian spoken Arabic, they use it a lot, the word my song, and someone told me that even in Jordan now, it is used as a kind of a military roadblock military checkpoint. So Machsom is both a physical thing, but it's also it has a broader meaning. Maybe we can start addressing this, Aviva, by by talking about why you started out why MachsomWatch started out, focusing on the roadblocks. The checkpoints, the Machsomim.

Aviva Hay 4:39
When not so much came to existence in 2001, those were the main hurdles for Palestinians the physical barriers which were impossible, inhumane, overcrowded and a great challenge and once MachsomWatch women went to visit all these places, even though they fit were physically the Machsomim were located quite near to where they lived and live their lives, they were stunned to see with their own eyes what was happening in short driving distance. So the organization grew as a as a as a a grassroots with, we count about 200 women right now. And we became national. So from the start in the Jerusalem area, near Qalandia, the organization grew to southern Israel, to the north, and in the center of the country. But over the years, the checkpoints themselves became more, I don't want to use the word manageable, but more manageable, some more modernized. And now the the contact between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers is minimized by use of these magnetic computer cards, which either let them through the turnstile or not. And you could come to thinking you're going to get to work today. And suddenly, you're not let in. But we grew to say that the barriers, the checkpoints were much more than these physical locations. And they include a huge bureaucratic system that operates behind the scenes. Once you get, you Palestinian you get to the checkpoint itself, you've already gone through many hurdles, to get the permit, to get the car that will let you in. You won't always get in. But you have already been through the system, and the bureaucracy's tremendous hurdle. And we learned of other hurdles that MachsomWatch women kind of spontaneously discover and take on. For example, one of our recent projects is a focus on Palestinian heritage and community sites. We learned that many of these places which are so important in Palestinian community life, places where they went for holidays, for celebrations for relaxation, are no longer available. Physical buildings have either been destroyed, and just shells of them remain, or they become part of Jewish settlements. And even if the heritage sites are still present, physically present, Palestinians can't get to them, because in order to get to them, you have to cross through a settlement with which they are not allowed to enter. So we've done a huge project on this topic. Another angle is the military courts or women started visiting the military courts, where the is dual court system, one for Palestinians, one for Israeli, and once a Palestinian gets into the courts, the Israeli military courts, very hard to understand how it operates how jail sentences are meted out. So we became observers in the military courts. And we recently spoke with a Palestinian attorney who has been working for over 20 years, trying to help Palestinians who are in the military court system. And we asked her how many cases have you won? She laughed, and she said, One, I won one case, but it was later overturned. So here's a woman who focuses her professional life on helping in these situations with no no reward.

Claire Miller 8:55
So can I ask both of you, as you explain to us before, you have lives and careers outside of this? Aviva, you've undertaken so many different things in your life. You both clearly have so many passions. So what brought you to this what brought you to MachsomWatch when it's something that's so easy for Israelis to overlook? How did you find out about this and why do you care?

Anat Tueg 9:21
Well, I came back from a relocation in England was my family and also was on the on the floor in a way wasfalling apart. And then I read a book by Leah Nirdad called Winter in Qalandiya, I don't know if it has been translated. And I was shocked because I didn't imagine you know, things like that were happening. And I decided I don't want to shut my out my eyes and also I as is a daughter to a father and mother who were always, you know, active in social networks and everything, we believe that, you know, the individual makes makes a difference. I didn't want to see my country, you know, were going to that route of just, you know, ignoring the heritage of say, humanism, you know, the Jewish even though you know, you kind of come from a religious background. But you know, we were always threaded upon and everything and humanistic tradition was Jewish. I couldn't believe you know that we're going this way. So I joined and then you know, you you see things and you see people, and you understand that what you hear is not what you see. And you want to make to make it to let make everybody know, but people don't want to listen always, you know, it's it's hard. It's hard to confront. But yes, we, we always find light in, for instance, you know, we have this project of sea days, we take people, you know, from villages, women, children, who've never been to the sea and to Israel. And because, you know, the West Bank is not connected to, to the sea, so, and we go with them, you know, for one day of sea with volunteers from Israeli volunteers. And it's wonderful, you know, it's wonderful days. So the contact was people, you know, makes us makes us hopeful.

Ori Nir 11:41
How about you Aviva? What brought you to this?

Aviva Hay 11:43
I have to go back way, what brought me here. And I have to say, there's an iconic image of Abraham Joshua Heschel walking with Martin Luther King, from Selma to Montgomery. And Joshua Heschel said, we have to pray with our feet. And that image, and those words, touched me from a very young age. In addition to that, I was greatly influenced by Rabbi Marshall, Marshall Meyer, who was my Rabbi in New York, a very charismatic person whose whole message was justice and human rights. And he was very empowering. And every week when he gave his talks, I felt that he was looking right into my right of me, you know, hundreds of people in the congregation, but he was looking at me, and reminding me that you have to take action. And also, my parents, my parents are Holocaust survivors. And as a child of Holocaust survivors, you carry a lot of difficult information, emotional information. And I just finished writing a book based on my late father's memoirs, and the book is called We Are What We Remember. And the most striking things that my father said to me through the years is how could the world remain so silent? So those influences kind of tick in my head the whole time? How can the world remain silent, and I cannot remain silent. When I returned to Israel, I saw a film made by MachsomWatch called Area C. And I was stunned because I, as a child, I grew up and the songs Anu Banu Artza Livnot U'L'Hivanot Bah: we came to the land to be to build and to be built by it. And I, my childhood vision was that Israel was a barren land. Nobody was here until the survivors came. Well, wasn't I surprised? When I saw this film, and I started meeting MachsomWatch women, and started visiting places 20 minutes from where I lived, then a totally different universe. I don't feel hopeful, to be honest. But I feel that it's very important to inform and influence and as a not said, so much of what we read in here, is meant to deter, to deter us from sharing information. And that's what we do in MachsomWatch.

Anat Tueg 14:38
I want to say that we the people misinformed and not only the public, but we find out that the soldiers who stand, who are you know, most of the women of MachsomWatch have kids, sons and daughters went to the, to the army and went even, you know, to very combat combative roles. But when we see the soldiers there, you know, we see young people who don't know exactly where they are, they are misinformed. They are afraid many times. So I don't think we're against the soldiers. And we tried to talk to them anywhere. And usually, you know, if they know what we are, they, if they have time, you know, either they just, you know, say that we're not interested in hearing, but sometimes, you know, we talk to them in there. And they listen, and this is the reason, you know, to bring women also, you know, is very feminist, you know, to bring a to bring more, you know, mature women like, you know, mother, a grandmother, to show you know, them that we're not against, you know, we want to know, to show them, you know, the human side of saying things.

Claire Miller 16:03
Can we talk about that for a minute, my understanding is, like you say, my so much as volunteers are mostly or exclusively women. And I'd love to hear a little bit more about why why do women bring such an added value to this work? Why is it important that MachsomWatch is a women's organization?

Aviva Hay 16:24
Well, we are exclusively women. And, and we feel that having a civilian feminist presence in, in the West Bank in the checkpoints, we hope that it has a softening effect. We don't try to be confrontational, even though we are confronted quite often, but we feel that this is a way to engage in conversation. And also, as far as the Palestinians are concerned, we want them to meet Israelis who are not soldiers, and are not settlers, and are not holding a weapon. And that's kind of the basis of why we are exclusively all women, all volunteers. We don't have an office, we don't have a staff. It's just women. And we'll come up with incredible new creative ideas of how to talk about the occupation.

Anat Tueg 17:29
So the you know, the reason the excuse, I guess, for this conversation between us is there are so much is organizing this online exhibition of photos. And it's on the website of Ha'aretz, both in English and in Hebrew. And we'll put a link to it in the show notes. I wanted to ask you to to talk a little bit about the exhibition, the the idea behind it the the objective.

Aviva Hay 17:54
Yes, well, we're 20 years old, we didn't think that our organization would need to exist for so long, we somehow believed that at some point the occupation would, would end. And whenever you have a turn the page kind of occasion, you want to commemorate it in some way. And now we have a friend, COVID-19, that doesn't allow us to meet in person or to plan for in person events. And we thought, how can we share what we know and what we see every day in the field with a wider audience? And that's how the idea of an exhibition came. That that was actually quite a challenge, because we have about over 7000 images in our archive and how do you take 7000 images and distill them into 40 or 45? But thankfully, we had Israel Prize winner photographer Alex Lee, like who agreed to curate, and help choose and organize the images. So there it is online, and we have had a very interesting conversation about photography, about the role of photography, in the struggle against the occupation. And just as for me, personally, that image of Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel was such an influence. I hope that our exhibition will expose people to what it is that we see every day the photos are not professional photos. Alex Lee that was frustrated because he really wanted that quality images. But we are all you know, we take them on our cell phones, some of us have fancier cameras. But these are ordinary women who have been going out for 20 years and capturing what we see. So everything in that exhibition is our view from our point of view,

Claire Miller 20:04
What kinds of reactions and responses and feedback have you received from the public on the exhibition or your other work?

Aviva Hay 20:12
We work really hard to communicate. And I wish that I could report that we have better results than we do, it's very hard to engage the Israeli public, in these kinds of conversations, I can tell you that I could count on one hand, how many non-MachsomWatch friends, I can talk about this with, people mostly are very reluctant to engage in this kind of conversation. They're tired of hearing about the occupation. But we've had really, we've gained so much support from the exhibition itself. So you know, it's, it's little by little, we keep writing our testimonies. There now, believe I checked this morning, there are over 27,000 reports that we have posted. And this is quite quite an achievement, I think. I think I personally see the occupation discussed more and more amongst television, not mainstream TV, but public television, in Israel, Democrat TV, for example. And in the one newspaper that talks about these things, they have its newspaper, show, I think, with it, it's like water dripping into a rock and hopefully, will break through at some point, there will be a breakthrough, you know, things, things can happen, you know, and we've been noted in many, many works of literature as so much women, but I think not not so many know exactly what we are. And, of course, you know, people from the right try to make us the, demonize, demonize us, which is really sorry, because we know, we're doing it partly, you know, I speak about myself, I synthesizes policies, but I'm doing it for is well, for my my people not wanting to live in a apartheid state.

Anat Tueg 22:30
I want to ask the question that I think will sort of recap, but maybe also sharpen things that we've discussed earlier. And it's a question that conundrum that I know always bothers the activists and advocates. And I know that your organization now deals both with documentation and advocacy. And it's a kind of a dilemma for people who deal for Israeli activists who advocate for Palestinian human rights. And the dilemma is this: your work may improve the interaction between Israelis and Palestinians, between Israeli soldiers and guards, to checkpoints and so on, and so forth. But this incremental improvement improves the occupation and does not necessarily serve the ultimate goal of ending the occupation. In other words, what you're doing, perhaps, is actually serving the goal of perpetuating the occupation rather than ending it, you're making the occupation better, more livable? How do you see this is something you you think about when you do your work?

Aviva Hay 23:35
We think about it a lot. But I don't think we're making the occupation better, because it is such a horrific situation. And so on every level that, you know, we could sit and talk to you all day. But I think what we do is we, the presence shows that, that we are aware, we are not blinded by, by the strength of the occupation and the strength of the occupation is that it's backed up by the government and by the military. We don't, I don't I'll speak for myself, not for the organization. I don't believe that there's anything that we can do that will end the occupation, but we have to keep raising the flag of protest. And I see that as our goal. And I hope that bigger, stronger, more influential forces will intervene and and make it happen politically.

Anat Tueg 24:39
We have arguments among ourselves, you know, of course, but they I don't think we're improving. But, you know, even if we're improving a little you know, it's not a it's not changing it. It's not changing. We're just sorry that people you know, you see, you know, all this army commanders and even Shabak, you know, a commanders, when they finish, you know, when they retire, they come out and say, You know how and strategically, it's not wise what we do. And if we put such a weight on the Palestinians, it's going to be in our, it's going to be terrible for our futures country. But they don't do things like that when they are in the office.

Claire Miller 25:28
As we're talking, you know, only a few days before Rosh Hashanah before our Jewish New Year. I'm just wondering if there's any message of hope or mindset of hope, that you want to share with us with our listeners that we can bring into the next year?

Aviva Hay 25:47
Well, I know that there are many Americans who are become so hyper critical of some of Israel's political actions, that then they're reluctant to engage with Israel. And I'm sure you see that in your own work with Peace Now. But I would like to say encourage you is to be involved with Israel now more than ever, to, to find to support organizations that work for human rights. There are so much good work is being done. So rather than pull back because of the headlines, pull in because of the incredible amount of work doing by thousands of Israelis who care who work for change, and for a better future for our country. And for democracy. This is something that Americans have experienced in the last year, as well. And you can't give up. There has to be commitment and hope.

Anat Tueg 26:59
Yes, we look up to you, you know, as you I think the American that's for as a given us, you know, another way of say, religious practice, you know, with the reform and they're conservative, and this has gone into Israel too. And we owe this to you, you know, to Americans and people who live across the land and are still interested in it. Be active in where you are, and just show that the Jewish are not blindly for everything that the government does

Ori Nir 27:37
Aviva and Anat, thank you so much for this. We really admire your work and we're so happy that you could join us and talk about your work. I want to wish you and as shinato gosh natural a year of advancing toward peace, at least if we can't wish ourselves really year of peace. Happy Holidays, Todah.

Aviva Hay 27:58
Shana Tova.

Anat Tueg 27:58
Bye bye.