On the ground in Palestine with Joseph Dana

Jewish activist Joseph Dana is a strong supporter of an end to the exclusionary Zionist policy of segregation in Palestine. He spoke with Lynda Renham-Cook and recounts a typical day in Palestine.

Embracing Judaism

I am Jewish, not from birth but by choice. I converted to Judaism in 1984, partly because my then husband was Jewish, but also because I felt something of a calling.

Twenty-five years later and my Jewish identity remains as strong today, as it did all those years ago when I recited the Shema in the Synagogue and fully embraced my then, new faith.

I later taught Jewish studies and spent a great deal of time in Israel, a country I came to love. Even today my heart and soul is always there and at times I miss the Middle East with such deep longing that one could equate it to the pain of being apart from a loved one.

I always defended Israel, and at one time was a strong Zionist. I now have to admit to being naively deluded.

I could only see Israel as a small country, surrounded by aggressive Arabs who constantly threatened Israel’s very existence.

As time went on, I spent more and more of my time defending Israel. How could people criticise such a small defenceless country? Why were these Arabs complaining so much? There were other Arab countries where they could live. The Jews only had Israel.

I am now ashamed and shocked how naive I was. A few years ago I went to Cairo for my stepdaughter’s wedding. Her husband was Egyptian. I had no idea what to expect during my visit.
What I encountered were courteous, well-mannered, pleasant, intelligent people who were very accepting of my beliefs. I went to bed that night realising I had never been as accepting of theirs.

My views on Israel and Arabs were dramatically altered during that visit. I met people who treated me with the highest respect while maintaining their deep passion regarding Palestine and the social injustice delivered to their fellow country-people there.

However, I still continued defending Israel no matter how inexcusable its behaviour. I would argue with people, even when I knew my argument was somewhat flawed.

Letters from Palestine

After a second visit to Cairo I began to look at the news with a different perspective. For the first time in my life I read the history of the Israel/ Palestine conflict. I began to read every book I could lay my hands on about the plight of the Palestinians and I became ashamed.

I was ashamed of my ignorance and ashamed of my arrogance. I now know that Israel’s occupation of the West bank and the Gaza strip is illegal and violates the fourth Geneva conventions.

Worst of all, Israel’s human rights violations since 2000 have left more than four times more Palestinian civilians dead than the total number of Israelis killed by Palestinians.

I could go on and on. But there are numerous books to read such as ‘Witness in Palestine’ by Anna Baltzer from whom the facts above were quoted, is only one of many books detailing true stories of Palestine.

Another amazing book that opened my eyes and also introduced me to many wonderful Palestinian friends is ‘Letters from Palestine’ by Kenneth Ring, a remarkable man with a big heart, a man I am blessed to know. I am blessed also in knowing many Palestinians. This book brought me closer to the Palestinian people than I have ever been in my life. Their stories have brought me to tears and my admiration for them holds no bounds.

I do not forget those whose lives were lost in the Holocaust. Both the Shoah and Israel’s occupation are anathema to me. However, it is important to remember one does not cancel out the other.

The Holocaust does not give the Israelis the right to break UN resolutions, which it does do, in fact more than any country in the history of the UN. Palestinians are not victims and would not wish to be viewed as such but they do need our support and help in highlighting what is clearly a social injustice.

Joseph Dana

Many writers, photographers, and activists risk their lives every day to bring us photographs and news, as it happens, on the ground in Palestine and next year I hope to be one of them.

One of those people is Joseph Dana, a journalist, blogger and filmmaker living in Jerusalem. Joseph has a following of over 1,000 on his facebook profile and an even larger following on Twitter.

His coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict focuses on the Palestinian unarmed resistance movements throughout the West Bank and the impact of Israel’s occupation on Palestinian life.

With two Master’s degrees in Jewish History, one from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and one from the Central European University in Budapest, he often draws on his knowledge of Jewish history to analyse Israel’s current political/social situation and relationship to the Palestinians.

A contributing editor of the Israeli web magazine +972 and member of the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee, Dana’s writing has been featured in The Nation, Electronic Intifada, Le Monde, New York Times, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Alternet, Pulse, and Haaretz.

Dana is active in Israeli direct action groups such as Taayush and the Anarchists Against the Wall.

Joseph is Jewish.

I spoke to him about his work.

Q&A with Joseph Dana

What was the reason behind your immigration to Israel from America?

My immigration to Israel was based on a number of reasons. I have been travelling to Israel since a young high school student when I studied in Hod Ha Sharon for sometime. I did a first degree in the United States in Jewish history and it seemed natural that I would continue my studies in Israel.
You are a strong supporter of the Palestinian popular struggle. Can you define clearly what this represents?

So I immigrated and beginning studying Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I have also had a deep relationship with my Jewish identity and while I have strong feelings against Zionism, I feel that it is necessary to be in Israel wrestling with her issues based on my Jewish identity.

It is also important for me to have fluent knowledge of the Hebrew language and I feel it necessary to be able to impart the knowledge of the language onto my (future) children.

Based on my feelings of deep identification with my Jewish identity and also my feelings against Zionism, I believe that there are natural connections between Israeli (and all Jewish people) and the Palestinians. Thus, I view Israel’s occupation and the tragedy of Zionism as important to both Jews and Palestinians.
The work you do in Israel is inspiring. Can you tell us more about how it started?

Naturally, the popular unarmed struggle is an example of non-violence in action and my support comes from the relationships, which I created, on the ground. I have seen and experienced co-existence and co-habitation on the ground in the West Bank.

I have made friends, which I cherish on the other side of the green line based on shared interest, respect and commitment to popular unarmed struggle.

If this means that I am strong supporter of the Palestinian popular struggle then so be it but I would frame it in another way by saying that I am a strong supporter of co-existence, an end to exclusionary Zionist policy of segregation and a move towards a one state solution where the conflict will be based on democratic rights for all the citizens of the state.

My work started from living in Jerusalem while working on my second degree in Jewish history. The city is a mess of religious and nationalist fury and I came to the realization that I could travel to the West Bank easily and literally break down the physical and psychologically barriers between Israeli and Palestinian society.
The Palestinian people in their non-violent response to their oppression must often feel very misunderstood. Would you agree with that?

I began with the Israeli-Palestinian solidarity group Ta’ayush in the South Hebron Hills by helping Palestinian farmers reach their farmlands and documenting settler and Israeli army violence against them.

Eventually, I began joining unarmed demonstrations against the Israeli separation wall and the occupation in general. Because of my native English and knowledge of the American Jewish community, I began to write about my experiences in English and making short clips for you tube.

One thing lead to another and my voice grew stronger as someone on the ground involved in the daily events in the popular unarmed struggle.

I do not believe that it is a question of being understood but rather not heard.

Israel is afraid of a centralization popular non-violent resistance to its occupation. Thus, it does everything in its power to crush the popular struggle and force the Palestinians into armed resistance, which Israel is designed to fight and understand.

The recent film Budrus carries with it the possibility to expose the fact that Palestinians want to resist non-violently. Also the work of international and Israeli activists can help push this along with the media and various cultural channels.

During your time as an activist and journalist in Palestine what have been the most difficult things for you to overcome?

The most difficult things to overcome have been the loss of personal relationships with some of my Israeli friends and family. When one decides to break down barriers between Israelis and Palestinians, personal relationships in Israel suffer greatly as the society is simply not ready for the necessary revolution that must take place in the heart of Israeli society.

Perhaps this could be called a process of radicalisation. Don’t get me wrong, this process has been worth the costs and I have made amazing friendships with both Israelis and Palestinians, which I deeply cherish as a result of my work.

Can you describe a defining moment in your work?

It is difficult to pick just one moment. My initial reaction is the countless times in the course of demonstrations or midnight house raids where I have found myself together with my Palestinians friends dealing with the effects of tear gas and sound bombs.

I can remember so many times in which we are standing together with tears coming down our faces from the tear gas and helping each other. I can remember the families that have taken me into their homes and prepared food and endless tea despite the fact that I am Israeli while the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) is invading their homes or villages.

These incidents have bonded me, emotionally, intellectually and psychological, to my Palestinians friends and colleagues in a deep and profound way. I am inspired by the moral clarity of the people that I have met while doing this work and it provides me with a deep sense of motivation.

One day in the Life of Joseph Dana

Sharfaf and I were taking a small break from the day’s events in Nilin. He is a photographer with activestills and one of the veterans of this dangerous protest against the occupation.
Although I agree totally with Joseph, regarding an end to exclusionary Zionist policy of segregation and a move towards a one state solution where the conflict will be based on democratic rights for all the citizens of the state, I do wonder will this ever now be possible? Are there just too many tensions to make this a reality?

Today is prisoner day and the weekly protest featured hats and t-shirts for everyone involved that were adorned with pictures of the various Palestinians sitting in Israeli jails for planning and participating in the weekly act of resistance that Nilin has become known for.

The actual protest begins violently. Before even reaching the wall, the gate separating us from the Israeli side is open. The soldiers are waiting for us. When we are in sight the first shots of tear gas come raining down. Almost immediately, an Israeli is lightly injured when an aluimin tear gas canister, which was shot directly at him, bruises his butt.

The soldiers enter the village shooting live bullets in all directions and cover the area with tear gas. The protest moves up, climbing a hill close to the village entrance, the protesters on top of the hill and a group of Israeli soldiers at the bottom.

The Palestinians throw rocks and the soldiers respond by firing tear gas canisters directly at the protesters. Eventually, the soldiers run up the hill. It is not too hot this day, so the soldiers have no choice but to make the extra effort.

Eventually I get caught in a cloud of tear gas. It always happens at least once and the only positive thing that I can say is that it clears one’s sinuses.

I find a rock to recover on for a moment and survey the situation. I look to my left and see Palestinians throwing rocks, soldiers firing tear gas/live bullets and off in the distance the wall in front of the settlement of Hashomin. I look to my right and see planes descending into Ben Gurion Airport and the skyline of Tel Aviv in the hot haze that always blankets central Israel.

The situation is once again bizarre. At the point in the protest, all of the Israeli cell phones begin to buzz. We have news that an Arab Israeli resident of Jaffa has been seriously injured in Bilin. The news is that he was hit directly in the forehead with a tear gas canister and is being rushed to the hospital. Yoanthan Pollack, the Israeli spokesman of the Popular Struggle committee, is with us today in Nilin.

He immediately goes to work on his blackberry and small laptop writing press releases, calling lawyers, and connecting the media. The resistance is now high-tech. Activists are carrying laptops to demonstrations and protests in order to get an upper hand on the all-important media war.

Eventually the protest is moved back into the village. The tear gas keeps coming mixed with live bullets.
After half an hour of violent exchange between the soldiers and the Palestinians, the soldiers begin to depart the scene. At this moment, I notice three United Nations observers complete with their light blue uniforms on the roof of one of the houses. I had never heard of the UN doing anything connected to the popular struggle and so it was confusing to see their presence.
The protest ends.
We get back in the car to Tel Aviv. Yonathan is in front always on the phone, writing emails on the computer about the incident in Bilin. We pass through the villages asking locals where the army checkpoints are located. On this day, the army gambled that we would take the back way through the village leaving the main entrance free of a checkpoint. We stroll back to Tel Aviv on the proper roads of the occupation.

Joseph Dana is currently doing a series of speaking events in New York City on behalf of the Anarchists Against the Wall and the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee Anarchists.

More writings by Joseph and his photography can be found on his website.

Lynda Renham-Cook is associate editor at The Scavenger.

All photos by Joseph Dana. Taken from the scavenger article which can be found in full with photos at

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