It is often tempting to overlook injustice that does not impact one’s daily life. It is unsettling to acknowledge that millions throughout the world cannot enjoy the same freedoms that many take for granted in this country. It is easier not to think about it. This apathy, however, is what allows oppression and evil to persist in the world. Without brave individuals standing up and speaking out, some of history’s greatest injustices may have never been corrected. Peace and human rights activists focus their efforts on correcting these injustices and making sure that the world does not turn a blind eye to them. While their efforts may not be widely publicized, the impact that they have is undeniable.
One such individual trying to make an impact is Jonas Moffatt. Jonas is an American activist who centers his efforts in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. While Jonas originally arrived in Palestine as a human rights observer for the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), his role has changed somewhat. Jonas became the co-founder of an organization known as the Tel Rumeida Circus for Detained Palestinians (TRCDP). This organization performs circus-style shows in and around Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank. These shows are a way of alleviating tension in what is typically a hostile setting. The TRCDP is certainly a creative approach to activism and also one that is gaining many fans. Whenever Jonas is back in the United States, he and others from both the ISM and TRCDP tour the country educating individuals about their efforts and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in general.
I first learned of the Tel Rumeida Circus when I met Jonas at the Cleveland Sabeel Conference. After the conference, Jonas and I began corresponding and I was also able to gather information from his website and blog. Jonas was more than happy to answer questions that I had regarding his involvement in Palestine and a transcript of my interview follows:
What was your knowledge or understanding of the conflict while growing up/ previous to getting involved?
Before I heard Diana Buttu, a lawyer for the PLO Negotiation Affairs Dept, I didn’t even know where Palestine was on a map. Ms. Buttu was speaking at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA, and I just happened to see the flyer hanging up on campus and decided to hear her lecture, entitled “In pursuit of peace in the Middle East.” My previous understanding was very low. I would have told you that Palestinians were the aggressors or even that Palestine was occupying Israel. But hearing Ms. Buttu speak opened the gates to dismantling the media-version of Palestine and the Palestinians that was forced upon me from as far as I could remember.
How did you first become involved with Tel Rumeida Circus for Detained Palestinians?
I was a human rights observer in the Tel Rumeida neighborhood of Hebron, Palestine, last summer, 2006. One of our duties was to sit or walk the streets in areas of high tension. Tel Rumeida is a Palestinian neighborhood where right-wing, fundamentalist Jewish Israeli settlers have illegally colonized some of the neighborhood. Often, these settlers will attack Palestinians on their way to and from work, school, and home. There is a checkpoint leading into one of the streets, called “Shuhadda St.” which means the street of the martyrs. This military checkpoint separates Palestinians in Tel Rumeida from Palestinians in the larger part of Hebron.
Daily, Palestinians, mostly men in their teens, 20s, 30s, 40s, are subject to arbitrary ID checks. Sometimes, soldiers will detain these men for hours in the hot sun and refuse to give them water.
Another human rights worker and myself, happened to have our circus equipment with us like our poi spinners and juggling pins. We were teaching Palestinian children who live on Shuhadda street circus skills. These children rarely come out and play because they are afraid of being attacked by extremist settlers.
One day, we saw that a Palestinian man was being detained for quite a long time. We decided, in response to this, to try and de-escalate the situation. We started performing next to the checkpoint. Our hope was to put the soldiers in a better mood, to entertain the detainees, to take the focus off of the Palestinians and to place it on us. That first day, the soldiers released the detained Palestinian almost immediately. We showed the soldiers that we were not threatening.
We would return from Shuhadda St. to the checkpoint anytime the soldiers were detaining a Palestinian for long periods of time. And that’s how we adopted our name: the Tel Rumeida Circus for Detained Palestinians.
Can you briefly explain exactly what the TRCDP does?
And eventually TRCDP grew. We were asked to start teaching classes at the community center. Because we didn’t have any funding or additional equipment, we began to make equipment by hand, using cloth and lentils and thread, then sewing them together to make poi swingers and juggling bean bags.
Then, every Friday, we were asked to perform a weekly fire show, choreographed and set to music. Palestinian children and adults from the neighborhood would gather around. Eventually they told their friends and every Friday our circus audience would grow.
At times, Israeli soldiers from the various checkpoints in the area would leave their post and watch TRCDP perform from the background.
Do you feel that being Jewish is a conflict of interest in the line of work that you do?
Katie Miranda, the co-creator of TRCDP is Jewish. You can direct this
question to her at: firstname.lastname@example.org
How are you received in the United States when you tell people about the type of work that you do?
In the US, I am generally well-received by the majority of my audiences. There are times, however, when I am accused of being anti-Semitic or anti-Israel when I speak. My response is that the photos and videos and stories speak for themselves. When you see a wall ripping apart a village and stealing 60% of the farmland, it speaks for itself. When you see Israeli soldiers forcing Palestinian youth to serve as human shields for the army vehicle, the video speaks for itself. They are the policies
of Israel, apartheid laws that not only me, but the entire international community, international law, Geneva conventions, and human beings are against.
But typically people are shocked when they see my presentations and want to get more involved in some way or another.
How are you received by the Jewish American community for the type of work that you do?
When Katie and I were on a speaking tour for TRCDP of the US, we were denied speaking at a couple synagogues, but for the most part, the Jewish American community that I have been in contact with have been very supportive. The Middle East Peace Forum, for example, hosted my presentation in Pittsburgh.
Do you feel that the average American citizen has an accurate understanding of the current situation in Palestine?
NO, I do not believe that the average American citizen has an accurate understanding of the situation in Palestine. I don’t think anyone anywhere in the world can begin to remotely understand it unless they come here and see the situation for themselves, a situation the Desmond Tutu and Jimmy Carter both say is worse than South African Apartheid. Regarding American citizens, I blame it mostly on the media, and the slant they give and their bias towards Israel. I would recommend “IfAmericansKnew.org” for anyone that wants to understand the extent of this Israel bias. It is also the power of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, one of the largest lobbies in the United States, just a step under the gun lobby. These two factors combined make it nearly impossible for the average American citizen to understand Palestine’s situation– unless they happen to have a Diana Buttu in their life.
What do you think is the biggest misunderstanding or stereotype that Americans have of this conflict?
“All Palestinians are terrorists.” I think this is the biggest stereotype. When the media only reports on suicide bombings in Israel and refuses to talk about the massive non-violent resistance movement all over Palestine, or the state-sponsored Israeli terrorism that drops bombs on crowded markets and schools in Gaza, or the demolition of Palestinian homes and olive trees in the West Bank– when all Americans hear are the violent and negative aspect of Palestinian resistance, it
helps to foster this stereotype. When the media over-reports on this violence and does not give a fair account of the Palestinian version- it mandates this stereotype and misunderstanding into the mainstream. It is a stereotype that I once subscribed to. But being here, and living it, and breathing it and feeling it, crossing through military checkpoints and eyewitnessing olive tree uprooting and home demolitions, helps to deconstruct that stereotype, and I would welcome anyone in the US, or the world for that matter, to see the destruction that our tax dollars are causing, in our name. No one can leave Palestine, who holds the “terrorist stereotype”, without having it do a full 180.
Do you believe that current war in Iraq has brought more attention to the Palestinian cause?
I don’t know if, as a whole, the Iraq war has brought more attention to the Palestinian cause. On a personal level, it did for me. This again relates back to Diana Buttu. Her presentation highlighted the inevitable upcoming war in Iraq. This inherently related to Palestine.
The writers and politicians of PNAC, project for a new American century, called for this war in Iraq. Besides the oil, it doubly served as a war for Israel, and her security. So, along with Iraq, surely it brings more attention to the region. Saddam Hussein, the man whose power the Americans helped to create and strengthen, was later put to death at the request of the same people who made him. Saddam’s last words highlighted the Palestinian cause, basically saying that one day Palestine will be free.
Can you describe your feelings and emotions the first time that you visited a Palestinian refugee camp?
Palestinian refugee camps are truly unbelievable and heartbreaking. Here, in some of the most densely populated areas on earth, you have Palestinians who have been kicked out of their homes in what is now Israel. Nearby you can see Israeli settlements with Stars of David waving high and proud, with lush green gardens and water fountains. Then you look to where you are standing, the crowded houses, the children, the mothers and fathers whose faces tell the saddest tales of dispossession and despair– but who refuse to give up, who resist by striving to survive.
Then on some nights, you hear Israeli tanks and military vehicles driving up and down the deserted streets looking for “wanted men.” Curfew may be called by Occupation Forces and no one is allowed on the streets, cannot go to buy milk and water for the children. Patients cannot reach the hospital.
Then you talk to the refugees. Some of them, like their great and great-great grandparents, came from Haifa or Tel Aviv. Then they relocate to the West Bank. Some time later the Israeli government comes in and steals their land to either build an illegal Israeli settlement or to expand an already existing one, demolishing homes in the meantime and becoming refugees twice over. And they end up in the camps, having left their livelihoods, and now relying on international aid so that they can feed themselves and their children.
But they have not given up hope. And you sit with them outside their crowded homes and drink tea and coffee and hear their stories. They have nowhere else to go but back to their homes in what is now Israel. And most of them have not given up on this right of theirs. Some of them showed me their keys and deeds to their houses. And with despair and symbols of military occupation all around them, they can still smile and the hope is still there. And they ask me to take these stories back to America. But my words when I return are up against the words of Fox and CNN.
The camps show you the despair and the plight of the Palestinians, and the undying hope that emanates from it.
How many times have you been arrested or detained by Israeli forces?
Israeli Forces arrest internationals often in Palestine. It is usually during direct actions against the Apartheid Wall or when they try and prevent the demolition of Palestinian homes and farmlands. Internationals with their Palestinian friends will use non-violent techniques to try and dismantle the occupation, like cutting illegal fences which separate Palestinian land from Palestinian land, or they will chain themselves to olive trees that Israeli bulldozers are set to demolish, or they will intervene in a situation where Israeli settlers or soldiers attack Palestinians. According to the Israeli forces, these are grounds for arrest, deportation, or detentions. Just today, a British human rights worker was arrested for supposedly spray painting “Free Palestine” on a wall in the Tel Rumeida neighborhood of Hebron, which is a Palestinian neighborhood under full Israeli military control.
I myself have been detained a few times. Israeli police and border police, just for sitting on the street in Tel Rumeida, serving as a human rights observer, have taken my passport many times. They will detain me in these circumstances until they do a “background check” on me and usually let me go. They, for the most part, know that I am there to witness and document the occupation, and thus, they harass me and try to get me to leave. Once, on a bus full of Palestinians, the Israeli police singled me out and detained me on the side of the road near Hebron. I remained in the sun for one hour. Again, this happens to Palestinians on a daily basis. But sometimes when they see internationals they use these tactics as a means to make us never want to come back. But we do.
Last summer, 2006, Israeli soldiers were beating a farmer in the Hebron region. He was standing in front of a Caterpillar bulldozer, attempting to block the machine from tearing apart his land. The army was destroying the land to make way for the Apartheid Wall. Two Jewish Americans and myself intervened to protect the farmer. We succeeded in halting the abuse, but instead the soldiers detained the other human rights workers and myself. The police came and arrested us. All of this for joining the non-violent struggle to resist land destruction and occupation.
It is apparent from speaking with Jonas that he clearly sympathizes with the Palestinian cause. It is obvious that his time in Palestine has caused him to see past his religious and ethnic heritage and view the conflict with a new lens. Moreover, I was surprised to learn that the Jewish American community was in fact “very supportive” of him. I understand now that there is a distinct difference between supporting the state of Israel and supporting Israeli policy.
Another aspect of the interview that I found very interesting was how the TRCDP originally started. I think it’s fascinating that the human rights workers resorted to entertainment as way to ease a touchy situation. The founding of the TRCDP made me think of literary characters such as Khilmi in Smile of the Lamb and how he uses his storytelling to help himself and others around him transcend their predicament. Both of these examples show the value of distraction in desperate situations. In addition, I also thought of the scene in Wild Thorns where Usama is stopped and interrogated at an Israeli checkpoint. I cannot help but think that a situation such as that one may have been eased somewhat had a circus performance been occurring nearby.
One response that I found very noteworthy dealt with the stereotypes that Americans have of Palestinians. I am somewhat ashamed to admit that prior to taking this class I also would have made the assumption that “All Palestinians are terrorists.” I see now, however, the danger that comes with limited knowledge and a premature desire to choose sides.
Jonas’s vivid description of Palestinian refugee camps is also something that I found important and profound. Having never experienced anything remotely close to living in a refugee camp, I cannot begin to imagine the day to day existence of those individuals. Even more surprising was the hope of the people that Jonas described. It is astonishing to me that individuals, without a home for almost 60 years, can still be optimistic in the face of so much despair.
In retrospect, the overwhelming sense that I got from my interaction with Jonas was simply that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. Jonas Moffatt will not be the individual who brings an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His willingness to act, though, plants knowledge, raises awareness, and increases hope. Jonas said that his involvement started because someone made him aware of the situation that was occurring in Palestine. If Jonas can be a catalyst, encouraging others to act on their convictions as well, then perhaps sometime in the future we will see a lasting, just peace in the Middle East.