A friend handed me a leaflet and said I should really check this event out. It had a big title: Anna Baltzer in Detroit. Noted Jewish American author-lecturer-photographer presents her compelling witness of life in Occupied Palestine. There was a photo of the cover of a book titled “Witness In Palestine: A Jewish American Woman in the Occupied Territories.” The book cover was a photo of the back of an old Palestinian man, looking across the fence at his stolen land with a young Israeli soldier standing on guard.
Wonderful, I thought. Another Jewish American Princess feeling sorry for the poor Palestinians. She was to speak on Tuesday, November 13th at Wayne State University at noon and at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Royal Oak at seven in the evening. I went to the evening appearance expecting the same song and dance that I’ve seen in many similar gatherings. But I was pleasantly surprised. The two women speaking at this event were different. They were authentic, real and most importantly of all they connected with the crowd in a way that shocked them out of their complacency into taking action, armed with the truth and a leaflet that showed them how. The presentation was by two young women. Anna Baltzer from California, who went on a Fulbright scholarship to teach English in Turkey in 2003, and while touring Lebanon met in Sidon a Palestinian refugee family who befriended her and invited her to their home and told her a story that she never heard before, that was so far out she could not believe it could be the truth. With her was her friend Hannah Mermelstein, a Philadelphian suburbanite who grew up in a labor Zionist family and was supportive of Israel, until the second intifada when she began to see the injustice, and went as a volunteer to work with the International Women’s Peace Service in 2003, headquartered in the West Bank village of Haras, where she met Anna and they became friends. Their presentation is powerful and compelling because it explains in detail the daily suffering of the Palestinian people and how tightly they are systematically oppressed under false pretenses. She gives the example of the dividing wall that was built on Palestinian land and uprooted over one million fruitful Palestinian tress in the process. “The Israelis claim that they’ve erected it for their security to prevent suicide bombers from entering 1948-occupied Israeli land,” Anna says. “But the truth is that it is not built anywhere close to the Green Line, it is actually built around Palestinian villages and communities to separate them from each other and make life unbearable for the residents.”
Anna shows with her photos how the roadblocks and check points are placed to separate Palestinians from their places of work, and from other Palestinian towns and villages in such a way that for Palestinian goods to reach the consumers two trucks have to back-up to each other, and goods have to be manually transferred from the first truck to the second with the blocks separating them, a process that makes Palestinian products more costly on the shelf, while Israeli products flow freely on their roads to flood the markets, with cheaper prices, forcing the Palestinians to support the economy of their occupier, since they can’t afford their own products! Anna makes no apologies and calls the Israeli practices “apartheid.” She says: “A regime that discriminates against people strictly because of their religion is apartheid.”
She adds, “Because I am Jewish, I can go and live in a settlement and get subsidies on housing and everything, while a Palestinian who owned the land can’t even go there to visit!”
She says that “settlement” is a misleading name, that these are colonies, and the Israelis are colonizing the land. Anna connected well with the American Jewish audience because she helped them make the distinction between being Jewish versus being Israeli versus being Zionist. She urged them to remember the social justice roots in Judaism and recognizing the human rights of everybody. This is totally opposite the concept of Zionism. Hannah picked up the second part of the presentation and talked about two programs she’s involved with. The first is called “Birthright Unplugged,” a group that organizes trips for American Jews to go to Palestine and spend time with the refugees and Palestinian families to understand their plight and see how Israel’s policies, which may seem to them totally innocent, are actually used to systematically wipe away any history of the Palestinians in their land. She gives an example of how she used to send money to help “plant a tree” in Israel, until she saw what those trees were actually used for. She shows a slide of the Palestinian village of Saffourieh in the 1930s and another photo showing what is now called Tzippori in 2006. The whole village was wiped out except for a Roman ruin on the top, and planted with trees, wiping away any history or existence of the Palestinians on their land! The second program Hannah is involved with is called “Re-plugged.” Trips are arranged for Palestinian youth under sixteen who, since they don’t have ID yet, can travel more easily. They arm them with cameras to document their trip and act as their chaperones and take them on a two-day trip to visit three places they cannot otherwise visit and which they’ve been dreaming their whole lives of going to: Jerusalem, the sea and their destroyed villages. Then the kids come back and make exhibits of their photographs to show what they have discovered. She tells a story of a youth who went into a village to see his grandfather’s house, but could not find it, as all the homes were destroyed. The mosque had been transformed into a synagogue. He was able to find where the house had been because his grandfather told him that he carved his name onto a tree that stood in front of the house when he left in the “nakba” of 1948. She shows a slide of the tree with his grandfather’s name still carved on it! At this point in the presentation I noticed a woman next to me squirming in her seat with teary eyes. I had to talk to her, so after the presentation I asked her about her impression. Her name was Caroline Orser, a scriptwriter, who had relocated from Baltimore to the Ann Arbor area to take care of her ailing mother. She said: “I’ve always been pro-human rights and pro-Palestinian, but their presentation connected to me because it put faces in connecting the geography to the historical facts.”
Michael Friedman, an American Jewish peace activist, joined in the conversation and said: “What connected to me most was making the distinction between Israeli, Jewish and Zionist … I feel very uncomfortable with what they (the Israelis) are doing to the Palestinians, because they are ultimately hurting all the Jews worldwide!”
I had to know these two angels better, so I invited them for a “cup of coffee.” They readily accepted. After mingling with the hundred or so people present to answer questions and autograph books, Anna and Hannah packed up what was left of their displays in a white VW bug that had a sticker on it that said “End Occupation, Free Palestine” and we settled in the quiet Beirut Palace Restaurant at the corner of 11 Mile Rd. and Main. Over the dinner conversation, I was able to connect the dots. After Anna met that Palestinian family in Sidon, Lebanon and they told her their story and the injustices that have been inflicted upon them for committing no crime but being Palestinians, she had to find out for her self. So she started her research, then took a trip to Israel, and met with Palestinian families and finally volunteered with the International Women’s Peace Service, where she met Hannah, and they ended up being the only two women left there and that’s how they became real close. Armed with her camera, Anna documented all the injustices that she saw on daily basis, and met with Israeli peace activists and rabbis who were in solidarity with the Palestinians and stood with them shoulder to shoulder facing the soldiers and occupiers, and helped the farmers in planting olive trees and harvesting them. Anna felt compelled to tell the true story of the Palestinians living under occupation, especially to the American Jewish community who are totally misinformed by all the Israeli and American media. “You cannot get the truth out of the American media,” Anna tells her audiences point blank. And she hands them a leaflet showing them all the places where they can get it. “I’d taken a ‘birthright’ trip to Israel, and I’d been shown all the great achievements the Israelis had done, but I’d never heard anything about the heavy price the Palestinians are paying for it,” Anna tells her audience. So Anna wrote her book, “Witness in Palestine,” and printed two thousand copies of it in 2006, and made her website and sent e-mails to all types of organizations and peace activists, and she was surprised by the number of invitations she received to speak. “So I sat down and put all the dots on the map, for all these organizations and for four months I went on a tour by myself, driving my car, setting up, doing the presentation, tearing down and packing,” she said. “And the people have been very supportive, receptive and generous.”
She uses the funds raised to support groups like “Birthright Re-plugged” and others in the international peace movement. “I didn’t want to be a public speaker,” Anna says, “but Hannah encouraged me…”
Six months after she printed them, Anna’s first edition sold out, so she printed the second edition of ten thousand copies and has embarked on her second tour, which started in September and has included Missouri, Arizona, Montana and New England, before she was joined by Hannah in Michigan and Ohio. They will be going on to Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, and end in Colorado by mid-December. The events in Detroit were sponsored by the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights (MCHR), Detroit Friends of Jewish Voice for Peace, Detroit Friends of Sabeel, Michigan Peace Team, Presbyterian Middle East Work Group and Palestine Office-Michigan. To view Anna’s compelling presentation go to her website: www.AnnaInTheMiddleEast.com. To read more about the travel program please visit www.BirthrightUnplugged.Org.