Curating Syria’s Revolutionary Art

This piece was previously published at Your Middle East.

The past three years of peaceful protest and brutal civil war have generated an efflorescence of cultural production among Syria’s artists. Formally educated painters, musicians, and directors have joined with activist amateurs to document the political mobilization and violence that dominates the country. The resulting works have been both didactic and subtle, and often deeply moving.

With hundreds of works appearing online every week, curators and scholars have struggled to capture the creative zeitgeist of revolutionary Syria. Of the many Facebook feeds, exhibitions, and articles devoted to the subject, three stand out. Since early 2011, the website Creative Memory of the Syrian Revolution (www.creativememory.org) has uploaded nearly 1,000 items to an online archive of revolutionary art. Since its inception in June 2011, the Facebook page al-Fann wa al-Huriyya (www.facebook.com/art.libertie.syrie) has showcased hundreds of paintings, drawings, and digital graphics based on the situation in the country. And in January 2013, Éditions de la Martinière released the first book-length study of Syria’s revolutionary art, Syrie: l’art en armes (ISBN 978-2-7324-5765-9).

Each of these three sources grapples with the central question faced by Syrian art in a time of war: the relative value of aesthetics and politics. Is a work of art valuable for its formal sophistication and aesthetic merit, or for its political and emotional message? In selecting works for spotlight, the curators of Creative Memory, al-Fann wa al-Huriyya, and Syrie: l’art en armes reveal distinct perspectives on the intersection of art and politics.

Creative Memory of the Syrian Revolution describes itself as an “online archive” intended “to gather and spread the messages expressed by the different artworks and other cultural productions and to help Syria’s artistic resistance… create networks among themselves and connect to the outside world.” The site subscribes to a broad definition of “artworks and cultural productions.” In addition to archives of revolution-inspired painting, sculpture, and music, the site includes sections devoted to street protests and banners, graffiti and murals, and digital posters linked to particular political campaigns.

Thematically, the works aggregated on Creative Memory range from subtle to didactic. One of the first drawings posted on the site, Youssef Abdelké’s 2011 “Butterfly and Knife,” shows a delicate butterfly fluttering precariously at the edge of a blade. An inoffensive allusion to the threat to Syrian unity posed by the conflict, the work contrasts strongly with Ayham Jomaa’s 2013 drawing, “Revolutionary Court.” In a visual manifestation of the violent excesses of certain segments of the Syrian opposition, the work shows three bodies hanging from a shadowy gallows with the labels “regime militiaman,” “taking advantage of the revolution,” and “stealing from the revolution.”

Subtlety does not necessarily protect artists from regime scrutiny. This week, Abdelké and two friends were arrested at a government checkpoint outside of the city of Tartous, the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression reported. No formal charges have been publicized, but Al-Akhbar hypothesized that Abdelké was targeted for signing a recent petition in support of the uprising.

Al-Fann wa al-Huriyya calls for artists from Syria and across the Arab world to submit artworks “in solidarity with the Syrian people, with liberty, against violence.” The site spotlights paintings, drawings, sculptures and digital posters, with a smattering of videos and installations. Unlike Creative Memory, it also endorses specific political campaigns, such as the defense of the Syrian cartoonist Ali Farzat. (Farzat, whose satirical images included veiled criticisms of Bashar al-Assad, fled Syria in 2011 after unknown assailants broke his hands in a Damascus street attack.)

The dominant themes of al-Fann wa al-Huriyya have shifted over the site’s two year existence. Early posts spotlighted the work of commercial artists like Tammam Azam and Youssef Abdelké, whose allusions to the Syrian uprising were restrained. As the conflict continued, however, the page has uploaded increasing numbers of works with didactic references to al-Assad and the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Blood, dead bodies, and suffering children have emerged as thematic tropes. In many instances, the dramatic content of a work has overshadowed its formal characteristics.

Unlike the two sites, Syrie: l’art en armes is carefully curated to avoid offending western aesthetic and political sensibilities. The book begins with a series of images of pre-revolutionary regime propaganda, including a large banner that melds an image of Bashar al-Assad with the written declaration “we love you.” The central section showcases 19 Syrian artists, selected by French curator Delphine Leccas. Leccas, who lived in Damascus until 2011, culled through 18 months of Facebook posts to select images that, in an implicit contrast to the regime propaganda, are formally sophisticated and politically vague.

Many of the works in Syrie: l’art en armes were generated by anonymous artists or collectives, such as a series of fictional memorial stamps produced by a post-Assad government and a set of posters calling for Syrians to attend street rallies. Others were produced by professional artists like Tammam Azam and Akram al Halabi. Leccas avoids images with explicit references to the FSA or al-Assad, or with Christian or Islamic imagery. Although a number of works include violent imagery such as tanks or bullet holes, the artists do not explicitly assign blame to the al-Assad regime.

In erudite introductions to their collections, the curators of Creative Memory and Syrie: l’art en armes identify the Syrian uprising as a trigger for aesthetic exploration and increased creativity among the country’s artists. The curators of Creative Memory declare, “The revolution established a space for ingenuity that has astounded us… we wonder,  where had all this talent in satire, art, and innovation been?” Leccas writes, “The experience of civil war paradoxically offers an unimagined freedom of creation for artists. It constitutes a moment of rupture that bursts through the limits imposed by the academics of neo-colonial art institutions, the conformity of the local art market, government censorship, and the conservative morals of society.”

This argument is overly simplistic. The decades of uncontested al-Assad family rule did not arrest aesthetic experimentation among Syria’s artists. Nor did the regime prevent artists from expressing dissenting political viewpoints, albeit in subtle ways. ‘Umar Amiralay’s 2003 film A Flood in the Ba’ath Country presents a sophisticated critique of the al-Assad regime. By filming Syrian civilians reciting scripted Ba’athist propaganda, Amiralay masterfully questions political repression in rural society without overtly criticising the government.

The curators of Creative Memory of the Syrian Revolution, al-Fann wa al-Huriyya, and Syrie: l’art en armes minimize the serious risks that the ongoing civil war poses for Syria’s artists. Leccas’s celebration of the breakdown of “neo-colonial art institutes,” “the local art market,” and “conservative… society” ignores the essential role that these institutions play in supporting art production. The conflict has ruptured Syria’s networks of cultural and aesthetic exchange by displacing thousands of artists. Facebook pages and occasional group exhibitions do not substitute for geographic proximity, consistent institutional and familial support, and daily interaction with Syria’s physical and social landscape.

These three compilations of Syrian revolutionary art document the last wave of production by Syria’s antebellum art scene. The country faces an extended period of war, severe poverty, and a mass exodus of intellectuals. The recent flowering of the arts is temporary: Syria’s cultural scene will require years to regain its former strength.

Iranian-Israeli Relations: The Human Story

This piece was previously published at Your Middle East.

In recent years, Iranian-Israeli enmity has become a dominant paradigm for understanding the complex politics of the Middle East. The two countries wage cold war on one another through local proxies or cyber-attacks; belligerent public statements advertise and heighten the conflict. With a major presence in political and media discourse, hostility between Tehran and Tel Aviv is now widely perceived as instrumental in the decades-old conflict between Israel and the Islamic world.

Before the Revolution, a new film by Dan Shadur, seeks to challenge the popular perception of permanent animosity between Israel and Iran. Shadur’s film examines the community of Israeli expatriates that settled in Tehran in the 1960s and 1970s. Through interviews with members of the community, the film shines a light on the web of economic, military, and political relationships between Israel and pre-revolution Iran.

Much of the film reviews information about official Israeli-Iranian relations that is already widely known. As documented in books like Trita Parsi’s Treacherous Alliance and Samuel Segev’s The Iranian Triangle, Israel and Iran were close allies during the Pahlavi period. The two countries conducted trade for both civilian and military products, exchanged technological and military expertise, and maintained covert diplomatic relations. The alliance was based on both pragmatic needs and a shared ideological opposition to pan-Arab nationalism.

In addition to statements from members of the Israeli military and diplomatic apparatus in Iran, Before the Revolution includes interviews with Israelis who came to Iran in a civilian capacity. Largely employees of Israeli or international firms with contracted projects in Iran, these individuals and their families formed a close-knit community in Tehran.

Shadur’s narration states that Israelis felt “at home” in Iran, and the film attributes their comfort primarily to the community’s high standard of living. “Why did we go there?,” one interviewee asks rhetorically. “Because the salaries, in comparison to Israel, were unbelievable.” Another interviewee marvels that her family was able to afford a domestic servant who washed clothes “by hand.” Archival footage shows Israeli expatriates reclining beside swimming pools, attending elaborate parties, exploring a luxurious department store, and hobnobbing with the Iranian elite at the Shah’s rococo palace.

Before the Revolution attributes this wealth to a quasi-colonial economic structure. Several interviews reference the poverty and political repression experienced by large segments of Iranian society. Others openly discuss official Israeli support for the Shah’s dictatorial regime and their own complicity in a deeply unjust system.

Although valuable, the film’s focus on Israeli economic and military ties to Iran provides a disappointingly narrow view of relations between the two countries. The relationship between Israel and Iran was not based solely on common racial animosity, arms sales, or quasi-colonial economics. The settlement of Israeli expatriates in Tehran was part of a broad network of civilian movements between the two countries. These movements engendered interpersonal relationships between Israelis and Iranians that were central to cordial relations between the two countries.

The covert allegiance between Israel and Iran enabled members of Iran’s large, indigenous Jewish community to move freely between the two countries. Many Jewish Iranians travelled to Israel to visit family, to study, or for medical treatment. With social networks that extended between the two countries, Jewish Iranians often served as middlemen between Israelis and Iranians of other faiths.

It was not unusual for Muslim and Christian Iranians to visit Israel. Some, like the legendary political theorist Jalal al-e-Ahmad, studied Israeli society and government. Others travelled to Israel for medical treatment in the country’s widely respected hospitals. In 1977, at the cusp of the revolution, more than 900 Iranians received medical treatment at Jerusalem’s Hassadah Hospital. Iranian patients in Israel came from a range of social and religious backgrounds, from the Shah’s sister to poor citizens who paid for treatment with contributions from friends and relatives.

A significant number of Israelis came to Iran as tourists. The country offered breathtaking scenery, a rich ancient heritage, and a cosmopolitan urban society. Judaism (if not political Zionism) was widely accepted. Iran held a special attraction for Israeli citizens born and raised in Middle Eastern countries like Iraq. Arabo-Islamic culture was largely taboo in Israeli society, and Iran provided a space for some Israelis to reconnect with certain elements of their ancestral cultures.

Before the Revolution largely ignores these aspects of the Israeli-Iranian relationship. The single ethnic Iranian in the film, Iran-born professor David Menshari, is identified only as an Israeli who “studied in Tehran.” None of the Israelis interviewed describe non-professional relationships with Iranian civilians.

Ultimately, Before the Revolution only reinforces the current paradigm of perpetual conflict between Israel and Iran. In the film’s Argo-like final scenes, the Israeli expatriates flee screaming mobs of revolutionary civilians and lie their way past armed militiamen. An unrestrained Iranian populace reverts to apparently innate hostility towards Israelis. Unsentimental Israelis drink celebratory champagne as their plane departs Iranian airspace. 30 years of Iranian-Israeli camaraderie is portrayed as a state-imposed illusion that disintegrates without a hint of resistance.

The Golan Heights on Film

This piece was previously published at Your Middle East.

In the far north of the Golan Heights, 20,000 people carry identity documents that read “Nationality: Undefined.” When Israel occupied this sliver of Syrian territory in 1967, the army systematically pushed 95% of the civilian population from the area. The few thousand Syrians who remained in the Golan have been left in limbo. They and their descendants are eligible for both Israeli and Syrian citizenship, but the geopolitical situation prevents them from integrating fully into either state.

This limbo has become increasingly uncomfortable over the past two years. In Syria, a deadly civil war has disrupted longstanding notions of national unity and obscured the country’s future. And in Israel, a hawkish government has bombed Syrian territory and questioned the place of non-Jewish citizens by proposing ethnically specific loyalty oaths and authorizing de-facto residential segregation.

Two recent feature documentaries explore the complex relationships between residents of the Golan Heights and the two nations that they straddle. Both films were produced as collaborations between European directors and local interlocutors and producers. (A broader recent efflorescence of local film production in the region—including dramas by Ehab Tarabieh, reportage by Hamad Awidat, and art films by Akram Al Halabi and Randa Maddah—is beyond the scope of this article.) Together, the documentaries paint a picture of a community where national identity is complex, shifting, and destabilizing.

“Not Israelis, Not Syrians”

In 2007, Irish filmmakers Jill Beardsworth and Keith Walsh arrived in Majdal Shams, the largest town in the Golan Heights. The two were in search of a subject for a documentary film and discovered a community that was “rich in stories.” Beardsworth and Walsh visited the Golan repeatedly over the following four years and documented local culture and politics with the assistance of local resident Hamad Awidat and others. The fruit of their labor, the feature documentary Apples of the Golan, debuted at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival in February 2012 and is scheduled for an online release in spring 2013.

Apples of the Golan melds two distinct documentary styles. In-depth interviews with local residents narrate the region’s history and contemporary society. In alternating sequences, largely wordless footage of local scenery and community practices complements or contrasts with the statements of interview subjects. The aesthetic parallels local culture: physical reality is constantly contested and re-interpreted under the mediation of local and regional politics.

Much of the film attempts to capture the zeitgeist of Golani society, a close-knit community with a unique history and high rate of endogamy. The filmmakers explore local agricultural practices with an eye towards the place of apple farming in communal culture. Performances by the local bands al-Aḣkām (Judgements) and Toot Ard (Strawberry) provide a window into the local music scene, an important cultural nexus for young members of the community.

Apples of the Golan also explores tensions in local society. One moving interview relates the story of Hassan Mahmoud, a resident of Majdal Shams who was ostracized from the community for marrying a Christian woman. (Mahmoud’s story is also dramatized in the 2004 Israeli feature film The Syrian Bride). Most of the civilians who remained in the Golan Heights after 1967 were adherents of the Druze faith, a heterodox offshoot of Shi’i Islam that prohibits religious intermarriage. Although many members of the contemporary Golani-Druze community are socially and religiously liberal, intermarriage remains largely taboo.

The film’s most significant focus is the complex relationship between contemporary residents of the Golan Heights and Syria. For the past 45 years, the passage of people and information across the ceasefire line between the Golan Heights and other Syrian territories has been limited. Restrictions have loosened somewhat in recent decades, and more than 3,000 civilians have received permission from Israel and Syria to cross the line since 1990. But most residents have never visited Syria proper, and it is unclear if Israel will ever withdraw from the Golan Heights.

Beardsworth and Walsh profile two members of the community who crossed the ceasefire line under vastly different circumstances. Laila Safadi, born and raised in the Syrian city of Suwaida, received permission from Israeli and Syrian authorities to resettle in Majdal Shams to marry a local man. Safadi left her natal family in Syria and established a marital family in the Golan Heights, thereby rooting herself on both sides of the ceasefire line. Hatim Said Ahmed, a lifelong resident of Majdal Shams, also crossed the ceasefire line in pursuit of a romantic partner. Unlike Safadi, Ahmed did not receive official permission for his journey and was detained and tortured by Syrian security forces before returning to the Golan Heights. The experience effectively severed Ahmed’s emotional identification with the Syrian state.

The contrast between the two stories illustrates the range of relationships that exist between individual residents of the Golan Heights and Syria. Many interlocutors tell Beardsworth and Walsh that they consider themselves Syrians. Several sequences show parents and community leaders teaching young children the principles of Syrian patriotism. But other residents identify primarily with their local community. In one eloquent interview, two members of the hip-hop group al-Aḣkām state bluntly that they are “not Israelis, not Syrians, nothing. From an occupied area, closed.”

“We are a place closed to the world”

The tension between membership in a close-knit local community and in the Syrian nation is explored more fully in the feature documentary Shout. Filmed on both sides of the Israeli-Syrian ceasefire line, Shout follows three young men from the Golan Heights during an academic year in Damascus. (Students from the region receive full tuition scholarships to the University of Damascus, and nearly 1,500 local men and women have enrolled since the mid 1990s.) Each of the three reacts differently to life in Syria, and their experiences reveal the spectrum of relationships that residents of the Golan Heights form with their ancestral homeland.

Shout was directed by Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Ester Gould with production assistance from Basel Al Abdullah and Orwa Nyrabia in Damascus and Yasser Khanger in Majdal Shams. The film debuted in 2010 at the Doxbox Festival in Damascus and the Movies That Matter Festival in the Hague. It is currently available on DVD.

The film’s central narrative follows the traditional form of a buildungsroman. Childhood friends Bayan Amasha and Ezat Abu Jabal leave Majdal Shams for their freshman year in Damascus. Over the course of a year away from home, the two change clothing and hairstyles, learn to live independently, and adapt to a new environment. They struggle to balance their continued connection to the Golan Heights with the new lives that they build in the city. And they drift apart: Ezat moves in with an aunt and begins to date a classmate, while Bayan struggles to assimilate to the new environment and fantasizes about returning home.

Although Bayan and Ezat transition from youth to adulthood in a comparable manner to their compatriots in other countries, Shout underscores the particularity of their experience. Unlike their classmates, students from the Golan Heights are only permitted to return home once per year, during the summer intercession. They communicate with their families, in part, by standing at the ceasefire line with megaphones and shouting across a minefield. After they finish their degrees, they are required to choose to settle permanently in either Syria or the Golan Heights – waiving their right to cross the ceasefire line to visit family or friends on the other side.

The film’s third subject, college senior Mahmood Mahmood, eloquently explains the results of this policy. After spending five formative years in Damascus and building close social and romantic relationships, Mahmood can only remain in the city if he permanently abandons all face-to-face contact with his family in the Golan Heights.

The choice between Syria and the Golan Heights ultimately separates Ezat and Bayan. At the close of the film, the two return to Majdal Shams and debate whether or not to re-enroll in the University of Damascus for the coming year. Ezat rejects the idea of remaining in the Golan Heights, declaring, “there’s nothing to do… we are a place closed to the world.” Bayan responds, “I am here, Majdal Shams”—an echo of Mahmoud Darwish’s ode to Palestinian identity, “I am from here, and I am here.”  In 2009, Ezat returned to Damascus to study theater, while Bayan remained in the Golan Heights and began a job in construction.

“Only God, Syria, and Bashar”; “Only God, Syria, and Freedom”

Neither Shout nor Apples of the Golan focuses on the civil war in Syria, which erupted well after the former film’s completion and during the final production of the latter. The conflict has come to dominate contemporary understandings of both Syria and the Golan Heights, however, and has reshaped the reception of both films.

Apples of the Golan includes interviews with both supporters and opponents of Bashar al-Assad. The film presents support for the regime as part-and-parcel of a fervent Syrian patriotism that is common among residents of the Golan Heights. In maintaining focus on the community within the Golan Heights, however, Apples of the Golan does not engage directly with the recent violence in Syria.

Some viewers have questioned the film’s ambiguous attitude towards the Syrian conflict. The Dubai International Film Festival declined to screen Apples of the Golan, in part, because the film could be interpreted as supportive of Bashar al-Assad. An organizer wrote the directors in September 2012, “Emotions are high here about Syria, and it would be hard for us as a festival to appear to condone the regime, if you see what I mean.”

Shout also spotlights a range of Golani perspectives on the Assad regime. Ezat’s paternal grandfather, a retired member of the Syrian parliament named Shakeeb Abu Jabal, endorses Assad at several points in the film. In contrast, Mahmood Mahmood describes antebellum Damascus as a dystopian police state. Mahmood states, “Only the stupid are not afraid, you have to be… There are red lines when you talk about certain subjects… you must not cross them even when you are speaking with friends.”

When Shout premiered in Damascus in 2010, Lubbe Bakker and Gould screened a shortened made-for-television cut of the film. This version included Shakeeb Abu Jabal’s patriotic support of Assad, but excluded Mahmood Mahmood’s discussion of the local police state.

The devastating violence in Syria has also strained relationships between supporters and opponents of the Assad regime in the Golan Heights. Tensions culminated on a Friday evening in July, when the two factions held rival rallies in downtown Majdal Shams. In an incident that appears at the close of Apples of the Golan, crowds of dueling demonstrators traded chants like “Only God, Syria, and Bashar” and “Only God, Syria, and Freedom” and flung eggs and rubbish at their opponents.

The directors of both Apples of the Golan and Shout intentionally showcased multiple perspectives on the Assad regime—capturing the complexity and diversity of the relationship between the Golan Heights and the Syrian state. The films’ local producers, however, felt pressured to choose sides in the increasingly rancorous debate between supporters and opponents of the regime. After contributing to documentaries that neither explicitly endorsed nor condemned Bashar al-Assad, Hamad Awidat and Yasser Khanger began to express polarizing opinions on the situation in Syria.

Awidat, the associate producer of Apples of the Golan, declared uncompromising support for the Syrian regime in a 2011 interview with the Jerusalem Post. In discussing the violent crackdown on civilian protestors, Awidat stated “for me there’s no problem killing 1,000 people if they are breaking windows, burning fires in the street, making problems.” In contrast, Shout  production manager Khanger became an outspoken proponent of the uprising against the Assad regime. In December 2012, Khanger released a lengthy statement on YouTube that declared, in part, “in this period, the revolution is everything in my life.”

Awidat and Khanger began to declare radical political positions after completing work on their respective films. Many of their neighbors, however, have remained politically “undefined” in order to avoid conflict. Individuals with permission to cross the ceasefire line – including many students – have increasingly cancelled or postponed their trips. Few have applied for either Israeli or Syrian citizenship, partly because Syria’s future remains ambiguous. In a region riven by conflicts, continued existence in “a place closed to the world” may be their best option.

Reflections on NYU and Income Inequality

On 2 March, I and other members of the NYU undergraduate class of 2013 received an email from university president John Sexton. Sexton wrote that  “college affordability” was “one of the greatest challenges of our university.” He asked students to “tackle this issue together” by contributing to a special scholarship fund for incoming undergraduates. The fund, he hoped, would eventually provide $50,000 to supplement university financial aid for needy students.

Sexton’s concern for the financial well-being of NYU undergraduates was admirable. The school’s students graduate with the highest average debt burdens in the United States. University administration has long acknowledged that its financial aid offerings are out-of-step with its tuition. In 2009, employees personally called thousands of admitted students to warn them that, if they decided to attend NYU, the university would be unable to provide them with the financial assistance that they required to pay tuition.

The day after I received Sexton’s email, the New York Times published the second of two articles regarding bonuses and other financial assistance offered to some of the university’s highest paid employees. One earned more than $650,000 in bonuses after quitting his position as executive vice president to accept a position at CitiBank. Another employee  received more than 1.2 million after leaving the NYU medical center to found a rival institution.

The contrast between Sexton’s email and the Times report was astounding: NYU claimed to be so desperate for money that it needed contributions from current students at the same time that it paid nearly 2 million dollars to two former employees.

This contrast replicates itself throughout the university community. The New York Observer  reported that a handful of university staff fly to Abu Dhabi each month on first class tickets just days before NYU students began scrounging to pay the just-increased $112 monthly cost of commuting to school via subway. The athletics department hired three full-time coaches to run a swim team with 22 members in the same summer that one of its student employees graduated with thousands of dollars in debt for his undergraduate education. The student in question had not received sufficient financial assistance from the university despite the fact that his parents had in the midst of bankruptcy proceedings at the time he applied for aid.

Although many students were outraged at the revelations of exorbitant university spending on faculty, the gap between majority-poverty and minority-wealth is not unique to NYU. In 2009, the median net worth of households led by people between the ages of 18 and 35 was a miniscule $3,622. Meanwhile, the wealthiest Americans control an ever-growing percentage of the nation’s capital. As an NYU spokesperson wrote in an email to the university community following the Times  reports, “the markets for different positions often dictate different levels of compensation.” In layman’s terms: the university pays exorbitant salaries for certain positions because competing institutions pay comparable amounts.

It is striking that students continue to enroll at NYU despite their awareness of the university’s high cost. One explanation for this phenomenon lies in the continued national fetishization of both wealth and college education. In American culture, university attendance is synonymous with upward mobility and economic success. For some university administrators and faculty, this trajectory is real. For many students, in contrast, education impoverishes rather than enriches. NYU only reproduces the broader class division that cleaves our society.

Palestinian Children and Israeli Soldiers: Perceptions of Banality and Abuse

This post was previously published at Born Equal.

Every day in the West Bank, Palestinian children meet Israeli soldiers and policemen. These interactions occur on the streets, in private homes, at checkpoints, and inside interrogation rooms. In many instances, the Palestinians are only a few years younger than their Israeli interlocutors, and the two may live in close proximity to one another. But each interaction between an armed Israeli and a civilian Palestinian is mediated by a larger geopolitical context of prolonged occupation, inequality, and violence. A Palestinian child and an Israeli soldier may interpret their meeting very differently: their perceptions of reality are shaped by past experiences and oral accounts or media portrayals of parallel situations. In extreme cases, the Israeli may regard the interaction as banal and quotidian, while the Palestinian experiences abuse and chronic trauma.

Bethlehem-based social worker Vicky Hosker has written about one such interaction between an Israeli soldier and a seven year-old Palestinian girl named Yara. While passing through a local checkpoint, Yara dropped a candy wrapper on the ground. A soldier reprimanded the girl by casually threatening to imprison her for littering. The soldier, not realizing that arbitrary imprisonment at the hands of Israeli forces is a real and chronic threat for many Palestinian children, likely expected the girl to interpret the threat as a joke. But the comment terrified Yara, who later hid in a wardrobe to escape the soldiers who, she imagined, would arrest her during the night.

Israeli soldiers may also subscribe to the widespread perception that Palestinians are somehow more resistant to trauma than their Israeli peers. This idea takes many forms. One Islamophobic theory holds that Muslim parents habituate their young children to violence as preparation for sectarian warfare—an idea that was at the heart of a 2009 YouTube video that was selectively edited to imply that the Palestinian militant group Hamas systematically brainwashed children in the Gaza Strip and trained them as soldiers.

Palestinian sympathizers often adopt a variation of this theory by marveling at the apparent strength and steadfastness of Palestinian children exposed to political violence. At a screening of the documentary Five Broken Cameras—which shows Palestinian children tear-gassed at demonstrations, arrested late at night, and dead after clashes with Israeli soldiers—an Israeli teenager commented that her Palestinian peers were “coping beautifully” with the occupation. A video of the screening, circulated online by Cameras co-director Guy Davidi, did not indicate that the teenager or her classmates understood the chronic trauma that the film’s young subjects may experience.

In a number of instances, Israeli soldiers and police officers have permitted the production and release of photographs and video footage documenting their interactions with Palestinian children. The free circulation of such documents—which occasionally record serious violations of international human rights law—indicates that many armed Israelis do not perceive their interactions with Palestinian children as abusive. In February 2013, an Israeli soldier published a photograph on the social media website Instagram that allegedly showed a young Palestinian boy in the crosshairs of a sniper rifle. In 2010, an Israeli photographer was permitted to accompany a police unit during a raid on a family’s home in East Jerusalem. The photographer later published images of police officers pointing automatic weapons at very young children. And in a moving 2011 testimony to the Israeli veterans group Breaking the Silence, a former soldier stated that his unit had filmed themselves arresting a Palestinian teenager late at night. The soldier subsequently screened the footage to his mother and sister before realizing, in horror, that the arrest had been reprehensible.

When a Palestinian child meets an Israeli solider, the two may understand their interaction in sharply contrasting ways. The Israeli may view the interaction as harmless and will have no qualms about recording her/his actions for posterity. The Palestinian, in contrast, will remember the interaction with fear and may experience psychological trauma as a result. The difference between these two perceptions has repercussions for both sides. For the Palestinian–the weaker party in nearly every such interaction–the repercussions are infinitely more severe.

Mashrou3 Leila Debuts in North America

This piece was previously published at Your Middle East

At 9 PM on Thursday night, a stretch of sidewalk in Montreal’s Gay Village neighborhood thronged with stylish twentysomethings speaking the distinctive Arabic-English-French patois of the city’s Lebanese immigrant community. The diaspora had turned out in force for the North American concert debut of Mashrou3 Leila, the Beirut-based rock band that has attracted a passionate following across the Arab world for its fusion of local and Western musical styles and culturally transgressive lyrics that capture the zeitgeist of the region’s rapidly changing societies.

Mashrou3 Leila formed in 2008 during a late-night jam session at the American University of Beirut. They released their first album the following year and began to build a following outside of their hometown, playing major concerts and festivals in Lebanon, Jordan, the Gulf countries, and Egypt. In 2011, they released their second album (an EP) and expanded their concert circuit to Serbia, the Netherlands, France, Tunisia, and Switzerland.

The sold-out Montreal show celebrated the completion of recording of the band’s upcoming 10-track album with a Montreal-based Lebanese producer. During two hour-long sets, they played a series of hits from its previous records, new tracks from their upcoming release, and Arabic-language covers of Western popular songs.

The band’s musical virtuosity was on full display in the intimate 750-capacity club, an elegant crimson- and gold-painted former theatre. The seven musicians played tightly together, producing the band’s trademark multi-layered sound. In addition to their usual instruments–bass, drums, guitars, keyboards, violin–they experimented with new sounds. During a performance of “Ne me quitte pas,” Jaques Brel’s 1950s French ballad, two band members played mouth organs while a third fiddled his electric guitar with a violin bow. In the introduction to the unreleased track “3a Babo,” frontman Hamed Sinno distorted his voice through a small megaphone.

The group captivated the Montreal audience with its infectious enthusiasm. Lead singer Hamed Sinno danced enthusiastically across the stage, while violinist (and de-facto second frontman) Haig Papazian fiddled furiously or kept time with his violin bow in the air. During upbeat hits like “Raksit Leila” (Leila’s Dance) and “Fasateen” (Dresses), the audience danced, clapped, and sang alongside the band.

At times, Mashrou3 Leila blurred the line between performer and audience. They tossed oreo cookies and a paper airplane with members’ signatures into the crowd. Sinno guided the audience in two sing-alongs and, during one song, held the microphone to a particularly enthusiastic fan in the front row. During the encore performance of the downbeat “Inni Mneeh,” Sinno sat on a monitor at the front of the stage, hand-shaking distance from the crowd.

Sinno also charmed the audience with his onstage humor. After playing two downbeat songs, the unreleased “Bashuf” (I See) and popular “Shim al-Yasmine” (Smell the Jasmine), the singer joked that the evening had become “a Lebanese soap opera.” He introduced “Latlit” (Gossip) with a lengthy Arabic-language monologue parodying Lebanese gossip about the band and “Wajih” in comedically broken French. And, throughout the evening, he theatrically flirted with violinist Papazian onstage. (Sino is openly gay; Papazian is not.)

Sinno’s sexuality was part and parcel of Mashrou3 Leila’s cultural and political liberalism, on full display at the concert. The band dedicated “Fasateen” to a mixed-religious couple in the audience, who Sino advised not to “give two flying fucks about what your parents think” to loud applause. They performed a new song titled “Li al-Watan” (For the Homeland), which Sino announced had been recently rewritten to reflect “the shit going on back home,” in reference to the recent wave of sectarian strife in Lebanon.

A few minutes after the concert’s end, Sinno and Papazian re-emerged to greet fans. Sitting on the edge of the stage, they signed autographs and posed for photographs and videos while chatting casually with fans in Arabic and English. The musicians and their audience had grown up 10,000 kilometers apart, but the music of Mashrou3 Leila had rendered this distance irrelevant.

Debating the Syrian Revolution in the Graffiti of Majdal Shams

This piece was previously published on Confluence.

After an evening organizing meeting in early August, a group of Syrian activists crammed into a small sedan in Majdal Shams, a bustling town in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. As they drove through the community, the activists scouted for outbreaks of graffiti in opposition to or support of embattled Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. On a steep residential street, the driver pointed out a painting of the black, green, and white flag displayed by Syrian revolutionaries. He had painted the flag months before, he said, but Assad supporters had recently marred it with black spraypaint. A few blocks away, a passenger commented on a solid patch of black paint on the asphalt at the foot of a bronze statue. A few days earlier he had painted President Assad’s face on the earth with the label “step here,” but his political rivals had quickly covered the offensive image.

The drive was the latest episode in a months-old conflict between opponents and supporters of Bashar al-Assad in Majdal Shams. The dispute expressed itself through many media—from rival street demonstrations to comments on online message boards—but was most visible on the town’s walls. An individual would express one political position through a spraypainted slogan. Then, an opponent of the declared position would paint over the slogan and replace it with a new phrase denoting his own position. Over the course of months, patches of concrete developed into palimpsests of political arguments as rivals painted, erased, or altered layers of dueling slogans.

The graffiti battle in Majdal Shams is not an isolated phenomenon. At least since the first Palestinian Intidada in the late 1980s, Arab political activists have adopted public walls as spaces for political expression and dispute. Over the past 20 months, graffiti has played a highly visible role in the wave of anti-regime uprisings across the Arab world. In some instances, graffiti has functioned as direct protest. Last March, a group of children in Dar’a, Syria painted “The People Want the Regime’s Fall” on a public wall. Local police arrested and tortured the graffiti-writers, spurring Syria’s first major protests. Other graffiti serve as crucibles of national community. In Cairo, a series of murals along Muhammad Mahmud Street meld Pharaonic, Islamic, and secular political imagery. The images bring together Egyptian artists and local passerby, who pose for photographs in front of the murals and protect them from authorities’ attempts to erase them.

The following gallery highlights representative examples of anti- and pro-regime graffiti that appeared in Majdal Shams from June through August 2012 (when I was living in the town on a research trip underwritten by Gallatin’s Dean’s Award for Summer Research and Jewish Studies Fund). The photographs are my own; local political activists occasionally assisted with translation.

The anti-revolution graffito “Death to the Traitors” has marked one of the town’s main streets at least since summer 2011, when it appeared in a European documentary film about the Golan Heights. Local opponents of the current Syrian regime (the accused “traitors”) never attempted to erase the slogan. It is possible that they left it intact as a means of discrediting local supporters of the regime, who they frequently accused of violence in interviews with foreign media. Often, they labeled pro-Assad neighbors “shabiha,” the Arabic word for hired thugs who attacked anti-regime protestors in Egypt and other countries.

Anti-regime activists began to paint images of Bashar al-Assad with the label “Step Here” on the asphalt at a rally in Majdal Shams in early July. Attendees posed for photographs stepping on the graffito, a symbol of their disgust with the president. Within days, local regime supporters had covered the offensive graffiti with gold paint.

On the same day that they erased the offensive paintings of Bashar al-Assad, regime supporters painted the pro-Assad slogan “Only God, Syria, and Bashar” at the site of the town’s anti-regime demonstration. Reproducing a popular chant at local rallies in support of the regime, the graffito introduced a loyalist perspective to a space usually dominated by regime opponents. At a demonstration that week, the anti-Assad activists publicly modified the slogan to read “Only God and Syria,” removing their rivals’ political message.

A committee of five young activists painted most of the anti-regime graffiti in Majdal Shams. Their work rarely survived untouched for long: local regime supporters monitored walls and painted over their political rivals’ messages. This overpainted graffito of a raised fist read “You are the Nation, Be the Revolution.”

The most recent message on this wall was the anti-regime slogan “The People Want President Bashar’s Fall,” a variation on the Tunisian anti-regime chant “The People Want the Regime’s Fall.” Assad supporters transformed the graffito into a pro-regime message by overpainting the gerund “fall” (asqāṫ) so that it read “The People Want President Bashar.”

The graffiti battle between opponents and supporters of Bashar al-Assad frequently dialogued with the most significant political movement in Majdal Shams: the campaign for an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Regime opponents combined their opposition to the Assad regime and to Israeli rule of the Golan in a single graffito that read “Down with Bashar al-Assad” and “Occupied Majdal Shams Wants Freedom.” The graffiti-writers chose a symbolic site for the message: a ruined compound in the abandoned city of Qunāiṫra that served as headquarters for the Syrian military before the Israeli takeover of the Golan Heights and is now a training ground for the Israeli army.

An Exit Examination at Israel’s Ben-Gurion International Airport

Leftist expatriates in the Occupied West Bank discuss the exit examinations at Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport with striking regularity; debating the best way to hide their past residence or travel in the Palestinian territory from the airport’s security forces. According to rumor, the airport evaluates departing travelers for their political beliefs and activities and possesses the authority to deny future re-entry to any individual deemed likely to assist the Palestinian anti-occupation movement.

Over the course of two weeks in and around Ramallah, I heard this discussion repeatedly among volunteer teachers and agricultural workers, journalists, and employees of major humanitarian organizations. Some of my acquaintances brainstormed elaborate cover stories and forged documentary evidence of activities on the Israeli side of the Green Line. A few debated mailing their identifiably Palestinian possessions out of the country to avoid arousing suspicions during baggage searches. One fretted that the Israeli army had photographed her at a recent peaceful protest and perhaps forwarded her image to the airport. A third changed her name on Facebook and purged her Gmail account of all references to Palestine in fear that security would conduct digital research into her time abroad.

In recent years, there have been several high-profile cases of foreign visitors denied re-entry to Israel on alleged grounds of their political support for Palestinian resistance—including the Jewish-American academics Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein. I can’t testify to the influence of an airport exit examination on one’s future prospects of getting an Israeli entry visa. On my recent trip through Ben Gurion International Airport, however, I learned that the security services may identify a traveler as a security threat based on her/his possession of seemingly innocuous Arabic-language materials.

I arrived at the airport a few minutes after 8 AM for a 10:15 flight to London on El Al, Israel’s national airline. In the check in line, a young security officer asked me a few basic questions about my time in Israel: what was the purpose of my visit, did I have any relatives in the country, had I visited previously, et cetera. She directed me to put my luggage through a scanner. Another officer than directed me to a nearby counter for a hand search of my luggage—possibly because the screener identified suspicious items in my suitcase, but more likely because of my responses to questioning.

I chatted with the friendly officer as she began to hand-search my suitcase. She took a cursory glance at a stack of books and other materials and noticed two Arabic items, a DVD of the 1980s Syrian comedy al-Hudud and a children’s picture book from the Golan Heights called “Swallow and Fish.” She and a balding man (apparently a supervisor) asked me if I spoke Arabic, where I had studied it, and where I had acquired the materials in question.

“Swallow and Fish” ['Asfur wa Samaka], by Iyad Mdah

“Borders” [al-Hudud], dir. Duraid Lahham

The supervisor departed and summoned further assistance. A crew of officers arrived and conducted a thorough search of my luggage. They individually examined each electronic item or container of liquid/gel and scanned it for potentially explosive content. They debated over a half-filled bottle of Head & Shoulders shampoo, and eventually permitted it on the plane on the condition that it be packaged separately in an eighteen-inch tall cardboard box and loaded separately from my suitcase.

After the 40-plus minute examination had been completed, a young bearded officer directed me to a side chamber off of the terminal lined with small curtained cubical. “I’m sorry,” he said, and proceeded to feel the entire clothed surface of my body with his hands (with the exception of my pelvis, which he rubbed with an explosives sensor mounted on a foot-long handle).

After the body search, a security officer escorted me and my luggage through an expedited check-in process and to the entrance of passport control, where special screening procedures ceased.

At no point in the search did any member of the security forces behave uncourteously or unprofessionally towards me. Unlike many travelers with connections to the Arab world, I was not detained for an excessive length of time and have no reason to suspect that I will be denied future entry to Israel. I do find it troubling, however, that Ben Gurion International Airport considers a traveler’s possession of a particular book or film to be potential evidence of a security threat.

Most strikingly, my materials were deemed suspicious solely because they were written in Arabic. Only a generation ago, Arabic served as the lingua franca of 70% of the Israeli population (enfranchised Palestinians and Mizrachi Jews), and the language remains dominant among the country’s non-Jewish Lebanese, Palestinian, and Syrian communities. Airport security has yet to recognize the centrality of Arabic to Israeli culture and society, leading it to blindly label all travelers with Arab links as vaguely threatening ‘others.’

Resisting Dictatorship/Resisting Occupation: the Anti-Assad Movement on the Golan Heights

Versions of this piece were previously published at Challenge and Your Middle East.

Three evenings a week, Syrian dissidents gather in Majdal Shams to organize their contribution to the revolution against Bashar al-Assad. Regular attendees include Facebook activists, graffiti-writers, former political prisoners, and venerable intellectuals. Some nights, the group spends hours debating the news, brainstorming protest slogans, and strategizing for its weekly demonstrations.

Such meetings have become commonplace in much of Syria, but are unprecedented in Majdal Shams. Israel has governed this bustling town since it occupied Syria’s Golan Heights region in 1967. The population lives comfortably in Israeli society, and many residents work in Israeli companies or attend Israeli universities. Most, however, have refused Israel’s offers of citizenship and advocate for the territory’s return to Syrian jurisdiction. They face an uphill battle: the Golan Heights has been fully integrated into Israel for more than 30 years, and the government exerts considerable pressure on the population to assimilate into the Jewish State. For decades, local secular intellectuals and religious scholars have allied in resistance to Israeli rule, the community’s primary political movement.

Growth of a Movement

The anti-Assad movement in Majdal Shams began to coalesce in the weeks after popular uprisings overthrew longstanding dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia. As demonstrations dragged on in Libya and on the Arabian peninsula, a group of politically-aware residents staged a small rally in Majdal Shams to express solidarity with the protestors. The event empowered activists to create a private Facebook group to organize further events in support of the Arab uprisings.

Days later, anti-regime protests erupted in the Syrian city of Dar’a, fewer than 40 kilometers from the Golan Heights. Administrators of the new Facebook group organized meetings to discuss a local response to the protests. The group composed a manifesto in support of the new uprising that declared, in part, “everyone who attacks our people, the Syrians, is an enemy.” More than a hundred local residents signed the document, and a few dozen attended a follow-up anti-Assad rally in downtown Majdal Shams.

The manifesto and the rally were groundbreaking. Signatory ‘Amar Ibrahim said that, in the past, a small council of unelected religious leaders had composed political manifestos that claimed to represent the opinions of the general population. Now, a group of private citizens had organized and declared their own independent beliefs. Ibrahim said, “it was new for us… it was not usual for people in the Golan to stand… against Assad.”

Shahadhi Nasrallah, one of the lead anti-regime organizers in Majdal Shams, said that he and other activists were deeply moved when thousands of Syrians commented on Facebook photographs of the anti-Assad demonstration. The posts marveled that Syrians who faced foreign military occupation also opposed Bashar al-Assad. Nasrallah said that regime opponents in the Golan Heights realized that they could have a “huge influence” on their compatriots across the ceasefire line.

The group ceased meeting during the spring and summer of 2011 due to disagreements over the next stage of the campaign. During these months, individual members forged links with anti-regime activists throughout Syria. A pair of local intellectuals, Wahib Ayub and Salman ‘Amasha, attended an international conference of the Syrian revolutionary opposition in Antalya, Turkey. According to Ayub, the two established relationships with activists based inside Syria and put them in contact with organizers in the Golan Heights.

Ayub joined a global coalition of secular Syrian dissidents and attended further opposition conferences in Cairo and Paris. Others in Majdal Shams formed a Facebook page titled “Coordinating the Syrian Revolution in the Occupied Syrian Golan” to publish news about the protests in Syria and solidarity messages from the Golan Heights (it now has more than 3,000 followers). Some began to work virtually with activists on the ground in Syria by editing video footage and images of the uprising and publicizing them online.

The activists resumed meeting in the winter of 2011. The group organized a second anti-Assad rally in Majdal Shams that drew approximately 150 demonstrators, according to Nasrallah. They purchased a set of revolutionary Syrian flags and planted one on the mountainside above Majdal Shams. And a committee of five young activists began spraypainting anti-regime slogans along the town’s main streets.

In early summer, as the situation in Syria descended into a bloody civil war, the organizers stepped up their activities. They began to hold tri-weekly meetings and weekly demonstrations on Friday evenings in Majdal Shams. They studied YouTube footage of protests in Dar’a and other cities to learn local chants and slogans. Their rallies grew steadily, from a few dozen attendees in early June to a peak of more than 150 in late July.

Local Opposition

Anti-regime activists in the Golan Heights face militant opposition from their neighbors, many of whom oppose the uprising against Bashar al-Assad. Support for Assad remains strong in Majdal Shams, even as the civilian death toll in Syria rises. (Some residents said that the death toll was exaggerated; others said that the crackdown was a necessary price for long-term security.)

Many of the Syrians in the Golan Heights genuinely support the current Syrian regime. Most of the population adheres to the Druze religion (a minority faith that grew out of Shi’a Islam in the 11th century). Many are grateful to Bashar al-Assad for promoting a secular national identity for Syrians and maintaining stability in a region devastated by sectarian strife.

Some receive tangible benefits from the Assad government. Every month, the regime issues salaries to the dozens of Golan Heights residents who were employed by the state before 1967. Since the 1970s, thousands of local students have received full-tuition scholarships to attend the public University of Damascus, with many earning lucrative and respected degrees in medicine or dentistry.

Other residents publically endorse the regime for pragmatic reasons. Some fear that their relatives living in Assad-controlled territory could suffer reprisals if they endorse the uprising. Others worry that, if the Golan Heights returns to Syrian rule, the regime could punish the population for disloyalty.

Perhaps most important, many residents feel that organized opposition to Assad hampers the continuing struggle against Israeli rule. Disagreements over the uprising in Syria divide anti-occupation activists, weakening the movement. And criticism of Assad puts regime opponents in an uncomfortable alignment with the Israeli state, which loudly criticizes human rights violations in Syria.

The anti-Assad activists in Majdal Shams realized the extent of local opposition to their activities in early summer 2011. In response to Wahib Ayub’s and Salman ‘Amasha’s highly publicized participation in the Antalya conference of the Syrian opposition, the influential Druze religious council in the Golan Heights declared uncompromising support for Bashar al-Assad. The group called on local residents to refrain from all social or business contact with Ayub, ‘Amasha, and any other individual who supported the “conspiracy” against the Assad regime.

Many of the activists dismissed the boycott call. When a local news website published the council’s manifesto, a number of residents posted comments declaring support for Ayub and ‘Amasha and their willingness to endure social and economic ostracism for their political beliefs. Nasrallah said that the boycott was “not a big deal for me, I think they have the right to do whatever they want.” But, according to Ibrahim, many individuals who had signed the activists’ original anti-Assad manifesto removed their names from the document to escape the community boycott.

A few months later, the religious council rescinded the boycott. Local opposition to anti-Assad activism continued along other channels. Regime supporters painted over the revolutionary graffiti in Majdal Shams. Some attended anti-regime rallies and verbally harassed the protestors.

On a few occasions, local opposition to anti-Assad activism has become violent. In winter 2011, a crowd of more than 100 regime supporters—some armed with sticks—forced anti-Assad demonstrators out of the main square in Majdal Shams. A few weeks ago, a group of regime supporters blocked an intersection in downtown Majdal Shams to prevent activists from leaving their weekly demonstration. At the resultant hour-long standoff, crowds of regime supporters and opponents yelled slogans and flung eggs and other makeshift projectiles. Only the intervention of volunteer peacekeepers (who stood between the two sides) prevented a street battle.

Several anti-regime activists said that they face even greater threats. They repeatedly referred to their local opponents as “shabiha”—the paid thugs who disrupted anti-regime protests in Egypt and other countries. Nasrallah said, “there are shabiha here in Majdal Shams that could… fight with me or kill me.” Other organizers said that a vocal regime opponent who was struck by a speeding car while crossing a busy street was deliberately targeted for his political beliefs.

Resisting Dictatorship/ Resisting Occupation

Anti-Assad activists in Majdal Shams universally said that they opposed Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights. Unlike their pro-regime neighbors, they believed that their nascent movement would ultimately strengthen the community’s ongoing struggle against Israeli rule.

Several organizers cited their Syrian identity as a primary motivation for their activism. Nasrallah said, “we are Syrians and we are against Assad… it’s very logical.” One of the most popular chants at Majdal Shams’s anti-regime rallies has been “the Syrian People is United.” The slogan declared both that Syrians were united in opposition to Bashar al-Assad, and that residents of the Golan Heights remained a part of the Syrian people.

A number of activists said that Bashar al-Assad hampered the movement to end Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights. Ayub and others said that the regime and Israel had made a secret pact exchanging Israeli rule of the Golan for peaceful relations between the two countries. At several rallies, activists referenced this theory by chanting that Assad had “sold the Golan.”

Still, organizers said that the Israeli government exploited the local anti-Assad movement to pressure residents to sever ties with Syria. Since the late 1990s, the state has employed a former member of the community named Mandi Safadi to encourage residents to accept Israeli citizenship. Nasrallah said that Safadi “tried hard” to join the team of anti-Assad organizers in Majdal Shams, possibly in the hope that the activists’ criticism of Assad’s dictatorship would dampen local enthusiasm for a return to Syrian rule.

So far, Safadi’s efforts have not succeeded: anti-regime activists in the Golan Heights remain staunchly opposed to Israel’s occupation. ‘Amar Ibrahim said, “no one can say that living here under the Israeli control is better than living there… in spite of being there under a dictatorship, you’re still living in your own country, your own language, your own flag… living here in Israel with the democracy law does not replace living in your own country.”

The growth of the anti-Assad movement in the Golan Heights may permanently change the community’s anti-occupation organizing. For decades, Druze religious leaders and secular intellectuals allied in opposition to Israel rule. Today, disagreements over the Syrian uprising divide the two groups. Many of the leading intellectuals in Majdal Shams have endorsed the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad, while most religious leaders continue to support the regime.

Members of the revolutionary movement in Majdal Shams face a dilemma. Should they threaten their community’s political unity by battling Assad, or should their opposition to Israel’s occupation overrule their desire to shape a new future for Syria? Surely, the Syrians in the Golan Heights cannot truly attain their national-political rights if they ignore Bashar al-Assad’s attacks on political freedom in Syria.

Israeli Jews Stake Claim to Druze Holy Site in the Golan Heights

This piece was previously published at the Alternative Information Center.

The ruins of Banias in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights testify to millennia of religious activity. The less than square kilometer site encompasses the remains of a Greco-Roman temple to the god Pan, a ruined Byzantine synagogue, a medieval Muslim-built shrine to Saint George, the Ottoman-era tomb of a Druze holy man, and a church and mosque from the 20thcentury. The close proximity of these shrines reveals the close historical relationship between the Middle East’s many faiths.

Fifty years ago, Christians, ‘Alawi and Sunni Muslims, and Druze worshipped side-by-side in Banias. Today, however, only Druze pray at the site. In 1967, when Israel invaded the Golan Heights, residents of Banias and the surrounding villages fled to the nearby Druze town of Majdal Shams where they believed they would be safer from Israeli attacks. After the fighting ceased, the Israeli army permitted the Druze refugees to return to their homes. But it forced the local Christians and Muslims across the ceasefire line into Syria-controlled territory and demolished their villages, leaving only mosques and churches standing.

Banias Maronite Church (ca. 1950)

Banias Mosque (ca. 19th century). Currently used as storage for park maintenance crew.

Recently, a new group staked a spiritual claim to Banias. Over the past twelve months, several groups of Hassidic Jews visited the tomb-shrine of an Ottoman era holy man named Sultan Ibrahim, one of Banias’s two Druze holy sites. To the bewilderment of the local Druze, the Jewish visitors declared that the Sultan Ibrahim tomb housed the remains of Shubael ben Gershon, a grandson of the Biblical Moses. The theory apparently derived from a lost sixteenth century Italian guide to Jewish tombs in the Holy Land, which reported that Shubael’s tomb was located underneath an ancient acacia tree in Banias.

Tomb of Sultan Ibrahim, Banias

The Jews’ visits began in July of 2011. According to local news reports, a group of local Druze men spotted a large gray bus parked outside the Sultan Ibrahim shrine on their early-morning commute to work. They went to investigate, and discovered a large group of Hassidic men standing outside the tomb. When confronted, the trespassers returned to their bus and left the area.

Groups of Hassidic men returned to Banias twice in the following two weeks. On both occasions, Druze passerby ordered the intruders off of the property and reported them to the police.

The visits resumed this summer. On July 5, an individual or small group entered the shrine while a caretaker was working in another part of the property. To mark the Jewish claim to the site, the intruder(s) spray-painted the name of the eighteenth century Ukranian-Hassidic rabbi Nachman of Breslov on the exterior of the building, and painted the Star of David on an interior wall of the tomb.

Exterior graffiti on the Tomb of Sultan Ibrahim

Most recently, this Monday afternoon, a busload of Yeshiva students and a rabbi arrived in Banias to visit the shrine. A caretaker refused to allow the group into the complex, he said, and the bus parked a short distance down the road from the entrance of the shrine. As the students disembarked, they attracted the attention of Druze men driving home from work. Within ten minutes, more than 60 local men had gathered at the front gate of the shrine to “defend” the site. Local police diffused the standoff by ordering the students to leave Banias.

It has not been possible to identify the Jewish trespassers with any specificity. The graffiti reference to Rabbi Nachman indicated, however, that the intruders belonged to the Breslov Hassidim, the sect that Nachman founded. Possibly, they came from Safad, the closest city with a significant Breslov community. (In an email, a representative of the Breslov yeshiva in Safad stated that the school’s students had not visited the Golan Heights on the day of the recent altercation.)

The Druze community in the Golan Heights has taken these incursions very seriously. Soon after the first Hassidim visited the site, the local religious council declared it would “not permit anyone to harm or encroach upon” the shrine. In an editorial on a prominent local news site, a reporter speculated that Jewish worship in Banias would lead to an Israeli takeover of the site, as occurred at Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem and other holy sites in the occupied West Bank.

So far, Israeli police have defended Druze jurisdiction of the Sultan Ibrahim shrine. As the religious right wing gains power in Israel, however, the state’s willingness to defend exclusive Druze access to a holy site claimed by Jews seems increasingly tenuous.