Yuri Gottesman spent his summer volunteering in Israel this year, but instead of picking oranges on a kibbutz, he slept in a terrorist's house that was scheduled for demolition and cleared roadblocks that the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) had set up to hinder the passage of terrorists.
"I decided that I really needed to be in Palestine in solidarity with the Palestinians," said the 24-year-old Jewish San Franciscan of his reasons for going to Israel.
Gottesman is a member of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a motley group of activists from around the world that converge in the West Bank and Gaza ostensibly to encourage the Palestinians to engage in nonviolent resistance against the Israelis. The ISM -- a group of a few thousand people with chapters in North America, Europe and Asia -- see it as their mission to report on what they call Israeli atrocities against the Palestinians, and also to use their status as internationals to act as "human shields," positioning themselves between members of the IDF and the Palestinians, standing in the way of bulldozers poised to demolish houses and placing themselves in crowds so that the IDF will be less likely to use real bullets if violence breaks out.
Invariably, their work has bought them a fair share of praise and criticism. The ISM has been both nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize and banned from Israel by the Israeli government. While some people see the ISM as a 21st century incarnation of the civil rights movement, others see them as honey-tongued supporters and facilitators of suicide bombings and terrorism.
Like Gottesman, many of the members of the ISM -- about 30 percent -- are Jewish, and a large proportion of these come from California. The ISM encourages Jews to join its ranks because they will have an easier time making it through the Israeli borders. Unlike other left-wing groups like Peace Now -- which wishes to achieve peace in the interests of Israel's security and to retain Israel's Jewish values -- the ISM wants to end the Israeli presence in the territories and stop the United States from funding Israel, all in the interests of creating peace for the Palestinians.
Jewish members of the ISM tend to use their Judaism as justification for their work -- seeing it as continuing the tradition of tikkun olam and an essential part of the Jewish tradition of social justice. They feel that at this juncture, being true to Judaism requires helping those who they see as the least fortunate -- the Palestinians. Most are embarrassed by Zionism and seek to distance themselves from the actions of their forebears by going to help Palestinians.
"Something that I have taken from Judaism is to always support the underdog, especially when the underdog is right," said Rebecca Elswit, 24, from Los Angeles, who like Gottesman spent her summer clearing roadblocks set up by the IDF.
These ISMers are idealistic -- several of them cried while discussing their experience in the territories, and others appeared visibly shaken when talking about Israel. They use the same anti-Israel jargon of "apartheid walls," "Israeli terrorism" and the "right to resist the occupation." Some referred to the IDF as the IOF -- Israeli Occupation Forces -- and they all vilified Israelis while blindly canonizing the Palestinians.
"I don't see how Israel is any different to Nazism during World War II," said Darlene Wallach, 52, of San Jose, an unemployed software engineer and Jewish ISM activist. "But the Palestinians are the most kind, loving, wonderful, generous people you could meet and what emanates from the Palestinians is just kindness and generosity and not anger."
Wallach volunteered for the ISM last year, and now every Wednesday she goes to a busy intersection in San Jose to protest against Israel.
While people of all ages are drawn to the ISM, the majority tend to be in their 20s. Several of those interviewed by The Journal had full-time jobs promoting left-wing causes like unions -- others had more conventional jobs like writers or nurses. Most were articulate and put together, many of them acting on the pro-Palestinian rhetoric they had heard in college.
The volunteers in the ISM purport to help Palestinians in the territories in a number of ways. Arla, an Jewish ISM volunteer from San Francisco currently in Israel, who did not want to give her last name for fear of Israeli recriminations, spent some of her time taking photographs of cracks in the walls of Palestinians' houses that appeared there after the Israelis had used dynamite in the area to erect the security fence. Tamara Rattino, 26, from Irvine, used her skills as a midwife to help deliver babies in hospitals that were under curfew. Lynn Cohen, originally from Milwaukee, now living in Los Angeles, would monitor checkpoints that the Israelis set up to curb the flow of terrorists into Israel.
"There was a network of information that came from a cellphone, and the coordinators would say that the Israeli checkpoint was holding 12 people who had been standing there for three hours," Cohen said. "We would go and facilitate their getting through, saying 'This was just a student and they were going to miss their exams and classes.'"
One of the most famous cases of ISM activism came from Rachel Corrie, a Jewish girl from Olympia, Wash., who was crushed by a bulldozer after trying to prevent it from demolishing a house that the Israeli government charged had a tunnel built in it that was used to smuggle weapons in from Egypt. Although Corrie is seen as a martyr of the ISM -- murdered in cold blood by the Israelis -- the IDF investigated her death and found that the driver of the bulldozer was not able to see her.
Another well-known Jewish ISMer, Adam Shapiro, bought food to Arafat when he was besieged by the IDF in his compound in Ramallah. Shapiro married Huwaida Arraf, one of the founders of the ISM, and, although he has been expelled from Israel, he continues to work organizing ISM events in the United States.
According the ISM, the impetus behind these activities is to assist the Palestinians in having a normal life, and they are merely responding in a humanitarian way to a dismal and life-threatening situation. According to the Israeli government, these activities only worsen the situation in the territories and make it much harder for the IDF to fight terrorism. Further, the Israeli government charges that terrorist groups use the ISM as patsies, exploiting their naiveté and idealism to advance their own destructive aims. The ISM denies this.
"If you read the description of their movement on their Web site, you see that they define themselves as a movement lead by Palestinians, with Palestinian activists," said David Saronga, a spokesman for the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Israel. "We are not talking about an international organization -- this is a Palestinian organization that is trying to put itself under the cover of being European or American."
Saronga also noted the most famous indiscretions of the ISM: On March 27, Shabi Sukeyah, a member of Islamic Jihad who had planned a number of suicide attacks, was found hiding in the ISM offices; on May 4, the Guardian newspaper in England revealed that the two British suicide bombers who blew up Mike's Place in Tel Aviv had been to a meeting of the ISM the week before.
"They talk about the right of the Palestinians for armed struggle, as something legitimate," Saronga said. "They say it very clearly with those words. But since they are talking about armed struggle, you can't say that they are pacifists."
Indeed, if you ask a Jewish member of the ISM whether they condemn suicide bombings, you are likely to get a cagey response. Some like Rattino say that they condemn suicide bombings but, under international law, occupied people have a right to resist by whatever means necessary. Others, like Gottesman, take a long pause before they answer, and then will come out with something like, "I condemn all acts of terrorism including Sharon's acts of terrorism and including innocent Palestinians dying every day." While still others like Wallach say simply, "There is nothing that the Palestinians do that in my regard I can condemn. I cannot condemn suicide bombings."
Terrorism expert Steven Emerson told The Journal that according to his intelligence, the ISM collects information for terrorist groups to use.
"I believe that based on what I know, that they are doing intelligence gathering on movement of Israeli forces and relaying it to Palestinian groups," he
said. "I think that the body of evidence of their conferences, of their statements show that they support Palestinian terrorism."
Alan Dershowitz, professor of law at Harvard University and the author of "The Case for Israel" (Wiley, 2003) said that members of the ISM could not be called human rights activists, because they only focus on the Palestinians, while ignoring serious human rights violations in Tibet and other places.
"Why pick the one people whose leaders have been aligned with Nazis and who have used terrorism since 1949?" Dershowitz asked. "They are being immoral, they are on the wrong side of morality, and they are supporting a group that has as part of its policy the murder of innocent civilians."
Dershowitz also compared supporters of the ISM to the Hitler Youth.
"I don't see any difference between naive young Jews who join ISM, and naive young Germans who joined the Nazi youth," he told The Journal. "But ignorance is no excuse. The ISM provides legitimacy to terrorists, and they make it harder for Israel to fight terrorism. There is a word for what they are, and it is not patsies, it is criminals."