Part I – The Bubble or The World? : From Eco Communities to “Jericho is like Africa”

In All by Teju Adisa-Farrar

“Jericho is like Africa.”

-Muhammad, Palestinian from Jericho who goes to EcoMe to learn English

If there are multiple forms of resistance: being in a community that is like a bubble or being in one that mimics all the realities, good and bad, of the world–I always and every time will choose the world. I don’t enjoy misery, but to me being in a bubble that largely ignores what’s going on in the world is a sort of delusion. My opinions about my short stay in two different eco communities in Israel is in no way objective and purely based on my feelings, political views, and generally the type of person I choose to be in the world. What follows is a rather lengthy reflection of, more generally, my time in Israel thus far and my time specifically exploring the questions: if these types of eco communities are like bubbles blocking out what they see as negative or if they are like havens reminding people of the beauty in the world or if they are actively creating a safe space as a mode of resistance, etc. 

Propaganda Starts at the Airport

Upon arriving to the Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, named after Israel’s first prime minister, I immediately felt the presence of Israeli nationalism. Besides all signs being in Hebrew and English, there were many historical photos and texts decorating the airport. One of these proudly stated: “Jews and Christians living together peacefully.” I couldn’t help but wonder about how the Muslims, who have been there just as long, figured into this equation. Well, they do not. Much of history is founded on negation and denial of the other, that alone was clear in the airport. 

The border control were very confused about what I was doing in Israel and had no idea about the eco community I spoke of, in fact they were questioning whether it even existed. After 20 minutes of going back and forth with the border guard and his manager I was let out of the airport and headed the 30km out of Tel Aviv to the Shdemama community that I’d heard so many good things about. 

No, Thank You

Shdema

I will start by saying that online one can find so many praises about Shdemama from volunteers who have been there. Once I arrived I was told they get a lot of American volunteers and some Europeans as well. The full time community residents are a few Israeli men and one Israeli woman. Shdemama really operates in collaboration with international volunteers. They were very welcoming and although their community looked a bit chaotic everyone seemed to be happy. My first night after dinner I asked the people who live there and other volunteers who have stayed for a while why they like being at Shdemama. Most agreed living off the land and living sustainably is the right way to live. They all mentioned they like the people in the community and that everyone is welcome. And one resident said, “it’s like a paradise.” 

When I first got to Shdemama on Sunday morning, I immediately began helping volunteers: putting compost around the trees, mulching, and cleaning the very messy kitchen. As I was washing dishes one of the residents scoffed and said to me: “so much soap, I hardly use soap at all, I just put it in the water.” I looked at the dishes and the eco friendly soap I was using, immediately worried about hygiene standards. Although I appreciate the measures used to save water and not consume much energy I do have different hygiene expectations that were not met by Shdemama. That aside, the three days I was there no one talked about anything happening in the news or politics. The Adam Sandler movie, Don’t Mess With the Zohan, was referenced frequently and lots of music was played. We ate many avocados and mandarins that fell of trees. As a sustainable vegetarian community they believe the best way to consume fruits is to wait until they fall rather than picking them; a young girl who spends time there, Odelia, said “this way is less violent.” 

The back of Shdemama is like a ecological junkyard/wasteland

I felt like I was in a bubble while there; I nearly forgot Trump was president and where in the world I was. That is very much the affect these communities thrive on. They have decided that the best way to help the world is to consume less, grow food, be happy and dirty (in my opinion). This is their form of resistance, not mine. Firstly, any community that claims to be inclusive and does not include the populations in their country that are most oppressed is, to me, not truly inclusive. Secondly, disregarding what is happening in the world and instead opting to create a safe bubble, that is really only safe and inclusive for a certain type of person who has the freedom of mobility and the luxury to choose to live without certain comforts (heat & hygiene), does not attempt to change any structural issues. Although this community is not aiming to be political or impact change at the institutional level, they are a key example of having the privilege to ignore macro level issues. 

I had a few serene and joyful moments at Shdemama: walking through the rows or orange trees, talking with people there who felt so free being in that community, eating fresh fruits and vegetables, the little joys like making popcorn from kernels and watching a Wes Andersen movie in the mud house. I met a Swedish young woman, Marie, who I had many genuine and vulnerable conversations with. Once she heard about my project in Israel, and my frustration with having not come into contact with any Palestinians as of yet, she told me I needed to go to EcoMe: an eco-peace center forging communication between Israelis and Palestinians. Although not apart of my original plan I was eager to meet Palestinians and have a change of scenery. Thus, the next day I went with her to EcoMe. We took one bus to Jerusalem and another from Jerusalem to Almog Junction ending up at EcoMe, which is close to Jericho and about 20km from the Dead Sea. As soon as I entered the community–Mazen, a Palestinian who came back from Germany after 40 years to start this community center, greeted me and said: “We’ve been waiting for you.” 

Israel Needs to Apologize and Palestinians Need to Heal

On the bus to EcoMe, entering Area C

As soon as I arrived at EcoMe I met Mustafa and Mohammed (quoted in the title) who are from Jericho. Mustafa was making dinner and teaching me some Arabic phrases while translating our conversation to Mohammed who is just learning English. Mustafa is a second generation refugee; his family was displaced in the 1950’s by one of the earliest Israeli settlements, as such his grandparents and parents fled to Jericho where he was born and grew up. I met another young man who had the same story as Mustafa. Jericho is one of the oldest Palestinian cities and a sort of safe haven for Palestinian refugees from around the country.

EcoMe is in Area C, which means a region where both Israelis and Palestinians can move around freely–in theory. Palestinians still get harassed, but less so than in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, for example. Mazen told me the center was started in Area C so both Palestinians and Israelis would feel comfortable going there. He explained to me that his feelings are: what happened has happened. He believes that Israel needs to apologize for displacing people, colonizing/occupying a land and claiming that no one was there. He thinks the best solution is to create one nation with a new flag, a new government, and then build from there; he referenced what Mandela did in South Africa. He told me EcoMe is a place for a few things to happen, in no particular order: 1) for people who want to live sustainably and help conserve water–especially in a desert where water security is an issue; 2) where Israelis can come and be with Palestinians, leaving their guilt from what they did in the military outside (*note: all Israelis have to serve in the military, it is a crucial part of their young adulthood and has various impacts on their psyche); and 3) where Palestinians can come to see Israelis as people outside of the military and begin to let go of their hatred for them. All in all, Mazen says EcoMe is a place of healing for all where people from different cultures and religions confront the conflict with workshops and activities that encourage nonviolent communication and bridging communities. 

I instantly felt more alive and comfortable at EcoMe. I am so happy to finally be around Palestinians and talk openly about what has happened and is happening in this country. Most of the international volunteers at EcoMe are Swiss and German white women, and one of the community managers told me they’ve never had a Jamaican-American. I think they’ve probably never had a Black person in general because they have not had any African (descent) or Caribbean volunteers at all. Mazen asked me if Jamaicans come from Nigeria, saying “but they are Africans.” I told him some people believe Jamaicans are descendants of Ghanians, but like Black Americans we don’t know the precise origin. This is when Mohammad said, in the little English he knows, “Jericho is like Africa!” referring to the climate and some aspects of the culture. 

To be continued…