A Jewish Boat: The Story of Irene

By Lillian Rosengarten
I want to give you a small sense of the political climate that hovered over us when we attempted to sail to Gaza. The bottom line truth of my experience on the little Jewish boat, Irene is that I became a witness to what I can only call insanity. I am completely indebted to this historic voyage for it has fueled in me a fire, an intense determination to break down walls of hate, to speak out, to shout and condemn Israel’s insane politics and to use myself in the spirit of non violence for I am a pacifist. I support liberation and an open society for Palestinians and Israelis as one. This is my dream to break down barriers of fear and hate. There is no other choice.

When I decided I had to be a passenger on the Jewish boat Irene, it was despite the violence on the Mavi and because of it, both. Already from the beginning, I knew I had to shout out to Israel, to the world, to the Palestinians under siege, “NO, never in my name. I am a Jew and I am like you. We are brothers and sisters. I know your pain and I resist the ghastly and completely illegitimate policies of subjugation, collective punishment and ethnic cleansing.” This is why I had to go to Gaza and I will still go.

A recent article in the Seattle Times was published with headline “Israel PM praises troops who raided Gaza Flotilla (the Mavi)”. He told the men who illegally pirated the boats and brutally murdered 9 human rights activists, “you acted heroically and ethically in your attempt to stop people who sought to kill you.” This is insanity.

The use of the word “moral” in the Israeli context is rather strange, as in Israel’s ‘moral’ army. It is the illusion of a “chosen people” who are superior to other peoples. I hear in these words a tribute to exceptionalism, an inherent racism, an illusion of grandeur that Jews are chosen to live in Israel because it is written in the Old Testament. In my view it is this fantasy that feeds the insanity of Israel’s justification for land-grabbing, occupation and ethnic cleansing. The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) exists as an extension of a strangely paranoid society that believes it must defend itself from extinction. This moral army is praised for patriotism no matter how brutal, no matter how much it exist to enforce apartheid and no matter how illegitimate. One brigade leader, speaking after a ground invasion of Gaza last year said: "I don’t know how to describe it … The lives of Palestinians, let’s say, is something very, very less important than the lives of our soldiers." It’s not hard to see how the moral army represents the culture of its deeply flawed society. From my own perspective as I looked into the eyes of the IDF when they pirated our little boat, I felt fear for I could not see humanity in their eyes.

It pains me to describe Israel in this way. Once I hoped for an open society where everyone who had ever been haunted or hunted could live together freely without fear. Now I must join dissenters in condemning the inhumanity perpetrated on the Palestinians, the ghetto-ization, the attempt to silence peoples who will not be silent but who suffer in the hands of their tormentors.

As in closed societies, those who dissent are imprisoned and thrown out of Israel. Silencing dissent is an act of cowardice and is one way from my perspective Israel has de-legitimized itself to become a militaristic and closed society.

I am one German Jewish refugee who refuses to keep silent and therefore can no longer return to Israel after having been deported. This is humiliating and I know “the right of return” are truly empty words. It is important to be clear that the moral navy commanders who intercepted our boat and the Mavi fleet related to the passengers as the enemy of Israel or worse as terrorists.

This is psychosis in action. Israeli is a mentally ill state. When you combine the idea of moral superiority with a rigid aversion to self-examination, you have a country blind to the consequences of its actions. When everything is justified in the name of moral superiority and fear of annihilation, the result can only be a despicable tragedy as the collective victim mentality is transformed to victimizer.

When I first read that a Jewish boat would attempt to sail to Gaza, I knew I had to be one of the passengers. It was a gut decision and no one wanted me to go including my daughter who quite reasonably feared for my life and unsuccessfully tried to guilt me into not participating. My own impetus was fed by a clear vision, a symbolic message to Gaza that there are Jews who are repelled and condemn the victimization of their brothers and sisters, Palestinians in Israel who equally belong to this land yet have been collectively punished, killed and brutalized in heinous forms of ethnic cleansing. And Israel justifies these actions as a way to protect themselves from being thrown into the sea by those who do not want them to exist. And the US defends this?

The organization in Gaza ready to welcome us is the Palestinian International Campaign to end the siege on Gaza directed by Gaza psychiatrist Dr. Eyad Sarraj. I couldn’t help but be excited especially when a message came over satellite phone that they awaited us and prayed for our safe arrival. The response I received to this invite from folks at home goes like this, “Are you crazy? Hamas would have killed you immediately.” This culture of hate must end before all is lost and the earth becomes a vast desert without life. To witness these hateful, ignorant comments tests our strength and resolve to push on and to not get caught in needing to defend that for which there is no defense.

We were 4 passengers, Rami, Edith, Reuven and myself. Rami and Reuven are Israeli citizens. Our captain Glyn, a British citizen and long time activists sailed our little boat under a British flag. Our crew consisted of heroes: Itamar and Jonatan Shapira, two stupendous men, former air force pilots who said no to bombing and killing. Also two photojournalists also were on board whose cameras and photos were confiscated. Rami had told me he and his wife Nurit’s daughter Smadar (means blossom of the flower,) and sister of Elik, was killed by a suicide bomber in a mall when she was 14 years old. Imagine this family has joined hands with Palestinian families who also grieving as they stand arm in arm together in solidarity. These are the true patriots who together are one in their humanity.

Our group had gathered in North Cyprus, the town of Kyrenia, for one week as we waited for news that the Irene had found a safe port. I had flown to London and stayed with one of the organizers and his wife. Everthing was kept completely silent so that we would not be intercepted by the Israeli secret police. The need for secrecy was nerve wracking but it worked.  Two days later, we flew to Turkish Cyprus where we would in one week time begin our journey to Gaza.

I cannot tell you what it has meant for me to be on this little 1970 catarmaran about 36 feet long, together in solidarity with these activists. We were one in our longing to reach Gaza. If they were to kidnap the boat, they would have to navigate it themselves. The promise of non violence from our passengers and crew filled me with strength and great courage. We would not incite the pirates.
On the Irene that fateful Tues morning, the weather was beautiful as the sun reflected a mirage of gold on the Mediterranean. It was the day we would have reached Gaza and we were now close to 20 miles from shore but still in International waters. At 9dd AM we sighted warships on the horizon moving towards us. Soon we could see the guns and war paraphernalia on board. It was all so surreal. Surely this was not really happening? I felt I was watching a war movie. Several smaller frigates moved too close to us, one in the front, back and on both sides. What act of insanity could this be? For a moment I imagined myself escaping, our small boat of tired Jews surrounded by the Nazi navy but I moved quickly away from this thought. Instead, I tried to imagine in the same space as the warships, a fleet of 4 or 5 pleasure sail boats gliding along as if nothing was happening. It was ludicrous to see pleasure sail boats in the same waters as the warships.  Did they feel protected from the “terrorists” on the small sailboat, by the big Navy fleet? Keep in mind we were a tiny unarmed boat dressed with wonderful flags including the Palestinian flag and dozens of names of potential passengers surrounded by doves sewn by Edith.

All I could think of is why are these warships coming to board our little catamarand with 9 Jews mostly in their 60’s 70’s and 80’s? How did it come to this? What insanity brought these soldiers dressed to the gill with high boots, tasers, guns, helmets and gloves with their fingers uncovered to take over our boat, in essence to kidnap us? One soldier tire down and ripped apart our beautiful flags while we huddled close together, hands linked and sang “we shall overcome.” Although the Israeli press described the kidnapping of our boat as without incidence, it was anything but that. We were one in our stance of passive resistance and non violence. It was crazy as they boarded in large numbers. One had to see this to believe it as a few of them kicked Glyn until he fell as he held onto the wheel. It was all so brutal, so completely unnecessary; insane. They ceased to be human as they dragged Itamar to their frigate, tied his hands and kicked him as he lay flat on his back, his hands tied. Jonatan was by then trying to quiet 82 year old Reuven who lost it when his harmonica’s fell to the floor where they were about to be stepped on. Reuven with a pacemaker inside him became agitated and screamed at the scary looking steely faced soldiers that they should be ashamed of themselves. Luckily we rescued the harmonicas but at that moment I knew if the Mavi murders had not happened, they could have shot Reuven or any one of us. Instead restraint had most likely been ordered. Then we heard a scream. These military robots, 3 or 4 of them had knocked Jonatan onto the ground, pulled away his life jacket and tasered him in his heart. His cry like a wounded animal is something I will not forget. Unconscious, they dragged him onto the frigate. I saw firsthand the dehumanization and the brutality. They picked on 2 true heroes of Israel and I suspect targeted them to hurt them. Since Glyn had made sure the engines would not work, we were towed to Ashdod at a speed of 10 knots, twice as fast as this boat was able to do for we had sailed no faster than 5 knots. We thought the boat could break in two and sat anxiously in our life vests. But this wonderful boat held out for us.

We were towed to Ashdod. It was brutally hot as we were herded from the boat into a courtyard. To get there each of us had to be pulled up a steep stone wall one by one. I noticed someone had pulled away a ladder which would have been less humiliating and easier for us. During our individually performed searches, all cameras, computers and cell phones were confiscated. I soon found myself in a well guarded van with tightly closed shades as we had become prisoners that had been arrested. I was happy to see Edith in the van. Her clothes were still wet from partial flooding on our boat while being towed at such a rapid speed. Despite the heat, she was shivering. I did not know then where the rest of us were. Edith and I were taken to Holon, about an hour drive on the outskirts of Tel Aviv while loud music roared in our ears. All we could say to one another was to acknowledge Israel as a state of collective mental illness.

– Lillian Rosengarten, a refugee from Nazi Germany is a psychoanalyst, Buddhist practitioner, poet, writer and a pacifist. She contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact her at: truthpoem@gmail.com.

(The Palestine Chronicle is a registered 501(c)3 organization, thus, all donations are tax deductible.)
Our Vision For Liberation: Engaged Palestinian Leaders & Intellectuals Speak Out