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Saturday, January 13, 2007

Today with Hedy Epstein

A warning to my readers, the below article contains graffic passages.

Today, my teenage daughter and I went to an event in Los Angeles sponsored by Women in Black at which Hedy Epstein, a Holocost survivor, ardent anti-Zionist, human rights worker spoke. Hedy did not speak of her own biography today, but from her website I garnered the following information: Hedy was born August 14, 1924 in Freiburg, Germany. After Hitler came to power, Hedy's family tried unsuccessfully to leave Germany. She spoke today of remembering her parents saying they would go anywhere, but never to Palestine because they were ardent anti-Zionists. In May 1939 Hedy went to England on a children's transport, 500 children were on that transport, part of the almost 10,000 children that England took in between December 1938 and September 1939. Hedy never saw her parents again. Her parents were eventually sent to concentration camps. After the war, Hedy returned to Germany and worked for the US government. She became a participant in the Nuremburg Medical Trial at which the doctors who had experimented on humans were tried. Part of why she went back to Germany was to find her family. She was unsuccessful, her entire family had been sent to Auschwitz where they had been killed. In May 1948 she came to the US and became active professionally and personally in the causes of civil and human rights and social justice.

Hedy told us today that when she was younger, she had mixed feelings about the state of Israel. On one hand she said, she was glad there was a place the Jews could go after the Holocost. But always weighing on her thoughts, were the memories of her own parents anti-Zionism. Her mother, Hedy said, always said, "Zionism will come to no good". As the years passed by, Hedy worked in the field of human rights, but, she said, Israel was on the "back-burner of her mind". That changed for Hedy in 1982 when she heard of the massacres at Sabra and Shatilla. Shortly after this Hedy began a chapter of Women in Black in St. Louis, Missouri where she resides.

Five years ago a dear friend asked her, "Hedy, have you ever thought about going to Palestine?" Up til that moment she said, she had never put her desires in words or actions, but when asked this question by her friend, she immediately said, "Yes, I am going". Hedy did not know where the response came from, but at that very moment, Hedy set her mind on going to Palestine, and the manner in which she would venture there at age 78 would be as an ISM (International Solidarity Movement) volunteer.

Today Hedy spoke to us of her experience becoming an ISM worker, the vigorous training the volunteers must undergo in order to perfect non-violent protest. If a volunteer cannot perfect this art, then they are simply not accepted. In total, Hedy has been to the Occupied Territories four times, the first two times as an ISM volunteer, the third as a representative of her congressman, and the last time for the international meeting of Women in Black this last year in Jerusalem.

Hedy spoke of her first impressions of Palestine, how when she arrived, the ISM volunteer simply called a Palestinian family on the spot and said, "I have four women here, and they need a place to stay". Hedy told us this is normal for ISM, it works because there is NEVER a problem finding a home to take the volunteers in. No matter how poor the host family is, they welcome the volunteers with open arms, willing to share all they have. Hedy wanted us to know, she wanted to tell us, this is the culture and hospitality of the Palestinian people. From her own experience, her gentle voice, Hedy put the audience in that place.

She attended MANY protests, and was tear-gassed and shot at by the IOF many times. The first demonstration she attended, the IOF opened fire upon the crowd and her friend, an Israeli who had only four weeks before been released from the army but who himself felt he must stand against his own government's actions, was shot, only a few feet away from her. Her friend who came with her from the States, standing directly next to her was hit by shrapnel. Both the Israeli who had stood with ISM and Hedy's friend were taken by an old rickety car to the nearest hospital. Hedy's Israeli friend til this day cannot walk due to the wounds he sustained that day. Hedy attended many demonstrations, in Ramallah, Belin, Hebron, Beit Umar and other places in her two visits as an ISM volunteer. She also lost her hearing due to a sound bomb which exploded at her feet. But what happened to Hedy, at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, is almost impossible for her to speak about.

On returning home to the States after her second trip, Hedy and her friend were to fly out of Tel Aviv. When Hedy and Diane approached security, something happened, the officer split them up, Diane in one line, Hedy in another. Hedy didn't know what was happening at first. She thought to herself, "Well, Diane is Christian and I am Jewish, maybe they have separate lines for each". She was pulled aside as an officer flipped through her passport. Then, as if they came up out of the ground next to her, stood two men saying they were security and she must follow them. She was frightened, but when she went to pick up her bag the officer said, "No, we will carry that for you".

Hedy replied (because she was trying to make light of the situation) "Oh you are porters, I thought you said you were security." Sternly they led Hedy to a room in which she was interrogated about her time in the Occupied Territories for five hours.

Then the officer said to Hedy, "You must take off your clothes, we need to search you".

"No, I will not take off my clothes, I need to speak to an attorney" Hedy replied.

"What, you want to call an attorney? There is no phone. Take off your clothes NOW"

"No I will not do that, please, I won't do that" But then Hedy thought, "I need to get out of here, I need to cooperate to get out of here" So Hedy removed her clothes.

"Bend over" said the officer.

"What for, why do I need to bend over?"

"BEND OVER, it is for security!"

Afraid for her life, Hedy Epstein bent over to be searched, naked, in an interrogation room in Ben Gurion Airport.

What followed on the trip home was a fog for Hedy. She and Diane missed their flight. The next day they flew home on Elal which was not the airline they had reserved on. Hedy does not remember much of her flight home. Diane told her that the flight attendants treated Hedy very badly. Hedy does not remember this. All Hedy remembers is taking the magazines from the pocket in front of her and writing on every page, "I am a Holocost survivor and I will NEVER return to Israel"

Hedy spent the next year receiving the counseling she needed to recover from the dehumanizing abuse she received in Israel. She has since been back twice, once as an aid to her congressman's office and again this last summer for the International Conference of Women in Black. Palestinians who receive this treatment on a constant basis do NOT receive counseling, nor do they have anywhere else to go.

Today, when Hedy began to speak, she said, "First a little house keeping". Please reserve all questions for when I am done speaking. At the end, you may raise your hands and you can wait until I call on you. If you are disrespectful or try to make statements rather than asking questions, I will turn around and face my back to you. I have been speaking for many years now on this subject, and I find this is what works best for me"

My daughter and I were sitting in the middle of the room. In the row behind us, sat some people who could not stop speaking amongst themselves as Hedy spoke. Under their breath, but clearly audible to my ears I heard them over and over say, "Liar, liar, you are lying, you are an anti-Semite, you are a self-hating Jew, you love terrorists, you are a f--g bitch, you will die in hell for your lies". As my tears ran from Hedy's story, they were assaulted by the ugly voices behind me. I turned to them several times and glared. I turned and said "PLEASE be quiet and let her speak". I received nasty nasty glares in return. The hatred was seething behind my own back.
The very minute the moderator stood to say, "Now we are ready to...."

The man sitting directly behind me jumped into the aisle and shouted:

"You have said what you want to say, now I will say what I have to say. The Women in Black raised their voices for him to sit down but he shouted, "My fourteen year old son was involved in a double suicide bombing. He had to carry his friend out in his arms. His friend almost died from these TERRORISTS. Israel does NOT want to occupy, Israel NEEDS Security. You are a LIAR. You are here to LIE to these people and I will not let you do this'

Some men went over to him and ushered him back to the seat directly behind me. Hedy then addressed him, "I am against violence of any sort, no matter who does it. I did not come here to talk about what you are talking about, I came here to talk about my experiences in the Occupied Territories and what I had happen to ME and what I saw, how Israel treats the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. The world knows of your story and I am VERY sorry for what happened to you. I will never condone violence of any sort, and I also will not listen to shouting. The world will hear me TOO".

The words are not coming to my fingers of how I felt myself at that moment. Why did this man want to silence Hedy Epstein? I know why he did, because this is what they do best, try to silence people. Try to shout, try to intimidate, hell, the intimidation I felt at my own back as he sat there was absolutely chilling. I looked at my teenage daughter and she was visibly frightened from the venom released from these people surrounding us. It was TENSE.

More shouts from the audience in back of me came as Women in Black called on polite people willing to raise their hands to ask questions. The row in back of me kept muttering, "Liar, liar, she is a f----g liar"

Then Women in Black said that the questions were closed. Pretty much all hell broke loose as one woman yelled loudly, "You will NOT shut us up. This is America!! Go to hell, you are a LIAR!!"

Several people ushered her to the back corner as she continued to yell, "This is AMERICA, we do NOT live by SHARIA law here. You WILL NOT SHUT ME UP!!"

Eventually some people were able to quieten her as the rest of the audience got to go forward and speak to Hedy personally.

By the time I reached Hedy, I had already talked to Pat from Women in Black who I have been corresponding with the last week. I asked her if this was normal, since the last event they sponsored for Mohammed Omer was nothing like this. Pat told me "Yes, there is a group of them who come to most everything. We know who they are, and we know what to expect" I did NOT expect this. Call me naive, call me just a person who expects civilized behavior, but today was one of the most emotionally frightening two hours I have spent. And that was just here in a public library in Beverly Hills. For GOD's SAKE, what is it like to experience this on a daily basis. To be despised like the Palestinians are themselves by the Zionists. I cannot begin to put into any words, only tears streaming from my own eyes, even as I write. This is the gravest injustice, the GRAVEST injustice.

When I reached Hedy, I said, "Hedy, you are an angel"
She replied, "No I'm just Hedy"
I said, "Just Hedy, God bless you and may angels always be with you"

Palestine, one day soon, Inshallah, you WILL be free. May God lift you up to where you rightfully belong, and protect you from all harm. May you hold in your arms, YOUR people in YOUR land.

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