Jeff Klein’s Excellent Adventure in Gaza

Jeff Klein’s excellent adventure this summer was a mission to Gaza, the Palestinian beachhead between Egypt and Israel, to witness resilience, as he says, amidst horrific destruction. From Jones Hill in Dorchester, Massachusetts, Jeff Klein is a retired machinist and union leader. He’s an almost regular working-class hero from the heart of the Boston melting-pot, with a highly irregular susceptibility to strangers and suffering, and a need to see things for himself.

He was going to a place that most of us Americans have chosen, or been persuaded, to put out of mind. It’s part of the charm of Jeff Klein’s voice to get us there matter-of-factly: The Gaza Strip, he notes, has roughly the size, shape and sandiness (and roughly ten times the population) of Cape Cod in Massachusetts. But his great gift is his eye for the human essentials.

Most of his fellow-travelers on this trip were Palestinian-Americans. Mohammed, an environmental consultant from Illinois, was going to see his 90-year-old mother in Gaza. Abu Raouf, who called himself Ralph, was going from Tampa to see his mother and brother. The most heart-rending story was about Maher, an engineer in Kansas City who’d left his American family in Gaza before the warfare last year.

And then the siege began, and his family, all American citizens, were effectively trapped in Gaza. They could not get out. And he was going both to see them – he had not seen them in over a year, and to try and bring them out… At the border there was this horrific confrontation. Here he was with his wife and small children, and told that they couldn’t leave. He could leave, but they couldn’t leave… In the end, he decided the only thing he could do was leave himself, and hope to go to Cairo and make some arrangements to get some pressure from the U.S. embassy to get them out. He was in tears, his children were hysterical. The oldest one looked to be 11 or 12. This was our departure from Gaza.

Jeff Klein in conversation with Chris Lydon, Boston, July 30, 2009.

 

The beauty of the human voice is that your ears can judge the authenticity of Jeff Klein’s story. He’s tried it on the neighbors:

My neighbors are curious – they say, you went to Gaza, why? To people who aren’t politically active it’s something odd, something out of the ordinary. So it takes a little bit of explaining, but people you have a relationship with, your neighbors, they’re prepared to listen to you in a way they wouldn’t otherwise… My neighbor knows now that his tax money is going to buy bombs to kill people in Gaza. And he doesn’t like it. And that’s the reaction I generally have: if you can get their ear, when you talk to people about it, I find they’re universally understanding and sympathetic about this issue, because as human beings there’s an empathy we have with people who are suffering. And if you make them human, people will respond as human beings. For people to accept the brutality against other people, part of it requires not considering them fully human. As human beings, we can’t be that cruel to people whose humanity we recognize.

Jeff Klein in conversation with Chris Lydon, Boston, July 30, 2009.

It seems to Jeff Klein “a miracle,” and a tangible reality, that the Palestinians have been able to sustain their national identity through generations of hardship and diaspora around the world.

And the second and third generations in the United States who’ve never even been to Palestine have this strong sense of identity with the land of their ancestors. It’s a little bit ironic that in some ways the Palestinians of today are what the Jews were of yesterday… Adversity has made them stronger… Soomood is an Arabic word that you’ll learn if you go to the West Bank. Soomood means steadfastedness, sticking to it. They have that, and they have kind of a determination and a calmness about it which is quite remarkable. Whenever I visit the West Bank, and I have friends there, I always feel like I’m the angriest person on the scene among my Palestinian friends… They’re in it for the duration, and getting angry doesn’t help. So they’re calm and determined. I’m more of an American – we want instant gratification. And I’m furious – every time I get to an Israeli checkpoint with my friends and see what people undergo, I’m angry, but they’re calm and steadfast. Of course, if they get angry it could cost them their lives – it’s a different situation for me, I have my american passport to protect me and they don’t.

Jeff Klein in conversation with Chris Lydon, Boston, July 30, 2009.

Jeff Klein finds it “almost embarrassing” to have found so much joy in a journey through a lot of misery and pain. Slow paperwork and delays let him digress to the pyramids at Giza and to the desk and chair of the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy in Alexandria. Jeff had a copy of Cavafy’s poems along for the ride, and the Egyptian caretaker at Cavafy’s house inscribed it:

From a human being who was born in an area which is turbulent and full of problems, who has struggled since birth with bad news every day, and I keep asking myself how long I will be hearing bad news, I found the answer with common sense and logic: that each human should respect the other regardless of ethnicity, color or belief. God has created us to choose. He didn’t create to choose for us. All the thanks to Mr. Jeff in the path of goodness and love.

Inscription by Mohammed El Said in Jeff Klein’s book of Cavafy poems, July 2009.

“Can you beat that?” Jeff says. “I feel blessed.”

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