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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  • hurley

    Indicative that “Joe the Plumber” basks in celebrity while Jeff Klein is more or less unknown, at least to me before the broadcast. Wonderful, informative show. And to think he wraps things up with a visit to the home of Cafavy. Many thanks.

  • potter

    The devastation is a horrible reflection upon Israel. The pictures the stories will continue to come out and will agitate world opinion. Some in Israel and would say Palestinians did this to themselves.

    I was thinking “surreal” about the descriptions when a moment later Chris said “surreal”.

    My background is similar to Jeff Klein’s. I find that I can’t leave the strong identity handed to me though I have left the fold. Becoming more associated more with the Jewish ethical tradition, is more helpful. Jeff Klein’s dissociation (if it is that) may be a statement that needs to be made:”if this is what it means to be Jewish- then I am not a Jew”. But Palestinians must see Jeff Klein as a Jew… and too beside the impressive looking Neturei Karta he is also a Jew bearing witness.. which is important.

    Here then also sits the desire to somehow rectify the injustices that continue to be perpetrated upon Palestinians. It’s infuriating-there are those in Israel and amongst supporters here who seem unconcerned, unmoved, who are so adept at rationalizing, excusing, emphasizing outsized fears.

    Jeff Klein concedes that Palestinians did themselves harm with their violent form of resistance (especially the suicide bombings) but he does not say that this lost many on the Israeli side who were for concessions. Israeli’s today may say they want a peaceful outcome- but they don’t believe it is possible now. And besides, they are protected well enough by the walls, checkpoints and military operations. Many have decided that they don’t want to or can’t compromise. Palestinians are barbaric and can’t be trusted. Those feelings come from conversation with Israeli friends and family here who support Israel, who agree with Israel’s leadership- that Israel must be (as Jordan’s king says) a fortress. Never mind that the situation itself, the occupation, living conditions, promote the “barbarism” this barbaric response. So the reaction to the Gaza devastation was not guilt or shame or sadness, if they saw it. That feeling seemed blocked if it is there (I think it is), on the surface there is rationalization, justification and accusation: there was no choice. It was an infuriating session we had on a visit to Israel last March.

    This state of affairs must be fine with those on both sides that don’t really want any compromise. There are those on both sides who would rather have war in attempts to grind the other side down further.

    A way forward I feel is passive resistance, of which there is some but that has to be religiously observed by all Palestinians. That would also help bring about some needed unification. That, once established, should be then be combined with international pressure on Israel.

    A few more thoughts:

    -It is very important that Jews and others, but especially Jews, like Jeff Klein and the NK’s, go to Gaza even though there are those who no doubt look upon them traitors. We should have the stories, descriptions, pictures — the boy holding a picture of his father, the crumbled buildings.

    -To say that Israeli’s do not want a peaceful outcome and that they prefer war to a peace with “retreat” (compromise), as Jeff Klein says, is too broad or general a statement for me about Israeli’s. True, many do feel that way and many voted for this Netanyau government. It is a good question to ask, though, how can those in power in Israel not know, at this stage, that the more that they destroy, the more resistance is produced, the more “steadfastness”? But the more violent resistance, the more excuses hardline Israeli’s (now in leadership) have to market not ending occupation.

    -At the same time the harder the Israeli’s hit the Palestinians, the worse Israeli’s look in the eyes of the world. At home though, Israeli’s have this sense that they are being protected. So if the game is about holding power through making people feel secure, and not about peace (secondary)- then military solutions continue and occupation is necessary.

    -I was not under the impression that the settlers were moved out in 2005 in order to squeeze the Gazans. From what I understand those who were forced out of Gaza are a sort of “festering sore” now, not compensated, within Israel.(An estranged cousin and her family, who lived there 30 years was one of them.) If this is so, and it appears so, it will make it harder for other settlers to leave other settlements when the time comes, knowing what awaits.

    -I agree with Jeff Klein on a number of things that are controversial- certainly that Gaza is still under occupation (Sharon admitted this though many now argue it is not). But I disagree, I am not sure that the disengagement itself was to put the squeeze on Gazans. It was more to postpone indefinitely any concessions. I think that “the squeeze” itself evolved and with the cooperation of the EU and the Bush Administration after the Palestinian rocket attacks continued, after Hamas claimed a victory for violent resistance, with the election of and then coup by Hamas. “The squeeze” was meant to put the squeeze on Hamas- to destroy them though collective punishment. And the Gaza War I think was more of the same tough very much a boomerang on Israel, trying to destroy Hamas with tactics that not only don’t work but work against Israel.

    -This disengagement from Gaza, and what ensued, also helped to split Palestinians further between the West Bank and Gaza, between Hamas and Fatah. And so now the Israeli government (and supporters here) can offer the excuse, that they are not unified so there can be no peace deal.

    -It can be asked with good cause whether these results, including further divisions, were intended. From that you can also justly ask if Israeli’s are interested in peace. Some are clearly not. I don’t think you can draw such a universal conclusion from a very divided Israeli public, some of whom are still quite anguished and others seemingly complacent.

    I agree Jews and Palestinians are both sustained by hardship and suffering- that it has made them both stronger. This is what makes the situation so tough.

    I am going to read Cavafy… thank you Jeff Klein for the poke about it. I had an article in “The Nation” this month waiting for me on this new translation and collection.

    And thank you Chris for finding Jeff Klein.

  • Our friend Darryl emails: As a former resident of the Gaza Strip and regular visitor, I found Jeff Klein’s reflections to be very much spot on, especially considering the brevity of his visit. In a public debate that is often cluttered with too much nonsense, Klein’s straightforward and nuanced articulation of how Gazans live under a “disengaged” occupation is refreshing and should be circulated widely.

  • such a fascinating journey, especially because it recognizes and tries to deal with experiencing the violence in Gaza from an American position, in which one cannot escape being complicit in the blockade and invasion of Gaza, as well as having the luxury to see, with much greater freedoms of movement, what it is like to live under an occupation. it seems to me that Jeff Klein is one of those Americans you don’t really ever see on tv or in the news informing us about Palestinians who you also never get a change to learn about on the news. as hurley points out, we get ‘joe the plumber’ and a caricature of hamas, or pundits like alan dershowitz and tom friedman talking about the issues in such hostile and ideological terms. For me this was the most maddening part about the invasion, but as Jeff also noticed, I was much more ‘angry’ than my Palestinian friends, who have to live everyday with violence that we americans see on tv. in the same way that palestinians are not quite human in media, i felt not quite able to respond humanly to the invasion while watching or reading about it (instead like some 21st century caveman, i wanted to throw my remote at the tv the whole time…and that’s about it). why does this have to happen when its clear that most people, if you get a chance to talk to them, would never support the violence? I guess Jeff’s trip shows us it doesn’t, but there’s still a long journey ahead (the best part?).