Woodstock to Gaza, with Athens In Between

Photo by Debra Ellis
Grass roots efforts abound. More and more individuals and organizations are raising awareness and challenging unjust U.S. policy at home and abroad. Few can match the efforts of two New York couples who joined with numerous other activists in purchasing, recruiting for, and launching an American boat as part of the International Flotilla II – Stay Human. The original call for an American boat to join the next flotilla came from Ann Wright after she returned from the first flotilla.

Reading the article below takes me back to Athens. My mind fills with memories of Jane at international press conferences on the rooftop of The Exarchion Hotel, our home away from home, while her husband, Richard, moves double time to keep us abreast of ever changing legal developments. Richard was also one of my small group comrades who self selected to hold a presence in front of the captain’s wheelhouse if, or when, our boat came under attack.

Nic, our beloved cook, gentle heart and unflappable spirit during times of high stress, was always alongside his wife, Helaine, who gave the same. Helaine and Nic joined those of us who fasted for the release of the flotilla and the release of Captain John Klusmire, when he was wrongfully detained. Helaine handled our room assignments, keeping all of us in beds, no easy feat not knowing when we would launch. Nic secured swim goggles for each of us to fend off tear gas, which enveloped the streets of Athens, and for protection from chemicals we expected to encounter if confronted by the IDF.

Their dedication to global justice and non-violent practice in both word and deed, were the corner stone for the selection and training of the individuals who became the passengers aboard the Audacity of Hope. Their selection process pooled well informed, committed, focused individuals of the highest caliber. They created a family out of strangers and established bonds that continue to reach across land and sea, embracing our Palestinian, Israeli, and American neighbors, keeping us all “human”.

Thank you Helaine, Nic, Jane, and Richard for the honor of "sailing on hope", albeit briefly, aboard The Audacity of Hope.

Sailing on Hope

Area residents describe their Freedom Flotilla quest
This article was first published by Paul Smart in Hudson Valley Times on August 11, 2011

Photo by Dion Ogust

During the week before and after Independence Day this summer, the ill-fated Second International Freedom Flotilla-Stay Human drew media attention to the presence of a ship leased to American activists. Its name? “The Audacity of Hope.” It’s origin? Woodstock, in more ways than one.

“It all began in an interesting way,” Jane Hirschmann said recently of the origins of their campaign to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza.
She spoke about how she and a group of Woodstock friends attended a pair of events held in the wake of the May, 2010 Freedom Flotilla that saw nine Turkish passengers killed by Israeli commandos in a tragic incident in the Mediterranean Sea.

Photo by Debra Ellis
A few days after the return of former Colonel and diplomat Ann Wright, a passenger on one of the ships, a report on the incident was given at All Souls Church on the Upper East Side of New York. There, the idea that an American ship be sponsored for the next flotilla surfaced. The suggestion of the name, based on President Barack Obama’s best-selling memoir, came from a fellow Woodstocker, Hirschmann recalled.

The retired therapist sat in the study she and her husband, labor attorney Richard Levy, maintain in West Saugerties, alongside old friends and fellow activists Helaine Meisler and Nic Abramson, a learning specialist and newly-retired tax accountant, respectively. The latter couple had been involved with the locally-based Mideast Crisis Response Group, and contributed letters to the ongoing dialogue regarding Palestine and Israel in this paper’s Feedback column, as well as among a group of 1400 international human rights activists, including eight Woodstockers, who had gathered in Cairo, Egypt in December 2010 to unsuccessfully try entering Gaza through Egypt.

Earlier, both couples had joined arms in Civil Rights, Vietnam War, Women’s Rights, Anti-Nuclear, Central American and Iraq War activist efforts.

Photo by Debra Ellis

“Within a week of that May, 2010 meeting a local get-together was held at Gail Miller’s home. And then it really started,” Hirschmann said, noting that a follow-up flotilla had originally been planned for last autumn. “We needed to raise $370,000. In the end, though, it turned out we needed that amount in euros, and not dollars.”

On a recent morning in Hirschmann and Levy’s home, the talk was all about what’s involved in political organizing these days…and leasing a ship to take part in an international flotilla action geared towards gaining the world’s attention.

Hirschmann and Abramson explained how a year ago last June, a few of the group went out to Detroit for the annual U.S. Social Forum to gauge whether the idea of a U.S. flotilla ship could raise support amongst other leftists. The affirmative answer came quickly as $2,000 was easily raised by passing around buckets that had been bought in a local dollar store to build up everyone’s confidence.

“It was enough to have us realize there was a significant amount of interest in having the first U.S. flagged ship in the next flotilla,” Abramson said.

Everyone talked about the work that went into a major fundraiser held last August, involving a sunset cruise around Manhattan with food and music…and quite a few last-minute problems and setbacks that let everyone know what they would be up against actually putting a U.S., ship into a flotilla aimed at breaking the blockade of Gaza.

Photo by Debra Ellis

Simultaneously, Hirschmann spoke about going to Paris, Geneva, Amsterdam, Madrid, Rome and Athens with others from Woodstock, including local artist Laurie Arbeiter, for organizing sessions with representatives from the 22 countries working to have ships in the follow up flotilla to the May, 2010 tragedy.

“Everyone was very excited about there being U.S. involvement for the first time,” she said. “Canada was also new, along with Holland…”

Well, not everyone.

“I guess it depends on your point of view…and I’m very familiar with theirs, from exchanges I’ve had with them,” said Prof. Lewis Brownstein of SUNY New Paltz about the Woodstockers behind the U.S. presence in the recent flotilla. “They don’t know the history of things, at least not the complexities of the history…The International community understood Israel’s need for the blockade. The Greeks recognized that the Israeli’s couldn’t risk weaponry coming in from the sea. I was in Israel at the time and there was very little mention of what was going on…”

Bruce Tuchman, an avid Saugerties-based advocate of Israel, recognized the differences. “There are clearly opposing positions around the issue of the Gaza blockade,” he said, in an interview this month. “They were trying to do the right thing. The bottom line, however, is that it was not about aid but about provoking Israel and getting bad press for Israel…How much more effective such a mission would be to bring real aid to someplace that really needed it.”

The publication Jewish Week was more blunt. It railed against “…the full-throttled chutzpah of those who claim to seek peace and call attention to the plight of Gazans by bringing humanitarian aid, when in fact their purpose is to provoke Israel, and perhaps attack its soldiers,” in an editorial June 28. “Why are there no humanitarian aid flotillas launched toward Syria or Libya, where innocent citizens, bravely calling for democracy, are being murdered by their own leaders?”

Hirshmann replied to that editorial. “We are peace seekers, and did not go to attack soldiers,” Hirschmann said.

“We have a responsibility to bring attention to the plight of the Gazans because our country gives Israel $3 billion a year for military aid which is then used on the Gazans.”

Photo by Debra Ellis

Undaunted, passengers were sought for the ship, with applications coming in from across the U.S. for the 37 slots (which Abramson and Levy took two of, with Meisler, Hirschmann and Arbeiter serving as key land crew members of the teams coming together). Ages ranged from 22 year-old students to one woman, a holocaust survivor, in her late 80s.

“The goal was to have as diverse a group as possible,”

Meisler explained, noting how planned-for sailing dates in November, January and then March came and went. “We were trying to make this a true U.S. boat, we had a committee…”

“We tried to do it as democratically as possible,” added Hirschmann.

When the sunset cruise raised $50,000, after almost being canceled when outside groups started pressuring the rental company to pull out at the last minute, the Woodstockers and other organizers around the country started fundraising in earnest, attending every like-minded political event or rally they could, explaining the importance of a U.S. ship in the next flotilla. And the money started rolling in…

Along with blowback. Hirschmann explained how initial stories on the naming of the U.S. ship ran in The New York Times and Washington Post, with an emphasis on the organizers’ attempt to embarrass the president. Later, a Rutgers event set up by a student organization came to naught when raised funds were impounded by the college, following a complaint by the Anti-Defamation League.

Meanwhile, as Hirschmann put it, “We went to Greece looking for a boat that could accommodate passengers, crew and embedded press corps.” Leasing was expensive, given that the chances were high that any boat would be confiscated and messed up by Israeli authorities, and possibly even sunk. But a former ferry was found, completely refurbished, and renamed. A crew was brought in. And a date for sailing on June 25 finally set for the Audacity of Hope, along with nine other ships. The idea was to sail from Greek harbors and meet up and in international waters for the final sailing to Gaza.

“We all had open tickets on our flights,” Meisler recalled, “Because if we were arrested by the Israelis, we weren’t sure when we’d be released.”

People started getting into Athens on June 21…but then problems began occurring. There were acts of sabotage on two of the ships. A false report on the sea worthiness of The Audacity of Hope was filed by an Israeli law-fare group. The Greek government passed a law forbidding the sailing of any ships from Greece to Gaza. A steering committee comprised of a core of international organizers, including Hirschmann and 44 others, began meeting regularly at a hotel in Athens.

Concurrently, Athens was alive with its own protests, spurred on by their debt crisis.

Greek protesters marched on behalf of the flotilla, which U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed by stating that “Israelis have the right to defend themselves” if flotillas “try to provoke action by entering into Israeli waters.” Formal opposition to the sailings also started coming in from France, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Canada, the European Union, and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Press started descending on the scene from around the world, with 11 journalists from CNN, The Nation, CBS, Democracy Now, NOT the Washington Post, The New York Times, AP and other sources embedded onto the American boat.

“It was very exciting,” noted Hirschmann of the time she spent in Athens, readying to sail. “The most important thing that happened is that we broke the media blockade in this country on the Palestinian issue, and about the blockade of Gaza.”

“There was a mix of excitement and anticipation. Once we understood we would not be legally allowed to sail, we had to figure out what to do,” Abramson added. He talked of the other economy-related actions taking place throughout Athens, several hunger fasts outside the U.S. Embassy there, and organized demands from flotilla organizers that their boats be released to sail.

“The whole time we were doing this there was this edge,” Meisler said. “We had been preparing for a year but our understanding of the seriousness of what we were doing just kept growing. We realized we were now up against the Israeli and United States governments. Everyone came back from our international meetings stirred by what was happening.”

The three Woodstockers spoke of Israeli pronouncements that flotilla participants might be faced with attack dogs and snipers should they sail to Gaza, along with “other surprises.” And then the Greek authorities started saying there were safety concerns with the flotilla boats, including the refurbished Audacity of Hope. Organizers said the complaints came from the Israel Law Center in Tel Aviv.

“All of this just made our reaction more solid,” Hirschmann said.

“It was as if our presence, as Americans challenging our own government, ramped up the U.S.’ direct response,” said Abramson.

Meisler added that the strong media team “played an equally large role in ramping it up,” including a heavy use of social media.

Prof. Brownstein countered that claim by noting how much was accomplished by the 2010 flotilla, based on Israel’s over-reaction and the fact that it had originated from Turkey, one of Israel’s leading allies at the time. He went into the complex history of the Palestinian movement and its current status, his specialty in the SUNY system. He pointed out that the economic blockade was lifted after the 2010 tragedy…

“I don’t think they were seeing clearly what was going on around them this time,” he said. “Press attention is not the equivalent of political success.”

Photo by Debra Ellis

Hirschmann noted the amount of support for the Palestinian position throughout Greece, and how it wasn’t at all anti-Semitic, as some have suggested.

The others added how Brownstein’s assertions about the economic blockade being lifted were, “patently not true and have been contradicted by UN, Red Cross, and Amnesty International reports.”

“People were well informed about the issues,” Meisler said.

By late June, the group explained, it was decided that sailing on July 4, or anywhere around that long holiday weekend back in the United States, would be a mistake. Everyone had been waiting for the lists of inspection problems that the Greek authorities had been promising, but figured they were simply up against a stall tactic.

“We were ready to make needed repairs and changes,” Abramson said. “Finally, we reached the decision to just leave on July 1…with the press on board. We slipped the ropes off of the piers and took off.”

Abramson quieted a moment before describing what he called “the most joyful hours of my life.”

Photo by Debra Ellis

“Everyone on board was laughing, crying, hugging, at least for the first couple of minutes,” he said. “We were believing we would be sailing to Gaza. We were singing and there was a trumpet playing and a great feeling of unleashed possibility. And this was all fueled by the fact that we’d been working toward this for a full year.”

Within 30 minutes, however, the Greek Coast Guard surrounded the Audacity of Hope and began pleading with the ship’s crew to turn around. A stand-off occurred and eventually “commando teams” were sent out. The boat and its crew and passengers, all wearing t-shirts reading “Stay Human,” “Do No Harm, “ and Unnamed Civilians,” were escorted back to a Greek military base, where the Audacity of Hope is to this day. The ship’s captain was arrested.

“The police were saying they didn’t want to be doing what they were doing, but orders were coming down from on high,” Meisler said.

Photo by Debra Ellis

“That night we got the list of inspection infractions, with about 20 items on it, most of which were suspicious,” added Hirschmann. “They said we had no life jackets, even though we had just purchased 60 new ones and they were on board.” “We had leased a former Greek ferry and totally refurbished it,” noted Meisler.

Abramson and Meisler returned home to Woodstock on July 6. Hirschmann and Levy were back by the 9th.

By then, the Canadian ship tried leaving its Greek port, and was similarly turned back. Some Spanish flotilla members occupied their nation’s embassy in Athens. The French ship tried sailing and was turned back by Greece. Finally, on July 16 another French boat took off for Gaza and was eventually seized by the Israeli navy and impounded at an Israeli port, its passengers and crew arrested and deported. All were gone from the country by a week ago.

“I think that although we were frustrated by the Greek’s willingness to do Israel’s bidding, we did manage to get a lot of attention,” Levy later noted.

“This was bigger than anything any of us had done before,” said Meisler. “Navigation law was new to us, purchasing boats. We didn’t understand how much we didn’t know…”

Photo by Debra Ellis

“We had a great legal team,” said Hirschmann. “We had decided that we would only bring letters of support from civil society here to people in Gaza. We knew that more than material support, Palestinians want their freedom and justice. This was not about aid, but human rights”

“This kind of activism was much more than any of us had tackled before. We had to throw ourselves into it thoroughly, via commitments of time and training,” added Levy, later, in a separate phone interview.

“It all took a great deal of personal involvement and commitment.

Everyone involved brought with them a great sense of purpose. There was no casualness…and in the end, it proved very fulfilling.”

Everyone spoke about feeling exhausted, but also exhilarated, a few weeks after their return. Some were experiencing elements of post-partum-like depression, but they agreed that was easily trumped by the shared sense that getting the world’s attention had been a big win.

“We got two and a half weeks of press and no one got hurt,” said Hirschmann.

“We got the issues out there. And there will be future flotillas.”

“I was thankful that we at least got out of port,” added Abramson. “I’d hoped we’d get to Gaza but I think in my intelligent brain, I knew that would never happen… I came back wondering what would I do now, how do I fit myself back into my life?”

Photo by Debra Ellis

We were prepared to do whatever we had to to highlight the situation in Gaza,” noted Levy. “I can’t remember having been so involved and inspired by an action since our Civil Rights and Vietnam Days.”

Prof. Brownstein said, again, that he appreciated the effort undertaken, but felt it would have been better to focus such time and attention on other humanitarian issues.

“When you take a non-nuanced position to a situation that needs nuance to understand, it raises questions of effectiveness,” he summarized.

Back in West Saugerties, the heat rippling a view of the mighty Wall of Manitou, Hirschmann, Abramson and Meisler talked about upcoming Gaza Freedom activities and other approaching actions, as well as the hundreds of e-mails they’ve been receiving in support of their actions.

How did they get to this point of action around Palestine?

Hirschmann talked about having been an anti-war activist for decades, having worked on other actions, including the United for Peace & Justice movement against the Iraq War.

The daughter of Holocaust survivors, she had never involved herself in the Israel/Palestine conflict until she formed a group called Jews Say No! following the incidents involving the first flotilla.

Abramson mentioned a speech he attended at the Unitarian church in Kingston three years ago, after which “these lights went off in my head.”

Meisler talked about being an ardent Zionist in her youth until she started noticing “what Jews in Israel were doing to non-Jews there.” She recalled the lessons she’d learned about the Holocaust, the plea to no longer be silent about injustices.

Protest following International Press Conference, Athens Greece
Photo by Debra Ellis
She mentioned a talk she’d just had with her 90-year old mother, who’d been aghast at her flotilla actions until she made a correlation to the SS Exodus 1947, and how her mother had suddenly had her own “aha” moment, and “got” what her daughter was up to.

And the next flotilla beckons.