By Sara Leibovich-Dar
Originally published by Haaretz
It was the longest day of his life. By taking over Ramallah, the Israeli army also took over the fate of Adam Shapiro, 30, from Brooklyn. Shapiro, who is Jewish, spent a full 24 hours in the compound of Yasser Arafat in Ramallah, shared a late-night meal with the Palestinian leader, and during the first hours after the army’s move into the city, was one of Arafat’s channels of communication with the international media. Shapiro spoke with journalists from all over the world. Arafat was in good spirits, he told them, and went on to describe the harsh conditions in the besieged offices, the shortage of food and water, the power outages and the pervasive fear. For 24 hours, Shapiro was the neutral observer amid a flood of tendentious Israeli and Palestinian reports.
However, gloria mundi quickly transited. From a spokesman in great demand, Shapiro became one of the most controversial figures in American public opinion. Two days after leaving the compound in Ramallah, the New York Post branded him a “Jewish Taliban” who was acting against the interests of Israel. The rival Daily News likened him to John Walker Lindh, the Al Qaeda member who is now on trial in the United States. Right-wing Jewish organizations demanded that he be arrested and placed on trial, the letters-to-the-editor column in newspapers received a huge number of reactions for and against Shapiro, and some commentators wondered whether his father, Stuart Shapiro, had given his son a proper education.
In a demonstration outside the Israeli consulate in New York, the spokesman of the right-wing Betar organization in the city called Shapiro a “traitor” and threatened to turn his and his parents’ life into hell. The next day, Shapiro’s parents had to flee from their home in Brooklyn after receiving anonymous death threats. In an editorial on April 4, The New York Times called this behavior “criminal” and added, “No political motive, real or imagined, can justify the threats to the Shapiro family. To pretend otherwise is to think like a terrorist.”
We are in a serious situation, this hatred has to stop, says Adam’s mother, Doreen Shapiro, in an interview from her hiding place. “I am not a traitor,” her son says in a telephone call from his home in Ramallah. “I am trying to do something that will help everyone. The end of the occupation will be good for both the Israelis and the Palestinians. Walker fought with a weapon. I believe in a nonviolent struggle. If [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon were to invite me to his office, I would go there in the same way I met with Arafat.”
Dinner with Arafat
Shapiro found himself trapped in the compound on the first day of the Israel Defense Forces incursion into Ramallah, on March 29. He is a member of the International Solidarity Movement, which is assisting the Palestinians in the territories. A few hours after the army entered the city, he joined the crew of a local ambulance. “When the Israeli soldiers hear an American voice coming out of an ambulance, they aren’t quick to open fire,” he says. In the afternoon there were reports of wounded people in Arafat’s compound. The ambulance sped to the site. “For three hours we conducted negotiations with the soldiers until they allowed an ambulance with a doctor to enter the compound,” Shapiro says. After a brief examination, the doctor decided to evacuate two of the wounded to hospital. The ambulance driver, the doctor and the wounded individuals left the compound; Shapiro stayed in order to assist Arafat’s personal physician, who is at the site.
Shapiro grew up in Brooklyn and studied history and political science at Washington University in St. Louis, going on to Georgetown University and New York University. He is not a stranger to war, he says: “I am not completely inexperienced. In the previous Israeli invasion of Ramallah, a tank stopped right next to my house and a soldier entered the home of one of my neighbors. I was in the Balata refugee camp [next to Nablus] when Israeli tanks opened fire in that area. But that wasn’t the same thing. Around Arafat’s compound there was shooting all the time, windows were shattered, the building shook. I was really scared.”
The major fear was that soldiers would enter the compound at any moment. “Arafat’s people who were with him in Beirut have experience in this sort of situation, and they made the atmosphere a little less tense. I was sure that I could die there. I tried to sleep but it wasn’t easy. There weren’t enough blankets, there was nowhere to sleep. People stretched out on chairs and on the floor, and when I finally managed to fall asleep the noise of the shooting woke me up.”
At 1 A.M. he was invited up from the first floor of the building to the second floor, to Arafat’s office. On the table in the large conference room, he recalls, were bread, cheese and cucumbers. Arafat urged Shapiro to eat and thanked him for what he had done for him.
The world press followed Shapiro with mounting interest. From inside the compound, he spoke with dozens of reporters, including correspondents for The New York Times and the British papers: The Observer, The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian. He spoke about the shortage of medical aid and of food, but said the frame of mind in the compound was optimistic. The Palestinians, he told The Guardian, did not fire on the tanks that approached the compound, “but if they see a soldier getting out of a vehicle, they will shoot him.” He told the Associated Press that Arafat had personally overseen his aides when they sealed the glass windows in the office.
Shapiro’s fiancee, Huwaida Arraf, a Detroit-born Palestinian-American, also joined the publicity effort. She told the BBC that Shapiro was trapped in the compound and could not leave for fear of his life, and in an interview to Pakistan Today, she described the nighttime meal with Arafat.
The next morning, concern mounted that Israeli troops were going to enter the compound. Shapiro: “The hours passed, we talked, we changed the bandages of the wounded. Arafat’s guards said that the soldiers were walking in circles around the compound and that they would enter at any moment. The doctor and I made a plan for treating the wounded in the event of an Israeli attack.” In the afternoon, European peace activists accompanied by a physician succeeded in gaining entry to the compound. When they left, at about 4 P.M., Shapiro was with them. The doctor stayed in the compound. “We thought it was better for a doctor to be there, and I have no medical know-how,” he explains.
Shapiro and Arraf returned to their apartment in Ramallah, which is not far from the local hospital.
If there is no bread
They have been living in the flat for the past half a year, paying $400 a month in rent and living off savings “that are soon going to run out,” Shapiro says. Before the Israeli takeover of Ramallah, they had lived a Western lifestyle, he explains: “There is a large community of Palestinian-Americans in Ramallah, who came here in 1993. The Oslo agreement held out hope and people decided to come back to the city from the United States in order to raise their children in a Palestinian society. They opened businesses here and made the city a comfortable place to live.”
Shapiro and Arraf like to go to the movies. “There are two movie theaters here. A few days before the entry of the Israeli army we saw ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.’ Good movie. There are a lot of restaurants here, though we prefer to eat at home to save money.”
Before the intifada things were even better. “There was one restaurant where you could dance and we spent a lot of time there. There was also a jazz club with an Israeli saxophonist. There was a mix of cultures, Arab and American. Ramallah reminded me of Tel Aviv.”
For the past two weeks, Ramallah has been very different from Tel Aviv. “On the first night of the occupation, I couldn’t get to sleep. There was shooting and bombs all night,” Shapiro recalls. Both of them gave up the idea of normal sleep hours. “We sleep in shifts so that one of us will always be awake if something happens.”
Arraf is worried that the food is running out. Last Thursday, she subsisted mainly on chocolate. “I really like chocolate,” she says. “I stockpiled a lot and I still have chocolate. In the morning we eat Quaker Oats cooked in water, during the day we eat pasta, tuna and peanut butter. That’s what we have left. The stores are closed. Only two bakeries were allowed to bake bread. A journalist friend brought us a little bread. People in Israel don’t understand what’s happening here. Every Palestinian I speak to is concerned about the subject of food.”
The next day, the curfew was lifted for a few hours and they rushed over to the neighborhood grocery store. “There were long lines,” Shapiro says. “We bought bread, hummus and eggs. Aid organizations distributed flour and sugar. There are no vegetables in the city.”
They took advantage of the respite in the curfew to walk around the city. “We were shocked,” Shapiro says. “Everything is in ruins. Office buildings and commercial centers are charred, the building in the center of town with the fast-food restaurant Checkers is destroyed. Shattered glass is on the pavement everywhere. We don’t walk around too much, though. The snipers fire at anyone on the street.” On Saturday there was a full curfew for the whole day, but they were able to reach the hospital “in order to try and help without the soldiers seeing us.”
In the past week, Shapiro and Arraf sent photographs they took to various Websites. There were images of the hospital in Ramallah, graves, doctors praying, a wounded old man. Send help now, Arraf wrote. “The Red Crescent ambulances can’t give help to the wounded or take away the dead. They are fired on. Doctors were forced to get down on their knees in the street under the threat of rifles.”
Say ‘no’ to patriotism
Until last year, Shapiro was a nice Brooklyn kid, the eldest son who met all parental expectations. His brother, Noah, a Manhattan lawyer, gave interviews last week to a variety of media outlets in an effort to persuade them that his brother is not a traitor. “People in New York have interpreted my brother’s actions to say that he is a terrorist, a traitor, an aide to Arafat. And none of this is based on fact,” he told The New York Times, and described his brother’s desire to fight the occupation using nonviolent means.
Adam Shapiro had a normal New York Jewish childhood. His parents are public school teachers; his father teaches mathematics and his mother, music and English. “I raised my children to be open individuals, to understand other people, not to fight, to respect others,” Doreen Shapiro says.
Adam says that he understood even as a child that there were different peoples in the world. “I grew up in a mixed area, not in an isolated Jewish area. In our neighborhood there were Irish, Africans, Puerto Ricans, Jews and Italians. It was a melting-pot. I had friends from every ethnic group and my girlfriends were Jewish, Italian and there was one who was Cuban.”
His parents are not religious. “They fast on Yom Kippur and they hold the seder at Passover. I celebrated my bar mitzvah in a Brooklyn synagogue. His parents told Newsday that as a boy, Shapiro wanted to be a rabbi. “I have no religious identity,” he himself says. “Religion doesn’t say anything to me. I respect all religions, I am not ignorant, I have knowledge, but it is not important to me.”
He first visited Israel in 1996. “I have no problem with Zionism as long as it is not directed toward hatred and violence,” he observes. “As a rule, patriotism can be dangerous. Even American patriotism was dangerous and caused the death of the Rosenbergs” – referring to Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were executed in 1953 after being convicted of providing military secrets to the Soviet Union. He lived in Jerusalem for three years, but doesn’t know Hebrew. “I studied Spanish in school in New York and I studied Arabic at university, but I never got around to studying Hebrew.”
His brother told the American media that Adam showed an interest in the writings of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, “and that is what drew him to the Palestinians.” Shapiro says he began to take an interest in the Middle East only during his college days in St. Louis. “I was a student there during the period of the Gulf War. One of my friends was sent to the gulf. Suddenly, I understood that this is an important region and I started to get interested – not in the conflict but in the Arab culture, which I found strange, different and special.”
After obtaining an M.A. from Georgetown University in Washington, Shapiro decided to improve his Arabic. He went to Yemen and lived with a local family in Sanaa, working as the deputy headmaster of a school where foreigners studied Arabic. “It was a very interesting experience. The Yemenis are simple people. The Muslims there treat the Jews as Yemenis in every respect. Not everyone knew that I was Jewish, even though it was obvious that I wasn’t a Muslim.”
In the past two weeks, since the meeting with Arafat, Jewish activists in New York have been claiming that Shapiro converted to Islam. He denies this: “There are a lot of rumors about me. I am not a religious Jew, but I have not become a Muslim.”
After eight months in Yemen, Shapiro returned to the United States, where he worked in a nature museum in Chicago and then enrolled in New York University. “I was accepted as a doctoral student, but I wasn’t happy there. The political science department deals more with the economic side of politics, and I am interested in the human side.”
After a year in New York, Shapiro decided to change direction. He joined Seeds of Peace (an organization that “empowers children of war to break the cycle of violence”) and moved to Jerusalem, entering Israel as a tourist. He lived in the Musrara neighborhood across from the Old City and in the Arab neighborhood of Shuafat in the northern part of the city. “I love the Old City and I wanted to be close to it,” he notes. In Jerusalem he managed the Israeli branch of the organization.
“Today it sounds like another world, but Seeds of Peace organized meetings between young people from both nations. Israelis visited Bethlehem at Christmas and we held workshops in kibbutzim and in Beit Jala. Peace is a lengthy process. You have to start it when people are young.”
Two years later he moved on. “I did everything that could be done. I wanted to help in other places.” Bill McLaughlin, director of the Center for Coexistence, the organization’s Jerusalem branch, says that Shapiro’s ties with Seeds of Peace gave the organization an unwanted type of publicity. “Our vision is a neutral vision. We do not identify with any side,” he says.
In New York, a spokesman for John Wallach, the founder and president of Seeds of Peace, says that “today, Shapiro is not doing what we are doing, and we are not doing what he does. It has nothing to do with us.”
In 2000, Shapiro and a group of young Europeans and Palestinians established the International Solidarity Movement, which is trying to put an end to the occupation by nonviolent means, he says. “I helped farmers get to their fields. When they try to do it alone, Israeli soldiers shoot them, but when someone like me helps them, it looks different and the Israelis shoot less. We rebuild homes that were demolished and we plant trees.”
Last January, he and Arraf wrote an article for the Palestine Chronicle, an Internet site, explaining why it is important to undertake nonviolent activity during the intifada. Citing the tradition of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, they wrote that even though the Palestinians have the right to react to the occupation with firearms, that doesn’t mean that they are obliged to realize that right. As part of the nonviolent struggle, they wrote, people could remove roadblocks, disobey curfew, and refuse to show ID cards and even burn them. Such actions, they said, would change the image of the Palestinians in international public opinion.
Threats and attacks
Shapiro attacks Israel sharply in his articles and has compared what is happening now to the Nazi operations against the Jews. After Israel’s demolition of homes in Rafah and Issawiya, he wrote to Media Monitors Network that the actions reminded him of Kristallnacht, when the Nazis tried to wipe out the signs of Jewish culture and religion in Germany. Last week he told CNN in an interview that the Sharon government was engaged in terrorist actions that were being perpetrated in the same way the Nazis operated. Such statements were apparently the last straw for Ron Torossian, the Betar spokesman. In a demonstration of solidarity with Israel outside the Israeli consulate, he branded Shapiro a traitor. “He is a traitor to both the American people and to the Jews. Anyone who assists the butcher Arafat has to be arrested. Anyone who helps murderers of Jews is a terrible person,” he states.
Aren’t you exaggerating? Isn’t it the case that all Israeli leaders and senior American officials have met with Arafat?
Torossian: “I am not exaggerating in the least. Many Jews in the city think that Shapiro is a traitor, and not only against the Jews but against the Americans, too. Arafat hates the Americans too. We will do this to any American who assists Arafat.
Shapiro, who was condemned by other demonstrators as a “self-hating Jew,” has become a target for right-wing Jewish groups. Last week, fliers were distributed in Brooklyn calling on the recipients to call a certain number. Those who called heard a recorded message asking Shapiro’s parents to disown him, denounce him and comprehend that their son is no different from John Walker Lindh. Victor Naor, who heads Americans for Israel’s Survival, an extreme-right organization, says they will continue to demonstrate until Shapiro is arrested: “He has to be arrested just as Walker Lindh was arrested.”
The rightist militants in New York did not make do with demonstrations. “Unidentified people called us and said they would burn Adam,” says his mother. “They said they hoped we would burn in hell and that Adam’s blood and the blood of all of us was on their hands.”
The threats drove Shapiro’s parents to flee their home and take refuge out of state. They are not afraid, Noah Shapiro told The New York Times, but it’s not pleasant to be at home when every telephone call is a threat on your life. Doreen Shapiro says that she understands that different people hold different ideas, “but I don’t understand the threats. All Adam is trying to do is bring people closer together. He is doing wonderful things.”
“When it comes to human rights, there is no right side and wrong side,” Stuart Shapiro says. “Everyone is right.”
Along with the attacks mounted by right-wing groups and articles such as that in The New York Post – which mocked the Shapiro family and said they were only interested in the spotlight – others take the side of the Shapiro family.
“This is sinister and serious,” Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League told The New York Times. “We find it reprehensible to target anybody based on what they believe and what they stand for, whether or not we believe in their actions.” At the request of the Anti-Defamation League, a policeman was posted outside the Shapiros’ home in Sheepshead Bay. “Threatening Adam Shapiro’s relatives with harm offends American traditions of tolerance and the humane values of the American Jewish community,” the Times editorialized on April 4.
In the past week, the American media have devoted much time and space to discussing the question of whether Shapiro is a traitor or a courageous individual. Even Shapiro’s father got caught up in the debate. Writing in The New York Daily News, the Israeli columnist Zeev Chafets aimed a rhetorical question at Stuart Shapiro. Doesn’t your son know, he asked, that if Israel was a Nazi state he would already be on his way to a soap factory?
In contrast, Cheryl McCarthy wrote in Newsday that in her opinion, Stuart Shapiro is the father of the year. He believes in his son, she wrote, and is convinced that in a region of boundless hatred and revenge, his son is one of the few who are making an effort to understand the other side.
Romance in Ramallah
In the past few years, Shapiro has linked his life with that of American-born Huwaida Arraf, 26, the eldest of five children, who is his fiancee and ideological partner. Her father, who works for General Motors, was born in the Galilee; her mother, a nurse, is a native of the village of Beit Sahour, adjacent to Jerusalem. In 1975 they left the Galilee and moved to Detroit. Arraf says her father felt he had no future in the Galilee. “My parents didn’t talk about politics,” she recalls. “Maybe it pained them too much. But on holidays we went to Beit Sahour. It was only when I spoke with my aunts that I understood how hard it is to be a Palestinian and how tough the Israeli attitude toward Palestinians is.”
Her parents tried to preserve Palestinian culture in their home in Michigan. “They spoke Arabic, listened to Arabic music, demanded that we not stay out late – they always told us that it wasn’t our culture to come home late – and they wouldn’t let us sleep over at the homes of friends, either. I was never at a pajama party. They wanted us to become familiar with Palestinian culture, but we wanted to be like the American kids, and home was a mixture of everything.”
Arraf heard the Jewish side to the conflict when she was a student at Northern Michigan University. “I lived in dorms with Jews. I had always regarded them as enemies. Suddenly, I started to think that it was possible to overcome the lack of understanding.” She studied Hebrew and in her sophomore year, was involved in activities of Jewish organizations on campus. In her senior year, she joined a program for overseas students at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
“I wanted to know Hebrew better and live in the Israeli society in order to understand it,” she explains. “I didn’t want to be considered a foreigner, a pro-Palestinian. I wanted to be legitimate for both sides.” She was the only Arab in the program. “They only dealt with the Jewish side. I tried to bring in the Palestinian side. I wanted the Jewish students to stop being afraid of the Palestinians. I took students to the Old City and I organized meetings with Arab students on campus.”
After a year in Jerusalem, she returned to Michigan, completed her B.A. in political science, Arab studies and Jewish studies, and in 1998 was back in Jerusalem, this time as an activist in Seeds of Peace. There she met Adam Shapiro. “He was my boss. At first we didn’t even like each other, because we are too much alike. He was sure I hated him. After a year, it just happened.”
They plan to be married next month in Detroit in a Catholic ceremony. Arraf is a Greek-Catholic. Shapiro says his parents are not upset that he is marrying a Christian woman. “If we love each other, then it’s fine as far as they are concerned.”
The Palestinians are like the Jews, Doreen Shapiro notes. “They have values similar to ours, and the family is very important for them, too.”
Arraf, though, had a harder time. “My mother and my sisters accepted it, but my father wanted me to marry a Christian. It was hard to get his consent, but I didn’t give up. I worked at it. I wanted to marry with the consent of my parents so as not to hurt them. I told my father that I could never find an Arab man who is as generous and caring as Adam. My father is concerned about our future. He wants our children to be raised as Christians. Adam and I talked about it. Adam is not religious. He can’t give our children any religion at all, so it doesn’t matter to him if they grow up as Christians.”
In the past year, Arraf has described her life in Ramallah with Shapiro on a great many Palestinian Websites. In February she wrote about an encounter with Israeli soldiers at the Qalandiyah checkpoint north of Jerusalem. Soldiers had tried to remove a cassette from their video camera by force. Shapiro gave her the camera, she wrote, and she tried to get away, but the soldiers knocked her down and aimed rifles at her. She and Adam were released two hours later after she requested the assistance of the American consulate, foreign journalists and friends.
Shapiro says that most of the incidents with Israeli soldier have been quieter. “I speak to them and distribute fliers of Yesh Gvul [an organization that is against military service in the territories]. The refusal movement is important. The soldiers listen to me when I tell them that I am a Jew who lives in Ramallah. They show a lot of interest and many of them understand what I am talking about.”
In an article last month in Newsweek, Hady Amr, a former aide to Al Gore for ethnic outreach, proposed that the Nobel Prize for peace be given to nonviolent activists such as Arraf. The prize should not have gone to Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat, he wrote, but to those, like Arraf, who make peace in their hearts and minds and risk their lives for it.
At this moment, Shapiro told the American media, the United States is more dangerous for him than Ramallah. He is worried about the trip home to get married and wants to return to Ramallah, “if the Israelis will let me into the city.” Arraf, for her part, prefers the United States. She wants to study law; Shapiro intends to get his doctorate. His father is concerned about the possibility that Adam will want to go back to Ramallah. “If I take away his passport, he won’t be able to go back,” he said last week.