6 August 2010 | Democracy Now!
Emily Henochowicz speaks out: art student who lost her eye after being shot by Israeli tear gas canister in West Bank protest discusses her life, her art, and why she plans to return
JUAN GONZALEZ: Today, a Democracy Now! global broadcast exclusive interview with Emily Henochowicz, who—you may remember her name. She’s the twenty-one-year-old American art student who lost her eye in May after being shot in the face by an Israeli tear gas canister.
Emily is entering her senior year at Cooper Union’s prestigious art program here in New York City. This past spring, she chose to study abroad in Israel at a leading art school in Jerusalem. Emily holds Israeli citizenship. Her father was born in Israel, and her grandparents are Holocaust survivors. Soon after she arrived in Israel, Emily began spending time in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. And many of her drawings began to reflect the harsh realities of Palestinian life in the Occupied Territories.
AMY GOODMAN: On May 31st, news broke that Israeli commandoes had attacked a Gaza-bound aid flotilla in the Mediterranean and killed nine activists onboard. Emily decided to take part in a protest against the Israeli assault, and she joined demonstrators at the Qalandiya checkpoint in the West Bank. Israeli border police began firing tear gas canisters at the protesters. One of them hit Emily in the face and blasted her left eye out of her head. Several bones in her face were crushed. She was rushed to the hospital, but her eye could not be saved.
The Israeli Defense Ministry said, well, according to preliminary checks, the border police dealt lawfully with the protest and that the firing of tear gas was justified. But witnesses and a Ha’aretz journalist who was there said Israeli forces fired directly at the demonstrators, rather than into the air in accordance with regulations. The Israeli police have begun a criminal investigation.
Meanwhile, Emily is back here in the United States recovering from her injuries, but her left eye is gone forever. Last week, Israel refused to pay her medical bills of $3,700 for the treatment she received at the hospital in Jerusalem. The government claims she was not intentionally shot and said she had endangered herself by participating in the demonstration.
Well, Emily Henochowicz is now here in New York getting ready to enter her senior year at Cooper Union, not far from our studios, and she joins us here in our studio for her first broadcast interview.
Welcome, Emily, to Democracy Now!
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: Hi.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back in time. How you ended up in Israel?
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: Well, you know, I was just like any junior in college wanting to go on an exchange program, and I really liked the program that Bezalel had, and I went for that reason. It really wasn’t for any kind of political reason that I ended up there.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, what happened when you got to school there?
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: Well, the problem is, they gave us three weeks off for Pesach, which was just enough time to really go around and not just read about what’s going on with the settlers and the wall and all these things, but to actually go out there and see it. And I just opened my eyes and started getting involved.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And you started getting involved in protest movements or in support movements for the Palestinians? Exactly how did you get involved?
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: Yeah, so, it’s sort of a mixture. I mean, I had gone to a number of demonstrations at places where—like at Nabi Salah, where they were trying to get their water supply back, and every week they have a demonstration where they try to go to their well. And then there’s, you know, Bil’in, with the wall. And I spent a lot of time in Sheikh Jarrah, because I’ve joined the ISM and they have a tent there that they the keep someone in the tent twenty-four hours a day to kind of check to make sure that the settlers at the outpost don’t do anything crazy, and if they do, that there’s international witnesses there to document, at least.
AMY GOODMAN: Sheikh Jarrah is in East Jerusalem?
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: You were drawing pictures there?
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: I mean, I guess—I mean, I draw pictures kind of everywhere. I don’t know. I definitely sketched a lot when I was there.
AMY GOODMAN: By the way, we’re going to show some of your pictures, and we’re going to post them on our website at democracynow.org.
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: OK, great.
AMY GOODMAN: By the way, “Thirsty Pixels,” your blog—
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Why do you call it “Thirsty Pixels”?
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: Because what kills computers keeps us alive.
AMY GOODMAN: And how do thirsty pixels kill computers?
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: Because water kills a computer. That’s—but these pixels, they want water. That’s why.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about your evolution then. You’re in Sheikh Jarrah. You’re seeing things.
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, where you come from, your parents are—your grandparents were Holocaust survivors?
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: Mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: And your father, an Israeli citizen?
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: They went from—where were they in the concentration—did they—were they in concentration camps?
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: No, they weren’t in concentration camps. My grandparents, they’re from Poland. And they—I don’t know the full story, but I do know that they were all around Europe trying to find a place where they could just live and that there was no place where they could really be. And they were really ardent Zionists, and they came to Israel, lived there for ten years.
AMY GOODMAN: And your dad, born there?
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: Mm-hmm.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And in terms of your transformation, as your father was here in the United States—was he aware? Were you communicating with him, while you were there, of how you were changing your perspective or viewpoints on what was going on in Israel and the Occupied Territories?
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: You know, I found it very difficult at first to tell my parents that I had been to the West Bank and that, you know, that I’m drinking tea with Palestinians. But, of course, I had to tell them. But it took me like a month to really get to it. My dad reacted, you know, like a concerned father, but also felt that somehow I was personally attacking him by, you know, going to all these things. But he came around, really, so…
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to break and then come back and find out how he came around. And also, here you are protesting at checkpoints, and your grandfather actually was a border guard many years ago. But we’ll ask you about that after break.
This is Democracy Now! We’re talking to Emily Henochowicz, twenty-one-year-old art student here in New York, Cooper Union, lost her eye in May when she was in the West Bank protesting the Israeli commando attack on the Gaza aid flotilla. Back in a minute.[break]
AMY GOODMAN: Our exclusive this hour, our broadcast exclusive, is an interview today with Emily Henochowicz, twenty-one-year-old art student here in New York at the prestigious Cooper Union. She lost her eye in May after being shot in the face by an Israeli tear gas canister.
Emily, before we go to that moment, your grandfather was a border guard?
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: Yeah. I don’t know very much more about that, but I do know that he was a border policeman when he was in Israel.
AMY GOODMAN: So talk about May 31st, 2010. Where were you?
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: I had stayed at the ISM apartment in Ramallah. And—
AMY GOODMAN: That’s the International Solidarity Movement.
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: Yeah, the International Solidary Movement. And I got a call that morning. And, of course, the numbers were completely inflated that morning, like twenty-one people were killed on a flotilla or whatever. But basically, there was going to be a demonstration starting in Ramallah, and we were all going to hold all these flags from all the different countries that people had represented from the flotilla. And so, I went out to that demonstration.
AMY GOODMAN: And this was the Gaza aid flotilla—
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —of ships that were coming to bring humanitarian aid to Gaza.
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: Yeah. And, well, the PA kind of closed the demonstration down from Ramallah, but we continued it at the Qalandiya checkpoint, which is between Jerusalem and Ramallah, so—and from there, I guess I had this notion that because we were protesting deaths, that somehow it—that tear gas wouldn’t be used in that kind of manner. I thought maybe it would be more of a, quote-unquote, “Israel proper” kind of demonstration, where they don’t use the same kind of violence against demonstrators. But I was mistaken.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Give us a sense of what actually happened, in terms of how many people were there at the protest. What—was it largely of Israelis or ISM folks, or was it Palestinians? And then what transpired, in other words, from the beginning of the protest to the time that they began firing the tear gas canisters?
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: Well, of course, it was a Palestinian-organized demonstration. There were mostly Palestinians there. There weren’t—there wasn’t that large of a group when I was there, because it had kind of—we had packed up and moved from before, where there were more people. And there were a few Israeli peace activists. And I was there with a friend from ISM, and I think there were two other people who I had just met, who had just joined ISM, who were also there that morning.
And what was it that you wanted to—
JUAN GONZALEZ: And then, what happened just in the period before the Israeli soldiers began firing their tear gas canisters?
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: Well, Jonathan Pollak like climbed up on this fence and put a Palestinian and Turkish flag up at the checkpoint.
AMY GOODMAN: And he is another ISM member?
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: No, he’s an Israeli peace activist.
AMY GOODMAN: Oh, the Israeli peace activist.
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: And after they had put the flags up, the border policemen came, and they took the flags down. And at one point, a few Palestinian boys by the wall started throwing just trash from the ground. And at that point, the border policemen started firing tear gas.
AMY GOODMAN: And where were you?
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: I was—this kind of area where there were a few barricades. It’s hard—I don’t know—hard to say without a map. But, you know, here’s the wall right here. Here’s Qalandiya checkpoint. I’m somewhere over here.
AMY GOODMAN: You were standing in a group of people. And you saw them starting to fire?
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: You know, I didn’t see them firing. I saw it starting to land. And so, I was trying to find out where it was coming from so that I could get away from it. But it must have been very close, because I just—it just felt like there was no time between it landing—between seeing it and it landing for you to actually find out where it was coming from.
JUAN GONZALEZ: I think one of the articles that was written afterwards quoted you as saying to a friend, “I didn’t expect to have this kind of trouble. Maybe I should move away from here,” or something like that.
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: Well, I—you know, I noticed that it was starting to get dangerous. And I had just, you know, started talking to my parents, and really, they were just saying, “You know, Emily, just please don’t do anything dangerous.” And there I am. And I’m like, “This is getting dangerous. I told my parents I wouldn’t do this. Oh, gosh!” So, it was one of those kinds of moments. So, a little kind of crunch, and then, that was it, so…
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, a “kind of crunch”?
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: I don’t know. It was just sort of a bizarre sensation when it hit me in the face.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you understand what had happened?
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: Yeah. I mean, I didn’t lose consciousness.
AMY GOODMAN: What happened then?
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: Well, at that point, I was—I think this is who had done this. This woman, Nariman Tamimi—I think that’s her name—and she came and ran into the—ran into the gas and the firing and grabbed me before I could reach the ground. And she—and put—she has this little magical backpack with all these medical supplies, and she put gauze on my face, and she got all these other people there around me. And they brought me on a—they brought me on a truck, and they rushed into the Ramallah hospital. And, you know, from there, I guess, yeah, the rest is history.
AMY GOODMAN: So you were brought first into a Palestinian hospital?
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: Right, in Ramallah, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And then?
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: And then I was transferred to Hadassah hospital. And I went on an ambulance. And then, of course, I had to go on another ambulance, because we had to go through the checkpoint.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: Well, because a Palestinian ambulance can’t pass through the border, because Palestinians from the West Bank aren’t allowed into Israel. So they took me out of that ambulance, put me in another amulance, and then continued the journey to Hadassah.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And the treatment that—once you got to the Hadassah hospital, did any Israeli officials try to question you or try to detain you at all?
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: No. I mean, try to detain me? I mean, I don’t think that I had done anything criminal by being injured, but—
AMY GOODMAN: Your dad came?
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: My dad did come.
AMY GOODMAN: He’s a doctor here in the United States?
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: Yeah. And he spent the whole week there with me in the hospital. And a lot of people came to visit. I know that Nariman wanted to visit me, but she couldn’t, of course, because she—
AMY GOODMAN: The woman who had first—
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: Yeah, I think that she—
AMY GOODMAN: —helped you.
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: —is such a—I mean, she’s a real hero. And she—you know, she’s from Nabi Salah, and because it’s Area C, and they don’t allow a lot of the building permits in that area, there’s a demolition order on her house. And she has to go through all this stuff, where she is constantly fighting this and not getting—you know, and like so many Palestinians, not really getting a voice about it. And I was there in the hospital, and so many people just came and showed me so much love. Some of the people from Sheikh Jarrah came, and just a bunch of my friends and everything. And it was great, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: What kind of response have you gotten from the Israeli Jewish community and the Jewish community here at home?
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: I guess it’s mixed. I did anger a rabbi, I suppose. But I think that—like, some of the—I mean, the people that I’ve talked to understand that I’m coming to this from a humanitarian standpoint, and that because the Holocaust memory is third generation for me, I can distance myself from that urgent need for a Jewish homeland and that kind of feeling of insecurity, and I can look at—and I can look at the situation and see that there are some basic inequalities going on.
AMY GOODMAN: Emily, you’re an artist.
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Since as long as you can remember—
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: Basically.
AMY GOODMAN: —you have been drawing. What does it mean to lose your eye?
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: I don’t know. It’s hard to pinpoint it. I always—I had always been so fussy about my eyes. You know, I always wanted my prescription to be perfect, and I was scared of getting Lasik surgery, because I didn’t want anything to happen to my eyes. Because I really—I am a visual artist, I really—I’m always, like, observing things and drawing about what I’m observing. But I’ve realized that you only really need one eye. And it hasn’t stopped me from being able to do my work, from walking around, and just being a normal person. In a way, I have this kind of new appreciation for depth, because everything is a little bit—because now that my depth perception kind of is weakened, it means that when I’m looking at something two-dimensional, I don’t have that stereo cue to tell me that it’s actually two-dimensional. I can kind of—I can appreciate it more for its three-dimensional quality. So that’s kind of nice, but…
AMY GOODMAN: Today you’re not wearing glasses.
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: No.
AMY GOODMAN: But you have painted over your glasses on the—where your left eye was.
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: Describe your glasses to us.
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: You know, it’s really—there’s not much. It’s just really that I had gone to the surgeon, and I was asking him, you know, “Do I need an eye patch? What should I do?” And he put tape over my glasses. And when the tape started to peel, and I tried to put it back on, I just-–I just said, “Eh, whatever.” And I took out some markers and just started doodling on them. It was really nothing more than that, just a kind of very quick decision.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And you’ve had some differences with your surgeon in terms of long-term treatment, in terms of how you’re going to deal with the loss of your eye in the future?
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: I don’t know. I mean, I guess, for me, like I understand that a prosthetic is only for cosmetic reasons. And I might still want to have one, but I guess I just feel like I am not—that this is who I am, that I don’t have two eyes. And I feel strange having the idea of people looking at me, looking deeply into my eyes, and me knowing that they’re looking at a piece of plastic or glass, you know? But he’s been a great surgeon. He did really, really good work on me, and he’s given me really great care. So it’s just more on a philosophical basis, maybe, that we disagree.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to say, we did call the Israeli embassy, and we asked them to join us. They declined an interview, but they did send us a statement that said, quote, “We express our deepest sympathy with Emily Henochowicz on her injury. Ambassador Oren and embassy officials have met privately with Emily and her family. We wish to stress that this unfortunate incident is currently undergoing investigation. This investigation will be thorough and transparent. It should be noted that the demonstration began as an illegal protest, which turned violent and had to be dispersed with anti-demonstration means. Emily retains her full right to legal remedy, as well as any claims with her insurance company.” That’s the statement of the Israeli embassy.
What do they mean, your insurance company? Who’s paying for what happened to you?
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: Well, I mean, the hospital bill, we haven’t actually signed the check yet, because we’re still hoping that we can get Israel to pay for what had happened to me. But everything I’ve been getting in America has, of course, been under my insurance and out of pocket.
AMY GOODMAN: But so far, they will not pay?
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: No, no. So far, no.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And when they say that there’s an investigation, has anyone interviewed you or talked to you about what happened that day from the Israeli government?
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: I did—I had this investigation, this—I’m forgetting the word. Like a week ago, they talked to me. But I don’t know. It didn’t seem very thorough to me, because I was expecting, you know, “Where were you standing? Where were they standing? You know, how far were the border policemen from you?” I thought those would be the kinds of criteria for the questions. But it seemed—they seem to be much more interested in why I came to Israel and how my time at Hadassah was. So, I don’t know. We’ll see.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you plan to return to Israel or the West Bank?
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: Definitely, definitely.
AMY GOODMAN: You also have Israeli citizenship?
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: I do. They haven’t taken that, so… You know, my heart has been there, and now that I have been changed physically for my whole entire life, I have to go back there. It is part of me, you know? And those people—I must say that one reason that I’ve felt so strongly about supporting the Palestinians is that they’ve been so incredibly friendly and open to me and other internationals—just really warm people. And I really just—I want to give them my love, you know? So I have to go back.
AMY GOODMAN: Emily Henochowicz, I want to thank you very much for being with us.
EMILY HENOCHOWICZ: Thanks.
AMY GOODMAN: Twenty-one-year-old student here in New York, Cooper Union, going into her senior year, lost her eye in May after being shot in the face by an Israeli tear gas canister. She was protesting in the West Bank on the day that the Israeli commandos killed members of the Gaza aid flotilla onboard those ships headed to Gaza. That does it for our show. Her art can be seen at thirstypixels.blogspot.com, and we’ll link to them at democracynow.org.