Activist and artist Hagit tells us the story of how her activism developed from childhood growing up in West Jerusalem, via confrontational demonstrations and photography exhibitions, to finally finding a new kind of information activism.
Hagit: Seeing Jerusalem with new eyes
Activist and artist Hagit tells us the story of how her activism developed from childhood growing up in West Jerusalem, via confrontational demonstrations and photography exhibitions, to finally finding a new kind of information activism. She tells us here about how she intuitively experienced the city where she grew up, seeing it again with her own eyes and turning the mirror back on her own society to challenge established truths, and of how she first encountered the issue of house demolitions going on not so far from her own door.
Tell us a little about what you do.
My name is Hagit Keysar, I live and work in Jerusalem. I'm very much influenced by this city, its troubles, stories and beauty, though the final one is becoming increasingly obfuscated. Maybe some of that beauty I am trying to restore by creating images of the city with its inhabitants... I am an activist who thinks through the medium of art and research practices, and since 2011 I've been very much engaged with collaborative mapmaking techniques, and more generally with open technology practices. I am interested in how such practices might take shape, and what kind of politics it would create in a contested and controlled environment like Palestine-Israel.
How would you describe your work?
I experiment with techniques. I am not a geographer, I am not a technologist and I am not an environmentalist. I am not an artist. I am not a scientist. But I am interested in all of these ways of thinking and doing.
I think what got me to where I am now was growing up in Jerusalem and suddenly realising how the people who are just next to me live. The devastating situation they are experiencing, and the fact that I didn't know about it all my life. I read this article in a newspaper one day, about thirteen years ago, onhouse demolitions in Jerusalem and it shocked me that my life is so safe and normal in so many ways, and I couldn't imagine a situation where my house would be demolished. But that is what is happening to people living a five minute drive from my house.
Did you decide to do something about it straight away or was it a longer process?
When I heard about it, it made me do something. Obviously not exactly what I am doing today, but it immediately made me realise that I needed to do something. First I contacted some organisations that I figured would be working in the area, to learn a bit about it. But mainly I shared it with friends and people I know. That was my learning process more than anything else, more than reading reports or getting statistics. For me the way to do something was to invite my friends to a tour that was guided by someone who knows the situation very well. We went together to East Jerusalem and learnt about how people live there. I think we also met some people, but that was my way to learn about it.
Did that bring about the idea of separation for the first time? Or was it there before but only came into focus then?
For sure it was present before, but I was not very much preoccupied with the question of separation. I think growing up and going to a daily Jewish school in West Jerusalem, it wasn't part of the things that were on my mind. You can find many reasons for that – not everyone around me was like that. It wasn't something that preoccupied me until I learned about the different experiences of life between people in my city - or what I thought was my city. It definitely got me learning about the whole environment in which I had been living, and I think it was the moment I started to develop a political language, which previously wasn't part of my life.
How did the process of building an understanding of this separation begin? Who is responsible for it? How is it being imposed on people?
I think there was a lot of naivety and ignorance during the first years I started to learn about the place I live in. In the beginning I wasn't preoccupied by the question of separation, I was just looking to bypass it. In a way I was trying to examine the limits of what I could do. I went to an art school in Jerusalem and that was more or less the same time I started to be more and more aware of where I was living.
Part of being an art student implies searching for objects around you, and I think learning about the environment was part of this search. I was very much engaged in questions about the occupation - and our role in it - and I was looking for a way to experiment navigating in this environment that I felt I didn't really know.
One of the first projects was when a good friend and I decided to go and reach Ramallah. For us, Ramallah was this distant Arab city. But it is just around the corner from Jerusalem. My experience of growing up in Jerusalem and thinking about Ramallah was an impression of a demonised urban area. When I was nineteen years old and a soldier in the , I had to take a bus that went through Ramallah. And I will always remember the terrifying feeling I had when I looked at the streets around me, thinking about the possibility of finding myself there alone. I think that fear was something I wanted to confront, so we decided to drive there. And that was the first time we saw the wall. They had just started building it. Obviously we didn't reach Ramallah, but we got to know some people and got into all kinds of interesting and revealing situations, confronting our ignorance and placing ourselves and our lives in relation to what we saw there. It was more of an experiment - going there to see who we'd meet, how we'd feel, how people would treat us, how we would treat other people, and learn from those experiences about the space we live in. That was the way I was doing it, at least at the beginning. Only later did I started going to protests, demonstrations and so on.
Did that happen after taking those trips?
Those trips became part of my graduation project. I did a video and it involved a lot of ethical problems that I look at today – problems that I saw already then but I thought were worth presenting. Like filming someone who didn't know I was filming. I presented it only because I thought that our conversations, which happened only because he didn't think I was filming, were worth watching. Because it was rare, because this kind of meeting between me and a Palestinian man in what was becoming “behind the wall” was an interesting moment. But again it was me using my power and my privilege to do whatever I wanted to do, without really involving the people who were affected by it.
Did you feel brave?
I wouldn't call it brave because I was very unaware. We went to places and afterwards people would say to us “you're crazy, it's very dangerous. It's a very dangerous village. How come you went there?” We just went and bought some stuff, went to some shops, talked to people... We didn't think about danger and I'm glad we didn't. Actually, I might be reconstructing it. Maybe I wasn't so naïve. Maybe I didn't want to accept the limits that were accepted as a given around me. I wanted to check it with my own eyes. I remember I was using this expression a lot at that time - “to know things with my own eyes”, or something like that...
So you've seen what you've seen "with your own eyes", and you realised through other people's eyes that you had done something more radical than they would allow or want you to do. What influence did it have on your life in terms of what you wanted to explore?
I think I started to realise how the occupation works and I started going to demonstrations. The first demos I remember going to were in South Mount Hebron. I don't remember the reason we were there precisely. It was either to protect villagers while they took water from the well or, to walk the kids to school because they were being harassed by settlers. I remember a lot of border police and soldiers arrived and they wanted to arrest all of us. And I remember all of us running away from the police up this hill – lots of people, including the elderly, all running from the police! It was a surreal situation, I never imagined myself running away from the Israeli police. It was a new experience, I started to develop a new consciousness about the authorities surrounding me.
Later I went to Bil'in, which is a very famous Palestinian village in the West Bank that protested – and still is protesting – against the building of the wall and the confiscation of lands. That was the first time I experienced the Israeli army shooting at me. That was really scary because I was obviously on the Palestinian side and they were shooting tear gas and I remember I was terrified. I just wanted to hide. I couldn't believe I was in this situation. That's another understanding. You experience that and you realise how extreme it can get. You go to these extremes, and you keep on going, and then you start changing your whole perspective on the people you see on a daily basis in the streets you grew up in, and the soldiers around you, and the soldier you used to be, and the whole thing becomes unstable.
You're rejecting this identity, this relation you have. That was when I kept on going to the demonstrations in Bil'in that were organised by the local communities and the anarchists against the wall. It was a non-violent resistance movement but obviously there was a lot of violence there - soldiers were shooting tear gas and sometimes live ammunition. Young Palestinians started throwing stones at one point and people I knew and cared about got beaten and hurt. That made me furious and that violent situation made me violent. I found myself in a situation where I saw my best friend being beaten by a border police soldier and I just went and started beating him up. I wasn't afraid at all but looking back on it afterwards I realised I didn't want to be in that kind of situation. I didn't want to feel that violence inside of me. It was a slow process. All this hate that you see, it's not only hate - there is a lot of courage and creativity on the Palestinian side. There were lots of artistic projects going on in Bil'in and they were doing amazing things. I think it has been four or five years of protests and there are amazing things happening there, but it's a very violent and confrontational environment. I didn't want to be in that environment any more. I felt like I wasn't responding to it well. It was the start of another phase, in which I stopped going to demonstrations and I looked for new ways to do my own activism.
Was there any trigger to this new phase? Inspirations, ideas, discussions?
First I think I never really reached that point where I decided I didn't want to go to demonstrations. It was very much tainted with guilt. But there was a process of understanding why I am not going, putting it into words and explaining it to myself. It took a while, years. But at the same time I was finishing my art degree and I was involved in an artist-run gallery in Jerusalem, so I had a space in which I could experiment, learn more about the socio-political situations in Israel-Palestine and explore it with other people. We created a platform for documentary films and we invited lots of filmmakers – including Palestinian filmmakers - to Jerusalem. We invited them to the very core of the Jewish area of Jerusalem, which is really no trivial thing. We screened films outside, where it was accessible to anyone who passed by to watch the movie and participate in discussions. At the beginning we thought that it was taking a risk and even irresponsible, something that we cannot do, to screen all kinds of films that challenge the established truths of Israeli Jews. But amazingly enough we didn't encounter any kind of aggressive or violent responses from people who participated and watched the films.
Finding out that you could raise issues, that it was possible to create this public discussion, was a great experience. It was on a very small scale, of course, but still it was a public discussion! Even the simple act of bringing Palestinian women in this neighbourhood and in this gallery was a radical one, because there isn't any framework for this to happen. The work in the gallery was also a sort of intuitive field research for me - it was about going back inside my own society, not working with Palestinians in the West Bank or researching Palestinian problems, but more looking at Israeli society.
Why was it radical to bring female Palestinian artists and filmmakers into spaces where they do not normally appear?
I think it was the simple fact that they were present in that little quiet Jewish neighbourhood in the centre of Jerusalem, it had a performative quality to it. The gallery's neighbourhood is not like those satellite neighbourhoods that were built after 1967 in the suburbs of the city from where you always see the Palestinian landscape in the background, where you feel that you are on the outskirts of the city. Most of the big neighbourhoods of Jerusalem are basically on the outside and they always border the Palestinian landscape, because it's also meant to create a separation between Palestinians villages, blocking the connections between them. This neighbourhood is so protected it's almost as if it doesn't have anything to do with the political situation, the occupation, the Palestinians. You don't see Palestinians. And if they are there, they are invisible because they are just doing obvious jobs like working in the adjacent market, carrying things: “he's there because he's doing his job” is not the same as “he's there like me and you, a person living his life, walking down the street.” He is a worker, serving you, an unequal. And suddenly there is this change in the street and you see a group of Palestinian women - who are not there because they are serving anyone but there because they are presenting and they are meeting and they are talking about themselves and their art - engaging in our lives. It was something very different. And you could see it. The way they look is also very different, because many of them are very traditional or religious, so it was very visible.
A very important part for me was to create this visual, performative change - I think you can see it as an intervention in the production of space. Changing how a street or a place looks, how we perceive it, how it functions, and for whom, that was a change for me.
What was the perception like?
It was very intuitive. I explain it now this way but probably back then I'd explain it in a much more concrete way. I'd have said “we are helping those women tell their story, or to sell their embroidery” - actual things that we were doing and that were important, especially for those women. Maybe it didn't make a great change for them in their lives, after all they only came for one or two evenings. Maybe they got to know some people or sold some of their stuff, but for me the real change was the fact that they were there.
So the link between the different phases of your work is breaking perceptions. You break down the ordinary, the everyday experience of people. On the one hand you needed to go there, to convince people to come, and you bring them into another environment where they are not expected. I suppose the process is important because you have to convince yourself, then convince them, then convince others and so on...
It's a journey! It was for me a journey of finding new ways to get to new places that I hadn't seen, to meet people I hadn't met, to see the way people live in the West Bank and to meet them in person. Inviting a Palestinian filmmaker who made a film about female prisoners in Israeli prisons (which was a horrifying document of the experience of Palestinian women in Israeli prisons) to screen her film in a gallery was a bit stressful. I went to her village and it was an experience I'll never forget. It was really, really interesting and challenging to talk to her. Her family produces the Palestinian beer 'Taybeh'. She was very welcoming but also detached, and we talked quite a lot. For me it was a personal journey of finding new ways to navigate in this Israeli-Palestinian environment.
It seems that going to the protests was too “activisty” and the art gallery turned out to be too “arty”. What made you change course?
I think that for me art was never an aim. It was more a set of practices, or ways of thinking maybe, and ways to experiment and create spaces. I felt that some of my interests were not relevant to what my colleagues were seeing as what should be in a gallery, or what should be art. There were a lot of discussions about whether it is right for us to deal with all these subjects when we have a responsibility towards the local community administration who gave us the place, the neighbourhood
- all kinds of questions like that.
It's not that I didn't agree that we had that responsibility or that we had to take that into consideration. But I wasn't willing to see those problems as something we can solve by just diverting, and I wasn't willing to accept that some things are appropriate for an art gallery and some things are not. The reason I left was partly because I went to study abroad but it was a good point to stop and find my own way with the things I had learned in the “fieldwork” I did at the gallery.
Did your studies abroad impact your developing thinking or was it more of an educational thing?
It couldn't have been just an “educational thing”... the process continued, it was just taking place in a different environment, which among other things enabled a productive distance from my life in Jerusalem. When I was still at the gallery I started a year studying at the Hebrew university in Cultural Studies. I was doing research on the experiences of Palestinian women whose houses had been demolished or were under threat of demolition. After I did that research, I realised that even though I had a lot of good intentions, I was not doing a lot of good with them. And I had very little power to create any kind of change for these women.
Actually the more I look into it, I realise how complex and devastating their situation is, even with the support of organisations that are trying to help them. So when I went to Manchester I was studying visual anthropology and I was thinking about my research and how to continue what I did with these women, because I really felt I should be committed to these issues and these women, to try and find ways to do something that would have some kind of significance. I think that in the end I realised that what I really needed to do was to examine my own society and examine the perpetrators rather than the Palestinians. Practically what I decided to do was to see how the mechanisms of house demolition worked, how it happened, how they enforced the planning law, who was doing it and what their practices were. Their justifications, their thoughts, their ideas... that is what I decided to do for my MA.