Clowns Without Borders Go Into War Zones Armed Only with a Smile
In July 1993, a clown from Barcelona named Tortell Poltrona traveled to war-torn Croatia to do his act at a refugee camp. He had his doubts about how his performance would be received, but after an unexpectedly massive crowd of over 700 rapt children showed up to watch him, he left convinced of the value of comedy in crisis and conflict areas. That trip inspired Poltrona to found Clowns Without Borders, an organization devoted to bringing humor into lands where clowns usually dare not tread.
A year later, the internationally renowned clown Moshe Cohen, who had been bringing men and women with red noses and oversized shoes into dangerous places since 1990, opened an American chapter of Clowns Without Borders. Although it remains one of the organization’s smaller chapters (CWB has a presence in nine countries and is especially well established in France, Spain, and Sweden) and has only one part-time paid staffer, Clowns Without Borders USA now includes a board of 13 clowns, four logistical volunteers, and 30 active performers, some amateur and some professional.
Driving with the Female Street Racers of Palestine
I’m driving around the streets of Ramallah, Palestine with Noor Dawood, the celebrated Palestinian street racer and the only female drifter in the Middle East. Noor is one of four members of the “Speed Sisters,” the first and only female racing team in the Middle East, who have brought international attention to the burgeoning Palestine street racing scene, pissing of Muslim clerics and dismantling the caricature of Palestinian womanhood as they go.
From the driver seat of her GTI, Noor speaks about the challenges the women faced at the beginning. “At first, [the other drivers] were skeptical,” the Texas-born 23-year-old tells me as we drift around a turn. “They weren’t used to seeing a woman driving crazy behind the wheel—racing against and beating men. But then they were like, ‘These women can drive.’”
They defintiely can, and I quickly reconsider my choice of venue for the interview. Noor’s aggressive driving on the tight, steep, and manic streets of occupied Palestine is whittling away at my composure, every terrifying curve sends my scripted questions into pre-pubescent squeaks.
A bird’s eye view of the course. In the background, you can see a monument erected in memory of the Palestinian lives lost during the Second Intifada. Behind that, the Israeli settlement of Beit El is visible.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. Ramallah has a geography that breeds racers, who evolve out of the lawless and severe landscape of the occupied territories. “Yeah, learning to drive here was definitely part of it,” Noor tells me. “These streets are how I got my start, where I first learned how to race, and how to drift. All is equal out here.”
This Palestinian Taxidermist’s Stuffed Animal Zoo Is Heartbreaking
OK sure, so somebody stuffed Napoleon’s horse, but in general, no one pays too much attention to the animal victims of war. No one except Dr. Sami Khader, that is.
Dr. Khader lives in the Palestinian city of Qalqilya. It’s a place that’s seen its fair share of hate. Since 2003, the 40,000 or so people who live there have been encircled by the walls of theinfamous Israeli West Bank Barrier. It’s also home to Palestine’s only zoo, where Dr. Khader is the resident veterinarian and director.
Scattered around his room are plastic soda bottles of various sizes that serve as mobile terrariums for the doctors’ creatures. On the table two snakes are curled up at the base of their bottles, on the floor a scorpion paces back and forth in its container and a soda bottle pokes out of the doctor’s leather bag, though I can’t see what creature is living in that. Maybe it’s just a Coke. All the animals were either found by the doctor or dropped in by the Qalqilya townspeople, and scattered among the living are skeletons, pinned insects and a stuffed bobcat.
Dr Sami Khader, director, resident veterinarian, and self-taught taxidermist at Qalqilya’s zoo.
“Do you want to hold it?” Dr. Khader asks, gesturing to a snake on the desk. He casually describes being bitten by another snake recently, by a species that could, apparently, have killed him in an hour had it not been for a delayed shot of antivenom.
“It was a very stupid day,” recalls Dr. Khader. “I was giving a lecture at a school and I brought some snakes to show the kids. It was dark and I reached into the wrong container. Usually I pick the snake up by its head, but this day I chose the wrong snake and I was bitten. I acted like nothing happened. I finished the presentation then went to the hospital.”
I’m not here to gawk at snakes in bottles, though, I’m here to see an exhibition of stuffed animals that Dr. Khader has created from the beasts that were killed in the Second Intifada, the four-year period of fighting that claimed the lives of 4,000 Palestinians and more than 1,000 Israelis.
It is probably worth mentioning at this point that Dr. Khader appears to be an entirely self-taught taxidermist.
Israel’s Killer Robots
Israel is the world’s biggest exporter of military drones, used around the world for everything from surveillance to precision rocket attacks on speeding cars in remote locales. Israel’s drone program hasn’t stirred as much controversy as its American counterpart, but not because their targeted killings are any less fatal. VICE sent Simon Ostrovsky to a drone testing airfield in Israel to find out what their latest eye-in-the-sky can see.
Watch the video
Meet the Lawyer Representing Osama bin Laden’s Son-in-Law
The term “polarizing figure” has become a lazy way to describe politicians, pundits, and media figures for essentially being very loud about mostly superficial things. But there are still a number of people around who fit the definition perfectly. Defense attorney Stanley Cohen is one of those people, capable of simultaneously evoking both absolute hatred and adoration from various parts of society. In fact, he’s the only lawyer I’ve ever come across who has a Haters section on his own website.
Stanley has accumulated a list of clients including Hamas, Hezbollah, the IRA, and al-Shabaab. Most recently, he’s added two new clients to his portfolio: Mercedes Haefer, who’s accused of taking part in cyberattacks against PayPal as part of the Anonymous collective, and Suleiman Abu Ghaith, Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law and a man accused of acts of terrorism against the United States.
Stanley has been referred to as “the terror lawyer” by conservative US pundit Sean Hannity, a “savage lawyer” by professional anti-Muslim subway activist Pamela Geller, and beat Noam Chomsky and Norman Finklestein to the coveted title of Worst of the Worst Self-Hating, Israel-Threatening Jews.” At the same time, Stanley has been hailed as something of a champion of free speech and antiestablishmentarianism by internet activists, and for defending the human rights of the disenfranchised.
Stanley was kind enough to let me interview him, and we spoke about his nemesis, his career, and getting hassled by the IDF.
Stanley with the American poet Peter Spagnuolo (left) and Yasser Arafat. Photo by Peter Spagnuolo via
VICE: Hi, Stanley. Thanks for taking the time to do this interview.
Stanley Cohen: Sure. So, it’s good to know that Eric Holder finally admitted that the US drone program killed four Americans.
Yeah. They already announced those missing four a while ago, so it’s like, “Gee, guys, did it take you two fucking years to figure this out?”
Eric Holder has become something of a nemesis to you, right?
Yeah—fuck Eric Holder. Eric Holder is no different from every other attorney general in recent history. We haven’t had an independent, dynamic, enlightened, historical US attorney general since Ramsey Clark. Basically every attorney general down the line has been swallowed up by the political agenda of whoever the president is, and it’s typically worse with the Democrats than even the Republicans. So yeah—Holder is a good team player, unlike, “I Have a Drone,”[Obama] who won’t admit it, but I’m sure goes to sleep at night believing he spoke to the creator during the day. Holder is just a petty hack.
In all your work in Israel or Palestine, have you ever actually had an encounter with the IDF?
Yeah, I’ve had encounters at crossings, I’ve had encounters at the Wailing Wall, I’ve had encounters where I was on an investigation and we were avoiding road blocks because I had to get into Tulkarem [the then-Hamas stronghold in the West Bank] at a time when it was basically locked down, so I got a local cab. It was kind of funny—the Palestinian didn’t know who I was, but when I said I needed to get to Tulkarem, he said I couldn’t get in. So I said, “Look, if you can get me there and get me out of there, there will be a big, healthy tip for you.”
I Refused to join the Israeli Defense Forces
Moriel Rothman doesn’t sound bitter when he reflects on the contradictions that formed his childhood identity and eventual political outlook. In fact, he sounds more saddened, if anything. “On the one hand, my heroes were Israeli commandos, and on the other they were the young Jewish American Freedom Riders [Jewish civil rights activists in 1960s America]. I held these two together without fully coming to terms with the fact that there might be a contradiction.”
That contradiction, if you hadn’t picked up on it, stems from the fact that while the Freedom Riders were fighting for the rights of America’s persecuted minorities, Israeli commandos were systematically crushing the rights of their persecuted Palestinian neighbors.
Moriel is a 23-year-old American-Israeli who was born in Jerusalem, spent most of his life in the US, and is now back in the city of his birth. “I think we’re brought up to talk on a universal level about values of justice, standing up to inequality, breaking the law when the law is unjust, and standing up for the oppressed,” he continued. “But not when it comes to our own context—not when it comes to Israel and not when it comes to standing up for Palestine.”
Late last year, Moriel spent time in a military prison for refusing to live out the first part of his childhood dream: the military commando. Military service in Israel is mandatory by law for Jewish youth and young people from the Druze religious minority, however, only around half of those eligible enlist and many more leave during their service.
Dancing Idiots, Candy Floss, and Rubber Bullets: Passover in Hebron, Palestine
The city of Hebron in the occupied West Bank is a pretty bizarre place at the best of times. But the recent Passover festival held by Jewish settlers living on the Palestinian land was easily among the most surreal things I’ve seen in a region that seems to thrive on weird shit.
The collective psychosis in Hebron stems from a centuries-old ownership dispute over the Tomb of the Patriarchs, known as the Ibrahimi Mosque to Muslims and the Cave of Machpela to Jews. The tomb is the supposed burial place of Abraham/Avraham/Ibrahim, the founding father of Islam, Judaism, and, therefore, Christianity. I don’t subscribe to any of those, but—despite the fact that the founder of three of the world’s largest religions surely has enough love to go around—I guess it’s understandable to fight over access to your spiritual father’s grave.
Hebron’s current state of madness, however, has less to do with religious craziness and more to do with ethnic segregation. Hebron is the only place in the West Bank where Israeli settlers live directly inside a Palestinian city. To deal with the minor awkwardness that presents, it’s been divided into two sectors—one controlled by the Israeli military, the other by the Palestinian Authority (PA).
The proportions of settlers, Palestinians and Israeli soldiers in the Israeli-controlled old city are totally unbelievable, in the sense that I probably wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it for myself. There are around 500 Israeli settlers and 30,000 Palestinians, with 2,000 Israeli soldiers milling about to keep them in line.
The Tomb of the Patriarchs itself is also divided into a Muslim half and a Jewish half, because, as you might expect, there are those who refuse to play nice. In 1994, an American settler named Baruch Goldstein decided to play spectacularly un-nice and is now immortalized on Murderpedia for his massacre of 29 Palestinians in the Muslim side of the tomb. That, plus the Second Intifada, set the stage for the head-spinning clusterfuck that is today’s Hebron.
One Young Druz vs. the Israeli Military
Every able-bodied Israeli has to serve in the military when they turn 18. Exceptions are made for Arab citizens and ultra–Orthodox Jews, but not for the country’s 125,000 Druze, an Arabic-speaking ethnic and religious minority that is primarily based in the north of the country. Last October, a 17-year-old Druze from Galilee named Omar Saad took a stand against Israel’s mandatory military service when he refused to appear at the recruitment office for a medical examination. In Omar’s widely circulated open letter to the government, he wrote, “Many of our Druze men served in the Israeli army… But what did we get out of this? We are discriminated against on all levels. Our villages are the poorest, our land has been confiscated, there is no urban planning or industrial areas…” Omar hasn’t backed down in the months since his letter went public, and with his graduation approaching I thought I’d call him up and see how things were going.
VICE: What’s your situation right now? Are you getting a lot of heat for the letter?
Omar Saad: I was sent three messages to go and do the required medical tests before enlisting in the army. The last letter they sent me said that if I didn’t go by this specific date, a police officer could arrest me and take me over to the station to do the medical exam. This isn’t usually sent to 17-year-olds who don’t have an enlisting order. I don’t have an enlisting order because I’m not 18 yet.
Why are you refusing to join the army?
I am a Palestinian, and I cannot fight my own people. It’s against the way my parents raised me. Many years ago, my two brothers and I agreed that we would not serve in the army. Last year it began to be more of a reality when I received my first letter from the authorities.
What are you going to do after graduation?
I can’t do anything. I can’t travel. I can’t even go to university. I am trapped inside my land. I think I am going to spend some time in prison, and after prison, I really want to continue my studying of music—maybe abroad. I’m a musician, and my friends and I play for peace and to end the occupation.
Are you scared of being imprisoned?
I’m nervous. Every student in my class thinks about continuing their lives normally—maybe going straight to college or having fun for a year. Because I am studying in Nazareth, my siblings and I are the only Druze in our school. I’m thinking, I’m going to end up in prison. That’s not a place for a normal guy to be.
Read more from our Grievous Sins issue:
New Roma Ghettos
Meet the Last Lykovs
Let’s Get Physical
The American Student Planning a Palestinian-Israeli Music Festival
Andrew Roseman, like thousands of American students, visited Israel last year to experience the country’s culture and history. But unlike some young tourists, who spend their days getting drunk and tan in Tel Aviv orsecretly pleasuring each other in tents in the desert, the junior from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, embarked on a project to bring Israelis and Palestinians together, at least for a day. Since spending four months in Jerusalem, he’s been working to create a festival (called Man of a Thousand Teas) that would feature musicians from both sides of the Green Line. I haven’t heard of anyone trying anything like that before, so I called Andrew to see how it was going.
VICE: What inspired you to try to organize a festival in Israel?
Andrew Roseman: Well, I was in the process of trying to book a [music] show in Jerusalem and I was talking to my [Palestinian] friends, and I was like, “Hey, I’m going to be playing in Jerusalem in a couple of weeks.” And they couldn’t come, obviously, because people from the Palestinian territories aren’t allowed to just enter Jerusalem without a special pass, and it’s very difficult to get. And on the other side, when I was booking shows in Bethlehem, my Israeli friends said, “Oh, I can’t go because I’m not allowed in Palestinian territory.” After a while, we were like, “You know, it would be kind of sweet if we could start a music festival that would bring together Palestinians and Israelis in a politically neutral area that both Israelis and Palestinians have access to.” There aren’t many places like that, but there are a few and with my friends’ help we were able to find a spot that you don’t need a pass or any sort of form to access—a Bedouin area in the Jerusalem wilderness, basically in the Judean desert. Little by little, it’s coming together, and I’m pretty excited about it.
What’s your perspective on how Palestinian and Israeli youth feel about the conflict between the two sides?
I was there when the most recent Gaza conflict was happening and the rockets were going back and forth. There were a bunch of protests and during one, you had Israelis on one side waving Israeli flags and shouting, “Get Hamas out of Gaza,” and then on the other side you had Palestinians waving Palestinian flags and yelling something—I don’t speak Arabic—about the Intifada. Those are two very different messages. I think young people from this part of this world just kind of grow into their context and they don’t necessarily get many chances to intermingle with each other and actually chill. Most of the people I’ve spoken to have really good intentions—at times, it appears that the issue is too complex and people are dug in too deep for anyone to make any sort of difference—but with that attitude we’ll never get anything done.
Let My People Go (Party)
There are plenty of spring break packages available for kids who want to get drunk, break out in gross blisters from spending too many hours in the sun, and dry-hump each other in exotic foreign locales. There are very few, however, that offer you the chance to train with Israeli Defense Force soldiers in between club hopping. But a company called Israel Under 30 has quickly filled this void in the market: For as little as $110 per day, you can forget your worries about Hamas and Hezbollah coming to get you and live it up with, as IU30’s website says, “2,000 smoking hot Israeli girls partying on the shores of the magestic [sic] Red Sea.” You can also receive gun training on a private range and get schooled by “Israel’s most elite soldiers.” Intrigued, I called the company’s cofounder Eugene Gershman to ask him about his weird business.
VICE: Hey, Eugene. What was the impetus for founding IU30?
Eugene Gershman: I’m a New Yorker, and I saw 9/11 with my own eyes, so it was very important for me to go and do counterterrorism in the place that does it best, which is Israel. After college I served in an IDF counterterrorism unit from 2006 to 2009. When I finished, my partner and I came up with this really cool idea of showing kids from all over the world that Israel wasn’t just about the war and the politics—that it was a really cool country.
What kinds of people go on these trips, and do they have to apply?
The screening process is actually fairly simple. The applicant submits three paragraphs that explain who they are, what they’re about, what they enjoy in life. After that, we do a very intensive Facebook search on who these people are, and additionally, the guys who work with us all have intelligence backgrounds, so we get permission from applicants to do background searches on them. Then we have a phone or Skype interview.
Could you tell me a bit more about the Army Action Trip?
We basically take the entire process of forming a Special Forces soldier—from the hand-to-hand combat to the shooting to the navigation, all the cool stuff—and put it into three days and give them a tiny taste of what it would be like to be a soldier. Every group has a dedicated host and hostess. The hostesses are hot, super cool Israeli chicks, who actually have military backgrounds.
How do you deal with all the political turmoil that’s going on in the country?
We stay out of it. We very rarely get questions, unfortunately, from the kids who come here for spring break. They don’t care. Any questions they have about stuff they hear on the news are answered very simply: Look around you. Tell me if you think this is a war zone.
More from our Spring Break issue:
Welcome to the Twin Zone
Blacking Out Is the Other Universal Language
In There Like Swimwear