One Saturday morning this past January on a trip to the West Bank with American-Jewish doctors, I spent several hours at a mobile clinic staffed by Israeli-Jewish doctors from Physicians for Human Rights, Israel, and Palestinian doctors from the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees. In a West Bank village, Mas’ha, a modest house was turned into an improvised clinic, where doctors from our group provided medical care alongside their Israeli and Palestinian counterparts. A draconian system of “internal closure” (under which no one can leave a village or city without Israeli permission) and checkpoints has closed off all access to regular healthcare. Mobile clinics bring some minimal medical attention to the beleaguered population.
Eighty-two-year-old Pnina Failer, a former nurse, is a regular volunteer for the PHR/UPMRC Saturday clinics. She is the mother of Dror Failer, a 52-year-old saxophonist-composer married to the Swedish artist Gunilla Skold-Failer. The Failers’s installation in Stockholm, Snow White and the Madness of Truth, made international headlines last January when Israel’s ambassador to Sweden physically attacked the artwork, claiming that it glorified Palestinian suicide bombers.
She was born Pnina Naijdorf (“New Village”) in 1923 in Lodz, Poland. Among her earliest memories is a magazine to which her family subscribed, Literary News, which featured progressive writers. “I also read many books, including Forty Days of Mossadegh and Knut Hamsun’s writing. For a girl of 11, 12, 13, they made an impact. We also got a pamphlet called The Brown Book about the Fascist way of dealing with Jews and Communists in Italy. I still remember the pictures of people who were given oil, which makes you have diarrhea; they had to move their bowels without removing their trousers. And I learned about the Civil War in Spain. We were not Zionists. My father died when I was one and a half years old. We had a cousin in the United States, Albert Epstein, who was a Zionist. He tried to influence my mother to go to Palestine. My mother wasn’t enthusiastic. Her whole family was in Poland, and Palestine looked like some Asiatic country. But we went in September 1938. He promised her she can go back if she doesn’t like it, but of course we couldn’t go back.”
The arrest of Pnina’s brother, David, clinched the decision to emigrate. “He was four years older than me and he was a member of the Communist Party, which was illegal. They would make small demonstrations in the street: Someone would get up and begin to speak and a small crowd would gather. They would disperse before the police came. On one occasion my brother [then a gymnasium student with no criminal record] was caught by the police. Someone came to our house and said, ‘You must clean everything because people are coming to search.’ My mother threw everything in a reservoir of water. They came at night–I pretended to be asleep–they looked [everywhere, even] under the mattress, and found nothing. But the lawyer my mother hired said he would still be sent four and a half years for re-education to a concentration camp called Bereza Kartuska unless he declares that he is a Zionist. If he’s a Zionist he can’t be a Communist, and they will let him go. He wanted to be a hero and not declare himself a Zionist, but my mother cried and implored. Finally he had a trial and said, ‘What do you want? I am going to an agricultural school in Israel called Mikvah Israel’ [now a boarding school in Holon, near Tel Aviv]. He went there to study agriculture but quite soon he became involved with the Communist movement, which was also illegal [under the British occupation.] He was in the Communist Party a long time, and then he joined the British Army as a driver because there was a war against fascism.”
At 16, Pnina joined the Communist Youth, also illegal under the British occupation of Palestine. “You were in a small cell of three. We didn’t have contact with the other cells because if they caught you, you couldn’t betray the others. When the Germans attacked the Soviet Union it was very difficult for the British to imprison Communists, since it seemed illogical to be an ally of the Communists and on the other hand to oppress Communists. They didn’t officially announce that the CP was legal, but they didn’t do anything against it. There was a lot of activity in aid of the Soviet Union begun by the left. [For instance,] Liga V was a multinational organization that sent ambulances with medical help to the Soviet Union. We on the left were the first to believe that the Nazis were killing in such a way in Poland. Here in Palestine, before the war against the Soviet Union started, they said it was Soviet propaganda, that it was not possible. At the beginning it was very difficult to get information, but there were two men who escaped one of the camps and came to Palestine. There was a public meeting; they were telling the real story.”
It was during this period that Failer began understanding that there was discrimination against Palestinian Arabs. “One of the basic [efforts by] the CP was making [discrimination] known publicly and trying to help the Palestinian citizens of Israel, [who] were oppressed; there was a military regime, and they were under direct military rule until 1966. These were our neighbors. We must help ourselves by helping them to create an atmosphere of cooperation. The idea of two states for two people was basic.” Arab Communists, she reflects, were stifled by their own governments because they espoused the same idea. “In ’48, before the creation of the State of Israel, the Arab Communists of all the countries surrounding Israel were imprisoned by the Arab governments, which were under the influence of the British.”
Failer’s family was poor; during high school she worked in the school library. She wanted to become a doctor. “I was told there was a university in Beirut, American University of Beirut, and if I am a good student and get high marks, when I finish I might get a scholarship to study medicine there. My idea was to work as a nurse part-time while studying to be a doctor.” She went to AUB in 1945. “It was very easy to get to Beirut–two and a half hours from Haifa. But in ’47, after the UN declaration of two states, there began fights between Palestinian Arabs and Palestinian Jews. We were told that if we want to go back we must leave immediately. I went back without finishing, so I became a practical nurse.”
Until the end of the war she worked in Hadassah-Tel Aviv Hospital’s surgical department. “There I got a practical education to be against wars, because till then I did not touch, did not smell, did not see what wars can do. It was a university. There was a bombing of a bus station in Tel Aviv, by Egyptians I think. There were many people killed and maimed. I remember the blood; they were carrying people on stretchers and the blood was dripping on the floor and the floor was sticky, and the rubber boots made this clicking sound in the blood, and they were bloody and all the clothes were bloody. The impact was so strong, I cannot tell you. [After the January 2004 Stockholm Museum incident] this all came back to me. You know about this vicious circle: revenge, counter-revenge, more revenge. An eye for an eye, or many eyes for one eye, until we all get blind. I said to myself: ‘How many years, how many people, how many victims on both sides? It is the killing, the maiming of life, and it is terrible.”
In recent years Pnina worked at her kibbutz just outside Netanya, Yad Chana, in the activist group Women in Black, alongside others from three kibbutzim. “We got a lot of abuse.” Undaunted by the abuse and desperate to join any opposition to the injustices she saw mounting internationally, she joined demonstrations against the US assaults on Afghanistan and Iraq. She also became active in PHR’s mobile clinics. “[The Palestinian patients] could have a cold or cough or asthma, diabetes and other chronic diseases. In some places we find anemia. We find children who are wetting their beds and haven’t done it before. We didn’t go to Gaza, where things are much worse. What I find difficult [in the West Bank] is the [improvised clinics] themselves: very small places, in schools, in houses, with the pharmacy [in plastic boxes or on tables] outside. I was very upset by the difficulty for the people to get a real examination for the heart, and so on. People told us, ‘We cannot reach a town twenty minutes by car,’ because they are closed, they are in ghettos. It is awful, and people are waiting for us; sometimes we’d be two, three hours late, and people are waiting and waiting and waiting, and they get upset and nervous. If you are a doctor or nurse you have to examine; it is not a factory, you have to feel.
“Some things are difficult to forget. One time it was summer and quite hot. In the schoolyard was a group of eight or nine schoolgirls, about 10, 11 or 12, in white dresses with flowers, roses, and they gave each of us a rose. It was so moving. They offered us sweets. I kept my rose for some days in my room. The people here on the kibbutz said, ‘Pnina, they will kill you, they will maim you,’ and I promised them I’d let them know I’m safe every time I come back. But there was no place [the villagers] didn’t offer us dinner. We give something and they give something. They are proud, they are the hosts, we are their guests, and it is a good thing.
What might she tell Americans ignorant of the facts of Israel’s occupation? “They are far away, they have their own problems. I have to understand Israelis who don’t want to know. They want to live and not to know; they have jobs, they have children. This reminds me of all the stories of the German population who didn’t want to know. They had jobs, they had children, too. I didn’t used to understand the theater of the absurd, but now I understand it.
“I am Jewish. I am Israeli. I am a citizen of this state, and I am very upset. I am mourning for my people, who are getting killed and wounded. Here on the kibbutz I know two people, one has a grandson who lost an eye; he was in the army. The other has a grandson who was in a bus and there was a suicide attack on it. A girl near him was killed. He was wounded. I am mourning my people and the Palestinian people. I want my government to stop being an occupying force, to get out of the territories and to give hope to both people. I am accusing especially my government because it is mine. I pay taxes and I am a citizen, and I am responsible in a way for what they are doing. But I am not blind, I can’t say the Palestinian leaders are all tzaddiks, all saints.The extremists on the Palestinian side with their extremism and terror help the extremists in Israel, because if there is a bomber in a coffeehouse, our extremists say, ‘We will bomb them, kill them, and drive them away.’ And so this vicious circle continues. The extremists on one side give fuel to the other side. The killing goes on and there is constant bloodshed. I would like to add that I am a mother, and I love my children. I am very proud of my son, not only for this which was done now, but for everything.”