Activist grapples with aftermath of disfigurement
“I’m still a little bit broken, but it’s OK,” said Emily Henochowicz, giggling slightly.
Nearly a month after being struck in the face by a tear gas canister fired by Israeli border police during a demonstration in the West Bank, the 21-year-old sounds chipper as she recuperates in her Potomac, Md., home.
Between the nearly daily doctors’ appointments, Henochowicz continues to grapple with the repercussions of the violent episode—physical and political.
Henochowicz, who had been in Israel since February to study animation at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy, lost her left eye and suffered multiple fractures to her jaw and cheekbone in the incident. But despite the physical fallout from the demonstration, the art student remains proud to have taken to the streets in protest of Israel’s deadly confrontation with a Gaza-bound aid flotilla.
“I was standing there for something that I believe in … [and] I feel good about what I was doing,” Henochowicz said recently during an hourlong telephone interview.
She regrets nothing, but realizes her life is forever changed.
“This is something that is going to be with me for the rest of my life,” she said. “It’s not like I broke my arm. I don’t have a left eye. It’s personal now.”
However, Henochowicz claims to harbor no ill will toward the State of Israel or the police officer who fired the canister of tear gas. (The family, however, has retained a lawyer, and plans to file a suit over the incident.)
“This is not really an experience that makes me hate anyone—that is such a useless emotion in this kind of situation,” she said, explaining that her idealism remains intact. Henochowicz still believes that peace between the Israelis and Palestinians is within reach.
Across the globe, though, images of her bloodied face have served only to further embitter activists on both sides of the Green Line.
Palestinian supporters quickly turned Henochowicz into an international icon, creating several Facebook groups that have portrayed her as a champion of opposition to Israeli aggression.
Meanwhile, some American Jews have depicted her as yet another liberal, self-hating Jew. She has been subjected to rants posted on Internet forums and newspaper Web sites, Henochowicz said.
“It’s a little bit weird,” she said of her sudden notoriety. “It’s very strange for me.”
While scanning the comments section of one paper’s Web site, Henochowicz says she came across a reader who labeled her “a traitor” and said “that I should have lost both my eyes and [to] stay out of” Israel. (She noted, however, that “most” of the feedback has been sympathetic.)
Asked about the flurry of negativity surrounding his daughter’s actions, Henochowicz’s father, Stuart, said he’s “proud of her” for standing up to what she deemed as Israeli injustice—though he certainly would have “preferred that she had slept in that day.”
“I certainly don’t think Emily is a self-hating Jew,” said Stuart Henochowicz, a Tel Aviv native and the son of Holocaust survivors. “I think she is an ethical Jew of the highest order. I think she is what Jewish people should be about.”
But he is unhappy that his daughter has become a political pawn.
“I don’t think Emily should be a poster person for anyone,” he said. “Emily is her own person and comes at this as a Jewish person holding an Israeli passport.”
While the family was hesitant initially to be interviewed in the days following the ordeal, both father and daughter said they are now speaking out to help promote a difficult, yet necessary, conversation about Israeli society.
“The Palestinians have been living in a cage for 43 years, so my heart goes out to them. … This is what Emily saw,” said Stuart Henochowicz, admitting that when he first learned of his child’s activism several months ago, he was not pleased.
Numerous conversations with his daughter, though, helped to open his eyes, he said, to “an occupation of 43 years [that] is morally decaying, and that, in part, is responsible for what happened to Emily.”
On May 31, Emily Henochowicz—who attends Cooper Union College in New York and had been on a semester program at Bezalel—recalls waking up to reports of a deadly clash between Israeli Navy commandos and those aboard a Gaza-bound Turkish aid flotilla.
Though she already had attended many protests against the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Henochowicz said the circumstances surrounding the flotilla gathering felt different. She expected the protest to be relatively calm, given that nine Turkish passengers died in the early-morning raid.
Events, however, took a violent turn when border police responded to several Palestinian youths who had begun throwing rocks. Authorities have said that Henochowicz was not intentionally targeted, according to news reports, but she questions that claim.
Witnesses at the protest have reported that the canister was shot directly at Henochowicz, who was holding a Turkish flag aloft at the time and was not standing near the rock throwers.
The family is calling on Israeli police to launch an “open and transparent investigation” into the day’s events and has hired Israeli human rights attorney Michael Sfard to exert pressure on officials to act.
Stuart Henochowicz confirmed that Israeli U.S. Ambassador Michael Oren recently paid the family a 30-minute “courtesy call” to express regret.
“It was a personal visit,” the father said. “He expressed sorrow for what had happened, and we again made it clear we would like Israel to give a public account of what happened” and “accept responsibility.”
An embassy spokesperson confirmed the visit took place but declined further comment.
For her part, Emily Henochowicz isn’t dwelling much on the details of that day. She is focused now on the bigger picture, hoping that her injuries compel Israeli security forces to re-evaluate the use of tear gas during protests—even when employed to combat violence.
“Tear gas shot from those guns does not even closely equal throwing stones,” she said. “I know maybe this is apologetic or something, but I think that usually when people throw stones it is more of a symbolic thing because [stones] are highly inaccurate” and usually are cast in frustration.
Even before Henochowicz arrived in Jerusalem, she says she had already begun to question the Jewish state’s policies regarding the Palestinians, as well as use of military force.
“In Hebrew school when you learn about Israel, you get this view that is so different than when you’re actually there,” explained Henochowicz, whose bat mitzvah ceremony was held at Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac. (The family now attends Conservative Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac.)
American Jewish youths are taught that “Israel is surrounded by hostile Arabs who are just closing in on it,” but after arriving in the country, Henochowicz says she now believes that Israel is the true aggressor.
“The thing that scared me the most about going to the West Bank was the Israeli military,” she said. “I wasn’t going to get hurt by Palestinians there.”
A turning point in Henochowicz’s relationship with Israel came during the country’s monthlong war in Gaza during the winter of 2008-09.
“It made me reconsider how I felt about Israel, and that was a big thing for me,” she said. “I had never questioned Israel before.”
But “it wasn’t until I actually went to Israel before I started doing something about it.”
Henochowicz says she was motivated to act after witnessing a confrontation in Sheikh Jarrah, an Eastern Jerusalem neighborhood. A group of Chasidim had begun screaming prayers at Palestinian children, she recalled.
“For me it was really strange because … these prayers are a part of me, and it’s really hurtful” to see religion utilized as a weapon of hate, she said.
The incident led her to protest against West Bank settlement expansion and helped alter her views about the ideal route for peace. Henochowicz said she now believes that a one-state solution would be most tenable, as Israel already controls the territories through its vast military presence.
Asked if she intends to remain engaged with activist groups now that she’s back in the States, Henochowicz says she would—though finishing art school will take priority.
“Right now, I definitely am not done with this issue,” she said, adding that “right now”—despite all that has happened—“I really have an idea that things can change.”