American Jewish activist and university student Lucas Koerner was arrested in Jerusalem on 1 June — when thousands of right-wing Israelis, including settlers, marked “Jerusalem Day” by provocatively marching through Palestinian East Jerusalem to celebrate the “unification” of the city.
Koerner’s violent arrest by Israeli police was captured on video and has been viewed by a quarter of a million persons at the time of publication.
In the video, Koerner, wearing a the traditional checkered Palestinian kuffiyeh scarf and a Jewish kippah (skullcap) with a small Palestinian flag pin, identifies himself as a Jewish American and displays his US passport. “My government is responsible and I’m here to say not in my name and not in the name of US citizens,” he says.
The video then shows him being pulled from a crowd and violently arrested by Israeli police, who push him to the ground. One officer is seen putting his knee on Koerner’s neck. He is then roughly forced into a police truck.
Koerner recounts his arrest on his blog, Stronger Than Slavery, where he writes: “Throughout the whole affair, the only thing audible coming from the policemen was a constant stream of curses words, ‘motherfucker,’ ‘piece of shit,’ etc., which was to me a ringing confirmation of how infuriated and threatened they were by a 19-year-old wearing a kippah and a keffiyeh standing with the Palestinians.”
The Electronic Intifada editor Maureen Clare Murphy, who blogged about Koerner’s arrest last week, interviewed the young American activist upon his return to the United States and shortly after his release from Israeli detention. Koerner discusses his activism and what happened after his arrest. When asked whether he would pursue legal measures to protest his arrest, Koerner said that his family are considering their options.
Maureen Clare Murphy: What brought you to Palestine?
Lucas Koerner: I’ve been an activist on a number of fronts for a long time and in particular Palestine solidarity for past three years or so. And for the past three or four years I’ve always wanted to go, I’ve never had the opportunity, it never came together. Finally someone told me about Interfaith Peace Builders, I applied for a scholarship, they gave me a scholarship and then I decided to go [on one of their delegations]. My main motivation was that being an activist, you can know all the facts, you can have all the graphs, all the tables, all the presentations, but when it comes down to it, none of that is a substitution for first-hand empirical experience of actually going and seeing it for yourself. That was the primary motivation.
I was there for eleven days, however I was supposed to stay for five weeks.
MCM: Have you been active in the solidarity movement in the US?
LK: I live in Philadelphia during the summer but I go to school in Boston. When I was in high school in Philadelphia I was involved with American Jews for Just Peace - Philadelphia. In my high school I started something of a Palestinian solidarity-type group or anti-war group. It wasn’t much of a group but we tried our best to show films, try to do whatever we could. I was also in touch with the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.
MCM: How did you get involved in solidarity with Palestine?
LK: I’ve been involved tenuously in anti-war activism around Iraq and Afghanistan since I was in 9th grade, since I was 15; I went to my first demonstration with my dad … [Palestine has] always been a fixture my political consciousness but it was really Operation Cast Lead, the Gaza massacre of late ‘08 early ‘09, that prompted me and compelled me beyond anything else to take on this work as my primary calling. I just couldn’t stay silent any longer.
MCM: Why were you protesting the day you were arrested?
LK: It wasn’t originally a protest at all or demonstration. Initially my friends and I, or my fellow delegates on our trip, were going down to watch the march and basically we were just holding up peace signs, we had our kuffiyehs on. We basically tried to make a statement as Americans that in the aftermath of Netanyahu’s speech before Congress and Obama’s speech before AIPAC, that we do not endorse Israel’s occupation and all of the concomitant violations of international law and injustices that go with it.
We had just came back from Hebron [in the occupied West Bank] earlier that day. It was really what we saw in Hebron — the utter segregation that the city has fallen under with the occupation, the division of the city into basically two zones — the center of the city is basically off limits to the [Palestinian] residents of the city. It’s ground zero of the occupation as many regard it, particularly in terms of settler brutality, and the absolute complicity of the IDF [Israeli military]. But seeing that and returning on Jerusalem Day to our hotel in East Jerusalem, and seeing these miles and miles of white and blue and all of these people jubilantly celebrating the conquest of East Jerusalem, celebrating the occupation in East Jerusalem, the chutzpah of all, that really affected us all and that is what prompted us to do what we did.
MCM: What was it like in Israeli detention?
LK: I was detained for almost two days. I was taken to a police station right afterwards, where I was held for about four hours before I saw a lawyer. I was threatened numerous times with being tased and being put to sleep by various weapons they had. I continually demanded my lawyer and for my persistence they threatened me numerous times. I was then taken to prison where I spent the night in the ER; the doctor determined I had to go there because of my injures, though it was nothing serious beyond superficial wounds. The next day I was taken to court where I was put under house arrest. However the prosecution appealed that decision within the hour and the district court judge stayed the decision, so I had to stay the night in the Russian Compound, the Israeli jail.
What struck me most about my time in prison is that it is a reflection of the rest of Israeli society in that it’s completely segregated. I was placed against my will in the Jewish cell. I asked to be put in the Arab cell. The Jewish cell conditions weren’t bad at all; it was still jail, but it was bearable. I did see the Arab cell or at least one of the Arab cells and the conditions there were absolutely abominable. … We had furniture, we had beds of some sort, we had a clean bathroom. They had nothing. Just a bench and an open toilet. The conditions were horrible. That’s what struck me most.
MCM: Did you get any support from the US consulate?
I received no support from the US consulate. My friends and family had contacted them and, from what I heard, they basically said that this happens a lot and there’s nothing [they] can do. They didn’t even come to my trials.
[The trials were] all done in Hebrew. It was lucky that I had a local activist there who could translate for me. The Israeli judicial system is very strange in that you can’t have a lawyer while being questioned. I was not allowed to have a lawyer present while being questioned and there are no laws within Israel that prevent you from being almost indefinitely detained before being charged. I was never formally charged but I was detained for two days.
Certainly my situation pales in comparison to that faced by Palestinian activists who face administrative detention — which is six months or more, as many as 18 months often — without being charged with anything. This is the legal structure of occupation and I had a very small dose of it. In my trial I was given house arrest, though the police wanted to hold me for a week without charging me with everything — and that was certainly a possibility, and why I had to come home.
MCM: What kind of reaction have you seen since you’ve been arrested?
LK: The reaction that I’ve received so far from the volume of Facebook messages and messages to my blog have been overwhelmingly positive, just great displays of love and solidarity which I greatly appreciate, though there’s hate mail starting to trickle in. The video has reached such a wide audience primarily because of my privileged position as an American Jew. I think that this kind of injustice which was perpetrated against me would make headlines and provoke such a visceral response. But my treatment, again, was moderate by the standards faced by Israeli and Palestinian activists in [the occupied East Jerusalem neighborhood] Sheikh Jarrah and in a weekly basis in [the West Bank villages] Biln or Nilin, and their videos are only seen by a few hundred people. It’s the fact that I’m an American Jew that [the video] has seen such a wide audience.
MCM: What are your next plans for your solidarity work?
LK: I’m planning on doing some activism with some outfits in Philadelphia — American Jews for Just Peace, other groups. When I return to Boston in the fall I will continue my work as a leader of Tufts Students of Justice in Palestine and we do a lot of work with other SJP chapters throughout the city and CODEPINK and American Jews for Peace - Boston. I just hope to be able to share my experiences, not just my arrest, but everything else I saw prior to my arrest, in as wide a forum as I can.
Maureen Clare Murphy is managing editor of The Electronic Intifada and an activist based in Chicago.