Andre Pshenichnikov (24) is a most unusual kid. So unusual that he is languishing in Egyptian jail for crossing the border without proper papers. But his story begins earlier. I first heard of him when this young programmer from a Tel Aviv suburb stayed in Deheishe refugee camp near Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. He did not go there to explore Palestinian way of life, or to write for a newspaper; he was not looking for publicity, he did not hide nor emphasize his Israeli identity. He did not act as an activist, marching at demos and enjoying popularity. He just rented a room, worked at a building site or waited tables in a tourist restaurant just like any Palestinian youth of his age in Deheishe, lived with ordinary people on his salary.
Andre did the impossible. He crossed the biggest chasm there is. Imagine a white boy from Philly, picking cotton and living with blacks in a cabin on a Mississippi plantation in the days of Jim Crow. No Freedom Rider went that far. He broke an important taboo: so many Israelis are convinced that the Palestinians would kill them on sight, at first occasion. By his example he refuted this fantasy. He renounced apartheid personally by living with Palestinians.
It did not work out very well: “I was always under suspicion”, he says. People were hostile to him, excepting a few brave ones. Palestinians did not understand what he was doing there and subtly hinted at it by seizing him and passing him to Israeli security like a hot potato. Israelis charged him with entering the Palestinian Territories – it is forbidden by Israeli law.
He was not cooled off by this setback. He decided to continue his personal crusade – declared that he gives up his Israeli citizenship and asked for a Palestinian one. He’s got no reply from the PNA. Though there are many Israelis who would like to, the PNA does not position itself as an alternative government for the land.
Andre Pshenichnikov (his long last name can be translated as Wheaten) was born in the USSR just before its collapse; his parents took him to Israel. He graduated from Israeli school and served in the Israeli army, but he remained a good, idealistic Russian boy. He failed as a Jew, but passed with honours as a human. It is amazing that such Turgenev-style kids still exist in our pragmatic age, and they still go out to “join the working people”. And the working people still surrender these good-wishers to the security forces, for they could not understand them.
Some young kids are positively influenced by what they witness in their military service. The occupation is so brutal, that it comes as a shock – and this shock causes them to reject the Israeli official thinking. After army service they emigrate or withdraw from public life; some go further. Andre Pshenichnikov, a Soviet-born son of a Russian Christian mother, was unable to understand his Zionist-brainwashed comrades who humiliate Palestinians at checkpoints, arrest the men and insult the women, or shoot Palestinian children for sport. That’s why he went to Deheishe.
His left-wing pro-Palestinian friends invited him to a conference in Cairo. The police took away his passport – the reckless kid hastily stepped over the Egyptian border without documents, with just a few newspaper clippings about himself. If he thought he’d get a hero welcome, he was wrong. The Egyptians arrested him and sentenced him to two years of prison, though such a crime usually is published by a fine, or a week of detention. To them he was just another dubious Israeli. Perhaps the Israeli secret services have requested of their Egyptian colleagues to keep Andre under wraps as long as possible. His sincere idealistic desire to support Palestinians to such a degree was understood neither in Deheishe nor in Sinai. It is tragic that people who cross lines make others extremely suspicious. This was the case with German anti-Nazis in the WWII: people often weren’t sure what to make of them, but they were the bedrock of post-war change.
Such kids are necessary if we want to undo the apartheid in Palestine/Israel. They should be promoted by Arab governments, not locked up. There are too few Israelis and/or Jews who live amongst native Palestinians. A few Israelis, men (Uri Davis) and women (Neta Golan), got married over the Green line. Amira Haas lived in Gaza and Ramallah, but she wrote for the Haaretz. Bigger part of my life passed in Palestinian seaside town of Jaffa, but it is a traditionally cosmopolitan city under Israeli rule, and many Israelis, artists and writers, live there. Andre did an important step.
Now Andre’s mother country, Russia, has learned of his fate and decided to help her hitherto lost son. The PNA should do more to help him out, and so can our friends and friends of Palestine in Egypt and elsewhere. Let him be free! Though his actions were reckless, his intentions were noble, and we need such people.