By Robert McCartney
Emily Henochowicz wasn’t thinking about protests or Palestinians or tear gas canisters when she went to Israel in February for a one-semester college exchange program.
The 21-year-old art student from Montgomery County wanted to study animation, and Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy had a good program.
It was a plus to spend time in Israel. Henochowicz grew up in an observant Jewish household and had her bat mitzvah at Potomac’s Har Shalom synagogue. Her father was born in Tel Aviv, and his parents are Polish Holocaust survivors.
But Henochowicz became critical of Israel in the spring, after accompanying a friend to a demonstration in East Jerusalem against the eviction of Palestinian families. Very quickly, she began participating regularly in protests against Israeli policies, especially the expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank.
“I decided that I was not just going to talk about this. I’m going to do something about it,” she said.
Henochowicz prided herself on being nonviolent, but she knew the protests were risky. One was “like a war zone, it was so scary,” she said.
The dangers caught up with her on May 31. During a demonstration at the West Bank checkpoint at Qalandia, Henochowicz was struck in the face by a tear gas canister fired by Israeli security forces. She lost her left eye, and her jaw and cheekbone were fractured.
As a result, somewhat to her family’s dismay, Henochowicz has become a minor celebrity and martyr among Palestinian supporters. Timing had something to do with it. She was injured just as controversy erupted over the Israeli commando raid on a Turkish ship full of international activists trying to break the Gaza blockade. The Qalandia protest was a response to that assault.
Now home in Potomac, Henochowicz declined to talk about the incident because her family is planning to sue Israel over it. But in her first interview since the injury, she discussed the experiences that led her to the protest and her feelings about it now.
Remarkably, Henochowicz says she “absolutely” would do it all again. Although “it’s a little strange” for a visual artist to give up an eye, she said she gained tremendous understanding of Israel, the Palestinians and herself.
“It sucks that I lost my eye. But I’m so happy that I did what I did,” Henochowicz said. “I love the time I spent there. It felt really amazing to be part of something like that. I don’t regret it. I felt that it’s what I had to do.”
Henochowicz emphasized that her affection for Israel is strong even though she opposes many of its policies.
“I really feel like I love Israel, and just like anybody that I feel about deeply, if I see they’re doing something that’s harming people, then I feel it’s my duty to say something out of that love,” Henochowicz said.
She added that Israel was “ultimately hurting itself” through its policies, particularly by allowing Jewish settlements on occupied land and denying equal rights to Palestinians.
At the West Bank protest where Henochowicz was injured, other demonstrators who witnessed the incident said the canister was fired directly at Henochowicz from about 10 to 15 yards away. She was holding a Turkish flag and was not near the five or so Palestinian youths throwing rocks, the witnesses said.
The Israeli Border Police said the projectile was not aimed at Henochowicz. It said it regretted the incident, “but we have to bear in mind that this is a hot site with ongoing riots and violence.”
The family has granted few interviews, saying it hopes to avoid promoting hostility toward the Jewish state. Some strong anti-Israel comments have already appeared on a new Facebook page called “Emily Henochowicz Is My HERO.”
Political activism was new for Henochowicz. Art was her passion, including when she attended prestigious Holton-Arms girls’ school in Bethesda. There, she was the quiet, smart, artsy girl who always had paint on her skirt.
“She was very much her own person,” said classmate Valerie D. Grasso. She wasn’t surprised that Henochowicz turned out to be the classmate “who’d stand up for a cause she believed in.”
After Holton, Henochowicz went to the Cooper Union School of Art in New York. There, for the first time, she began to question some of Israel’s practices. “When there was a bombing in Gaza a year and a half ago, I was really shocked, because I really didn’t think Israel would do something like that,” she said.
Those concerns solidified when she witnessed the demonstration in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem. A group of Hasidic Jews shouted prayers at Palestinian children in an aggressive way that offended Henochowicz.
“The settlers started using prayers, some of which I recognized, to taunt these children,” she said. “It’s not what you’ve been taught all the time about what the Jewish people are about, what Israel’s all about.”
The experience led her to do the first of a series of drawings inspired by the protests, which she posted on her blog on April 5.
She then became an activist with the International Solidarity Movement. The group says it’s committed to using only “nonviolent, direct action methods” in “resisting the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.” The Israeli Foreign Ministry, however, has said the ISM sometimes works under the auspices of terrorist groups.
said she went to 10 to 20 demonstrations. She said the activists were attracted by “a kind of Martin Luther King, South Africa thing to end discrimination.”
Back home, her father, Stuart Henochowicz, was upset.
“I really did have a hard time telling my family what I was doing. My dad did react with the kind of usual, ‘My parents are Holocaust survivors and this is an insult to me,’ ” Henochowicz said.
However, he’s been supportive since the injury.
“After he did some research and after what happened to me, he’s really changed his mind about what Israel’s doing right now,” Henochowicz said. “I think he and the rest of my family . . . really see what I was doing was out of a desire for peace.”