A report of a two-day meeting of forty Jews with Palestinians in Bethlehem:
Downstairs in the reception of the hotel stands a nativity scene with red velvet letters spelling out “Merry Christmas”. Above, in the room where we spoke the previous evening with students from Bethlehem University, someone covers the portrait of Yasser Arafat before we start the morning service.
I have visited Bethlehem two times before. The first time was on Christmas, the church of Nativity filled with Filipinos who are known for their patience and care in tending to the elderly of Israel. The second visit was with my parents. My father wanted to see ‘the wall.’ From Jerusalem, it is only 15 minutes by Arab bus to the checkpoint, a horrible terminal where, after passing through baggage and passport control, you end up intimidated and disorientated. This time it was veiled Muslim-girls who were visiting the birthplace of Jesus; he is, after all, also one of their prophets.
But this time I am not a tourist. With a group of forty other Jews, primarily American and Australian rabbinical students, I take part in an “Encounter” program meant to inform future Jewish leaders about the Palestinian situation. See www.encounterprograms.org for further information.
We do not take the official route through the checkpoint, but enter occupied territory through ‘the backdoor’. By means of a ‘settlers-road’ (especially built for settlers to reach their settlements) we drive past Bethlehem and turn left. We get off, walk a bit, climb a rampart of about a meter high and stand in Al-Khadr, a village a little south-west of Bethlehem. It is clear: the wall is not yet finished and there are still many routes for those who wish to sneak through.
Our first visit is to the Hope Flowers School, which sees as its core function to educate children to become peaceful and democratic Palestinians. The school reaches out not just to the students, but also to the parents and the teachers. Ghada Ghabon, daughter of the founder of the school who himself came to Bethlehem as a refugee, gives an introduction. “The school pays much attention to the psychological counselling of war traumas. Most of the children come from refugee camps and have to deal not just road-blocks and incidents with the Israeli army, but also with attacks by Moslem fanatics.” And that is something we will hear more often hear during our visit: if a solution is not found soon, the extremists will take over.
People with whom we speak all have chosen non-violent resistance, sometimes after many years of being active in other groups and sometimes also after spending many years in Israeli prisons. But they all try to break through the endless circle of violence and revenge, by talking with Israeli’s and Jews, by participating in inter-religious dialogue and by offering training in non-violence in schools. Or as Dr. Yousef Najajreh, a professor in pharmacy specializing in cancer-research, formulated it: “Education is a key to freedom. I always ask to children if they want to become a suicide-bomber or a famous doctor. What does it mean to be a hero? How can you best help people?”
Since the second intifada the school is facing a large number of problems: there is not enough money to pay the teachers; half of the children are undernourished; and the communal programmes with Israeli schools can no longer be implemented, since the Israelis are prohibited to enter occupied area and the Palestinians can not get a permit to go out. Through these travel-restrictions other peace initiatives also became unrealizable. Or as Ilana Sumka, co-ordinator of Encouter and American notices: “I would make aliya, but with an Israeli passport I can no longer do this work; therefore I decided to refrain from it for the time being.”
After the visit to the school, we drive in a very old bus to Beit Jala, a village west of Bethlehem. We walk into an olive grove and look out on settlers-road which we took earlier that morning. We see nearby the construction route of the wall and Gilo, a neighbourhood of Jerusalem, but built outside the green line of 1967 on expropriated Bethlehem territory. Building these types of neighbourhoods still continues, like, for example, Har Homa between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
Some olive-trees have been cut down or marked with white paint, and give us insight into how the wall will run: straight through the olive grove. It means that the inhabitants of Bethlehem soon will have no more access to their fields and to the only forest where they can go for recreation. The monks of the adjacent convent could choose on which side of the wall they wanted to live. They chose the Israeli side, so that they could continue to sell their wine abroad. Those who leave Bethlehem are primarily Christians. If they have the money and the contacts, they seize their chance of getting away from these difficult circumstances and increasing influence of Islam. If the wall is completed soon, it also means that the people of Bethlehem will no longer be able to visit their family and friends in villages south west of the city, areas where the Jewish settlements of Gush Etzion increasingly extend.
Beside the meetings with Palestinians this trip is interesting for me in another respect: among the participants are a couple orthodox rabbinical students who study at yeshivot in the settlements which we can see from Bethlehem. These are people with whom, in religious and political respect, I usually do not agree, and whom I seldom meet in Jerusalem, but with whom I get on very well. Yes, I also have my prejudices and it is easier to consider your opponent as an animal than as a nice person. But like always, the reality is more complex. I appreciate that they have taken this difficult step to inform themselves about the Palestinian situation.
The bus brings us to the edge of Bethlehem and we walk along the wall, which here is actually a 9 meter high concrete wall; on other places it is a fence of barbed wire. Behind the wall lies the tomb of Rachel, a spot that could be the hopeful symbol for Jews, Christians and Moslems; but here it is the opposite: an inaccessible bunker on all sides enclosed by the wall and heavily monitored by the Israeli army.
We hear the personal narratives of several Palestinians: Moslems, Christians, families who came after 1948 as refugees. The deputy mayor tells how his daughter was killed when the Israeli army fired at his car because they thought that he was a Hamas-supporter. No, he feels no hatred towards the soldiers, and he takes part in conversations with Israelis who lost their own children in bomb attacks. “War knows no winners and brings no security,” he says, “but working for peace is more difficult. We must break through the violence. We must build bridges of understanding and justice.”
Justice and human dignity are words which are invoked frequently. The Palestinians not only want peace, but they want a solution that does justice to their interests and their autonomy. Some participants want their own Palestinian state; others are rather part of Israel. “But then Israel must give up its Jewish identity, flag and national anthem,” says one of them. Yes, the conversations are not a polite exchange of kindnesses; some remarks are painful and go against my Jewish conceptions. But that is one of the aims of this trip: to hear the Palestinian side of the narrative, listen, look and ask questions, without giving directly a judgement or reaction.
I try imagine what their lives must be like, caught on the West bank between an advancing wall on the one hand and extremists on the other. In my own work with refugees, I always realised that it was only by chance that I was born in the Netherlands. So says one of the participants, too: “I have not chosen to be born as a Palestinian in a refugee camp. What would do you in my place?” The feeling of captivity is formulated by someone else as follows: “My son is 6 years old and has never seen the sea. I want to be able to travel with him to Jaffa and Haifa. I do not want live in the shade of the wall and the occupation.”
On Friday afternoon we leave Bethlehem through the official checkpoint. A long line of Palestinian men and boys waits to be allowed into Bethlehem. “Welcome to Jerusalem” says the announcement of Israeli Ministry of Tourism. Others have scrawled: “Build bridges not walls” and “God is too big for one religion.” I feel confused and discouraged. The situation seems so hopeless and a solution so far away. But the persistence and the perseverance of people whom we have met gives me hope. Such as the meeting with Mohammed, a tall, kindly smiling boy of twenty, just graduated in English language and fond of Shakespeare. In splendid, lyrical English he told about his dream to go to London to continue his studies. It is encouraging to know that on both sides there are people who are engaged in working for peace and dignified existence and who try to reap something positive from the hatred that is sown.
A couple hours later I sit in shul in Jerusalem and welcome the shabbat. We sing “Ufros aleinu sukat shlomecha” (“Spread over us the shelter of Your peace”). The experiences of the previous days give an unprecedented depth to these familiar words that I did not experience before. And with all my heart I pray for peace in this region, for their freedom and our security.
This article was originally printed in Levends Joods Geloof (“Jewish Faith Alive,” the journal of the Dutch Union for Progressive Judaism) volume 53, number 5. This is an English translation prepared for Encounter (with edits from Ilana Kurshan). Click here for the Dutch abstract or here for the full Dutch text.