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Encounters in Bethlehem

by Clary Rooda
Published on February 16, 2007 in Levends Joods Geloof

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​.encoun​ter​pro​grams​.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.

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