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U.S. Jews Meet Bethlehem Arabs

by Daniel Estrin
Published on December 18, 2007 in the JTA

BETHLEHEM (JTA) – The bus ride to Bethlehem from Jerusalem takes no more than 15 minutes, but for most American Jews studying in Israel, the Palestinian city in the West Bank might as well be worlds away.

That may be changing.

This month, a group of 40 rabbinical students, semi­nary students and young Jews crossed the Israeli mili­tary check­point – and the psycho­log­ical divide that sepa­rates Jews from Palestinians here – to see Palestinian life in Bethlehem firsthand.

Most went without offi­cial approval from their yeshivas and learning programs, and some hadn’t told their fami­lies back home about the trip.

Some acknowl­edged their anxiety about the trip, which included an overnight stay in Bethlehem.

Can someone say Tefilat Haderech?” one student called out from the back of the bus that took the group to Bethlehem, refer­ring to the Jewish traveler’s prayer.

Minutes later the students were standing beside a heap of concrete rubble and twisted metal, which their Palestinian hosts explained was a house demol­ished years before by the Israeli military.

The partic­i­pants spent the day running around Bethlehem, at one point visiting an elemen­tary school dedi­cated to nonvi­o­lence within view of the Jewish West Bank settle­ment of Efrat.

While a girl named Dina greeted each partic­i­pant with a wide smile and a cheese puff, some of the Jewish students peered out the window at a nearby hilltop where Jewish settlers had pitched cara­vans in a bid to extend the Efrat settlement.

Some of my teachers live in Efrat,” noted one of the Jewish students, from the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.

The trip was orga­nized by Encounter, a nonprofit orga­ni­za­tion that facil­i­tates meet­ings between Palestinians and “future Jewish leaders” from diverse reli­gious and polit­ical affiliations.

Since its founding in 2005, Encounter has brought nearly 400 Diaspora Jews to the West Bank cities of Bethlehem and Hebron. These days it is the only Jewish group of its kind that pays regular visits to Palestinian cities.

By law, Israelis are barred from entering Palestinian Authority-controlled cities in the West Bank, but inter­na­tional pass­port holders may cross in and out freely.

Yearlong Jewish study programs in Israel “do an excel­lent job of educating their students about the dimen­sions of Israeli and Jewish life, but there’s a piece missing,” said Ilana Sumka, director of Encounter’s Jerusalem office. “We give them access to complex­i­ties on the ground that they are other­wise not exposed to.”

Encounter is a resi­dent orga­ni­za­tion of Bikkurim, a project that supports inno­v­a­tive Jewish programs and is funded by the United Jewish Communities feder­a­tion umbrella group.

As part of this month’s trip, Bethlehem resi­dent Leila Sansour led the group on a walking tour of the 27-foot-high cement barrier that cuts off the city from nearby neigh­bor­hoods on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

Sansour has led several groups from Encounter through the streets of Bethlehem; she says it’s good for her own sanity.

Instead of me seeing Jews coming to my city in the form of soldiers, it’s impor­tant to see that they come to find out about me as well,” she said.

Sansour explained to the group how the wall turns Bethlehem into a prison: Some Bethlehemites haven’t been allowed a visit to Jerusalem in years, and the local economy fell into crisis when tourists stopped visiting.

A few days ago, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, now a special envoy for Middle East peace­making, spent a night in Bethlehem to send the message that the city is again open for business.

But on Sansour’s tour, the Jewish visi­tors followed her from one silent neigh­bor­hood to another, the massive gray barrier casting a shadow over boarded-up store­fronts and homes.

Israel says the barrier, part of the West Bank secu­rity fence, is neces­sary to keep terror­ists out of Israel.

At Al Walaje, a village on Bethlehem’s outskirts, Councilwoman Shireen Alaraj said she is furious about the barrier’s route.

If you want secu­rity, fine,” she said. “Then why do you build the wall in our backyard?”

Rabbinical student Ephraim Pelcovits said he was moved by the Palestinians’ reac­tions to the barrier. Living in Jerusalem, Pelcovits said, he never feels its pres­ence, but “Palestinians speak about the wall as if it were alive.”

At one stop along the tour, Palestinian peace activists spoke candidly about the internal chal­lenges of Palestinian poli­tics and their close rela­tion­ships with Jewish colleagues and friends. Professor Yousef El-Herimi said he hosted a group of rabbinical students at his Bethlehem home last year for an Islam study group.

After a packed day of sight­seeing and lectures, the Jews went to sleep at the homes of local youths, many of whom said they would add their guests to their friends list on Facebook, the popular social networking Web site.

The following morning, the Jewish students swapped stories about their overnight expe­ri­ences after a morning minyan at the Bethlehem Hotel.

As a Jewish girl from New Jersey, I got my first Christmas invi­ta­tion ever,” one partic­i­pant told the group with a smile.

Jill Levy, a second-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, said the trip was diffi­cult but impor­tant. After losing two friends in the 2002 suicide bombing at Hebrew University, Levy said she “lost a lot of compas­sion for the Palestinian people.”

But “as a future rabbi, I need to be really educated about the situ­a­tion in the Middle East. An inte­gral part of that educa­tion is hearing stories from the Palestinian people,” she said.

Having visited Bethlehem twice, Levy said she is plan­ning to return on Christmas along with some fellow students.

The popu­larity of Encounter’s trips to Palestinian-populated cities has prompted the program to expand its offer­ings. Encounter recently led a tour for Jewish feder­a­tion exec­u­tives, and the group is plan­ning trips for other American Jewish delegations.

I initially thought that the word ‘Palestinian’ rendered any program treif in certain quar­ters of the Jewish commu­nity,” said Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, a co-founder of Encounter. But, she said, “we have hit a nerve and struck a need that already existed.”

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Encounter is an edu­ca­tional orga­ni­za­tion dedi­cated to strength­ening the capacity of the Jewish people to be construc­tive agents of change in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Moti­vated by the relent­less Jew­ish pur­suit of hokhma (wis­dom) and binah (under­stand­ing), Encounter cul­ti­vates informed Jew­ish lead­er­ship on the Israeli-Palestinian con­flict by bring­ing…

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