Last week, I visited Bethlehem. As an Israeli citizen, I am banned from entering most of the city and till now that has kept me away from the whole area. But the Encounter organization which takes diaspora rabbis and rabbinical students to see life beyond the separation fence graciously organized a special trip for me and two fellow Orthodox Rabbis to visit those parts of Bethlehem which are still open to us.
As a condition of taking part, we committed ourselves to “resilient listening”, and giving the benefit of the doubt to our speakers even when their accounts seemed unpalatable, harsh, distorted or unfair. It was to prove a fascinating, but grueling experience.
Our first stop was just a stone’s throw from a Yeshiva where I studied. But, like most Palestinian towns and villages it is served by roads that Israelis don’t travel on, so although for years I have driven past it on a daily basis, I was totally unaware of its existence.
As we drew close to the campus, I was forced to park my car by a garbage tip and walk for fifteen minutes to the entrance, since the main approach road has been blocked off by the army. Hot and breathless, we arrived at the front gate where a welcome sign defiantly proclaims: “We refuse to be enemies” in three languages. We were warmly greeted by our host who plied us with piping hot coffee, fruit and cakes. Then he told us his story. His grandfather had purchased the land in 1916, and the family had lived there ever since, but now the Israeli government and local settlers were challenging his ownership of the land so that they could confiscate it. His inspiring response was to transform the property into a huge summer camp for Palestinian children to educate them about peace and reconciliation.
It was a heart-rending story and left me feeling embarrassed by the apparent cruelty of our government as well as the electricity and water authorities who refuse to supply his home. And yet I was left with niggling questions. Why was his sign warmly welcoming us to a center of coexistence written in Arabic, German and English, but not Hebrew? If the camp was established for children to learn about coexistence, why weren’t we taken to meet them and introduce ourselves as peace loving Jews? Indeed, why were we instructed to remove all visible signs of Jewishness when we arrived?
Over and over again, throughout the day, I was torn between my empathy for the suffering of the Palestinian people, my respect for their warmth, and my confusion about whether they really sought peace with us.
Another speaker was a charming young Christian who worked for a coexistence trust, bringing tourists to Bethlehem. I was touched by his description of life in the city and the fearsome laws that restrict his freedom of movement. He related how on one occasion he and his friends received special permission to travel to Tel Aviv and celebrate Easter there. After a long journey, they finally arrived at the seaside where they were immediately stopped, searched and questioned by a beach attendant who did not want to admit them. Finally, the official conceded that their travel permits were in order, growling, “You may have permission to come to the beach, but Palestinians certainly cannot enter our sea”. This was their introduction to Tel Aviv. They turned around and boarded the bus back home.
Despite everything, he told us that he had not abandoned his belief in coexistence. “Travel restrictions prevent us from reaching Israeli cities to demonstrate in front of Israeli citizens and opinion makers”, he said “but every week my friends and I hold peaceful protests near the army check points”.
I was impressed by this non violent resistance, until in the course of his explanation, he let slip that for him; “peaceful, non-violent protest” included hurling stones at soldiers. It’s hard to imagine that Gandhi would have agreed, and my friends who serve in the reserves of the Israel Defense Forces were devastated. “We often face these stone throwing mobs; it’s frightening and dangerous. True, we have our guns, but we are forbidden from shooting at stone throwers. We just have to face them off. What chance is there of making peace with an enemy who thinks that throwing rocks is a harmless demonstration?” they lamented.
Our final speaker was a highly talented woman who is making a film about the separation fence. Normally, she takes groups to see the fence itself, but since we could not travel there, she made do with a power point presentation. Even those of us who support the security barrier were horrified to see pictures of how it is built right up against people’s homes, ruining their view, fencing in their families and preventing any expansion of the city. It certainly felt as if Bethlehem was being turned into a prison.
Her presentation was moving but the overall effect was somewhat tarnished by our follow up conversation. She heaped all the blame for the conflict onto Israel and the settlers. I too had been disturbed and angry by the accounts offered to us by speakers from the Friends of the Earth, who told us how settlers invade Arab lands, uproot olive trees and allow their sewage to flow into Palestinian villages. But this woman’s refusal to acknowledge any failure by the Palestinian leadership seemed unfair.
She completely ignored the attempts by Arab states to eliminate Israel at birth or to crush it economically. The withdrawal of thousands of Jews from their homes in Gaza was dismissed as a stunt, and the hundreds of missiles that were then fired from Gaza into Southern Israel were brushed off as a minor issue. As for the wall itself, the fact that it was built to protect our civilians from the daily infiltration of Palestinian suicide bombers was ignored. All this made any attempt at a shared narrative seem impossible.
So I left Bethlehem confused; excited to have met my neighbors, moved by their warmth and friendliness, and touched by their suffering. But equally disappointed that I had not met anyone in Bethlehem who expressed a strong desire for partnership and peace with us.
Perhaps the bitterness that I witnessed reflected the need to work harder towards eliminating the disillusionment felt on both sides, and creating conditions in which we can work together towards peace. I salute the Encounter organization for having the vision and drive to take religious leaders on this pilgrimage to witness what is going on there and return as ambassadors for peace; working towards God’s vision of a time when:
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb
The leopards lie down with the kid…
Nothing evil or vile shall be done.
For the land shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
(Isaiah XI: 1–15)
For God at least, “peace” is not yet a dirty word.
Gideon Sylvester was rabbi of Britain’s fastest growing Modern Orthodox Synagogue. He is the former Adviser at the Office of the Prime Minister of Israel on Diaspora affairs. Gideon is the British United Synagogue’s Israel Rabbi, works for Ohr Torah Stone Institutions, and is a Jewish Educator at Merchavim – the Institute for Shared Citizenship in Israel.