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An Encounter with Bethlehem

by Rabbi Gideon Sylvester
Published on August 4, 2009 in Haaretz/Makom

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.

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