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A Report from Bethlehem

by Rabbi Steve Garten
Published on December 1, 2008 in the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin

I had gone to Israel as a member of the Ottawa Federation dele­ga­tion to the GA.  I had every expec­ta­tion of listening to the major polit­ical leaders of the state of Israel, now enmeshed in a polit­ical campaign.  Frankly, after the listening to the powerful oratory of Barack Obama I was more than a little disap­pointed by the pedes­trian words of Livni, Barak, Olmert and Netenyahu.  Yet conven­tions are not always judged by the plenary speakers.  There were many valu­able work­shops and the networking amongst laity and profes­sionals is always exciting.  It is a valu­able expe­ri­ence to holdup our commu­ni­ties successes against the successes of other commu­ni­ties.  It is always valu­able to hold up a mirror to our commu­nity and see how others perceive us.

Yet it was not the GA which occu­pied my mind as I flew home on November 21.  It was a very unusual trip to Bethlehem which would be the most memo­rable aspect of this journey.

I have not been in the Palestinian terri­to­ries since 2000.  Though I have had the plea­sure of meeting with repre­sen­ta­tives of the P.A. and of touring the border commu­ni­ties, and Kibbutzim that sit between Israel and Gaza, or Israel and the West Bank, I have not been across the border, until this journey.

On Thursday November 20th I spent 12 hours in the Palestinian city of Bethlehem.  My visit was arranged by a rela­tively new orga­ni­za­tion called, Encounter.  Encounter was created nearly four years ago by an American Conservative Rabbi, Melissa Weintraub.  The mission state­ment of Encounter states that: “Encounter is an educa­tional orga­ni­za­tion dedi­cated to providing Jewish Diaspora leaders from across the reli­gious and polit­ical spec­trum with expo­sure to Palestinian life.  Encounter invites partic­i­pants to ask ques­tions and grapple with fresh perspec­tives, in order to create human connec­tions across lines of enmity. ” My trip fulfilled their highest hopes.

In the course of one day I encoun­tered Palestinians of all ages, six through eighty-five.  I encoun­tered high school and univer­sity students, public servants, olive wood sculp­tors, peace activists, busi­ness­people, elemen­tary school prin­ci­pals and convicted terror­ists.  I ate lunch with wonderful people whose dreams for peace are no different than an Israeli’s.  I had coffee with college students whose anger and resent­ment toward Israel made me nervous and depressed.  I heard the same variety of opin­ions concerning the future of a two state solu­tion that I would have heard in any falafel stand across the border in Jerusalem, but opin­ions rarely expressed in North America.  Though there is no way to commu­ni­cate the inten­sity of the expe­ri­ence with you I want to describe three narra­tives that have marked my soul.

Bethlehem, the ancient birth­place of Christianity, looks like an American ghetto of the late 1960’s and early seven­ties.  There is uncol­lected garbage every­where.  The streets are not just filled with litter; they appear to be the garbage bins of the city.  The waste is not simply plastic bottles and food wrap­pers; it is every kind of human waste and every form of discarded refuse.  I am over­whelmed by what appears to be the complete disre­gard for common prac­tices of commu­nity health stan­dards.  I am also amazed that the inhab­i­tants of this beau­tiful city seem immune to the filth.  At lunch I ask a most attrac­tive and artic­u­late young woman about the filthy streets.  Her answer says so much about the world she lives in.  Marram Issa tells me that there are no laws in Bethlehem to force indi­vid­uals to pick up the garbage.  She tells me that the city govern­ment is so inef­fec­tual that even if there were laws they would not be enforced.  I ask her if the inhab­i­tants of the city need external forces to make their city look healthy and proud.  She does not under­stand the concept.  She is bright and opin­ion­ated about Israeli occu­pa­tion and American hege­mony, but when it comes to clean streets and a healthy envi­ron­ment she can only see the lack of legal struc­tures as the source of human inac­tion.  She cannot see that the beau­ti­fi­ca­tion of her city does not depend upon external laws; rather it is a reflec­tion of pride and owner­ship.  She is a sixth gener­a­tion Bethlehemite, yet the occu­pa­tion has crushed her sense of civic pride.  She will of course tell me that garbage is so unim­por­tant when the “wall” and “check­points” are the real garbage in Bethlehem. I am there to listen and elicit her views, not to convince her of mine.  The food is tasty and plen­tiful, but it is very uncom­fort­able lunch.

Sami Awad is the director of the Holy Land Trust.  It is a non profit orga­ni­za­tion estab­lished in 1998 and devoted to estab­lishing nonvi­o­lent responses to the Israeli occu­pa­tion of Palestine and to build an inde­pen­dent Palestinian state devoted to to prin­ci­ples of democ­racy and respect for Human rights.  Sami will lead our group on a two hour tour of Bethlehem and the Separation barrier, the “wall”.  The journey through the city is infor­ma­tive.  Sami shows us the refugee camps and tells us of the poverty and depres­sion that mark the camps.  He shows us very little of Bethlehem’s tourist areas.  Toward the middle of the journey he takes us from the bus and we stand on a hill which provides an oppor­tu­nity to see the Jerusalem suburbs of Gilo and Har Homa.  Of course they are not suburbs to him they are illegal settle­ments built on the ancient land of his grand­par­ents.  He regales us with tales of Israeli aggres­sion and how the Israeli army viciously attacked Bet Jala and the surrounding villages, while the Palestinians responded with light arms and home­made rockets. I want to strangle him as continues to provide a narra­tive which is at odds with the “truth” as I know it.  I stood on the other side in Gilo when Palestinians fired into the homes of Israelis, I stood there observing the Palestinians attacks long before the Israeli army arrived to protect its citi­zens.  Yet the premise of encounter is to hear the other side and to inter­nalize what they feel and see, not to debate.  I swallow my bile and return to the bus.  Sami walks the wall with us.  He tells us of the pain and suffering it has created. It shows us homes and busi­nesses that because of loca­tion to the wall are forbidden by Israeli law to open their windows.  It is very moving, I feel for the Palestinians.  No-one should live this way.  I am not yet ready to tear down the secu­rity fence, but it will never again be simply a protec­tive wall.  It will be a symbol of the fail­ures of both sides to move beyond armed conflict.  At the end of our tour Sami will return to his office.  Before he leaves the bus he surprises us all with the following words.  “I have always wondered why Israelis are obsessed with secu­rity.  What makes them unable to trust anyone or any govern­ment.  Why do they believe that only they can provide the defi­n­i­tion of secu­rity?”  He continues: “I don’t under­stand them, so last summer I trav­eled to Poland.  I visited Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen.  I spent a week trying to compre­hend what the world has done to them.”  We do not get an oppor­tu­nity to ask this man who has called Israelis occu­piers, murders, tyrants, fascist what he has taken away from the expe­ri­ence.  As he departs I wonder whether any Jew would go so far to under­stand the psycho­log­ical make up a Palestinian.  I am chas­tised by Sami’s journey toward under­standing and wonder about reciprocity.

One last vignette; Seven us will leave on Thursday night to catch planes back to North America.  The van which trans­ports us to Jerusalem will not take us through the check point.  We will walk the same route that Palestinian day workers, visi­tors, those seeking medical atten­tion and others will traverse.  It is a 600 meters walkway, bound by barbed wire.  It is a cage, similar to that through which cattle walk on the way to slaughter.  The secu­rity lights cast an eerie aura upon us.  We walk through the wired maze in no-time.  But it is not diffi­cult to imagine hundreds of men, woman and chil­dren lining up for hours at a time to have the army scru­ti­nize their docu­ments.  We reach the second hall in which will be a secu­rity check.  We observe the armed soldiers standing on the cat-walks.  We see the concrete cylin­ders in which suspi­cious indi­vid­uals will be made to undress so that the camera can search their naked body.  None of us have much to say about this expe­ri­ence.  We are all profes­sional Jews; we know that secu­rity is not capri­cious whim of the Jewish state.  Yet we have encoun­tered the reality of what Israeli poli­cies impose upon the life of Palestinians.

This encounter does not change my mind about a two state solu­tion; it does not change my percep­tion of Israel’s right to exist.  This journey will not cause me to ques­tion, any more or less than I already do, the poli­cies of the govern­ment of Israel.  What it has done is remind me that over the wall and behind the barbed wire are real people, with real stories.  Their stories are no less poignant than my Israeli friends’ stories.  This encounter will not alter my cynical responses to the words of Israeli and Palestinian politi­cians, but will change forever how I feel about those men, woman and chil­dren who we so cava­lierly call the “enemy”  It was not the encounter I expected, but it was the encounter that they deserved.

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