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.