Friday, February 19, 2010

West Bank Story

A tale of two cities...Bethlehem and Efrat. Two weeks ago, I spent two days in Bethlehem with Encounter, an organization that brings Diaspora Jewish leaders to Bethlehem to hear and experience Palestinian narratives and life. The following Shabbat I spent in Efrat, at the home of one of my teachers from Pardes.

Encounter was a challenging and intense experience. One of the most powerful parts of the trip was listening to a panel of Palestinian women activists, sharing their own personal and professional narratives. One woman, Rula, shared how she, an East Jerusalem resident, gave birth to her son in East Jerusalem when her husband was living in Jordan. Because the father's identity was bureaucratically "unknown," Rula couldn't get a birth certificate or an Israeli ID for her son. If she traveled to Jordan to reunite her son with his father, he'd lose any chance to have documentation. As a result, the only solution was for Rula to divorce her husband, and she finally got papers for her son when he was 5. She said, "Ask any woman if she'd pick her husband and her son - her son! I don't want my son to be added to the refugee list."

Sheerin, who currently works for the UN in Darfur, offered one of the hardest to hear stories, simply because of the hopelessness that she voiced. She told of how her niece asked her, "Why are they doing to us?" Sheerin said, "10 years ago, I would have thought carefully about how to, I just say they hate us." She doesn't think non-violent activism will work, and is frustrated without any answers, solutions, or ways to move forward. She chose to leave her home village outside of Bethlehem, and was faced with a choice between San Francisco and Darfur. She chose Darfur, because she wanted to see what it felt like to be an outsider to a conflict. Sheerin described how here (in Israel/the Palestinian territories), she's the weakest - she is black (relative to those who are in power) and Palestinian. In Darfur, it's the opposite. She has power, she is white (relative to those who are the victims of the genocide in Darfur), she is Arab and Muslim, she works for the UN. In Darfur, it's hard for her to be associated with Arabs, and connected with those who are committing genocide and human rights abuses. It was very hard for me to hear what she said about not wanting to be Israeli and have oppression done in her name. It raises deep questions for me about what is done in my name, for my sake, that I may or may not agree with. I believe in a Zionist ideal, a Jewish state that lives up to the highest prophetic values of Judaism with respect for the dignity of every human being, and there are so many examples that I see here, day after day, not only with respect to the Palestinian territories, that aren't living up to that expectation.

The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture... -Declaration of Establishment of State of Israel

My home stay, with an older Muslim couple in Beit Sahour, a city just east of Bethlehem, presented a much more optimistic perspective. Atala, who teaches Islam in a Christian school, where his students are both boys and girls, Muslims and Christians, believes that religion can bring us together. We all pray to the same Divine power, we all pray for peace every day. His and his wife Jamila's hospitality was lovely - even though we were full from dinner when we arrived, they made delicious tea, we ate fruit and candy next to their fireplace, and then in the morning, I ate so much bread, eggs, tomatoes, and salads that I wasn't even hungry when it was lunch time.

On Friday, we heard a panel of non-violence activists. One shared a story of driving through a checkpoint, and the soldier asked him something along the lines of "How do you deal with it? Isn't life awful for you?" He responded, to an Israeli soldier who grew up in a settlement outside of Hebron, "How do YOU stand it? Standing outside, in the rain, on a cold winter day?" And the soldier cried, because the Palestinians whose papers he checked all day long had never recognized his pain and asked about him.

The stories and realities that I heard were painful, inspiring, depressing. Sometimes they conflicted with the stories and realities that I have learned over the years. The takeaway message, as I discussed with Rabbi Neal Gold last night (Shir Tikva's 11th and 12th graders are in Israel for the week, it's been great to see and spend time with them. Looking forward to Shabbat with the group!) is: it's complicated, and anyone who thinks it isn't is missing something.

Shabbat in Efrat, after spending 2 days in Bethlehem seeing how West Bank settlements and their growth are having serious consequences for Palestinian life, was challenging. My friend and fellow Pardes student Amy and I went to our teacher Hindy's house in the north of Efrat, a neighborhood called Zayit. From the windows of the synagogue where we went to services, we could see Jerusalem...and Bethlehem. Hindy are her husband are liberal, West Wing-lovers, but it was impossible for me to forget that I was in Efrat, in a settlement in the West Bank. This is a small country, and everything is very close, yet very removed. Efrat and Bethlehem are totally different worlds. Not everyone moves there for deep, ideological reasons - Hindy and Mark moved there because they needed more space than they could afford in Jerusalem, where housing costs are skyrocketing. But the political still comes out, in the form of self-interest: as we left shul on Saturday, Hindy and Mark grumbled about the overcrowding in their synagogue, and as we walked home, pointed out the site that their new synagogue will be built on...but can't be built yet, along with a lot of other planned construction, because of the settlement freeze. this contrasted sharply with my visit the week before to the Hope Flowers School in al-Khader, a village next to Bethlehem, which is in the path of Efrat's future growth, and could face serious problems with access if Efrat continues to grow north. The view outside of one of the windows in Hindy's apartment faces an Arab village, so close that we could clearly hear every word echoing from the minaret throughout the day.

View West Bank Story in a larger map

Our Shabbat overall was lovely - I had a great time with Hindy, her husband, and her cute kids (even though they didn't like me very much), and Amy and I went for a walk in the unseasonably warm February weather on Shabbat afternoon. All of these stories are part of the narrative of this confusing place, even when they conflict with each other.

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