As it turns out our last full day here is one of our most important and most difficult days, as we spent all of today in the West Bank visiting Bethlehem and the Daihaisha refugee camp. Our day, if you are measuring days by way of the Jewish calendar began yesterday evening with our return to Jerusalem and the onset of the Jewish festival of Shavuot. Shavuot is the Feast of Weeks that celebrates the revelation of Torah at Mt. Sinai in the Jewish story. We hustled back, ate dinner and made our collective way to the Western Wall to take advantage of being in Jerusalem for a major Jewish festival. I say major, because Shavuot was one of the three pilgrimage festivals during Temple times that Jews made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices at the Temple. Hundreds of Jerusalem’s Jews began their observance of Shavuot at the wall … many men donned their finest, biggest, blackest and furriest hats in honor of the festival. The areas in front of the wall were brimming with people and energy as some prayed, some sang and some even danced. We stood back and took it all in … and considered that we stood at the same spot where countless Jews had traveled to offer their first fruits to God at the Temple altar during the first and second Temple periods. We tried to grasp yet another facet of the connection that this place holds for people. In the back of my mind, I was preparing myself for our visit to Bethlehem … to experience a dramatically different facet of the Jewish State.
In Bethlehem some things were as we expected and some were not … to begin with we hardly realized that passed through a checkpoint. We had heard stories and had warnings that the checkpoint could take hours and that we might see lines of Palestinians waiting to come to Jerusalem for whatever time their permits would allow. I imagine partly due to the holiday of Shavuot – and Jerusalem being closed for the day – and partly due to the intentionally randomizing of the check point intensity created by the military the checkpoint felt like passing from the United States to Canada. However, it was only in this instance where I could make that comparison.
To drive into Bethlehem, into Palestine, one would feel as if it is a town … there were cars making their way on the streets, shops and businesses and a handful of people walking around. Upon closer inspection one notices that many of these shops are only shops in name and that there are not that many people walking to and from them to patronize them. Our bus was hailed by an older gentleman who introduced himself as the proprietor of the oldest and largest olivewood store in Bethlehem and dropped a few names of those notables (like First Lady Roslyn Carter) who had been in his shop. In addition to the legendary Arab hospitality (no, he did not offer tea for the bus) it appears that his assertiveness also belied the hunger that Palestinian merchants have for any tourism and commerce that comes their way. Visits by foreigners and tourists are practically minimal and people are starving for business.
We arrived at the Wiam Center which is an organization that teaches conflict resolution to local Palestinians. For me this was one of the surprises, for in sitting and meeting with Zoughby Zoughby (he invited us to call him by either name!) the director of the center, I found and heard a voice that I did not expect. I do not know why I did not expect it, perhaps my stereotype of the Palestinian or my frustration of the entire situation. Nonetheless, he was a pleasant and needed surprise. He spoke of interfaith dialogue, helping families to deal with symptoms of the great pressure under which they find themselves …. domestic abuse, traumatic stress, addiction. One of the most sad and ironic pieces to his work and the work of his center is that he and others in the center must travel internationally to do any interfaith work with Jews – most of the Palestinians involved in this program are not permitted to go to Jerusalem and NO Israelis are permitted to enter into the West Bank. When in attempting to summarize what it is that he hopes for and the work he does, he shook me a bit in quoting the prophet Micah (my synagogue is Temple Micah): Do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God. It was a moment in which I did not expect to hear the words that Micah used in making his own attempt to boil it all down into the basics.
IT IS OUR RIGHT TO LEAVE THESE GATES
(A CHILD’S DRAWING FROM THE WIAM CENTER)
From Wiam we headed to the Daihaisha Refugee Camp one of many Palestinian refugee camps throughout the entire Middle East. While there are thousands of people living in Bethlehem, there are an additional 12,000 who live in this camp and are under the support of both the Palestinian National Authority and the United Nations. Sixty years after they lost their homes, they live in this camp. We were ushered into a beautiful community center (built with funds from international groups) and greeted by a 2nd and 3rd generation residents of this camp. I had a bit of a surreal moment to sit in this room, walls covered with photographs of Yasser Arafat (meeting with the Pope of all people!) and be here in this place in which people are not free – when just a few kilometers down the road, freedom reigned (at least for the Jews). And yet, the Arab hospitality still dominates … we listened to the stories of these men and listened to them talk about random arrests, limited medical attention, midnight sound raids – just to wake up the Palestinians to let them know who has the power. We never heard any discussion throughout this day of a desire for Israel not to exist or for Jews to leave. We did hear a consistent refrain of a desire to return to ‘our land and our homes’. This was consistent throughout our trip … the right of return; we heard it over and over again. This desire is palpable, real, simple and without malice … it is also not fully appreciative of the demographics of reality, either.
We walked through the camp and experienced a bizarre marriage of the everyday and of oppression (that is the word that comes to mind) … students performing to their parents at the community center and spray painted pictures of ‘martyrs’ on city walls … children playing and being playful with us as we wander and empty lots were demolished homes once stood … people sitting in their homes drinking coffee and empty spaces for fathers, brothers and sons who sit unlawfully in Israeli prisons. In the camp sits another community center, where we meet Ziad. Ziad is most famous for his appearance in an Israeli film entitled, Promises. The film chronicles the meeting of Palestinian and Jewish teenage boys. Ziad is most valued in this community for creating arts and culture programs that bring color, meaning and hope to the lives of the people who are forced to live in this dreary place. Especially given his setting, his accomplishments are remarkable … what affected us more was the passion and conviction we felt in visiting with him for quite a while. He talked of education being the route getting his people out of this situation, tried to explain how this community understands the suicide bombers, Hamas, Zionism and Judaism. He echoed the lack of trust that most Palestinians seem to have in a promise from Israel in land or peace, while still sincerely wanting these things … and wanting to return. As he put it he only asks that Israel recognize his right to return … and then everything will be on the table. He only asks to be recognized … as a human being with the same rights of any other human. Ziad told of his travels around the world on behalf of his work with Palestinian youth and towards peace … of his love of being the United States and being able to drive freely from Vermont to California. It is his simple dream, to do the same here … to drive to Jerusalem as a free person, as a human being.
We are all drained … no matter how we arrived in Israel in terms of the Matzav (the situation) … we have all been deeply affected by what we have heard, what we have seen and what we have felt. I for one was very ready to leave the West Bank, to have the freedom to leave, to get on a plane the next day and go home and hug my wife and my children. I feel as though I have so much to process and consider, and that work will come, but among all that I have thought and felt it is this simple touch of grace that I crave and cherish.