Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Marty Federman's 2007 Visit Journal - Entry # 4

Marty Federman, the co-chair of the Boston Chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, is traveling in Israel and the West Bank. On his trips, he always keeps a journal of what he sees as well as his observations. I have asked for his permission to post each entry on this blog and he gave his approval.

Journal Entry #4

The other jarring reality that we can (almost) see from the roof is the outrageous ugliness that has become Rachels Tomb. Nowhere does the Wall take a more circuitous and disgusting route than around this once holy site. Due to the angle and the blockage of the Wall itself, we cannot actually see the Tomb, but we can see the diabolical way three sections of the Barrier come together, isolating parts of Bethlehem while leaving a narrow, but well-paved road to sneak its way through the area without having to come into contact with anything Palestinian, culminating in a large parking lot built strictly for Jewish sightseers.

What must Rachel be thinking? The legend of Kever Rachel (Hebrew for Rachel’s Tomb) is that Rachel is buried there, on the way to Jerusalem, in order to give solace to the returning exiles. One can only wonder what she thinks as the yellow-plated cars, taxis and buses go through the openings in the Wall and “her children” come to pray at her grave. Her spirit would probably like to join the other Patriarchs and Matriarchs in their shared burial place but that’s only because she has been resting quietly here near Bethlehem for millennia and doesn’t know what’s going on in Hebron!

I continue to think “now I’ve seen the worst and I can let myself relax just a bit and take in what I know will be more of the same.” And then I see something worse – or perhaps it’s simply the cumulative effect. Walking through the gates of the Aida Camp school has to have been one of the lowest points I’ve experienced. We had just walked through the narrow passageways that make up the camp and turned into the school where we saw dozens of young children walking, running and playing in a large open area that seems to function as a gathering place, play area and basketball court. The first impression is of a healthy, thriving, vibrant place – and it is. Then you look across the yard and see the awful specter of that all to ever present Barrier. Once again I am pulled in opposite directions, wanting to feel uplifted by the way in which these people – in this case these children – transcend, or a least have learned to ignore the horrific symbol of their imprisonment, but simultaneously hating the fact that they have to. And I often wonder if I am witnessing the victory of the Palestinian people in their ability to transcend the Occupation, or a victory of Israeli policy in the people’s gradual acceptance of their condition. I try to keep remembering something that someone we met said: “We haven’t won, but we have not been defeated.” I continue to hope that is true, but sometimes it is difficult not to wonder.

In the early evening we have an opportunity to meet again in our hotel with Deputy Mayor George Sa’adeh, one of the people featured in the film “Encounterpoint” about members of the Parents’ Circle of Bereaved Families. He lost his young daughter while driving in Bethlehem and their car (according to the Israeli account) was mistaken for a similar looking vehicle driven by a suspected terrorist. Without stopping or checking them the soldiers fired a barrage of automatic fire at their car, putting nine bullets in George’s side and thigh, wounding his older daughter and killing the younger who would now be in her late teens. (The Sa’adehs have two other children.) Some time after what George remarkably refers to as “the accident,” he was contacted by Israeli members of the Parent’s Circle who told him they would like to meet with him. Since he was not able to go to them in Israel, they met him in Bethlehem and, eventually, he and his wife became involved with the group and its mission.

George is a soft spoken man who attributes his ability to deal with his loss to his Christian faith, and one is inclined to take great inspiration from how he has faced his pain and not become despondent or direct an intense anger against the people who conferred the authority on his daughter’s murderers. He quotes Jesus, “Forgive them Father for they know not what they do,” but I cannot let go of the feeling that “they” know exactly what they are doing, or deny my own feelings of fury and amazement that this man wants anything but revenge. In the long run it is people like George Sa’adeh that are a far greater threat to Israel’s leaders than terrorists or suicide bombers. George not only refuses to act on his pain and anger by lashing out violently against his persecutors, but he is working positively to find some piece of justice in the midst of all the horror in this place. That is something that ultimately, regardless of how many “moderates” are discredited, imprisoned and killed, will be the thing that Israeli policy will not be able to destroy. Inshallah. Halevei.

The Grand Hotel: a Good Place to Have an Affair

It was good to see that, although the rooms are nearly empty of tourists, the hotel restaurant (called the Mariachi Room, with, inexplicably, a Mexican theme and cuisine) still brings in a significant number of local people, especially later in the evening and, tonight we found out that they also have a function room that is used with some regularity. Tonight the hotel hosted an engagement party with a huge number of people whose attire took at least some of us by surprise. Everyone was dressed festively to some degree, with more men in stylish suits than I have seen most places that we have been (although I must say that a larger number of businessmen in Bethlehem wear jackets and ties than I remember seeing in other places in the past). But it was the women who took me off guard. There was a full spectrum of fancy clothes, from ornate and luxurious formal gowns (at least one with a surprisingly low, how do you say, d├ęcolletage!), to extremely short, tight dresses and skirts, to very stylish outfits with tight pants and high boots. And I don’t remember seeing so many – or so high – high-heels. At one point as I came down the elevator I could hear Arabic music coming from the Mexican restaurant at the same time as “Rhapsody in Blue” was playing in the second floor function room! Can’t explain that, but that’s what it was.

At one point I had a sudden thought: in another time and place i might have imagined that I was watching people coming in and out of a Bar/Bat Mitzvah reception! Life is, indeed, very strange!

Later in the evening we had a needed break from both the physical and emotional stresses of the last few days: we were invited to dinner with our incredible host/guide/teacher/friend Shawqi, his wife and children. We drove to their lovely apartment in Beit Jallah for a lovely buffet supper and much good, fun and relaxing conversation and a little bit of time and space that seemed almost “normal” in contrast to all the things we had experienced in the last few days.

Monday, November 26th – Grand Hotel, Bethlehem

Feeling a bit physically and emotionally drained I stayed back at the hotel for a while in the morning while the rest of the delegation went to Bethlehem University for a tour and lunch. I used some of the time to walk through some of the streets near the hotel and just take in the “hustle and bustle” as one of the people at the hotel so accurately described it. Stopped to have a wonderful falafel sandwich at the corner before walking to the University to meet the group. Walking through the gate of the college one feels like s/he is walking through a passage to a different place. The campus is quite beautiful, with much foliage and an energy not unlike many campuses in the U.S. One thing that is noticeably different is that, along with the very western looking students, and seemingly well-integrated in the general population, are large numbers of women who, while mainly dressed in either western or middle eastern attire, had their heads covered. That is something that is quite normal on the streets of Bethlehem and it is no different here on campus except that all the women sitting in “quad” are holding piles of books or sitting eating lunch on the benches as they read.

We were then driven to the Bethlehem branch of the (Jerusalem) American School. Run by the Assembly of God Church (out of Springfield Missouri) the school was established in Jerusalem some time ago and opened this Bethlehem site about six years ago, serving area children from Kindergarten through twelfth grade. This is both and American and Christian school, with American flags everywhere, flying next to large posters with inspirational quotes from the New Testament. All of the classes are taught in English (although there are Arabic classes) and there are daily “Christian” classes that all of the 230 students attend, including the approximately 10% of Muslim children. (There are classes in Islam offered to the Muslim students in free time after school.) There are currently no girls in the high school which the director attributes to the importance in the local culture of boys getting an education without a parallel inclination for girls. The school puts a strong emphasis in the upper grades on preparing students for one or more universal exams that will help them be accepted in colleges abroad.

After an overview from the director and the high school principal, our group splits up in order to meet with different groups of students. I trek to the top floor to meet with the twelfth graders, a diverse group of young men in a classroom dominated by a large poster of Yasser Arafat on the wall and a smaller one of Arafat facing Palestine’s current president, Mahmoud Abbas, over the golden roof of the Dome of the Rock mosque. We are told that students do not discuss very much politics in class, and the very nice teacher, Mr. Doug (all of the teachers and administrators are addressed as Mr. or Miss first name) appears to be moderately to the right politically, although he went out of his way to note that not all evangelicals are hard right wingers, unquestioningly pro-Israel policy or in favor of the Occupation or the Wall. Never the less, we have a very spirited discussion about how these young men feel about the current situation, living behind the wall, being restricted by the realities of the Occupation. In their conversation as well as the questions they challenge us with, hey exhibit what to me seemed to be a wonderful – and totally appropriate – combination of teenage energy and beyond-their-age thoughtfulness. They banter sarcastically with one another and, at the same time are interested in what we think of the situation, what America thinks about their situation, the Middle East in general and particularly about our intentions in Iran. I introduced myself as Jewish and a member of a national Jewish group working for a just solution in Israel/Palestin and particularly rights for Palestinians, so they direct many questions to me about how American Jews feel about what is going on and JVP’s stand on things like One State/Two States. Alex, a big, exuberant, self-described socialist is particularly interested in those kind of issues and clearly embraces his “radical” image. There do not seem to be many Hamas supporters here – they all talk in terms of everyone relating positively with one another – Christians and Muslims, Hamas and Fatah and Palestinians and Jews. Marwan goes off at one point stressing that when they talk about Israelis or Zionists they do not confuse that with “Jews.” They have, he tells us, no problem with Jews, his problem is with Israelis and (this, I thought, was insightful) although they sometimes may talk about what the “Jews” are doing to them, they don’t mean Jews as in those who follow Judaism, they mean Israelis. We don’t spend any time talking about how Israeli leadership and the institutional Jewish community in the U.S. have conflated the two for their own tactical reasons and then shout “anti-Semite” when the other side blames “Jews.” What is interesting is that, despite their obviously sincere feelings about everyone getting along, some fascinating stereotypes sneak out, such as, when we ask about the proportion of Christians and Muslims in the area they agree that the percentage of Muslims is growing and one young man attributes that not to Christians leaving but the “fact” that “they” have ten or twelve children and Christian families only have a couple (“three or four at the most”).When called on this by one of his classmates he tries to moderate his statement but does not really pull back from it.

This is clearly a prime potential group for an e-mail and/or Skype connection – and they would clearly love that. Mr. Doug does a Skype thing with his mother who is a high school teacher in Oxbridge (?), MA so he’s familiar with the technology and open to arranging this.

The rest of the day is mostly focused, in one way or another, on the fact that the delegation is leaving tomorrow to return to the Paulus Haus in East Jerusalem and preparing to leave on Wednesday for Cambridge.

Tuesday, November 27th – Grand Hotel, Bethlehem 1:30 p.m.

The group left this morning and I’m surprised at how emotional I was. Partly the fact that my “traveling companions” were leaving, partly I think it finally hit me that I’m on my own in a very unsettled place for the next month and, for better or worse, that’s the way it is. I got in touch with SJ who has a much cheaper place in Beit Sahour for me to stay and, although Doha has been wonderful and was ready to give me a “special rate” for tonight, SJ is going to pick me up in a while and take me to the new hotel. Time to pack!! – and I have no idea when I’ll have a WiFi connection once I leave here. Will connect when I can.

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