Bethlehem and Back

Thus said the Lord:
The heaven is My throne
And the earth is My footstool.
(Isaiah 66 v.1)

It is erev Rosh Chodesh Shvat, and erev Shabbat parshat Va’era. I am reading over the haftorah, the final chapter of Isaiah, in an effort to prepare myself spiritually for Shabbat. In just two hours, the sun will set, and I will try to take the peace of Shabbat upon myself. But it is hard, right now, to feel that the earth is filled with God’s presence.

I spent the past two days in Bethlehem on a two-day program called Encounter, which brings future Jewish leaders to meet with Palestinians. We spent our days hearing from Palestinian political activists, professors, schoolteachers, and parents, both Christian and Muslim, who live in Bethlehem. As a group of forty American, European, and Australian Jews who kept together at all times, we tried to keep a low profile. We tucked in tzitzit, wore baseball hats over kippot, and refrained from speaking any Hebrew except inside a private room in the hotel where we were based. Though many of us ate the food served to us in the vegetarian restaurants we visited, others of us schlepped tubs of humus and big bags of pita and ate our own home-brought food on the side. At night, we were offered home hospitality with Palestinian families, who welcomed us with open arms and tried, as much as possible, to show us the situation from their perspective.

Where could you build a house for Me?
And what place could be for My resting?
(v.1)

Again and again, wherever we went, the same question turned itself over inside my head: how would this place ever become a place of peace, a place where a God of peace would want to dwell? Today, Bethlehem, along with the neighboring villages of Beit Sahour and Beit Jala, is surrounded by Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks. Bethlehem residents are only allowed into Jerusalem with special permits that are very difficult to obtain. Travel to other parts of the Palestinian-controlled territories of the West Bank is also impeded and sometimes prevented entirely. The city has periodically been placed under strict curfew, preventing residents from leaving their homes. “It is terrible here,” said Fadi, my home hospitality host, who lives in Beit Sahour and works cleaning churches in the Old City six days a week. “I have to leave my house at 6am to be at work at 8am, even though work is less than a half hour away. But I never know how long it will take me to get through the checkpoint. Sometimes the Israeli soldier is in a good mood, and I’m out in five minutes. Other times, there is a long line, and I wait for over an hour.” Fadi does not get to eat breakfast with his wife or his two young sons, Michael and George, ages 5 and 3, because he needs to leave his home so early in the morning. And his children, wide-eyed and curious about the world around them, have never seen the sea, though they live just over an hour from the Mediterranean.

Fadi dreams of leaving Bethlehem and making a new life in Greece, where he and his wife went on their honeymoon six years ago. They are troubled not just by the increasing Israeli military presence and the restrictions on their freedom, but also by the growing Muslim population. Christians, who were once the majority in city where Jesus was born, now account for less than 30% of the population. “We wake up every morning at 4am to the sound of the muezzin,” said Fadi, assuring us that we would hear it as well when sleeping in his spare bedroom. “They veil their women so they can look at ours instead. Can’t they just keep to themselves?”

Fadi lives in a small house he built himself, with three bedrooms, an enclosed veranda, and a living room with crosses on all the walls. Behind one of the old-style beige leather couches is a 3-D portrait of Jesus with spooky eyes that are either raised to the heavens are solemnly closed, depending on the angle of the viewer. Fadi, who is rightfully house-proud, cannot imagine leaving his home and his life, in spite of his dreams. “I have over a hundred cousins in Bethlehem,” he tells us. “Everyone here is related to me.” He shows us his wedding album and serves us white wine from grapes he harvested in his own vineyard. In the morning, we are treated to a full breakfast of fried eggs, pita, zaatar, labana, fresh coffee, and steamed milk. When we rejoin the members of our group at 8am, it is with full stomachs but heavy hearts.

All this was made by my hand,
And thus it came into being, declares the Lord.
Yet to such a one I look:
To the poor and brokenhearted
Who tremble at my words.
(v. 2)

“This place is very special to me,” says Laila Sansour, who is standing on a large rock overlooking the valley that separates Bethlehem from the surrounding Israeli settlements. We stand clustered around her, watching as she overlooks the hills like Moses at the foot of the promised land. “In that green area over there, we used to come as children and play. It’s the only green area in Bethlehem. Much of the landscape terracing has been destroyed by the building of settlements. The Bethlehem where I grew up is not the Bethlehem I live in now.”

Laila, who is about my age, returned to her birthplace after studying abroad to found Open Bethlehem, a campaign to save Bethlehem from the settlements that surround it on all sides and from the settler-only roads that criss-cross through the area and impede Palestinian mobility. She points to the orderly rows of terra-cotta roofed houses on each hilltop across the valley. “Those are your settlements: Har Homa, Gilo, Har Gilo – they are strangling my Bethlehem” she tells us. I have visited friends in Gilo, I think. Isn’t it part of Jerusalem?

As we drive through the crowded village of Nakhalin, we see for ourselves what Laila has described for us. The houses, worn and decrepit, are often missing windows and parts of walls. They are built very close together; families who once had yards and fields now live on top of each other. As our big tour bus tries to squeeze through narrow unpaved roads, little children come out of the houses and stare through the windows with eager eyes, trying to get our attention. I look the other way, frustrated by my inability to help.

Laila speaks about a friend of her family who lost all his olive trees when his land was appropriated by the settlers. “Those trees were his livelihood; he cried when they were destroyed,” she tells us. I remember that in two weeks we will celebrate Tu Bishvat, the festival of the trees. We will eat our dried fruit and sing about rebirth and regrowth. We will quote Biblical passages like “When you besiege a city to fight against it and capture it, don’t destroys its trees or wield the axe against them…Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?” This city is besieged, I think, and even the trees are cowering.

They have chosen their ways
And take pleasure in their abominations,
So will I choose to mock them,
To bring on them the very thing they dread.
For I called and none responded,
I spoke and none listened,
They did what I deem evil
And chose what I do not want.
(v. 3-4)

As a group, we walk a good stretch of the separation fence that surrounds Bethlehem. Here it is not a fence, though, but a twenty-five-foot high electrified wall comprised of adjoining two-foot wide slabs of concrete with surveillance towers every few hundred feet. The wall is gray, ugly and sad, and gives the residents of Bethlehem the feeling that they are living next to (if not inside) a maximum-security prison. While I understand that the wall was built to prevent death and destruction, it seems to have prevented much more. By imprisoning and sometimes dividing communities, it reinforces a siege mentality and asserts Israel’s military and logistical superiority. Everything about this hulking monstrosity seems to cry out, “We control you! You are not to be trusted!”

In truth, though, the wall does have a voice of its own, for it is covered in graffiti (mostly in English) for much of its length. As we walk along, I listen as the voice of my brothers cry out to me from the concrete slabs:

THIS WALL WILL NOT MAKE PEACE
IS THIS WHAT YOU CALL A FENCE?
WALL = EVIL
AMERICAN MONEY BUILT THIS WALL
DEAR MR. PRESIDENT, TEAR IT DOWN NOW

I do not know who has written these words, but their cries will go unanswered. Nobody is listening to the people of Bethlehem. We hear from a man whose daughter was killed when Israeli soldiers suddenly opened fire on their car, mistaking them for suspected terrorists; we hear from a professor of chemistry who had to transfer to Hebrew University when Bethlehem University was shut down for three years by the Israeli government; and we hear from a father who warns us that if oppression of the Palestinians continue, his children will become the next Taliban. “You are driving us to desperation,” he tells us, “I do not condone violence, but given the situation, I am surprised that there have been so few suicide bombers.” I feel a shiver of dread up my spine, and, as Isaiah prophesied, I tremble at his words.

Can a land pass through travail
In a single day?
Is a nation born
All at once?
(v. 8)

Moments of despair are interspersed with occasional moments of hope. Early in the morning we visit the Hope Flowers School, whose name, perhaps, promises an antidote to the chopped-down olive groves. Here Christian and Muslim students learn to build positive relationships with one another, receive psychological support and counseling, and participate in exchange programs with Israeli sister schools. Hope Flowers was founded in 1984 in response to the lack of basic social services in the Bethlehem area. It began as one rented classroom; today, over 250 students are enrolled, and even this number represents a significant drop from the pre-intifada days.

We sit upstairs in the school conference room as Ghada Ghabon, a teacher at the school, tells us about the way that classes are conducted. “What sort of role models do you provide for the students?” I ask, when she calls on me during the question-and-answer session. I think of my own grade school classes, where we were taught about George Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Golda Meir. “We do not have specific role models,” Ghada responds. “But we say to our students, ‘Do you think you can do more good in the world by becoming a suicide bomber, or by becoming a doctor?'” I nod my head to show that I hear her, but inside, I do not understand. What kind of world is this, I wonder, where a question like that must be asked?

Ghada goes on to tell us about the school’s founder, Hussein Ibrahim Issa, who was also her father. After his family was forced from their land in the 1948 war, Hussein grew up in a refugee camp south of Bethlehem. He experienced first-hand the deprivation faced by Palestinians, and resolved to create a school where children could receive an independent education based on the values of peace and democracy. Hope Flowers, which is funded by individual and government donations, is a testimony to his vision.

Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her
All you who love her!
Join in her jubilation
All you who mourned for her . . .
As a mother comforts her son
So I will comfort you;
You shall find comfort in Jerusalem.
(v. 10-13)

On Friday afternoon, we prepare to return to Jerusalem. Our group leader explains that we will go back a different way than we came. On our trip into Bethlehem, we went through the tunnel road that connects Israel to the territories; on our way back, we will go through the military checkpoint. On this return route we will experience what it is like for Palestinians to try to get to Jerusalem, a city that is not only religiously significant but also, for many, crucial for their livelihoods.

As we approach the checkpoint, someone in our group comments that it resembles an airport. I see her point; in some ways, it feels like we are entering another country. We place our bags on conveyer belts and walk through a metal detector with an Israeli soldier watching us. Next we go through several aisles marked off by metal barriers. Every few meters, we see another bright yellow sign in Hebrew, Arabic, and English which reads:

THIS IS A MILITARY COMPLEX
PLEASE HAVE ALL DOCUMENTS READY FOR INSPECTION
PLEASE ENTER IN AN ORDERLY MANNER

At 1pm on a Friday, the checkpoint is not crowded; but as we near the final turnstile that will mark our passage out of the Palestinian Authority and back into Israel, we see about forty Palestinian men and boys waiting in line, looking exhausted and worn. An old Arab man with a red-and-white kaffiyeh is carrying a sack of bread; a small boy in a tight green sweater has an expression far too serious for his young face. I smile at the young boy, and he smiles back across a door made of metal spikes. I think about the hopefulness exercise we did the night before with students from Bethlehem University. Hopefulness, I wrote on the post-it note I was handed, is when I look into your eyes and you smile back.

The Israeli soldiers in the booth beside the turnstile see our navy blue passports and release the magnetic gate, waving us through. As we sail past, we brush shoulders with the Palestinian men and boys who are still waiting. We walk out into the blinding Jerusalem daylight; it is a bright winter day, and the sun is high in the sky. As I turn around once more to look back at the checkpoint complex, I see a huge, six-foot-high bright multicolored sign that reads

WELCOME TO JERUSALEM
ENJOY YOUR STAY
–THE ISRAELI MINISTRY OF TOURISM

Outside the checkpoint, our bus is waiting for us. The ride back takes less than fifteen minutes. Before I have time to put my passport away in a secure pocket of my backpack, I already recognize familiar landmarks: the turn-off to Gilo; the towering new apartment buildings on Derech Hevron; the side streets of Baka. I realize that now we are returning “derech eretz plishtim,” the quick and direct way; yesterday, our leader took us on a circuitous forty-years-of-wandering route to establish some distance between the familiar and the unfamiliar, lest we grow panicked or jolted by the shock of our new surroundings and want, suddenly, to turn back. But now that we know that Bethlehem is really only a fifteen-minute drive away, there really is no turning back. We are residents of Jerusalem, and we rejoice in our Jerusalem lives; but we know now that Bethlehem is in our backyard, and Bethlehem is not a place of rejoicing.

The time has come to gather all the nations and tongues….
And new moon after new moon
Sabbath after Sabbath,
All peoples shall come to worship me.
(v. 23)

The next day, on Shabbat morning, I wake up at 6am and decide to go for a jog before shul. I am not sure where I will go; it has been a while since I’ve gone running (due to a bad injury), and I decide to let my feet lead the way. I find myself on Derech Bet Lechem, which was originally given this name because it forms a straight line between the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. I keep jogging, unaware of time, following the road as it curves into Derech Hevron. As I approach Gilo, I start to see the small white and blue vans that carry Palestinians from the checkpoint into the city. If I keep running, will I reach the wall? If I reach the wall, will it still be there?

Yes, and yes. At the end of the road, I am greeted once again by the cheerful sign from the Ministry of Tourism. I would like to stop and poke my head around, but there is no time. My life waits for me elsewhere, back in Jerusalem. I have to get to shul in time to leyn parshat Va’era, with its hardened hearts and its nation afflicted by plagues. I have to hear Isaiah’s message of rebuke and retribution. And I have to welcome the new month of Shvat, and believe, somehow, in its promise of renewal.

The time has come to gather all the nations and tongues….
And new moon after new moon
Sabbath after Sabbath,
All peoples shall come to worship me.

2 thoughts on “Bethlehem and Back

  1. Anonymous says:

    this was really powerful. thank you. do you see any way to accept (or acquiesce) to individual or even collective suffering for the sake of the safety of Israelis? what are Israelis supposed to do?

    Like

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