A day in Bethlehem and Hebron
July 27, 2008
Edited to add: This post was written in 2008. If this interests you, I hope you'll also read my 2014 post Returning to Hebron - on a Dual Narrative Tour.
"I'm going to Hebron tomorrow," Tad said. "And Bethlehem."
Tad is one of my friends from the Conservative Yeshiva. On Wednesday evening we had dinner together down on Emek Refaim. That's when he mentioned the day trip he was about to take.
"Oh, wow, I'm envious," I said. I told him about the trip to Bethlehem I was supposed to be on which didn't actually happen, and how I spent a day with ICAHD but wish I'd gotten the chance to go deeper into the West Bank. "I wish I could go."
"Come with us," he urged me. "I'll bet there's still space. You can register tonight."
So I did.
Tad and me in Hebron.
On Thursday I went on a Bethlehem and Hebron tour run by a group called Alternative Tours in English. It was amazing and overwhelming and hard, and now I have stories and images and impressions to share. So, here goes: another mammoth blog post (4000+ words) about engaging with the Situation in the West Bank.
Part 1: Hebron
Early on Thursday morning, eleven strangers gathered at the New Gate to the Old City and piled into a van heading for the West Bank. Before the checkpoint, we were advised to hide anything visibly Jewish, lest the soldiers decide to pull us out of the van and ask us questions. (I believe three of us in the group were Jewish; one wears kippah and tzitzit as a matter of course, but he hid them for the duration.) We met our guide Samer at his home in Beit Sahour, a town adjacent to Bethlehem. (Read his bio here if you're interested -- turns out he's the tour group's operations manager...)
We climbed into our second van of the day -- this one labeled "First Baptist Church," which I thought was pretty funny -- and as we drove, Samer warned us not to photograph veiled women (because it is rude), and also not to photograph Israeli soldiers (because it is dangerous.) The countryside through which we traveled was made up of striated hills of limestone, with small orchards and olive groves and buildings dotting the landscape. I saw an old man in a keffiyeh riding a donkey, sitting regally as he bounced down the road.
Our first stop was the Hebron Mosque, a.k.a. Masjid al Ibrahim, which sits atop the Cave of the Patriarchs where Abraham, Sarah, Leah and Jacob are said to be buried. After going through a gauntlet of X-ray checkpoints (two of them, with bag searches, within fifteen feet of one another) we walked through the simpler part of the mosque:
The carpets are lush, and the marble inlay reminds me of the Taj Mahal. Standing beside one of those pillars I remembered the story I love so much about Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi seeking to daven zkihr with the Sufis of Hebron. (It's an amazing story, and a perfect encapsulation of why I feel so blessed to be a student of the students of Reb Zalman. If you don't know it already, read it here.)
Then we moved into a larger room, which used to be a church. This room has an exquisite painted vaulted ceiling:
The room is ringed with golden calligraphy. Two men perched on scaffolding in the front-left corner of the room were repairing it carefully while we were there. Anyway, I watched the delicate touch-up work for a while:
We saw the tombs of Abraham and Sarah (well, the monuments above them; the tombs themselves are underground.) I should mention here that Jews are technically not allowed into the mosque, nor non-Jews into the adjacent synagogue. I don't know how long that's been the policy, but it's certainly been true since a settler named Baruch Goldstein opened fire on Muslims at prayer one Purim in what is now called the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre.
Cue the first serious cognitive dissonance of my day. Thinking of Reb Zalman davening zhikr with Sufis there in Hebron gave me such joy. Thinking of Baruch Goldstein killing people at prayer in the same room where I was reverently walking made my stomach twist with sorrow and anger. Feeling these two things at the same time -- well, facing that tension is part of why I wanted to visit the West Bank, but wow, this never gets easy, does it?
After we left the mosque, we walked down to the shopping street below. Most of the shops are boarded up, with stars of David and Jewish graffiti scrawled on the doors and lintels.
"The Jewish people lives!" -- graffiti on the doorpost of a former Palestinian shop in Hebron.
The shopkeepers, Samer told us, were obligated to relocate their stores when the settlement was established right up the street. He apologized and explained that he can't show us the settlement because he isn't allowed to enter. He guided a group of Spanish tourists there once, and at first he passed for Spanish -- but when the settlers heard him speaking English to the tourists, they realized he was clearly not Spanish himself, and after separating him from his group and interrogating everyone, they let him know in no uncertain terms that he had better not return.
"Is it safe for us to walk there?" we asked.
"Sure," he said. "Don't photograph soldiers, and if the children pester you, don't touch them -- as soon as you touch them, you've 'attacked' them. But as long as you don't touch the children, you should be fine."
Armed with that dubious comfort, a group of us walked down the dusty street toward the settlement. We weren't brave enough to go in, but we looked at it from below:
The observation tower at the top of the hill is matched by one at the hill's base.
Outside the settlement, this part of Hebron felt like a ghost town, but two stores were open right down the hill from the mosque, and we spent some time at a store where the shopkeeper is a friend of Samer's. The shopkeeper set out a circle of flimsy plastic stools, and his son brought out tea and coffee as is customary in this part of the world. The coffee was thick and sweet and completely amazing.
The store where we were hanging out is across the street from a place called the Gutnick Center, which Samer told us is funded by a man from New York. The whole time we were there, the Center was broadcasting loud Hasidic music from the speakers on its roof -- a constant sonic reminder of the presence of the settlers and of the battle over this particular piece of ground. The shopkeeper told us that those who still live and work on that street were not permitted to leave their houses during the festival of Pesach. He told us that every time they opened their doors, someone had surreptitiously piled trash there.
(For more on these realities, here's a post from the Israeli human rights organization B'tselem about the situation in Hebron, including information on economic hardship, restrictive curfews, and settler violence against Palestinians. It's weird for me to see those pictures, having walked on that very road! B'tselem holds that the current situation constitutes a war crime and that the Israeli government is obligated to relocate the settlers.)
The name "Hebron" comes from the same root as the word haver, "friend," in both Hebrew and Arabic. (So saith the town's Wikipedia entry.) It is home to 166,000 Palestinians and 700 or 800 Israeli settlers who are protected by 2000 soldiers. We went back into the old city to walk through the small souq, where merchants sold (among other things) olive oil soap, tea and coffee, handicrafts, and animal pelts:
Apparently as we browsed merchandise in the souq, a group of soldiers walked up and aimed their guns at the crowd (including us), moving them back and forth for a while before moving on. The rest of my group talked about it for the rest of the day, but I missed it altogether. (I was bargaining. What can I say? Haggling is an involved experience!)
We walked beneath a part of the souq which has settlers living above it. Because the settlers so often throw stones and trash down on the Palestinians below, the municipality erected a chicken-wire barrier over the top of what would otherwise be an open-air street. Fortunately, no one threw water (or anything else) at us.
The chicken wire. A bit further down the path, it was clogged with garbage.
From there, we went up on the roof of a tall building and got some views of the panorama of Hebron. The early-afternoon call to prayer rang out from one minaret, and within moments from another, and another. They overlapped in counterpoint, like ripples of water intersecting as waves move across a pond. My friend Hussein once translated Allah hu akbar as "God is greater" -- greater than you, greater than me, greater than anything. That thought comforted me as I listened to the muezzins' song.
And then we boarded our van and headed out of the city toward Bethlehem, our second big stop of the day. En route, Samer told Hebron parachute jokes ("Tony Blair, George Bush, a Hebronite old man and a Hebronite little boy are in an airplane that's going down, and there are only three parachutes...") and offered anecdotes about the places we were passing through. He's a regular comedian. "Smoking is good for you," he said, brandishing yet another lit cigarette. "You'll never get white hair! ...because you'll die young." Funny guy, Samer.
Part 2: Bethlehem
In Bethlehem we went directly to Dheisheh Refugee Camp (here's its Wikipedia entry). As soon as we arrived, we heard the most extraordinary liquid birdsong from above -- and raised our heads to find a young man, maybe 20, leaning out of a window and pursing his lips and then grinning at us.
We entered the building to the sounds of someone rapping in Arabic over prerecorded beats. As that soundtrack unspooled around us, we looked at photographs of the tall wall which used to surround the refugee camp, and looked at the single rotary gate which used to be the only way in. And then we went up several flights of stairs to a rooftop restaurant at the Ibdaa Cultural Center. There were murals all along the stairs, and some of the images were disturbing to me. Like this one, of a boy throwing stones at an advancing tank:
We gathered around a long table and ate a delicious lunch of Arabic salads and spiced rice and chicken and pita. And then we clustered into a corner of the room, in a lovely sort of indoor tent space (little booths draped with woven cloth, furnished with wooden benches piled with pillows.) Birdsong came from the space right beside us: the beautiful young man with his talent for birdcalls was now indoors! We swooned appropriately, and when we noticed flyers for Sabreen Hip Hop, we asked him whether he is a part of that group. He answered in the affirmative, and urged us to return in the evening for hip hop and break-dancing. (I'm sorry I couldn't stick around.)
And then we met a young man named Shadi -- I'm guessing he too was about twenty -- who sat with us and told us about the refugee camp. He's a third generation resident of the camp. He wore jeans and a black t-shirt and, like Samer, chainsmoked the whole time we were talking. He told us that the camp is home to refugees who came in 1948, and also refugees who came in 1967. Today 11,000 people live on the camp, which occupies 1.5 square kilometers of land. Initially they lived in tents provided by the United Nations; in 1957 the UN apparently decided the refugee problem wasn't going anywhere, so began building concrete block houses. The rooms were ten square meters, and tended to house 6-10 people. That overcrowding persists today.
A view of one corner of the camp.
The camp is served today by one clinic which has one doctor and two nurses. The six thousand children of the camp attend school in shifts; there are two schools, one for girls and one for boys. The three big problems of life in the refugee camp, Shadi told us, are 1) electricity (which is sporadic), 2) water (which is even more sporadic), and 3) privacy (which doesn't exist at all.) Everyone is in everyone else's business, because so many people live in such close proximity, he said.
Shadi told us that the first intifada began after Palestinian workers were killed in 1987. As far as he is concerned, there's only ever been one intifada, and it never really stopped, merely went on hiatus. After Oslo there was hope, he said, but after ten years it became clear that the Israelis weren't interested in actually making peace. That was hard for me to hear. It was also hard for me to hear that there are thirty-three martyrs from this camp. By "martyrs," he clarified, he meant people who have been killed by the IDF. (Stories like this one.) Some of the young people who have died in this way are memorialized with murals:
A boy beside an outdoor mural of one of the camp's "martyrs."
It is hard to find work in the refugee camp. Most families are supported now by the women, who do embroidery work in their homes. In every household there are men who are, or have been, in Israeli jail. There's a permaculture project in the camp now, which is trying to teach those who used to have Israeli jobs (and have lost those jobs in recent years) how to farm again.
Someone in our group asked him what he thinks the future may hold, or what he hopes it may hold. "Palestinians today want a one-state solution," he said immediately. "Two states is an American idea." (As a longtime supporter of Brit Tzedek v'Shalom and Jewish Voice for Peace, which advocate for the two-state solution, I've been startled by encountering this viewpoint here. I don't have a clear sense for how mainstream it is.) He went on to say:
The new generation longs for a single state. We want to live normal, like anyone in this world. The conflict is no longer religious; it's political. We want elections, to choose who represents us. The settlers come from Europe, from Russia, with no relationship to this country -- and they get water, power, swimming pools. Children here [in the camp] play in the streets because we have no gardens.... And still the real dream is one world where we all understand that we're connected.
The settlers, of course, would dispute his claim that they have "no relationship" to this country. (I imagine that anyone who makes aliyah feels a relationship with the land.) But what I hear him saying is that as an Arab native he feels cheated when outsiders homestead in the West Bank, because they're getting beautiful homes and government support and he's living in a refugee camp. (If you're interested, B'tselem offers an exploration of settlement policy and its implications in a document called Land Grab. They write: "Israel has created in the Occupied Territories a regime of separation based on discrimination, applying two separate systems of law in the same area and basing the rights of individuals on their nationality...")
Walking around the camp was surreal. It didn't feel like what I imagine when I hear "refugee camp;" it felt like a neighborhood in any one of the developing nations I've visited. (It's easy to forget that once a refugee camp has existed for a few decades, the army-issue canvas tents are replaced with buildings, but it's still a refugee camp.) We quickly acquired a cadre of small children who followed us shyly saying "hello, what's your name? Hello, how are you?" I've had that exact experience in so many places, so that felt very familiar. The streets of the camp are tiny, and in every window people watched us with curiosity.
But Shadi's remarks gave us a sense for what some people may be feeling behind the walls. "This is a ghetto," my friend Tad said to me, sounding stricken. "Is this what our grandparents survived the ghettos of Europe for: to do the same thing to someone else?" I couldn't answer him.
Church of the Nativity, and winding down
From the refugee camp we went directly to the Church of the Nativity. That juxtaposition gave me emotional whiplash. It's beautiful, of course. It's three churches in one (the Greek, Armenian, and Catholic churches each have a wing.) There are old mosaics, and underground catacombs, and a beautiful star marking the place where Jesus is said to have been born:
I think this is called a Jerusalem star? I knelt and touched it and said a prayer for peace.
What a luxury it was to turn my brain to contemplating beautiful art and someone else's religious history, instead of focusing on the dramas and traumas of the current religious and political situation here on the ground.
We learned about the mosaics and the paintings, and generally admired one of the oldest churches in the world (the Persians destroyed the other churches in the land when they swept through, but left this one unscathed, maybe because of art depicting the rather Persian-looking Magi which led them to feel some connection with the church.) I was struck by the familiar Italian feel of the Roman Catholic wing, and by the subterranean inscriptions calling on God in many names:
We ended our day at a café. A few people shared nargila pipes (which reminded me so much of my trip to Jordan with Ethan in 2002 -- I love that sweet tobacco scent.) I had a frosty cold Taybeh, and we talked some about the day and the impressions it made on us. At the end of the day I found myself chatting with two evangelical members of our tour group about worship styles. Across the room, brass gazelles and an enormous painting of Arafat gazed down at us beatifically.
The café in question. Blurry, but it captures the moment.
At the end of the day
Somewhere along the way, Samer told us that he got into a serious fight with another Palestinian man at the start of the second intifada. The guy was hiding out in Samer's neighborhood (where he is not a resident), firing a pistol at the settlers. It was ineffectual; his shots couldn't reach them. But the shots provided a pretext for the army to fight back, which meant the stranger was endangering Samer's family. Samer yelled at the guy for firing at the settlers, and he took his wife and children and two tenants to a friend's house elsewhere in town for the three months during which his home was regularly shelled. That's not the kind of story one hears in the news, but maybe it should be. The Palestinian community isn't a monolith, any more than the Israeli community is.
Still, it's hard for me to bump up against these stark differences in perspective. According to one narrative, the settlers are justified in their actions because God promised all of this land to the Jews, and anyway the Palestinians are untrustworthy partners in the so-called peace process. According to another, the settlers are destroying any chance of a just peace because their settlements are turning the West Bank into Swiss cheese (thereby putting an end to the dream of two viable states.) I don't really know what to do with the clash between those two stories. The real question for me is, how will the peoples of this place ever break out of the cycle of trauma in which they are collectively enmeshed?
I kept thinking back to the guidelines the folks at Encounter gave us for the trip that didn't happen. During our pre-trip briefing we talked about how hard it can be to hear someone speaking from a perspective that's very different from one's own. We were urged to use that trip as an opportunity to simply listen: not arguing, not talking back, not citing the stories or statistics with which we are familiar, but just taking in what's being said and seeing what it feels like to sit with that side of the story. That's what I tried to do in Hebron and Bethlehem. It is emotionally and spiritually exhausting work.
No one's born hating their neighbors, which means that the rancor that exists on both sides is something learned, not innate. That's the best cause for hope I can find. If the bitterness is learned, maybe there's a way to unlearn it, or to learn something new in its place. But there aren't easy answers.
Reading the story of Reb Zalman among the Sufis of Hebron again, after I got home from the daytrip, made me cry. There is so much cause for common ground, but we keep throwing it away, too caught up in our anger and our hurt and the constantly-reverberating drumbeat of our loss and our sorrow.
"I'm not interested in / who suffered the most," writes the Palestinian-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye -- my first poetry teacher, a mentor and a dear friend. "I'm interested in / people getting over it." (Read the whole poem here: Jerusalem.) From your lips to God's ears, Naomi. May it be so, speedily and in our days. May I find a way to hold on to that hope, even though right now I can't imagine how it would happen or what that would mean.
For more images: Hebron Photoset, Bethlehem Photoset.
Edited to add: This post was written in 2008. If this interests you, I hope you'll also read my 2014 post Returning to Hebron - on a Dual Narrative Tour.