Saturday, March 24, 2007

From Bethlehem to Jerusalem

There was an interfaith gathering this past Thursday evening at the charming Austrian Hospice on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem. We had planned to meet with the people of the Hope Flowers School in El Khader/Bethlehem to discuss the very pleasant (to me anyways) and expansive subject of food in our traditions. This was supposed to be an overnight thing with the retreat ending on Friday noon. But I had already booked myself for a hike in the Negev the following day so Thursday night was the only night I could join.

Sure enough, 10 minutes before I was due to leave work, my boss calls me from the US chattering away, but lucky for me, and by the good Grace of God, the phone connection went dead about 2 minutes into the phone call. I tried calling her back on her cellphone, the good soldier that I am, which was disconnected. For those that don't believe, let me tell you, there really is a God. I was thus able to leave at 4:00 to get me to Jaffa Gate by 4:30, where I met a fellow Jewish interfaith participant. We walked through the busy market on David Street, then through the Christian quarter admiring things we hadn't noticed before even though we've been there millions of times, which led the shopkeepers to believe we were tourists.

The meeting was supposed to begin at 4:00 pm and it was already 4:45 pm. We were uncomfortably late and went up to the salon at the 2nd floor to join our meeting, as it's usually held there and walked in on about 100 teens. Ooops. Wrong meeting. They were obviously European/Austrian because you could hear a pin drop in there - not so a case when you put even 10 Israeli teens together.

Finally a small contingent from Bethlehem came in after 5:00 pm. They had trouble at the checkpoints - the usual story. However 7 more people were supposed to arrive and although the office of our interfaith group got permits for them to come to Jerusalem through the Bet El army (North of Jerusalem) which is the main place to obtain permits for Palestinians to come through, these guys had to come through the Gush Etzion checkpoint which is South of Jerusalem which gets the orders from the Bet El office. The group had waited from 10:00 am - 2:00 pm patiently and no permit had come through for them from Bet El. Even though phone calls were made back and forth, they were turned away after waiting four hours for a permit that had been gotten for them. We all felt terrible about this. Here are people coming through for a dialogue with Israelis and they get turned away. We were told by the Palestinians it all depends on who is at the checkpoint that day. They may not have even checked if permits were given at all and just played around with them and made them wait for 4 hours. Turns out the ones who did make it through were one big family who all had long-term permits already and didn't have to get new ones. Their contingent was a husband/wife/mother-in-law/3 children who were the lucky ones to be allowed in. But even though they had permits, they were valid for 12 hours during the day and past 7:00 pm at night they could not wander around Jerusalem. They were put up at the hostel for free.

After going around the table introducing ourselves and listening to the checkpoint ordeal, it was time to eat at the Hospice cafeteria. The woman from Bethlehem had 3 small kids, was pregnant and her 1 year old was screaming. The kid was putting his fist in his mouth. A universal sign of teething. His mother thought he had an ear infection and I knew he was teething. In any case, the stern-faced Austrians and guests at the cafeteria were not pleased with the kid screaming and looked terribly uncomfortable. What a difference between us and them and I don't mean Jews and Arabs. When a child screams in agony, you'll have us Middle-Easterners meddling in trying to see what's wrong and what can be done to help. But the Europeans didn't really seem to want to mix in and were noticeably annoyed at screaming ruining their meal. We (the Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs) shrugged our shoulders, offered to hold her kid and then let him scream until he fell asleep. I had seen and felt another commonality with my Palestinian sister and a much deeper difference with the European ones.

My friend on the other hand, was flipped out and uncomfortable over a statue of Jesus facing her and asked me to switch places with her.

"Oh stop that" I teased her. "He's Jewish!!"

We grouped together afterwards and heard about stuff we already knew - Moslems and Jews don't eat pork, we can eat giraffes and deer (but who would), they can eat strange game meat too as long as it's not a predator animal like a lion or tiger. We can't eat shellfish, they can. We can't eat milk and meat together. They can. But it didn't matter if I already knew this stuff. It was good to be together and strengthen our bonds.

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