Friday, November 23, 2007

Shabbat in Beit Jala

The Center for Emerging Futures/Global Village sent me an email about an enticing weekend in Beit Jala. 35 Palestinians and 35 Israelis. How could I resist that? I've never heard of this organization before but now was a good time to check it out. With Hubby in Canada, it was a tad more difficult organizing the kids to band together without me but they did it - eventually.

How does one get to Beit Jala, a Palestinian village, without a car? It is just outside of Bethlehem, about a 5 minute drive south of Jerusalem but there are no buses there, at least none that I know of. So I took the bus to Malcha Mall, tried to look for an Arab taxi driver (funny - most Jews look for Jewish drivers) and asked him to take me there. After we haggled over the price, he drove me to the Everest Hotel. He wondered what was a nice Jewish woman running off in the sunset to Beit Jala? I told him about the weekend and he was happy to hear that there were such things as weekends with Israelis/Palestinians together.

The Everest Hotel is a family-run hotel, run by Christian Arabs, on the highest hill in Beit Jala, overlooking Jerusalem, Herodian and Bethlehem. It looked like a run-down hotel from the outside - it certainly wouldn't get many visitors if it were on the Israeli side - the tables in the diningroom were simple and chipped; the rooms inside small but pleasant with well-worn but clean bedding. I was just glad we had hot water and flushing toilets. I was put in a room with an Israeli woman from Haifa.

Some familiar faces were already there - people I met through interfaith or in Camp Tawonga in the US - from Jenin,Hebron, Bethlehem and Ramallah. I thought it amusing that I knew more Arabs than Jews. There was only one Israeli that I recognized - Laughing Alex from Laughter Yoga.

The weekend was very structured and highly organized. We shared in groups of three, of two, in the big group of 70, around tables in the dining room, switching tables and groups so often that you pretty much got to know and speak to all of the people there, which was great. I enjoy that better than being stuck with just one group for the entire weekend.

I remember hearing from one pretty woman from Bethlehem who told me that her son, who is nine years old, had never been to the sea before. She got them a permit to go into Israel and for the first time, she and her son went to Tel Aviv and he was just amazed at the beauty of it. She was frustrated that she lived so close to the sea but couldn't get to it. I also live close to the sea and don't get to it more than once or twice a year but it is my choice, isn't it? Another share I heard was that in pre-1948 this man's family were rich landowners. When the Israelis took over, his family was removed from their Jezreel valley area land to a refugee camp in Jenin. They became poor and, subsequently, when this man fell in love with his cousin, her father didn't allow her to marry him because he was now poor. So he blames the Israelis for his lost love.

It was getting close to Shabbat and I wanted to light Shabbat candles. I figured I'd be the only one doing this and asked the organizers if I can do this in front of the crowd. They looked at me like I was a bit crazy for asking but made the announcement that there was going to be candle lighting for the Jewish Sabbath when everyone was seated. I explained that Jewish women light Sabbath candles in order to bring light into the world and said the blessing and translated it into English.

One of the Bethlehem women came over to me to tell me that this touched her heart and I was so pleased to hear that.

But there were others whose heart it didn't touch.

That evening some of the Palestinians were angry with me for living over the Green Line.

"HOW CAN SHE BE FOR PEACE WHEN SHE LIVES IN A SETTLEMENT?!" exclaimed one of the men to the others, as someoneone translated his outbursts for me. I guess not too many people from my neighborhood don't rush out to meet Arabs in droves, but there are quite a few of us who do.

It was difficult to explain my point of view to a people who believe that the only thing blocking their way to a better, less-strangling life and a Palestinian state is any land over the 1967 borders - which also includes neighborhoods in Jerusalem annexed to Israel like Ramot and French Hill and Gilo in the south of the city. I tried to explain that the 1967 borders were politician-made, not people-made. Weren't they also living beyond 1967 borders pre-1948?

"At least I'm not living in Ramat Aviv Gimmel in Tel Aviv where the Israelis destroyed an Arab village in order to build the posh Tel Aviv neighborhood and I am not living in West Jerusalem in an abandoned Arab home, as they do in Baka or Talbieh! I feel ok where I am because pre-1967-pre-1948; there was nothing there!!"

He shrugged his head, waved his hands up in the air and walked away.

A man from the West Bank town of Marda near the Jewish settlement of Ariel came over to talk to me.

"As long as you live over the green line, people here will not get close to you. They will not trust you completely. I respect you, I really do, but when you can move over the green line, we can then talk better. People are angry with you - like that man over there. Look at the other Israelis making better connections with the people here, because where they live is no problem for us. Where you live, it's a problem."

"But Peace Now even said that 95% of this city where I live (Maaleh Adumim) was not Palestinian owned before 1967 so it was totally barren. And I live in the section furthest away from Azariah where there was bound to be some Palestinian-owned land in Maaleh Adumim."

He didn't buy it. "Everything in Palestine was owned by Palestinian families. Everything.!"

He went on to explain that the settlement of Ariel took 40 dunams of land away from his family when they built their city and he was quite angry about it.

"they didn't buy it from your family?"

"No they didn't. They just took. And if my wife finds out I'm sitting here tonight talking to a settler, she'll kick my ass!"

Hard for me to comprehend that if everyone just packs up and leaves to beyond the borders of 1967 there will be peace. I think it is just an illusion. I tried to explain that I don't believe in borders - period. There shouldn't be 1948, 1967, 1973 borders anywhere. We all should be free to live wherever we want. I told him I envied the Europeans who had fought so bitterly with one another throughout the centuries but have very porous borders and can just freely travel through this area of the world. Many Israelis would love to travel to Damascus and Beirut and I'm sure many in the Arab world would love to travel to Tel Aviv or Haifa (but most mention Tel Aviv in their dreams).

Later on that evening, the mood got lighter. There was a hafla. I brought my belly dance belts but not for me - I put them on the men and they danced with them. There were too many men and I didn't want to dance like a "harlot" so I waited until some of the Palestinian women got up to dance and I danced with them, moving mostly my hands instead of my body, even though I wanted to "shake it" because the music was just so good, so I didn't.

But that didn't stop some of the older Palestinian men, who pulled me over to tell me something.

"Without love there is no peace (pronuncing the word 'peace' as 'beace')" he beamed at me. "Your husband is very lucky. We love your shape, especially your back." which was a polite way of saying "I had a nice ass." But they didn't come off sounding skeevy, rather I felt admired - and for a woman like myself, being over 50 years old, I didn't mind the compliment at all.

During the closing circle, I told everyone that I'm a peace addict. And the effects of the drug of peace is so strong that it last longer than any pharmaceutical drug. And I can't get enough of it. And it's a healthy drug - one that everyone should take....


Akiva said...

Good post Leah and I wish you well in your Peace endevours.

The attitude of the Palestinian 'peaceniks' is very disappointing..and they are supposed to be enlightened ones compared to Hamas ...witness something so easy like the Palestinian 'peaceniks' cancellation of the One Voice peace music concert in Jericho recently

Tsedek said...

heyyyy I'm a peace-addict. why is it i never get invited to such interesting events?