Highs and Lows (Part II)

We had been given the heads up that Sunday could be a difficult day. And it was.

We started off heading to the West Bank once more. This time our destination was the UN-operated Dheisheh Refugee Camp in Bethlehem. I expected to see a Syrian-type camp (like we have seen at home on the news). That was not the case. This camp was basically a Palestinian neighborhood with narrow streets, minimal (if any) municipal services (as in street cleaning), lots of PLO-supported graffiti (including some memorializing young martyrs killed in the conflict) and close-quartered apartments. We stayed fairly close to the major road outside so we were not exposed to the abject poverty that lay deeper within the camp.  Of course I am and was saddened by the conditions in the camp. Of course, I decried the human rights violations apparent throughout the West Bank and in the camp, whether that be the constant police presence, the lack of municipal services, the absence of basic civility and/or civil rights, the inaccessibility and imposed travel sanctions for those who live here, and more. But, once again, I had an unexpected response-- this time that response was one of absolute fear.  Did the young men roaming around the streets know there were Jews (me among them) in our group? And how did they feel about being inspected (almost like caged creatures in a zoo)? I now can fully understand how rage can foment so easily and manifest as violence in this environment and in other areas just like it throughout the West Bank and in Gaza. I am, by no means, sanctioning that violence. But that fear was my immediate reaction and it stuck with me throughout the rest of the day. We were perfectly safe, but I was on edge.

Our next stop was to travel more deeply into the West Bank to Hebron -- an ancient and holy city revered  by Christians, Muslims, and Jews as the site where the Tombs of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs are located. It is a very conservative city from religious practice and extreme views perspectives. While 250,000 Palestinians live here, they are joined by approximately 600 extremist Jewish settlers (who live here because of the Tombs). 

20% of the city is controlled by Israel.  There has been two-way violence here.  The atmosphere was absolutely oppressive and my level of fear from our morning visit to the camp did not subside. The first scary moment was when we drove through the checkpoint leading up to the Settlement.  There was a possibility that Husam wouldn't be permitted in-- so we held our collective breaths as the checkpoint police scrutinized the bus. Then, at lunch, our host declared that he "didn't hate all Jews"...  He was trying to make a point about the gravity of their living conditions -- but it wasn't lost on me. 

A visceral sense of  fear struck again in the mosque. As context, the tombs share a wall between a synagogue and a mosque. Jews are not permitted in the mosque and Muslims are not permitted in the synagogue. In the spirit of enabling all of us to have a complete experience, our guides informed us they would tell a white lie so that our entire group could enter the mosque. Some of the women were asked to don rather frightful KKK-type robes. Others wore their shawls wrapped as head scarves. I arranged my shawl so it matched the others (in a manner that was perfectly acceptable at mosques in Istanbul). All of a sudden, the gentleman handing out the robes singled me out to wear one.  Was I being busted as Jewish? Needless to say, that interchange gave me the creeps.

After visiting the tombs,
we walked down the main street which was once a thriving marketplace. Now it's a ghost town with boarded up stores and separate walking lanes for the settlers and the Palestinians.  When we were getting ready to walk through the remaining markets in the PLO part of town, Yuval could not join us and we were advised not to greet the Israeli police with so much as a Shalom-- as Jews are not allowed to be where we were going.  So, my edginess continued. As we walked through the open air market, our eyes were directed upwards where netting protected the folks in the markets from being pelted with eggs, garbage, or worse by the settlers . The settlers feel strongly that this town is meant for them and any terrorizing they do to the Palestinians here is not prosecuted. Again, I was fearful for my own safety and very gratified to finally get on the bus.


Our day came to a close with the opportunity to actually walk through a checkpoint from the West Bank back to Jerusalem. Our guides  anticipated that we would have no difficulties whatsoever-- but the barbed wire and signage felt like we were waiting in line at a concentration camp.

A good dinner was called for so several of us headed out to Chakra-- Israeli farm-to-table small plates and beyond in West Jerusalem. We decided to share everything, which worked wonderfully for these comfort foods-- smoked eggplant, chopped liver (the ultimate comfort food), lemon garlic cauliflower, greens and garlic, pasta, shrimp, focaccia, and several amazing desserts-- including vanilla ice cream with Tahini, honey, and crushed almonds.  It was great to wind down from such an intense day with good food and good friends.

However, we weren't about to get a break from intense sights. So, on Monday morning, we went to Yad Vashem (Israel's official memorial to the victims of the holocaust).

As to be expected, Yad Vashem was powerful and extraordinarily well designed and curated. The memorial begins with a history of the arc of anti-Semitism followed by very detailed portrayals of the rise of Naziism in each country throughout Europe and North Africa leading up to the implementation of the Final Solution.  I expected to get weepy here and I did-- but I was particularly struck by one of our new travel friends (not Jewish) who literally broke down into sobs only two dioramas into the exhibit. She asked us to forgive her for the horrors Hitler had wrought. It was very moving and very sad.

Several other moments really struck me-- remnants of burned Torahs from Kristallnacht, an exhibit of a cantor's transcription of Yom Kippur prayers written on scraps of parchment that he had received in exchange for bread rations (so that he could lead a service in his concentration camp barracks), Torah scroll fragments used as insoles, and a photo and profile of a young man named Jiri Bader (1930-1944) -- my mother's maiden name-- maybe a relative?  The children's memorial was also very poignant; a creative and powerful way to remember those precious victims. 

We closed out the day with a brief visit to S'derot, an Israeli town of 24,000 less than a mile from Gaza, where we heard from the deputy mayor and a Hands of Peace alum. There are many bomb shelters here and it is an everyday routine to run to a shelter with a 15 second warning. The leaders of this relatively small town are doing everything they can to turn it into a cultural hub. We passed a kibbutz and then drove to a Gaza overlook. Everything about this conflict is heart-wrenching.

In the spirit of balancing out this blog with something uplifting (literally), we started out on Tuesday with a ride to Mt. Olive for beautiful views of Jerusalem....

...and a camel ride-- truly uplifting as I had to climb on a seated camel who steadily lifted me way up! This was quite a different experience from the camel ride in the parking lot of the Oberoi Hotel in Udaipur, India. That one, with Wayne holding on for dear life, was very much more refined!   

The rest of Tuesday included a "Politics in Jerusalem" lecture by a New jersey-born Harvard graduate city councilwoman, a visit to Ramallah where we had an excellent lunch with their famous ice cream and heard from a Palestinian non-violence advocate who aspires after Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, and a powerfully moving talk from two representatives of Parents' Circle  -- a group of 600 Israeli and Palestinian parents who have lost children to the conflict. The gentlemen we heard from had each lost daughters-- one was 14 and one was 10. This group of families works toward peace, reconciliation, and tolerance.

We leave Jerusalem Wednesday morning for Haifa and stops in between.

Until then shalom, peace, salaam and love,

wendy and emily     

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