Tuesday, April 28

Knocking Down the Wall(s)

We were recently out at a Jerusalem restaurant with some friends visiting us from the States. Jerusalem is socially, though not legally, separated between Palestinians and Jews. East Jerusalem is where the vast majority of Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents dwell, and West Jerusalem where most of the Jewish residents dwell. We were out in West Jerusalem.

Everything here is political; where you live, where you shop, what you do for a living, whether you call people ‘Palestinians’ or ‘Arabs’…everything. We’ve long since given up trying to guess how someone will react before we tell them what we do here. “Well, we work for an NGO. We do community development.” Vague statements such as this are usually followed with questions such as, “You work with Arabs? Or Jews?”

The waitress asked us if we were tourists. We seized the opportunity. Pointing to our visiting friends, “They are tourists. We live in Bethlehem and work for an NGO. We do community development in the West Bank and work towards peace with both Palestinians and Israelis.” The reaction is always different. Sometimes we get a, “Good luck. It’s a good idea but there will never be peace.” Sometimes we get supportive comments, “I wish there could be peace. I used to visit Bethlehem all the time before the Intifada.” Other times we get a look of pity that says, “How sad. If only you really knew how much they hate us…” We’ve taken to looking at these as opportunities to show people that the ‘other side’ isn’t a homogonous group that views the other as an enemy. We generally talk about our friends, the things we enjoy in either respective culture or society, the things we like to do in different places, whether Jewish or Palestinian. But we often see how our preconceptions of something can trump the reality we see around us.

The waitress looked at us in slight wonder. “Wow. Bethlehem. But it’s very dangerous there.” Polite silence for a moment. “We really enjoy it. There are a lot of things about Bethlehem that we like.” “But you live with the Arabs?” “Yes,” we reply, “we work with Palestinians in the Bethlehem area as well as working with Palestinians and Jews towards peace.” “But it’s so dangerous. You feel safe there?”
We’ve been through this before, explaining that we feel safe, that we enjoy Bethlehem, that we actually feel safer in our Bethlehem neighborhood than we do with all the checkpoints and guards and guns we see in Jerusalem, so we interrupt the questioning with one of our own, one designed to challenge the preconceptions we all hold.

“Have you ever been to Bethlehem?” we ask.
“Yes. I love it. I used to go there all the time. I feel like it’s a different country when I go there. It’s great.” Of course we have to point out this inconsistency to her. “You just said it’s dangerous…but you really like going there?” A pause and a moment of thought. “Well,” she says, “it’s dangerous for people that don’t know what they’re doing.”

And that’s it. The end of our conversation. I wonder if she’ll think again about the Americans she met that live in Bethlehem and say they enjoy it. I wonder if she’ll think about the fact that she enjoys Bethlehem, but she also believes that it’s ‘dangerous.’ I wonder if she’ll think about the fact that the reality she sees every day around her contradicts the categories we often place people in: Jew, Israeli, Arab, enemy, other.

There’s a concrete wall and a barbed wire fence up between Israel proper and most of the West Bank. West Bank Palestinians aren’t allowed to go into Israel without permission from the Israeli government, but Israeli citizens are free to live in most of the West Bank and cross the separation barrier at will. This wall must be brought down, but so must the unseen walls we place between ourselves. Each time we interact with someone and can challenge the reality that they accept, each time we explain that we like Bethlehem, that we feel safe here, that we have Israeli friends who are working to end the occupation at a cost to themselves, we hope we help to break down the walls between people here. We hope people are encouraged to open their eyes and see the reality around them, to see that the labels and categories we apply to the ‘conflict’ here don’t work, and that ‘Jews’ and ‘Arabs’ are actually the people we pass every day and not faceless, impersonal groups on the other side.

1 comment:

pfine said...

Instead of posting the hosanas and "hear-hears" of the small minority of Israeli Jews who, because of their ignorance of their own heritage, kowtow to the Palestinians, the MCC and its minions should take themselves to Jerusalem or Bnai Brak and sit down with some talmidei chochamim (Torah scholars to learn the Biblical/Talmudic basis of the Jewish peoples' right to Eretz Israel. But for the MCC, this would probably be tempting the gods!