Wednesday, November 2, 2011

rachel's lament

There can be no beauty if it is paid for by human injustice,
nor truth that passes over injustice in silence,
nor moral virtue that condones it.
(Tadeusz Borowski)

2 nov, Bethlehem

We had the most intense day of the whole trip yesterday. Dave had warned us that it might be hard to be in the refugee camps in Bethlehem in the morning, and that it would be even more intense to be in Hebron in the afternoon, even giving people a clear option to opt out of the latter and spend time at the suq in Bethlehem instead.

Actually the morning was relatively easy. We went to a place called WI'AM, the Palestianian Conflict Resolution Center. It was founded and is directed by a Christian gentleman named Zoughbi Zoughbi, who is incidentally married to an American woman and spent some time living in the States. They are absolutely commited to non-violent means of conflict resolution at WI'AM, from small family and community issues all the way up to the immense issue of dealing with the Occupation. Zoughbi's best line of the morning, which we all really liked, was, "We want to empower the weak and bring the powerful to their senses, not to their knees." He quoted Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and various other voices from the civil rights movement freely during his introduction to us. The context in which they work: economic depression, the stagnation of the peace process, environmental degradation, domestic violence, traumatized children (at one point Zoughbi said, "We don't deal with post traumatic stress: the trauma is not 'post'; it's ongoing."), youth problems and the general demoralization and factionalism, including emigration, depression and hopelessness. In the midst of all that, he was another great prophetic voice and figure, and so articulate.

One of Zoughbi's young assistants, Usama, then gave us a tour of the refugee camp. The center actually is right on the edge of it. We had to cross right past Rachel's Tomb. Of course all of this is also done in the shadow of The Wall, the security wall which zigzags its way through Bethlehem, and its location in this particular spot is emblematic of the arbitrary nature of it. Rachel's Tomb is in the middle of Bethlehem but the wall snakes around it so that Israelis have access to it but Palestinians don't. It's very ugly, and has made an eyesore out of a holy site. Rabbi Paula was explaining to us that this is the place where women have come for centuries to pray for safe pregnancies, since Rachel had so much trouble conceiving children with Jacob. She is also the only one not buried with Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rabekah, Jacob and Leah (not sure if Bilhah is buried with the others...) so, Paula said, Rachel is also a symbol of the shekinah being exiled from Jerusalem. "And now it is encased in concrete," Paula lamented. I was of course humming "Rachel's Lament" all through the morning.

The refugee camp was nothing as I had imagined. This camp dates all the way back to 1948, mind you, when folks were first routed from their homes in what is now Israel, firmly expecting to return. But the war turned into occupation, and tents gave way to concrete structures, and dirt paths turned into paved streets, and people continue to add on and on to the structures so that there is quite a bustling shanty town built up. But all around are graffiti and signs announcing what village people were from, and how many came from that village and what particular year. Now deep into the heart of urban Palestine as opposed to our experience in the country picking olives last week, we saw lots of signs of bold opposition to the occupation, even frequent images of Che Guevara and the words "Libre Palestina!" The inside of the security wall was covered with colorful graffiti. The hardest one to read was, "There is no hope and so we wait to die.” We felt safe the whole way, and even cautiously welcomed by people we passed on the streets. Usama even led us up onto the roof of someone's house so we could see the security wall from above. He was a little more agitated and eager to tell us stories of Israeli abuse than Zuoghbi had been. We headed back down to the center after about an hour and Zoughib and staff gave us a sumptuous lunch, and then we were off to Hebron.

Usama came with us, and we met the young man named Sami who was to be our guide for the afternoon. Sami was quite a talker. After the bus dropped us off near the old city, Sami gave us quite a walking tour into alleyways and deep into the suq. His aim was to show us all the spots where Israelis have built settlements right in the heart of the city. We were told that the settlers in Hebron are among the most aggressive and extreme. They've actually been there since 1968. The most famous of all is Baruch Mazul who was from Brooklyn, and another Dr Baruch Goldstein who was responsible for a massacre in Abraham's tomb in 1994, 29 Muslims killed and over 300 wounded. Along the way, it wasn't clear why at first, we started gathering up more and more young people, college-aged, following us. We found out after a while they were all in training to be guides like Sami was. I actually felt like we were pretty well protected in case of any kind of incident or altercation. At several points we stopped right near where the guard posts were, and Sami would hold forth at length even at points gesturing toward the armed soldier in the watch tower and then toward the settlement areas that are now closed off to Palestinians. It really is a little bizarre: in the middle of the market, suddenly an alley would be blocked off and there would be chain link fence overhead to protect passersby from the items that the settlers were throwing down from above from the upper floors that they had taken over, for example. There were sevcral streets where no Palestinians could drive because they were where the Israelis were. The ratio of soldiers to settlers was incredible. I kept wondering how and why these Israelis would even want to live there let alone raise children there. They had to be the most hardcore who wanted to make, in a phrase we kept hearing, "facts on the ground." But I kept asking myself, "Who are the real prisoners here?" That is when, of course, I really got to feel what it means for a land to be "occupied."

Then we got a real object lesson. Our last stop was to be Abraham's tomb, which is also where tradition has it Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah and Joseph are honored if not actually buried, a holy place to all three traditions. The first little tense moment came for us visitors when the turnstiles locked up at the entry way when only about a third of our group had gone into the plaza in front of the tomb. The turnstile of course is run by two young Israeli soldiers. We finally got through in two more groups; we were by that time a group of about 40, us and our young Palestinian hosts. And then there was another security check with a metal detector, manned by three young Israeli soldiers with automatic rifles, and one older Palestinian man. It all happened so fast I could barely register what was going on. A few of us got through and I had just said to someone next to me, "These are like teenagers with guns!" Then one of the Jewish women in our group got stopped. She was wearing her Star of David visibly as a necklace. The soldiers made her go off to the side and asked her if she was Jewish. She replied yes, and then young woman soldier started scolding her, talking to her pretty nastily. I could see she was getting upset and so I sidled over nearer to where she was (I am not sure what I would have done) but then Rabbi Paula came up and started speaking to the soldier in Hebrew and found out that Jews had a separate entrance or, to say it another way, were not allowed to go in that entrance. So Paula found out where that other entrance was and started walking off that way, as did her husband and several others, particuarly the Jews in the group. We had been told that the building was now split in two, on one side a synagogue and on the other a mosque, so I guess it sort of made sense to me. And I guess I figured, since the Israelis were having the Jews go to another side, that they were somehow getting special treatment and we would meet up with them inside. As I say, it was all happening so fast. I kept asking the young Palestinians, "Who's rule is this that Jews can't come in the Muslim-Christian side?" I'm not sure I ever got a straight answer, and our Jewish friends never did go in. Unbeknownst to us that went in, they were so shaken by the encounter that they all stayed outside waiting for us to emerge. We don't know what they would have seen if they had gone in, but we did find out that there were six days a month for Jews and six days a month for Muslims and Christians, and it seems like this was a Palestinaian rule after the massacre, about which Sami told us a number of times in great detail when we were in the mosque. We only found out gradually just how hurt and upset the ones who had stayed outside were. Some thought we had abandoned them; some wondered why we didn't make a decdision as a group about going in; some even felt set up by our guides.

We had quite a de-briefing about the whole incident that night after dinner. I felt kind of nauseous sick abut the whole thing, especially thinking that they thought we had abandoned them or done something that intentionally left them out. It might be a little taste of what Jews (and their friends) felt like during the early days of the Nazi regime. It's also what the people of this region have to live with every single day, situations that are loaded with ambiguity and separation, fear and mistrust, pitting neighbor against neighbor. So we really got to feel what it is like to live in an occupied land.

Paula's husband Arieyh is probably the most well read and informed person in the group when it comes to the occupation. He has followed it since he was a young Zionist himself in the 1960s. The bus driver somehow couldn't find us after the whole debacle, and so we were all left standing in a little plaza waiting for nearly an hour, getting colder and more and more tired, but Ariyeh, who is no sympathizer of the settlers, contiuued to debate with Sami and Usama, not disagreeing with them in general but correcting some of their facts. Sami, for instance, kept saying that the first intifada was non-violent, but Ariyeh and Paula were living here then and they remember much clearer. Their discussion, right there in the middle of the street, got pretty heated at one point, Ariyeh being very assertive without being aggressive, but Sami and Usma firing off example after example from their own experiences. I kept remembering the Italian phrase that I learned at General Chapter with the Camaldolese, una bufera di parole--it was like we had experienced "a storm of words," and by that point I just couldn't take any more in. But I shall remember for a long time as I got out my Bible on the bus (when it finally found us) and started reading some evening psalms and scriptures, behind me I could hear Ariyeh asking Usama questions about his own experience, and Usama talking about the two times he had been arrested and tortured. At that point all I could do was hold them both in the silent space inside of me, which I could barely find, and I knew I had no other answer, that indeed there were no easy answers, only fallible human beings caught up in a terrible position that is only escalating in its complexity.

So, again all the more poignant being here, this morning we were all abuzz with this news, as reported in the Washington Post:
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday ordered accelerated construction of 2,000 homes in Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and nearby West Bank settlements, his office said, a day after thePalestinians gained membership in a major U.N. agency [UNESCO].
Netanyahu’s move, along with a hold on the transfer of taxes collected by Israel for the Palestinian Authority, were described by Israeli officials as initial responses to Palestinian moves to gain recognition of statehood at the United Nations.
Ordered them! It reminded me of the story in Exodus when Moses and Aaron went to ask Pharoah to let their people go, and Pharoah instead said that they had to make bricks without straw. The oppressed become the oppressors. I'm just a monk and a musician not an expert at foreign affairs, but I must say from my perspective, even just as a voting American citizen, I am convinced that we, the US, are on the wrong side of this argument. And we need to let our leaders know that we must stop Israel from building more settlements, especially if they are using our money to do so. They are only making a bad situation worse.

Some of our group didn't like this, but Dave passed out a statement from Kairos, an organization of Christian leaders in Palestine that lists the facts about "reality on the ground" as a result of the occupation and then states unequivocally:
...the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land is a sin against God and humanity because it deprives Palestinians of their basic human rights, bestowed by God. It distorts the image of God in the Israeli who has become an occupier just as it distorts this image in the Palestinian living under occupation. We declare that any theology, seemingly based on the Bible or on faith or on history, that legitimizes the occupation, is far from Christian teachings, because it calls for violence and holy war in the name of God Almighty, subordinating God to temporary human interests, and distorting the divine image in the human beings living under both political and theological injustice.