Connection at a Checkpoint

I must confess that I am finding it increasingly difficult to write about my experiences in this place. What I have seen, heard, and felt here is too much–at least at this point–for me to even sum up in my head, much less in writing. There is so much going on here. So many layers of this conflict, of this land, of these people. Seems like the more I learn about it, the more confusing it gets, and the less of it I understand overall. It’s not an uncommon feeling. From what I have heard, plenty of folks around here are confused, especially those who’ve spent their whole lives here. It’s a perplexing place to live in.

With that said, I think I am going to change the format of this blog a bit. Instead of posting a dry account of what exactly we have been doing–who we have been talking to, where we’ve been going–I think it would be more interesting, for you and for me, if I were to post a series of reflections on what I’ve been experiencing. Less emphasis on the who, what, when, and where, and more emphasis on what I’ve been feeling and thinking about all of this. I mean, we’ve been doing a lot every day, and packing a lot into our schedule, so to describe all of it would take up the whole entry. And since I don’t have a lot of time in which to write these things, we’ll really be getting the most bang for our buck if we do things this way. Sound good? Good.

So let’s just go from there.

Yesterday, we visited a checkpoint outside Barta’a, a Palestinian village that has been literally divided by the conflict: the Separation Fence (so called because in this area of Israel, it really is more of a fence than a wall) runs right through the town, thus splitting it into East Barta’a and West Barta’a. To add to the turmoil, a Jewish settlement has been constructed near West Barta’a.

We reach the fairly deserted checkpoint, get out of our tour bus, and, following the lead of our intrepid tour guide, British-born journalist Lydia Aisenberg (look her up!), approach a couple of Palestinian men hanging around outside. Turns out they’re taxi drivers–well, unregistered taxi drivers, who charge 5 shekel a head to drive people from the checkpoint to West Barta’a. Most Palestinians must go through checkpoints on foot, which means walking several miles if they just want to go from East to West Barta’a, and there are many locals who work in one village and live in the other. Add the fact that merely passing through a checkpoint at peak times can take hours, and you’ll see how a taxi service going between the checkpoint and the town is a necessity.

Lydia continues her conversation with the taxi drivers–they speak to her in Hebrew, and she translates to us in English. Despite the fact that they’ve never met any of us before, they’re easygoing and quite willing to share their experiences with us.

I notice that while this exchange is occurring, the white metal gate leading into the checkpoint’s security office opens, and a man appears. He is dressed completely in black, his right hand casually indexing the submachine gun that hangs at his side. He stares at us for a while; then the gate closes again, and he’s gone.

After speaking to the taxi drivers, another Palestinian man is introduced to us. He is more smartly dressed than the others, and can speak English. He tells us that he is an English teacher. In the ensuing conversation, we learn that although he earns a rather pitiful salary working in Barta’a and could easily earn twice as much were he to emigrate to Europe or North America, he never wishes to leave his native Palestine. Why? we ask. It’s simple, he replies: This is his home.

It’s time to go, and we thank the Palestinian men. Just as we’re muttering shukran and turning to go back to our bus, we hear the English teacher speak  up. “I would like to shake hands with all of you,” he says. One by one, we oblige. And as I extend my arm towards this man and grasp his hand, I feel something within me shift. With the simple act of touching his hand, of looking into his eyes, I am suddenly connected to this place.

That connection has been growing stronger and stronger since I first set foot on Israeli soil. Already, after only four days here, it has burrowed its way deep into my soul. In all honesty, I can’t see it leaving anytime soon.

It’s thundering mightily here in northern Israel. Maybe it’s the voice of God. Or maybe just weather systems; who can really tell? Anyway, that’s about all I have time for tonight. I hope you enjoyed this little snapshot. With any luck, I’ll be able to provide you with many more in the days to come.

(By the way, please do not think that we are experiencing a one-sided view of things in any way, shape, or form here. Quite to the contrary–it seems like every new person we meet has a different point of view on this whole issue, at times completely contradictory to someone we spoke to elsewhere. Hence all the confusion I have been experiencing.)



Only 2 days, and it feels like 2 weeks…

Note: This entry was finished about twelve hours ago; a lot has happened today, and I don’t have time to write about it. Also, I’m not sure when I will have time to write another entry. It might be a few days. You’ll just have to make do with this until then. 🙂

Whew!! It has been an action-packed day and a half since we landed in Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. There’s so much to discuss, I don’t really know where to start. I guess starting off with a quick overview would be best:
After an uneventful 12-hour flight (I slept for a few hours, but mostly entertained myself by watching “The Informant!” and “Flight of the Conchords”), we landed in Tel Aviv. We’d been warned about possibly being greeted with suspicion by the Israeli security guards, but we got though the passport checks smoothly. We all rode in a chartered bus into Jerusalem, whereupon we checked in at the Holy Land Hotel, located just outside the Old City. Before eating dinner, the whole group took a stroll through the Old City’s Moslem quarter, stopping at notable sites such as the Damascus Gate. We returned to the hotel, wolfed down a fabulous dinner (aahhh, hummus and lamb…), and went to bed quite worn out by the day’s events.
My roommates and I got up yesterday morning at 6:30 am. Jerusalem is a beautiful city, and quite a sight to wake up to; everything glows with a soft beige light in the morning sun, the color of old worn granite. It’s gorgeous enough to make you forget, just for a few minutes, about the turmoil and political tension that pervades the area.
After breakfast, we met our tour guide, Dawoud, an Arab Christian man who resides in the Old City. We began a lengthy walking tour of the Old City, stopping at the “big three” holy sites along the way: the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Dawoud, a short, somewhat portly man with a thick accent, was a fascinating tour guide, and quite well-versed in historical knowledge about Jerusalem. I can only remember about 5% of what he said to us the whole time, but whatever it was, it was definitely interesting! He remarked at one point that Christians living in the Old City are like “meat between two pieces of bread,” with regards to their social status; apparently they are looked down upon by the Muslims and the Jews, for reasons that I don’t quite understand. With more and more of them fleeing to countries such as Canada and America, Christians now make up only .5% of Israel’s population, according to Dawoud.
After touring the Moslem quarter, we made our way to the Western Wall, or the Wailing Wall–the last remaining piece of the Second Temple and Judaism’s holiest site. (You have to go through metal detectors to get there.) I can’t really explain the effect that this particular place had on me. I wasn’t quite expecting it, and then suddenly we walked into almost blinding sunlight and there it was, filling up half the sky. Our group split up by gender and the rest of the girls and I made our way into the women’s section of the Wall (which, might I add, is considerably smaller than the men’s section). I think there was a bar mitzvah or something happening in the men’s section; anyway, I wrote a prayer on a piece of paper, waited for a spot to open up, and approached the stone wall.
I won’t go into too much detail about what I felt when I put my hands and forehead on the cool rock of the Western Wall. It’s just a bit too personal. Suffice to say that I believe what they say about the presence of the Divine being inside that wall–and when I finally opened my eyes and walked away, I felt like I’d left a tiny piece of myself there.
We continued on, past the Western Wall and to the end of a very long line that led up to the entrance of the Temple Mount. The line went all the way down to the “Dung Gate,” which Dawoud informed us was so named because it was the gate through which the sewage exited in ancient Jerusalem. (I guess it can’t all be holy.) While waiting in line for an hour, we had a good view of the Mount of Olives, which has a number of different significances: 1. it is a place where Jesus preached, because it was a heavily trafficked caravan area; 2. it is where, according to Judaism, the Messiah is supposed to descend and begin the End Times; 3. it is where a very large number of Orthodox Jews are buried, because they want to be close to the Messiah when the End Times finally arrive. Apparently Orthodox Jews living in New York City have their bodies shipped to Jerusalem to be buried on the Mount of Olives.
After an hour-long wait, yet another metal detector led us to the Temple Mount, where we saw the al-Aqsa Mosque (!) and the Dome of the Rock (!!!). I’m not the first person to say this, but the Dome of the Rock is gorgeous. I guess we all got pretty excited about it, because we slowed down a lot, and then Dawoud scolded us: “You are wasting your time for nothing. I live here. I can go to these places every moment. We do not have time for you to be chatting. You can chat back at the hotel.” That shut us up.
We hurried on through a market and to the Christian Quarter and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the holiest site in Christianity, especially for Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians. It’s filled to bursting with holy relics, religious symbols, paintings, gold statues, mosaics, frescoes, tombs, and general shiny baubles and priceless artifacts. To name a few: it contains the Golgatha, which is the mount on which Jesus was crucified; the stone on which Jesus was supposedly prepared for burial; several rocks that Jesus sat on at one point or another; and (according to some interpretations) Jesus’ tomb. There were a lot of people there. All in all, I found it overwhelming. The Western Wall, though just as holy, had a much different effect on me. Maybe it’s because I feel closer to Judaism as a religion. Or perhaps it’s because the Western Wall seems so simple, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre so ornate.
After a brief lunch at a café, Dawoud led us on to the Jewish Quarter and the Armenian Quarter of the Old City, finally ending up at the Jaffa Gate. We said goodbye to Dawoud (sad!) and boarded the bus to our next destination: the offices of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), which was located in a more affluent part of Jerusalem. There we met a young woman named Sarah, who would be our next tour guide. Sarah, an Israeli and United States citizen whose grandmother was a Palestinian Jew, led us on a bus tour of a few notable places in Jerusalem: the Green Line border, an Israeli settlement in occupied East Jerusalem (which the Israeli government currently considers to be part of Israel, even though international law states otherwise), and the Separation Wall (aka Security Fence, Apartheid Wall, Segregation Wall, or just “The Wall”). This tour was particularly fascinating, albeit sobering, and eye-opening in a number of ways. Seeing, and touching, the Separation Wall really brought things home for me. The particular section we stopped at is a place where the wall actually divides a whole town in half. This is not an uncommon occurrence; the wall frequently divides Palestinian towns, or cuts off villages from their fields so they have no access to their crops.
After saying goodbye to Sarah, we spent a brief amount of time at the Sabeel Center for Palestinian Liberation Theology, which is a Christian volunteer organization sympathetic to the Palestinian side of things. They had a lot of interesting things to say, but we were all quite jetlagged at the time, so half of us were nodding off by the end of it–not out of disrespect, just sheer fatigue (and it wasn’t just the students–I think I saw Teacher Kevin shut his eyes at one point…). Finally, around 6:00, it was time to head off to the hotel to eat dinner.
Just a quick anecdote before I wrap things up: After dinner, a group of us elected to take a nightly stroll through the Old City, just to see what we could see. With Teacher Eric and Teacher Jay trailing behind us, we wandered around, perusing the few shops that happened to be open, looking at all the trinkets and souvenirs and delicious pastries. At one point we ran into some small Arab boys playing soccer. They began to follow us. “Where do you want to go?” they asked. “Shops,” I replied. “Shops?” one boy repeated. “This way, all closed, he said, motioning up one winding street.. “This way, open.” In the spirit of adventure, we followed the boys for about ten minutes, up through a fairly deserted residential area, finally ending up in the Christian Quarter where–lo and behold–a single shop was open. Upon reaching our destination, the boy held out his hand. “Money,” he said. I can’t say I was terribly surprised at this. Why else would they help a bunch of dumb-looking American tourists? We tried to fend them off, but they trailed us for a few more blocks until someone in our group finally handed them 10 shekel.
Anyway, I think we all slept like rocks last night. We are now on the bus to Givat Haviva, an Israeli community and learning center northwest of Jerusalem, where we will spend the next two nights.
It’s been quite the adventure up until now. Inshallah you are well, wherever you all are–I, for one, am in great spirits.
Talk to you soon…

Next week in Jerusalem!

Hello! مرحبا! שלום!

For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Laura, and I’m a senior from Maryland.

My upcoming senior project trip to the Holy Land–Jerusalem, Israel, and Palestine–will be my third time leaving the country. I can’t tell you how excited I am for this trip. Twelve hours from now, I’ll be in the Philadelphia airport, getting ready to board the plane for a 12-hour flight to Tel Aviv. Just thinking about makes me giddy.

My reasons for choosing this particular project can be summed up in one word: exploration. Exploration of new cultures and new people. I am a deeply curious person by nature, and I continually strive to learn everything I can about the world around me. And what better way to learn than firsthand experience? Being a kinesthetic learner as well as natural-born skeptic (I blame my family for the latter), it’s never been enough for me to be merely told about something or to have something demonstrated for me. I have to find out for myself before my curiosity can be truly sated.

But for me, this trip isn’t just about outer exploration. It’s also about inner exploration. I would not call myself a religious person–spiritual is more accurate a term. My mother’s family is Protestant Christian, and my father’s is Jewish. I was not raised to believe in any particular religion or creed, and I had a largely secular upbringing. Yet I’ve always felt a pull towards Judaism–its culture, its practices, its origins. Perhaps this is has something to do with my family’s annual celebrations of Passover. It was the closest I ever got to religious practice as a child, and I loved it. The colorful story of Moses’ exploits in Egypt, the mesmerizing lilt of the Hebrew prayers, and the age-old rituals all spoke to me in a way that any other religion never could.

And so I’ve grown up that way, identifying culturally, though not religiously, with Judaism. For some reason, it always felt closer to me than Christianity, despite the fact that both religions represent equal parts of my lineage. I can’t really explain this, and in any case, this is not the venue in which to do so. Either way, here I am, about to go to the place where both creeds were born. Last spring, seated around the dinner table with my family as we read aloud from the Haggadah–“Next year in Jerusalem!”–it never would’ve occurred to me that next year I would, indeed, be traveling to the Holy Land.

Despite all this, though, I am trying to keep my expectations for the trip as open as possible. There is a rather common phenomenon called “Jerusalem Syndrome,” which is what happens when a person goes to Jerusalem with lofty expectations of what it will be like–they’ll find God, they’ll be reawakened, they’ll find their spiritual calling in life, or something–and finds themselves leaving disappointed and disillusioned. It’s easy to think of the Holy Land as being something akin to a spiritual Disney World, but the truth is far more complex. I hope to avoid Jerusalem Syndrome by keeping my mind and my eyes open at all times.

I’ll document here what I see, hear, taste, feel, and learn, and hopefully try to make sense of it along the way. I originally hoped to post a few photos along with my blog entries, but I doubt that’ll be possible. Rest assured, though, that I will post photos–and lots of them–once I return on March 9th.

You blog readers are lucky, because for this particular trip, you get not just one, but two different reports–from me, and from Ben, whose first entry is posted below.

Well, I’ve got to go start packing. Thanks for reading! Talk to you soon!