“Welcome to Israel, Bien Venue” – Alice Rothchild in Palestine and Israel, part 1

June 12, 2014

I often encounter some metaphorical weirdness on my flights to Israel and true to form, on my layover in Toronto, my flight leaves from gate E69, but arrows point in opposite directions and the obvious glass doors to the indicated area are locked shut. Alice in Wonderland? Where is the white rabbit when I need him? A helpful info lady explains that that section of the airport is locked until shortly before check in. Ahhhh. I settle into an anxious, watchful stupor, and once the doors open, I notice that E69 is also cordoned off and that another (mild Canadian style, sweep of the wand across my potentially explosive laden palms) checkpoint is required to entire the now safe-from-terror zone that is the flight to Tel Aviv.

Rothchild T02025The passengers are an eclectic group: a number of Christian religious tours, gold crosses draped around necks, tee shirts quoting Isaiah and scripture, a ‘Walk with the Bible’ group, folks on the ‘Jesus Trail’, lots of prayer and blessings in general conversation, a large unnaturally enthusiastic Taglit Birthright-Israel team complete with name tags and youthful happiness, eager to fall in love with the great Zionist outdoors. Families wearing yarmulkes, kids alternating ‘Daddy’ and ‘Abba’, tee shirts in Hebrew, a woman in a hijab with five children, a man with thick grey hair reading a Russian newspaper.

Eleven plus hours later, at passport control, the lines are full, hot, sweaty and slow moving. A US family behind me is coming for a wedding. The father is insisting that Israel is an egalitarian society and his determined teenage daughter argues intently that he is indeed wrong. There is a bank of security devices all made by Hewlett Packard, a US company. Two little Chinese ladies in big hats chat with another Asian woman on yet another Christian Holy Sites tour. They are inexplicably turned away from passport control and led away to some unnamed place. I watch my passport official carefully; she takes her job seriously, asks lots of questions and is constantly on the phone. An ominous sign for me. I review my spiel: nice Jewish lady, loves Israel, meeting friend who speaks Hebrew, plus check out my last name: Rothchild. It seems to me that almost everyone sweating in the foreign passport queue is on some kind of pilgrimage: looking for Jesus, or for a love of Zion and a tan muscular Israeli soldier to play with in the great outdoors, or for family connections; and then there is me, looking for the contradictions in this booming, high tech, flawed, complicated so-called democracy.

I am trying to resist stereotypes, but as I board the sherut, (the shared taxi to Jerusalem), the bulky probably Russian driver and an elderly Orthodox Jewish woman began what appears to be a pretty intense argument with loud, angry yelling. She is soon joined by her bearded husband in a long dark coat and yarmulke with wire rimmed glasses, and this noisy argument continues for a good 15 minutes into the drive. What happened to civility and ‘using inside voices’ as I used to tell my children? (My slightly sleep deprived fantasy is that he does not want to sit next to a strange woman and I have already decided to take a moral stand: I will not give up my single seat, but that apparently was not the issue. My paranoia relaxes but the tension in the van is still palpable.)  I can feel this peculiar cultural insanity creeping into my pores. Shortly thereafter the couple begin chatting (loud but friendly) with another older man in a mix of Hebrew and Yiddish. It seems all the personality disorders are now under control.

The heat is thick and there is a haze over the landscape, tall cities cluster like stark giant grey legos, the fields and hills are turning from green to straw-brown. We turn onto highway 443, past Modi’in, acres of Jewish National Fund pine forests, (often covering destroyed Palestinian villages), young Israeli soldiers wait at bus stops, gigantic cranes and concrete cities mushroom everywhere. We are soon on the segment that it is actually in the West Bank (does anyone else on the sherut know this???) The metal fencing begins, Palestinian houses in the distance have black water tanks on their roofs due to the erratic water supply, looming grey Israeli guard towers flash by. The ancient hills are terraced, bleak and magnificent, rugged, graceful olive trees hug the soil. The separation wall is now concrete, there is more rolling barbed wire. We stop briefly at an Israeli checkpoint and then are waved through. I guessed we passed the ethnic profiling test. I see the ominous grey prison just near the turn off to Ramallah, probably Ofer Prison. I think of all the Palestinian hunger strikers protesting in Israeli jails. The walls along the highway are now turning more picturesque, patterned brick designs, (making the occupation pretty?) and then more imposing and concrete as we near the Holy City.

We return to highway #1 and head into Jerusalem and begin a brief tour of the Jewish settlements. The two older “yellers” are met in Ramat Shlomo by their happy family and four grandchildren, all modestly attired. They leave their Yiddish buddy with a friendly, “Yalla” which is Arabic for “Let’s go.” We are then off to the Jewish settlements of Pisgat Ze’ev and French Hill, a former Arab neighborhood, an older Orthodox man shouts at a car that has stopped in the cross walk, gesturing fitfully. We pass the refugee camp of Shufat. More opaque walls. I watch with my x ray vision, all the history, the conflict, the players, the demons, are all here in living color, if one only stops to look. Is anyone looking?

Alice Rothchild MD, is Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School. She serves on the steering committee for American Jews for a Just Peace- Boston, and has worked with medical delegations to Israel and the Occupied Territories with the AJJP Health and Human Rights Project. She is the author of Broken Promises, Broken Dreams: Stories of Jewish and Palestinian Trauma and Resilience (Pluto, 2007; 2010) and director of the 2013 documentary Voices Across the Divide.

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