June 12, 2014 (part two: Jerusalem, Bethlehem)
The sherut drops me in front of the dusty Jerusalem Hotel, a former Arab mansion, where I stop for a bottle of water and a deep breath. A breeze wafts through the grape vines that cover the outdoor restaurant and the smell of sweet tobacco and soft conversation calm my exhausted brain.
The #21 bus to Bethlehem is a few blocks around the corner, through dusty construction and open markets, across from Damascus Gate and the grey/cream walls of the Old City. A woman helps me with my bag, everyone says “sleecha” (excuse the Hebrew transliteration of excuse me), and young men repeatedly give up their seats for older women. The bus driver stops for a late passenger and opens the door. Folks talk in a low hum and Arabic music pulses from the radio. Forgive my stereotyping again, but I feel a sense of respectfulness and basic decency towards each person.
The lady sitting next to me and my pile of back packs and computer case works as a cook in Jerusalem and commutes from Beit Jala every day. She asks how can she help me (I surmise that I look like someone who needs help) and offers me a candy. We pass signs for the City of David where a massive highly politicized archeological excavation and park development is underway, designed to prove that the Jews were here first and thus can toss out the several thousand years of subsequent ownership and history. We pass Silwan and Sheikh Jarrar where there is an active program to dispossess the local Palestinians and turn property over to right wing Jewish settlers. As the bus fills to standing room only, my new friend points out a tunnel which goes under a no-man’s land she explains between Arab and Jew. I notice a new somewhat more ominous version of the separation wall, large concrete panels with vertical elements that meet another wall extending out at an angle, clearly constructed to deflect thrown objects or humans attempting to scale the barrier.
I am met by a friend outside of Deheisha Refugee Camp in Bethlehem where he is working on a three year project titled Builders of Peace, funded by the EU and organized by the Lagee Center in Aida Camp. He is working with 72 college students all over the West Bank and they are now discussing issues of Identity and Memory. He is showing my documentary film, Voices Across the Divide, which tells the story of the Israel/Palestine conflict through the stories of Palestinians living in the US. This is complicated on so many levels and I am both humbled and excited. The screening at the camp was met with lively conversations and many questions about the motivations and messages of an American Jew. I cannot blame them.
We head to the village of Al Walaja, a small town northwest of Bethlehem located on the seam zone where there is an active struggle over the separation wall and the continuing loss of land in the shadows of the Jewish settlements of Gilo and Har Gilo. In a small community center, the eleven students listen politely, I am washed with a sense of amazement and wonder that my documentary, (with Arabic subtitles), carefully designed for US audiences, has made its way to this remote and resilient place; of what use could it possibly be? How will the students feel about a Jewish woman presenting their story? Have they heard their own histories or has that been swallowed in the memories of the traumatized and the Israeli occupation. I am relieved to hear the students are well versed in history; two are upset that I refer to the war in 1948 as a civil war as that implies that the Jewish immigrants have equal claim to the indigenous Palestinians. They all want to know what is my message? How do I describe Israel? We talk and talk. I am glad I have come.
I return to East Jerusalem that evening in a car with Israeli plates rented in East Jerusalem by the Palestinian American wife of my friend who is working on the EU project. She also has Israeli citizenship through her father who is an Israeli Palestinian, but spends the summers with his family in the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem. We are stopped at a checkpoint, two white appearing ladies, maybe Jewish who knows? Middle aged. Yellow plates, that’s kosher, and waved through. I always forget the intensity of ethnic profiling in these parts.
Instead of a quick trip, we are soon stuck in massive amounts of barely crawling traffic; it seems that tonight is part of the festival of lights in Jerusalem. There are all sorts of gaudy, sparkly, twinkly light sculptures and over the top multi-colored light displays, but I am completely appalled by the light show projected on the magnificent, ancient Damascus gate and the stone walls on each side that surround the Old City, supposedly a hotly contested, ancient, sacred site to the three Abrahamic religions. To the accompaniment of rousing movie score music, the stones are bathed in multicolored displays, covered with Persian (i.e. Iranian) tapestries, large eyes blink and hands move turrets, curtains sweep open, the walls are striped, plaid, bathed in flames, water, cob webs, ancient figures, and monumental machinery, a massive gyration mish mash of bad Disney movies: Arabian nights meets My Little Princess and the Lion King. It is awesome and awful, tacky and tasteless. I am too amazed and sleep deprived to wrap my brain around this, (fanatic Jewish settlers are plotting to blow up Al Aqsa Mosque and build the third temple while a tacky Hollywood display cheapens the entire place? Really?) and head off on the cobbled stones and dark alleys to the Via Delarosa and the Austrian Hospice where a clean bunk bed and a large cross on the wall await me in the Austrian Hospice. I fantasize that I am joining a convent and this is only the beginning of a life of simplicity and austerity when sleep finally sweeps me away into the land of official insanity.
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.