Bethlehem, Mar Saba, the Aida Camp – And Weighing in on the Impossible

Dear Readers,

On Friday morning, we hopped onto a bus in front of the beautiful Jerusalem YMCA, which lies across the street from the ritzy King David Hotel, and took a 20-minute ride to a place of poverty, warped dreams, humiliation, dark humor, degradation… and some sweet children.

The “we” in the above sentence, includes fellow Temple Beth Hatfiloh congregants from Olympia, Susan and Michael, who are in Israel for a couple of weeks, visiting friends, going birding, attending a conference and doing a wee bit of touring. When we found out that we would be in country at the same time, Susan kindly asked me if I’d like to join them for a tour of the West Bank. I immediately said yes, and their friend David, who was arranging the excursion with Green Olive Tours, added me to the attendees’ list.

Green Olive Tours is a USA-based “Social Enterprise and Workers Collective… dedicated to social change, cultural development, political activity and economic enterprise that cultivates humane and just societies…. The Collective binds itself to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” It bills itself as an “alternative tour company,” and in the case of Friday’s tour that we took to Bethlehem and environs, it was led by a resident of the West Bank named Yamin.

Under the Oslo Accords (a set of mid-1990’s agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization), the West Bank is divided into three areas: A, B and C. Area A’s principal administrative control is by a governmental entity (it’s not labeled a nation or state) called the Palestinian Authority – though the Israeli military apparently has free reign to enter it at any time after midnight to sometime in the morning (we weren’t told when and I didn’t ask). Area B is jointly managed by Israel and the PA and Area C is controlled exclusively by Israel. There are published maps defining these areas which are very complex, but my take is that overall Area A is mostly existing, Palestinian Arab towns. Area C includes Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which are growing rapidly, and frankly look like fortresses on hilltops: plenty of tall buildings, modern and ordered.

West Bank Jewish “Settlement” between Jerusalem and Bethlehem

Mar Saba Monastery

After arriving in a suburb of Bethlehem to pick up our guide, Yamin, we sip some strong coffee (with cardamom), get a brief orientation to the itinerary, and ride off to a 5th Century monastery.

The Mar Saba Monastery, dating back to the 5th Century, lying about 10 kilometers east of Bethlehem, fortress-like along the Kitron Valley

The monastery sits precariously over the deep gorge of the Kitron Valley. Here, for thousands of years, humans have been creating and expanding caves to dwell in, protect themselves from other humans, and in the last 1500 years lead secluded lives as religious monks. Over the centuries, the monastery had been attacked by various sects, so it built more and more armor to protect its inhabitants. It now functions consistent with its original intended purpose, with occasional visitors – male only – allowed in.

A solitary desert flower adorns a precipice abutting the Mar Saba Monastery.

A Palestinian’s Perspective

After the monastery, we head for Banksy’s “Walled Off Hotel and Worst View in the World.” The artist Banksy has built a small hotel in Bethlehem adjacent to what is labeled a “separation barrier ” between the town and the Aida Refugee Camp. Aida is administered by an agency of the United Nations. Within the hotel walls is a museum and art gallery which deftly summarizes the current political, economic and social challenges faced by the Palestinian population. The museum is mostly in English. Touring folks like us are clearly the intended audience. The art is angry, funny, and very very sad. The only real rays of hope I take emanating from the place, is the profound recognition that even surrounded with despair, the human spirit still creates. The day-to-day can still instill.

In the Banksy Museum
Surviving in Palestine

Outside the hotel, along the “separation barrier,” art is triumphant.

At Bethlehem’s Separation Barrier
Yamin provides history of wall art, and prepares group to enter Aida Refugee Camp.

The tour promised an opportunity to hear directly from Palestinians about their view of Israeli control of what the League of Nations in 1923 gave to Britain as its noblese oblige responsibility for rule, known as the Palestine Mandate. Yamin is about to begin that opportunity.

“I’m not going to sugar coat this,” Yamin warns us. “I’m going to tell you what I believe. I’ve been studying this for 10 years. I’ve talked with many people and I’m going to tell you the honest truth. I am for a one-state solution to Palestine,” Yamin starts. “I know that is not the position of the PA or the Israelis, but it is my position.”

Yamin goes on to decry the leadership of both the Israelis and the Palestinians with real rage aimed at the Saudis and other Arab States. “In Bethlehem, Christians and Muslims get along. I know that Jews and Muslims can get along too, if we learn to respect each other. I am for one state, with equal rights for all. For Palestinians, we must have the right of return to our homes where we lived prior to 1948 when the Israelis threw us out. Now, any Jew can come into Israel from anywhere in the world, but Muslims can not live in the homes of their fathers. This is wrong.”

The tour group, filled principally with politically progressive American Jews, is mostly silent. Listening.

We get back on the bus and head for Aida.

The first surprising thing to me about the Camp is how un-camp-like it all seems. While the structures are perhaps not as sound, and certainly not as large or well apportioned, as outside the Camp, the warrens seem as a whole relatively clean, with some larger streets accommodating private cars and taxis inching along paved surfaces. Perhaps we are shown only a distorted, positive portion of Aida, but everywhere we go we see smiling and laughing children looking well-fed and well-dressed.

Those children come up to we tourists eagerly wanting to engage. Yamin tells us “Please, no matter what you do, don’t give them money. We do not want them to develop that pattern of behavior.” But my friends Susan and Michael had already purchased a bag full of sweet treats and crayons. Yamin thinks that is fine, so he supports Michael while he passes the goodies around. As Michael went to the little tykes, all would say – or be directed to say – “thank you” in English before running off. Yamin also engages playfully with the children. One young boy apparently wants to become a model, so he takes turns posing for our cameras. It actually is quite sweet.

The Streets of Aida Refugee Camp, adjacent to Bethlehem.

Yamin takes us to a children’s art education center. There, a European-funded program provides opportunities for refugee youth to make a “beautiful resistance” through theatrical and dance performance, visual arts, media production, and various forms of education. We see kids of many ages engage their creative juices.

At the Aida Refugee Camp adjacent to Bethlehem, a monument to Arafat’s vision. Yes, the same geography as Israel’s current maps, just a different group in charge.

After the Aida Camp, we head for Manger Square and lunch. I’m fortunate enough to sit next to Yamin, and so my questions – and that of others – begin.

“I think I understand what your vision is, Yamin, and why you think it is just,” I say. “But I want to know something more. Given your critique of the Israeli political position and your desire for change, what do you think is possible? What is a practical direction to go that results in an achievable long-term solution?”

Yamin considers that for a second, looks at me and says, “no one has ever asked me that before. Give me a second, I need to think about that.”

But then someone else asks him another question, and he never returns to me.

What’s Possible?

Across Manger Square from our restaurant lunch stop is something called the Bethlehem Peace Center. Having a few minutes between lunch and our visit to the Church of the Nativity, I scamper over to take a peek. The exterior looked new and impressive. The interior was dark and abandoned. A small book and card shop was staffed by a friendly looking older lady at the end of the dilapidated hall. She was alone without customers. I had the feeling that I might have been the first customer all day. Or all week.

“Can you tell me about this place,” I ask?

And so she tells me its history. The edifice, built in 2001 with funds from a couple of European sources, was supposed to house all the functions listed on the exterior wall. It never did. The Europeans ran out of money, or will, or both. By 2007, they handed the whole kit and caboodle to the Bethlehem municipality. “The city doesn’t have the resources to open up the museum and barely keeps the tourist office functioning,” she explains in perfect English. (I never did see that office.) An underfunded peace center in a prominent location – much too sad for even ironic humor.

We go on to the Church of the Nativity. Like the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City, when the Ottoman Empire packed its bags in the Holy Land, it left in charge an association of five different Christian sects to collectively manage the two sites. What could possibly go wrong? Both churches, of course, are in various states of disrepair, but they remain about the most important sites in Christendom, signifying for some but not all Christians, the sites for Christ’s birth and resurrection. The murmurings among my Jewish tourist brethren as we explore the Church’s various apses and naves and dungeons, is surprisingly critical, as I overhear one say “I just don’t get the whole dying for others sins bit.”

But I digress. Yella yella! (Arabic for “let’s go!) Let’s get away from Christian theology and back to something simpler. Like my thoughts about the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Yesterday I read a small book by the Israeli author Amos Oz, “How to Cure a Fanatic.” I paraphrase and distill what he said as: there are two peoples, Jews and Palestinians. Each with legitimate claims to the same piece of land. Each have been rejected by the rest of the world. Both have faced death and abandonment, and have fought to survive. Both are, in a fundamental way, “right.” But neither can truly get all that it wants and all that it believes it needs. So painful compromise will be necessary for each to live apart from the other and have enough of what they need to find it minimally acceptable. Then and only then after acceptance, can more normal feelings emerge. Then and only after acceptance can they sit down together and drink coffee and share bread.

Oz writes this in 2002 and then in an afterward he was asked to affirm this in 2012 and does so.

Given events in the intervening years, I’m not so sure that Oz’s prescription is practical anymore, if it ever was. Or to be more specific, I’m not so sure that a two-state solution is practical in the foreseeable future. And perhaps, dear readers, you are seeing the outcome of years working in the legislative process, but I’m not interested in the impractical when it comes to people’s lives. I find that kind of unethical.

Throughout this trip to Israel I have found exactly no one who is hopeful about resolving peacefully the Israeli-Palestinian nationhood issue.

“Left wing” Jewish Israelis – I admit that those are the folks closest to my emotional heart – seem despondent. They don’t see a realistic partner in Palestinian leadership, the political right is ascendant, and Jewish demographic trends are brutal to the left. Their continuing isolation from a growing Haredi population, and the differing morality of right-wing politics has led them to feel a growing alienation from their nation’s current ethical foundations that they were so instrumental in forming lo those decades ago.

As for the right, they not only gave up long ago hoping for pan-Arab acceptance of Israel’s right to be a Jewish nation-state, they no longer feel a need to care about it. Their mantra has been to simply grow so strong and so powerful, that Palestinian rights or opinions in particular, and Arab opinions in general, just don’t matter. The Jewish nature of the state seems far more important to the right, than its democratic nature. And as an objective measure, they believe they are winning the argument for the future in a slam dunk: big economy, huge Jewish population increases, spreading land control, and increasing political support not only within the country, but even from international rulers on the right, like Trump, Bolsonaro (Brazil), and Orbán (Hungary).

As for the Palestinians, they appear alienated from their political leadership, humiliated, imprisoned and even killed by Israel if they fight back, and constantly losing land and rights. While the classic line by Abba Eban about Arafat was that “he never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” in the current dynamic, Israel doesn’t even have to give the Palestinians an opportunity. And even if they did, it would be hard to conceive of them accepting one. And even if they accepted one, it would be hard to conceive that they would have the capabilities to effectuate such an agreement.

So what does an empathetic, caring person do and believe in such circumstances? Here’s my answer for now. I believe that Israel is the more powerful side of this conflict, and thus has a greater responsibility to be decent, and respectful and just. It can and must protect its citizens, but also must thoughtfully act in the long-term interests of those citizens. This means supporting those forces in Palestinian society which are progressive and non-violent. It means helping Palestinians build a civic culture that can eventually take on a true partnership. And it means fully respecting the different parts of Israeli society, as it builds its own civic culture.

Who am I to say anything about another country’s issues? What gives me the right – and arrogance – to dive into this? Well, I’m a Jew, that’s who. And for that reason alone, I’ve got the right, and kinda the duty, to enter into the ring of ideas and … wrestle away.

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