Here’s a guest post by Liz, another participant from our trip:
Looking back, it becomes clear to me that I fell in love with Jerusalem years before I would ever meet her.
We finally did meet for the first time in 1987, when I went to Israel on a high school summer program. Arriving instantly confirmed my feelings. I saw the forests of trees that I helped to build as a little girl all those times I answered the JNF’s call to give money to plant a tree in Israel. I saw the beautiful Jerusalem stone buildings everywhere. I saw Jews, feeling safe after the Holocaust, walking around proud to be there. I knew I was in love.
Subsequently, now that I was in love, I planned to spend my Junior year of college abroad in Jerusalem. But the Gulf War was launched the semester I was supposed to go and I was stuck in the US, separated from my lover. I missed being in Jerusalem so much that I told myself if I couldn’t go Junior year, then I would go for graduate school. I lived in Jerusalem from 1992-1996 and received my Master’s degree in English and Hebrew Literature from Hebrew University.
I was still in love. I was a young woman in my twenties living in Jerusalem walking the streets with pride — as though my whole life had led me to live, work, and study in this beautiful city. I deserve to be here, I am welcomed here, I need to be here.
Having just returned from the JRC trip to Israel/Palestine, I can’t get two things out of my mind. First, that my love for Jerusalem still runs very deep. And second, that it does for others even more so. Having stayed in the West Bank once before as a facilitator for Hands of Peace (a Chicago-based Israeli-Palestinian coexistence program), I was not blind to the Palestinians’ plight. For many of the Palestinians with whom I stayed, I was the first Jewish person they had met who wasn’t a soldier. They were hospitable, generous, and hungry to tell their stories. I listened, and when I returned to Chicago, I read everything I could.
This JRC trip, however, was very different. It was incredible to go with a group of Jews who had agreed to put themselves in emotionally vulnerable, uncomfortable situations which would require a lot of thinking, reflecting, and feeling. It was as though we all walked out onto a tightrope, knowing we could not go back.
Images and thoughts are still flooding my head:
Jaffa. The signs are only in Hebrew and English. Where’s the Arabic? The Palestinians who lived here but were not included in the decisions made in the town are now gone.
Deheishe. So many children walking in this refugee camp without shoes. The mother saying to us, “I never leave here anymore. I don’t bother trying to get visas and going through checkpoints. I have my family, and this is our life.” We couldn’t flush the toilet because there wasn’t enough water. The little girl shows me her primer and tells me her favorite class (at the UN school for refugees) is math. Has it really been like this since 1948?
Hebron. Hebrew graffiti on what were Palestinian shops. Jewish stars, symbols of resilience for me growing up, spray painted on the shop doors. Little boys selling keychains with the Palestinian flag, bracelets with the colors of the flag. Their abstract concept of home is everything, yet is reduced to trinkets. Narrow sidewalks for the Palestinians, wide streets for the Jews. Walls, separations, trash clumped by settlers thrown down on the heads of Palestinians in the streets below.
Jenin, with families. Drinking tea and eating dinner with Palestinian olive farmers. Listening to stories they are so hungry to tell. My narrative, the Jewish narrative, has been told the world over. I need to listen to theirs’. Pictures of Jerusalem around the house. They have never been to Jerusalem, and yet they live so close.
Jenin, Refugee Camp. Meeting Udi Aloni, a prominent Israeli who told us his now eighty-year-old mother, ex-Knesset member Shulamit Aloni, fought in the streets defending Jerusalem in 1948 with her gun. Now she says the country has become an apartheid state. The son can’t handle seeing her pain. “I would rather she tell me I am wrong so that I don’t have to see her go through the pain of questioning everything her life was based on.”
Tent of Nations. Daoud Nasser’s family has owned his property since 1919 and now they might lose it. Surrounded by settlements. No running water. No electricity. Just wanting to stay in his home. But his family has owned the land since 1919. I fell in love in 1987. He has preceded me by decades. They have all preceded me.
Qalqilya Checkpoint. The tonelessness of the signs. Place your belongings in the bin. Wait for further instructions. Proceed. A tight fit through the electronic turnstiles. It reminds me of a quote from Eyal Weizman’s “Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation:”
The manufacturers of these turnstiles had been asked by the Ministry of Defense contractors to change their production specifications and reduce the length of their metal arms from the Israeli standard of 75-90cm (used at universities, swimming pools, railway stations, etc.) to a mere 55cm in the West Bank and Gaza, so that the turnstiles physically press against the passengers’ bodies, ensuring there is nothing under their clothes. According to testimony from Machsom Watch, the tight turnstiles ended up causing more harm and chaos. (p. 151)
Shabbat morning. A beautiful Torah portion is chanted and a thoughtful D’var Torah delivered. We sing, hum, close our eyes. I see a tallit, Brant’s kippah, we have an oneg. We’re in East Jerusalem, on Salah Ed-Din Street, we’re Jews, and we’re talking about Israel/Palestine. Someone shares with us her visit to Poland, seeing Jewish graves. We were in Jaffa, and we learned about the first Israeli five-star hotel, built on top of a Muslim cemetery. It is Shabbat.
I can’t go backwards. Jerusalem is in pain, too. She had her own lovers long before me and they were forced to leave her. As Edward Said (whom I was taught to discount, but is, in fact, a scholar and survivor in his own right) wrote in “Zionism From the Standpoint of Its Victims”:
I have been directly exposed to those aspects of Jewish history and experience that have mattered singularly for Jews and for Western non-Jews reading and thinking about Jewish history. I know as well as any educated non-Jew can know what anti-Semitism has meant for the Jews, especially in this century. Consequently I can understand the intertwined terror and the exultation out of which Zionism has been nourished, and I think I can at least grasp the meaning of Israel for Jews and even for the enlightened Western liberal. And yet, because I am an Arab Palestinian, I can also see and feel other things — and it is these that complicate matters considerably, that cause me to focus on Zionism’s other aspects. (p. 18)
Said could see Zionism from the Jewish point of view. I need to see it from his point of view too.
It is Shabbat. The morning sunlight hits the Jerusalem stone buildings in the way that makes the buildings look rose colored — Jerusalem Gold. They deserve to be here, to be welcomed here, they need to be here. Judaism is about justice and equality and peace for everyone.
Our last night in Jerusalem, East Jerusalem. Debriefing, we Jews. Then, at the end of the evening, a song for Peace. Oseh shalom, shalom, shalom bimromav. Hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu. (“May the One who makes peace in the heavens make peace for us.”)
When it comes to Israel, we always hear, “It’s complicated.” Sitting in East Jerusalem sharing with other Jews our complex feelings, things have become quite clear. Shrieking in its contradictions, this all just makes so much sense. What lies ahead: ensuring that all people have equal rights and access to the same things. As Jews, we should demand a no less kind of justice.