Like millions before us, we explore the Old City of Jerusalem, absorbing the conflicting communities, the array of conquerors, the building and rebuilding, the ethereal light and dusky cream stones, the symphony of church bells and babble of tens of languages and hassled Japanese and Italian tour guides. A group of white southerners carrying a large wooden cross seems to be walking the Via Delarosa. Religious pilgrims, priests in long robes, Hassids clutching prayer books, young Palestinians running home from school in neat blue uniforms, prowling cats, the pungent aromas of spices. All of our senses are touched in this place basking in and gasping from the weight of its own history. The tee shirts take shots: “Guns and Moses,” Obama in a kaffiya, nationalism run amock. Even the street and historical signage joins in the conflict: the Hebrew, Muslim, and English names deliberately mistranslated to suit the messaging of the authors. Embracing my devout secularism, I am reminded of a comment by Vincent Harding to the effect (forgive me), “I have no interest in sacred sites. I have interest in how people behave in sacred ways.”
And then one of our delegates suggests we visit Saint Anne’s Basilica located next to an archeological dig at the site of a healing spring, the pool of Bethesda. True to the general history of this city, my understanding is that the church was built by the Byzantine Eastern Christians at this site, destroyed by the Persians, restored by a monk, destroyed by a Caliph, and then rebuilt by the Crusaders 850 years ago. A large Romanesque church was constructed, then changed to a school for Koranic law, and finally restored by the French in the 1800s. But our interest lies in what is supposed to be the churches perfect acoustics. As we gather near the nave, peering up at the arching columns and listening to the hushed background shimmer, we do what we have been doing every morning and every evening, we start to sing, first quietly and then with full and open hearts and the sound is truly magical. I am learning about the emotional and political strength of song, a heritage from the civil rights movement that I openly embrace. “We’re gonna keep on walking forward, keep on walking forward, never turning back, never turning back….” never sounded so powerful and so (forgive me) sacred.
Beyond the limits of the ancient walls, I am curious as to what it is like to live here in the present with modern consciousness and concerns. I meet up with a friend, early 30s, with a coy 1 1/2 year old daughter who is intent on chewing the edges of “But not the hippopotamus,” which I have brought her from the US. She and her husband are physicians. After years of frustrating attempts to start a residency program (there are few quality programs inside Palestine and the Israeli Medical Association does not recognize her MD from Al Quds University) and disheartened and chronically enraged by the difficulties of living in East Jerusalem, they decide to try a new life in Australia. They leave behind a lovely apartment, the grave of their first child, family and friends, as well as the separation wall near their house. But rural Australia is challenging for two urban Jerusalemites, and my friend returns home to have her second baby. They also want to be sure that their daughter has an East Jerusalem ID which allows her to be in her parents’ home, grow up here if they chose to return, and maintain her Palestinian identity and connection to family. After the birth, the Israeli authorities deny her the ID. The baby’s father has to return to Australia and her mother engages in months of demoralizing, costly legal battles that end up in the Supreme Court where she is once again denied an ID for her child. My understanding is that the argument not only centered around where is the focus of life for this baby, but also on falsified papers that the government presented regarding how long the mother was actually out of East Jerusalem; (correct answer: less than one year). We sip mint tea, build barriers with the baby carriage so the child cannot escape from our corner of the cafe, and marvel at the personal price of emotional and physical homelessness. My friend is not at ease in Australia but has to return for training and her husband’s work, East Jerusalem feels like home but is too restrictive, and now she has a child who is stateless. I can only marvel at how Israeli policy gets rid of Palestinians, one by one, actively, passively, and at immense human cost, ethnic cleansing in cruel slow motion.
Another couple I know lives in the same neighborhood of Beit Hanina as my other friends. He is a Palestinian psychiatrist from Nazareth who works for the UN and she is a writer and mother of three daughters. We drive to their apartment, past the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrar where right wing Jews are moving into Palestinian homes in the steady Judaization of this Arab neighborhood. There are weekly demonstrations here and last year I met a Palestinian family living in a tent opposite their property, watching Orthodox Jews of the black hat, long coat variety hurry into their recently acquired homes. My friend points out a long swath of undeveloped rocky land which he explains is owned by the Abu Jibneh family, but the Israelis will not allow him to build here and there is rumor of plans for a Jewish settlement to be built on his property. Their lively, talkative daughter (eight or so), points excitedly and exclaims, “Look at the yehud license plate!” Her mother remarks wearily, “Even the license plates have religion.” I note that even in this enlightened family the little girl has confused “Jewish” with “Israeli.
For years my friends have been looking for better housing. They tried for years to buy a place in French Hill a former Arab neighborhood that is now an upscale Jewish area near Hebrew University, until they were finally told, “We don’t sell to Arabs.”
Over tea and cookies while the daughter pops in earphones and watches a Disney movie and then creatively braids my hair, we discuss the role of the UN agencies, most working in the territories in partnership with Ministries of the Palestinian Authority or other NGOs. These humanitarian agencies were all designed to be temporary, so the question remains, while Palestinians are very dependent on aid given the catastrophic political and economic reality, does the UN facilitate occupation by relieving Israel’s responsibilities under the Geneva Conventions as an occupying power and does the presence of the UN distort national movements? Seven people are dependent on the salary of each Palestinian Authority employee and because locals are also hired, an even greater number depends on the salary of each NGO employee. My friend finds that UN employees are incredibly stressed and depressed, people worry that Israel is going to annex Area C on the West Bank, people wonder if the Palestinian Authority can be reformed or should it be demolished. Most families are focused on daily survival and getting ahead, the movement is disempowered. Interestingly, no one is obsessing about Iran.
My friends juggle a complicated life. Two daughters attend school in Ramallah, so there is the daily bus ride and checkpoint, they are having trouble finding a good dance teacher, a house with a permit in Palestine can cost $1 million. The hassle level is high. They drive me home on what is referred to as a “settler road.” This translates into a road that connects Jewish settlers in the West Bank to their work and life in Jerusalem. Palestinians from the West Bank cannot access this highway, it is what the Israelis call, “a sterile road.” Apartheid anyone?
Reports reflect the views of the individuals writing them and do not necessarily represent the Dorothy Cotton Institute, the Center for Transformative Action, Interfaith Peace Builders or other delegates or the organizations with which they are affiliated.