March 21, 2015, History in the hills: what keeps me up at night

The Shabbat streets are quiet and a cool cloudy day soon punctuated by a more serious rain greets me and my colleague as we take a taxi to Neve Shalom/Wahat Salam/Oasis of Peace to join the delegation leaving for Gaza tomorrow. We are basically heading west in the direction of Ashdod and will then drift south to Erez checkpoint in the morning. This is the kind of trip where the landscape is a fascinating historical document if only you know how to read the clues. The Palestinian taxi driver provides many of the details, while bemoaning the poor quality of Arab public schools in Israel, the need to send his children to private schools for a top notch education, and the prohibitive price of these educational institutions.

This could just be 45 minutes zooming in the rain through some classic Middle Eastern cityscape and countryside but I invite you to open your eyes and see what I see. In the distance we easily view the West Bank Jewish settlements of Gilo and Giv’at Masu’a, looming white apartments built (illegally according to International law) on the Palestinian lands of Beit Jala and Beit Safafa.  I think about how invisible that fact is to the vast majority of folks speeding along the highway with their yellow Israeli license plates and lack of historical memory. I flash back to Baltimore last week at the national Jewish Voice for Peace conference, where speaker after speaker acknowledged the native lands on which the Hyatt Hotel was built and our role as privileged white people in the dispossession of Native Americans. (I know my grandfather came from the Carpathian Mountains in the early 1900s and was a presser in a sweat shop, but I still need to own my white privilege and power if we are to begin to understand each other).

Six imposing apartment buildings arise from a hilltop like giant defiant white fingers, the driver refers to this as the Holy Land Apartments, and then we fly through tunnels, pass hotels like the Ramada and the Jerusalem Gardens, the Israeli Knesset, an area called Kiryat Ben Gurion, and then I spot the decaying village of Lifta, stones houses resiliently clinging to the steep, green  hillsides. In 1947 the wealthy town of Lifta was supposed to be part of an international zone between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, but before the ’48 war began, Zionist forces repeatedly attacked the town until more and more of the inhabitants fled, leaving abandoned graceful homes, a mosque, irrigation system, extensive agriculture, gardens, pools, and a sophisticated irrigation system. The Jewish settlement of Ramot is perched on a hilltop on the opposite side of the highway, and between loops of highway and pine forests most likely planted by the Jewish National Fund, I can see more of the remnants of Lifta and the gigantic concrete structures being built for the train system that will bisect this treasured and painful historical landscape.

The taxi driver points out the cemetery built on Deir Yassin, the site of a horrific massacre on April 9, 1948 by Jewish paramilitary troops, where over 100 men, women, and children were brutally killed.  This massacre became a pivotal event that led many terrified local Palestinians to flee their homes. On the opposite hilltops are the Jewish settlements of Moza and Mevaseret and a sign to al-Qastel, a key position in the 1948 war and site of fierce battles between the Arab Liberation Army and the Jewish Palmach and Haganah which resulted in the death of the Arab leader al-Husayni and the capture and destruction of the town by the Palmach.  In the same area, a large mall beckons with familiar brands and bright lights and the Arab Israeli town of Abu Ghosh boasts excellent restaurants and a gleaming new mosque.

The driver points out a valley to our left where a Palestinian killed a busload of Israelis, one of the opening salvoes of the First Intifada. We pass a kibbutz, Sho’eva, built on the village of Saris, destroyed in 1948, and the skeletons of Israeli tanks, a vestige of the several battles for the Latrun area where Israeli forces unsuccessfully fought Jordanian troops in 1948, only to successfully capture the area in 1967.

Soon we see rolling green hills, a distant monastery and acres of vineyards and olive groves, Tel Aviv ghostly in the distance. The sign for Neve Shalom/Wahat Salam beckons us and we arrive at the only intentional Jewish/Arab community in all of Israel.  The landscape a la history lesson is over as I prepare for the next step in our journey with a good night sleep, if the hills and stones will only be quiet enough for me to fall into sleep.