All Day Bethlehem

We spent our entire day in the West Bank today with our first stop at the Jewish settlement of Efrat which is part of the Gush Etsyon Block.  Driving into Efrat is like driving into a little European town, except that we are in the Middle East and we had to enter into it much like a North American gated community.  The infrastructure is well-maintained and all the signs are in both Hebrew and English.  We met up right away with our host Ardie Feldman, who is an American Jew from Chicago.
Ardie is an affable man and a natural teacher.  He and his wife made aliyah in the 80s and have grown their family in the Efrat settlement.  Now, I realize that I may have used a bunch of words that not every reader will understand, so let me back up just a bit and explain a couple of things.  The West Bank is under the Palestinian Authority and there is a wall/fence that stretches across the border of Israel/West Bank.  On the West Bank side are many Jewish settlements that are large towns dotting the West Bank countryside.  These are more or less recognized internationally as illegal.  The settlers would say that it is their God-given right to be on that land.  Aliyah is the act of a Jewish person, who is living in the diaspora (outside of Israel), to move to (or return to) the land of Israel.

Ardie shared with us a bit of his own story and gave us some background on Efrat.  He then opened the floor to questions.  There were a couple of things that I found of interest that I thought I’d share today. 95% of homeowners in Efrat are religious.  However, 50% of children under 18 would consider themselves non-religious.  Of 6 children, 2.5 of Ardie’s children do not keep any religious observance.  I could tell that this is difficult for Ardie but he has hope that his children will return to their religious roots, just as he did, as an adult.  When he was asked about the 50% of non-religious children, Ardie talked about how difficult young people can find it to keep the Law.  There are too many restrictions, but interestingly, for Ardie, he said he recognizes that they are restrictions, but deep down, he doesn’t feel them as restrictions.  Ultimately I think it comes down to what we had heard another time from a different Jew – that to obey the Law is to love God.  And to love God is to obey the Law.  When asked why he stays there, why he lives in Efrat, and continues to observe the Jewish Law, Ardie replied, “My connection to my people is connected to my God and my understanding of my purpose here – it feels like I’m following the path”.

From Efrat, we headed into Bethlehem and after a short stop at a wood carving shop for some shopping, we dropped in at Bethlehem Bible College for a lecture and lunch.  Our lecturer, Grace, is a Christian Arab Palestinian and she shared with us her perspective on the Israel-Palestine conflict from a Christian perspective.  We heard a lot about the forced restrictions on her as a Palestinian citizen, which really contrasted with the restrictions that Ardie talked about!  She said they have many young college students at BBC that just dream of what it is like on the other side of the wall – they feel trapped behind the wall.  Grace shared a final personal piece on working for peace as a Christian.  For her, she makes peace by making personal checkpoints – with college students, with her colleagues, her church, and her neighbours.  It was an interesting use of the word “checkpoint”, as it’s the access point to get to the other side of the wall and ultimately that might be one of my prayers for Grace and her colleagues at BBC – that they may make these personal checkpoints, and be an access point to God.

Our brains were pretty full at this point so we took a break in the lectures and visited the Church of the Nativity.  This is the traditional site of Jesus’ birth.  Thankfully the lines weren’t long and we were able to move through the church quickly, to look at the grotto, where there is a star to mark the spot that the star shone over and then a creche, a few feet away.  I’ve mentioned several times that I don’t tire of returning to the Holy Land year after year, and I was thinking about this today because things are always a little bit different year after year.  Sometimes there are new discoveries that are made and sometimes it just takes a long time to uncover or reveal some piece of art or architecture that’s been plastered over for centuries.  This year, a lot of scaffolding has been removed from inside the Byzantinian church.  This means that the first room you would enter into, is flooded with natural sunlight from the windows.  They have also uncovered these beautiful mosaics on the walls, and paintings of saints on the columns.  Because I love this aspect of the trip so much, this has been very exciting.

Our final stop for the day was the Dheisheh Refugee Camp.  As we tumbled off the bus, I heard a few exclamations of, “What?  That’s it?  We’re here?”  When we usually talk about refugee camps in class in the fall, students imagine that this is a whole area, filled with tents.  And when we get there, they are surprised to see it almost tucked a little bit in from the street and then narrow building after narrow, tall building.  Dheisheh was established in 1947.  There were tents back then, until they built 3×3 m rooms for each family.  So imagine being a family of 6 children and 2 parents, living in a 3×3 m room!  Their footprint hasn’t gotten a whole lot wider, but they were eventually able to build upwards, many years later.  So now you have a 500 square meter space, filled with narrow, tall buildings, narrow roads, and 14000 people.  At Efrat, there are 14000 people that live in 7 square km and when some of us heard that, we thought that is quite crowded compared to the 1 family per mile in some areas of southern Manitoba!  But then you enter a place like Dheisheh where the walls that surround the camp, must feel like they are closing in.  Our guide at Dheisheh for the past 4 years has been a man named Hamzeh.  He is a social worker that works with young people and he was born in the camp.  He’s a bit of a world traveller and told us that he had just gotten back from a trip to Greece a couple days ago.  He also mentioned that it is a whole lot easier for him to travel to Greece than it is to travel the 15 km or so to Jerusalem.  Hamzeh said that one of the worst things is to be a refugee  in Dheisheh while your home is 12 km away.  Hamzeh, his family, and most of the families in Dheisheh still hold the key to their homes they were forced to leave in and around Jerusalem.  It was another “can you imagine” moment, which is what my hope is for the students on this Bethlehem day every year. My hope is that they walk into this day, hearing the stories at opposite ends of this conflict, cultivating their empathy as they try to imagine what it would be like to be in the shoes of the other.  My empathy runs deep for Dheisheh.  Ever since my first visit 3 years ago, I have consistently found myself drawn to it and their story.  Something about Dheisheh has touched my spirit and I’m not sure what it is, but I can make a very good guess at it.  Today in particular, as I was listening to Hamzeh talk about his grandfather and all that was taken from him, never to be returned, I was reminded of my grandparents, who also had all of their things taken away from them, never to be returned.  You see, my dad was born in BC’s interior, in an internment camp for Japanese-Canadians, during the Second World War.  My great-grandmother’s “alien identity card” can be found in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.  I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the idea of home and being home, without being at home.  Hamzeh has talked to our group before about how he will never call Dheisheh his home – it’s temporary.  This is part of the reason he holds onto his identity as a refugee and continues to live at Dheisheh.  He’s a sharp guy with great opportunities that regularly get offered to him.  But identifying as a refugee seems to be important to him.  I think part of it, is that it gives him a platform to share his story and the story of his people.  It’s also imbued with a lot of hope – a hope to return home some day – this is certainly what the keys point towards.  I would never want to begin to compare my own story with Hamzeh’s, but I think there’s a special understanding that can be shared because of my family’s experience.  I could go on about this experience for a while, but I’ll stop here, spend time processing, and come back to it in a little while.  I will end with this one quote from Hamzeh, only because I said I would earlier today and Hamzeh has a habit of naturally speaking poetry.  Cameron boldly asked (without expecting an answer) what Hamzeh thought the solution to this conflict was.  Surprisingly Hamzeh thoughtfully responded (so many are hesitant to respond to this question): “I believe in a one-state solution.  Jerusalem is not for Jews, it is not for Muslims, it is not for Christians.  It is for everybody.  We should all be able to live in justice and equality, not in peace.  We tried peace and it didn’t work. If we have justice and equality, love and peace will come later.”

I’ve been having a lot of trouble with our Internet connection, so I have not been able to post pictures.  I do want to get to them, but we have an early start tomorrow, as we spend our day in the desert!  I will get to these pictures though, even if you have to wait until we get home.  I’ve still been taking a lot!

***an update since yesterday

I slept on these thoughts last night and woke up this morning with a few more.  I’ll just add one of them here.  There were a couple of themes running through the three main lecturers we heard yesterday.  All of them talked about relationship, connection and belonging.  They also all talked about purpose and having a purpose.  This is what moves them forward every day and this is what keeps them rooted to this land.  All three of these speakers are bright, intelligent, and have experienced life outside of the West Bank.  The West Bank isn’t an easy place to live.  They don’t have easy and comfortable lives.  Grace and Hamzeh are often surrounded by depression.  But I heard hope in all of them.  Where they live is where their people are  – they feel connected to them and they belong to them, they hope and dream and pray for them.  And so should we.

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