Thursday, February 10, 2011

Palestine and Yad Vashem

February 10, 2011

I promise to write in detail about the days I am skipping, but right now I need to put into words my thoughts about the last two days of Super-Taglit.

On Tuesday we went to the West Bank, to Palestine, across the green line, to the territories, to the ’67, to Bethlehem, to Ramallah. On Wednesday we went to West Jerusalem, to Jerusalem, to the Old City, to the Dome of the Rock, to the Temple Mount, to Yad Vashem. The words are misleading, the labels loaded, the numbers and dates and lines and facts far blurrier than imaginable. I was there; my feet were on the soil, my hands touched the walls, but I have no way of saying where I was. Not just about Palestine, but “Israel” too. “Jerusalem” too. “Tel Aviv” too.

Early Tuesday morning we take a bus to South Tel Aviv and walk among the refugees and the poor to the shayrut to Jerusalem. In Jerusalem we walk down the Jewish streets, largely deserted so early, into the Jewish section of the old city. Slowly we walk down and down and to the left, into the Muslim section, and out the Damascus Gate into East Jerusalem. There we walk among the Israeli Arabs, those with Israeli citizenship but not Israel’s respect, support, or mere tolerance, to the Arab bus station, and onto a bus to Bethlehem. Bet Lehem, the Arabs say. Bet Lechem, the Jews say. Bethlehem, the Christian say. Bethlehem, the Americans say. “Let’s not speak Hebrew today,” we say. “Let’s pretend we’re Christian. Let’s not tell them we live in Israel,” we decide. Onto the bus, three white girls sticking out like sore thumbs, at least until the Asian pilgrims on their way to see Jesus climb aboard.

Through the checkpoint, no stopping. Who cares what goes into the territories, across the line, into the Authority. No no, it only matters what comes back into the Land. That’s what Israeli Jews call Israel, you know. “Eretz” is the word for land/country, but they call it HaEretz. The Land. Like it’s the only Land in the world. You can hear the capital letter when they say it. Hebrew doesn’t even have capital letters.

Off the bus in Bet Lehem, Bet Lechem, Bethlehem. Sidewalks, while present, are irrelevant here; the streets are filled with people selling, buying, eating, yelling, walking, running, laughing, and watching. As we approach The Church where Jesus first came into this world, we begin to see Pilgrims: a group of Russians over here, Germans in yellow hats, Africans in green. They have not walked through Bet Lehem, through the market that is also a street; their large buses with words like “Hanna Transpört” and “Holy Land Tours” emblazoned on the sides have disgorged them into the Nativity Square and will gather them back up there before scurrying off to Nazareth or Jericho or to where Jesus lost his first tooth, kissed his first girl, hit his first home run. Inside the Church, everyone is eager to get their picture taken touching a small star on the ground. “Excuse me,” Jodi asks a monk, “what are we looking at?” “This is where Jesus born,” he tells her, confusion in his voice. Good Christians should know this. The Thai tourists spend twenty minutes in line to put their hand on a spot that was once, ostensibly, covered in placenta and a slimy squirmy itty-bitty messiah.

After saying hi to Jesus, we get lunch. Falafel, of course. We are the only people in the shop; the falafel is dry and cold, but we force it down.
“You are from America,” the falafel man says, sitting at a table behind us. “What is it like? You come all this way for falafel?”
“Yes,” I say, forgetting that dry humor doesn’t transfer well between languages.
“We teach Arab kindergarteners in Yafa,” Amy tells him. It’s partly true.
“I cannot go to Jerusalem, you know,” he says. “The wall – I cannot go to Jerusalem.”
“We know,” we say. “We’re sorry.”
“Where else have you been?” He says.
“Nazareth, Akko,” we say.
“Ah, Akka. How is Akka? Is it very beautiful?”
“Yes, very beautiful.”
“Oh,” he says, realizing something. “You live in Yafa.”
He leans in intently. “Have you been to the sea? What is the sea like?” In his eyes, the reflection of the wall that keeps him in, the passes he doesn’t have, the city and the sea he cannot see.
“It is beautiful,” we say softly, our hearts breaking a little more every breath.

After lunch, we meet another man who runs a tourist shop. He speaks to us in English, Arabic, French, Spanish, and German.
“Come inside,” he says, “come see all my postcards.” He stands behind his counter. “Have you seen the wall?”
“Yes, we’ve seen the wall.”
“I cannot go to Jerusalem. Before, I could. But now, the wall. I cannot go to Jerusalem.”
“We know,” we say. “We’re sorry.”
“Did you walk through the checkpoint?”
“I cannot go through. You have to have a pass, and sometimes you have one, and sometimes you don’t.”
He shows us Banksy’s art on the wall, which he has google searched, printed out, and put inside a plastic sheet protector. It is kept right next to the cash register; he must consult it often. He shows us one picture of the three wise men attempting to enter Bethlehem but stopped by the wall. “This inspired me to make,” he says. He takes out a beautiful wood carving, about a foot tall. It is divided in two by the wall, over which shines the star and the angel. On one side, baby Jesus is born. On the other, the wise men attempt to get to him. “Sometimes they have a pass,” he says, and slides open a compartment in the wall. “Sometimes they don’t.” It closes. “I cannot go to Jerusalem.” He spends his life carving and selling figurines of baby Jesus, of Mary, postcards of Jerusalem. His churches, his God, his religion is centered twenty minutes away, but he cannot go.

After Bethlehem, to Ramallah. We walk to the bus station among the Palestinians who point us the in the right direction, bemused by our presence. We wait for an elevator, but cannot get on: it is full of boy with a shopping cart and his family. “No!” A man says in Arabic, pulling the boy and his cart out of the elevator. “Let these girls on. They are not Arab!” Onto the service (sehr-vees) to Ramallah. It should be a ride of twenty minutes. It takes an hour and forty minutes. “Roads are infrastructure,” Amy whispers to me as we wind our way through narrow dirt roads over dizzying cliffs, having to back up to let trucks pass, and going back into Israel and then back into Palestine, through the desert, through the nothing, because there is a severe shortage of roads leading directly anywhere. We pass two signs: “USA Aid: Rebuilding the ____ Road.” “Thanks USA,” I think, for once sort of proud to be an American.

Bethlehem is clean, and the part we were in was touristy and well kept. Ramallah is not. Trash and construction rubble litter the streets, traffic is backed up on the few usable roads, and the people are hurried. Amy is proposed to, and we get to Stars and Bucks. We wander for twenty minutes and realize Ramallah is not for us – downtown Ramallah at night is not for us. Ramallah is not for tourists, not for a small herd of white girls in REI fleece jackets and North Face backpacks. We get ice cream, and then flag down a bus to Jerusalem.

The bus is full; we take the last three seats. Ours are the only female heads not covered by hijab, the only white faces. We approach the checkpoint. “We’re American. Do we have to get off the bus?” Amy asks the driver. “Yes,” he says. “New law, everyone must off.” Not everyone gets off, but we are American, we do as we’re told. “He is totally messing with us,” we say. But we wanted to go through the checkpoint anyway. In line at the checkpoint, encircled by wire and concrete. Standing in row, like a herd of cattle, waiting for the turnstyle to unlock to let us in. Bag onto the conveyor belt, body through the metal detector, pass onto the magnetic reader. “We’re American,” we say, holding up our passports to the window, in lieu of passes. The soldier doesn’t have the clearance for this. He makes a phone call. We wait, wondering if our bus will leave us behind. “Let me see your visas,” he calls through the window. We show him. “Okay, go.” We grab our bags and hurry back to the bus. “Welcome back,” the driver says with a grin, giving up his seat to me.

Back into Jerusalem. “I cannot go to Jerusalem,” they told us. Back in Jerusalem, and then back into Jewish Jerusalem, back on a Jewish shayrut, back into Tel Aviv, back to the sea. “It feels different now,” I say. “We were in a different country today,” Amy says. “We should have been in a different country,” I say.

“Fuck,” I say quietly. “Fuck this.”

Less than twelve hours later, back on a shayrut to Jerusalem. Back through the Jewish streets into the Old City. Through a metal detector, down the stairs to the Wailing Wall, through another metal detector, and up the ramp to the Dome of the Rock, to the Temple Mount. The Dome is incredible. The structure, the tiling, the golden roof. There are small circles of men studying the Quran scattered everywhere, and tons of American tourists taking pictures of each other with the Dome in the background: “Should I pose?” “How does it look?” “Can you get the Quran in English or just Arab?”
“This is fucking beautiful,” I keep saying. The view of Jerusalem is amazing, the Dome is amazing, the mosque is amazing. I am filled with sadness that Jews have nothing like this, but know that we aren’t ready for one. As we are leaving, we see a group of Jewish men exiting through the gate, but walking backwards. You aren’t supposed to turn your back to the Wailing Wall, and they are not turning their backs to the Temple Mount. “Where the Temple Should Be.” As soon as they are out of the doorway, they form a circle and begin to sing and dance a song about how one day there will be a temple here and nothing else, this will belong only to the Jews again. Loudly. You can hear them from the Dome. “Assholes!” We say, walking past them. “Fucking assholes.” “They are the people, on both sides, keeping there from being peace,” Amy says. “Fucking assholes,” I say, eloquent as always.

Back through the Jewish Quarter and onto a bus to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial. The memorial is on top of hill (‘go out and claim a hill for Israel’ is what the settlers say and do), a sprawling complex of remembrance and justification. The museum is huge, the facts, photos, and artifacts overwhelming. The sheer volume of material is mind-boggling. The Children’s memorial is a dark room covered in mirrors, in which the light of one single candle is infinitely reflected. Each of those children could have touched so many lives, done so many things. Infinite possibilities, blown out by a wind of hatred and fear. The Hall of Remembrance has the names of each camp engraved on the floor, with the eternal flame behind them. “That’s a weird way to memorialize,” I say as we exit. “Why are we memorializing the camps – the camps aren’t what matter, what matter are the people who shouldn’t be dead. Why isn’t the eternal flame in the Hall of Names?” The Hall of Names: a conical room covered in bookshelves, filled with binders, filled with names. Someday they hope to have the name of every single person who died kept in that room. There are many empty shelves.

According to this museum, the history of the holocaust is this: “everyone hated the Jews always, but the Germans hated them the most, they killed almost all of them, but thank God, now there is Israel.” The partisans fought for God and for Eretz Israel, the Land of Israel, according to the monument to them. “No!” I say. “They didn’t fight for God, and they didn’t fight for Israel. They fought for life.” “Yes,” Amy says. “This was not a Zionist fight.” But it has become the justification for modern Zionism, the impetus for the creation of the state, the permission slip for Independence, the free pass for the ghettoization of Palestine.

Every Holocaust memorial in America extrapolates the lessons of the Holocaust to the lessons of the world; global tolerance, social justice, and peace are the themes of these memorials. The holocaust is an example of hate and bigotry run unchecked, and the point of these memorials is to encourage thought and acceptance, not just to remember what happened in this specific place and time. The Israeli memorial does not once mention that. It does not extrapolate any lessons for the world, except that Israel is vital to the continued survival of the Jews. Global peace and tolerance for other religions and cultures is not mentioned once. I suppose it would be quite awkward to have a section on religious tolerance while those men cannot come to Jerusalem, cannot see the sea. While Palestine is held in a state of suspended animation, while families and communities are being split apart by the wall. While Palestinians need passes to travel, and there are old passes with the word “JUDE” stamped on them in display cases, next to fading yellow stars once sewn onto cloaks and jackets.

How can a people who suffered so much, who were decimated by hate and intolerance, do this to another people? How can they look that man in the face, the man who has never seen the sea, and not see the lessons of the holocaust, of the inquisition, of the pogroms, in their own actions?

Well, good news for them, they don’t have to look in his face. They cannot, because they are not allowed in Bethlehem and he is not allowed in Jerusalem. There is a whole generation of people, born since 1967, who have never been allowed to meet the other. The fear, intolerance, and bigotry built into both societies can never be cured by meeting someone from the other side because you physically cannot cross that border. How can there be peace when you can’t even look him in the eye, hear him speak his name and his truth?

Through all of this, the issue of passing is raised for me. In Bethlehem, we say we teach Arab kindergartners in Yafo. In Yad Vashem, we say we volunteer in Tel Aviv. Both are true-ish. Neither is completely true. In Bethlehem, with our light hair, eyes, and skin, we are easily taken for Christian. I keep my star hidden under my scarf, and we are good to go. In Yad Vashem, even while wearing a Palestinian scarf from Bethlehem, I carry my Jewish privilege like a golden ticket in the Wonka Factory. All-access pass for someone who deserves to be here, who should be here. Should we have told that coat check guy at Yad Vashem that we work in Yafo? Maybe. Probably. Both sides think we are on their side, but I can belong to no side. I’m torn, like that mythical child claimed by two mothers. These two days were a tour of privilege; as a non-Israeli, I am privileged to be able to go to Palestine. As a non-Palestinian, I am privileged to be able to go to Jerusalem. As an Aryan looking Jew, I am privileged to have the choice of disclosure.

Eating an everything bagel with lox schmer before returning to Jerusalem, I feel the weight of these days on my shoulders. “We’re all fucked,” I think to myself.

Six million of us were murdered.
Yes, we know. We’re sorry.
I cannot go to Jerusalem.
Yes, we know. We’re sorry.

UDPATE: my phone was just suspended because I called a Palestinian phone number. The phone company assumed my phone had been stolen (by an Arab) and suspended it, because why on earth would I be calling a Palestinian number?

Excuse me? I’m sorry, EXCUSE ME???

This. Has. Got. To. Stop.


  1. you are an incredible writer! so eloquent. everything i was feeling and thinking and couldn't put into words you did. i loved experiencing those things with you

  2. I feel like I got to see this for myself, Emma. It's like gold. You are an incredible, passionate writer. This experience has changed you so much. I'm so proud to call you my friend. Be safe, be well. <3