The past several days Jared, Dara and I have been working with the UNWRA girls schools associated with Balata Refugee Camp on the first stage of the mural project. We asked the group of young women about 13 years old chosen to work with us to share with us what is beautiful in their lives, and then to render their thoughts into images. They drew images of nature as well as of themselves in their school uniforms and in traditional dress. Clearly, they are deeply connected to the land. We identified common themes and then went home and put all the images together to create the mural which we, along with the girls, will paint in the large inner court yard of the school. We found a way to put all their images into one mural…a young woman with roots of a tree against the landscape with one arm holding the flame of knowledge, and the other a dove in flight. There is a ribbon of the colors of Palestine, red, white and green, flowing from the mountains and wrapping itself around the tree into her roots. In the distance is a village with many of their images woven into the scene, including the woman below in traditional dress. The image reflects their hope for the future and their central place within it. The girls, teacher and headmaster were so pleased with the image we created, they want to enter it into a national contest, and so, will create a smaller version tomorrow. Practice for the mural we begin in two days.
They are extremely curious about us. Miryam, Miriyam they call to me, how old are you, what religion are you, where are you from, why did you come? Play the tabla for us! I already have a nickname given to me by Majdi, and everyone now calls me Haji Miryam. Haji Miryam was an elder woman healer who used to live in the neighborhood. Whenever children were sick, Haji Miryam would come with just the right dose of medicene to make them well. When I play the tabla, the girls sing traditional songs, and then I offer them the drum and several play beautifully, and dance.
Staying in one place is a wonderful experience, after years of leading delegations that move from place to place every single day. We are slowly learning the stories of the women of the center and of our amazing guide Majdi and the young girls who surround us with enthusiasm. Each day, as we walk to center city, and then through the old city toward Balata, Majdi knows exactly from whom and where to buy or pick up exactly what we need, from stirring sticks for the paints from a wood worker, to the best olives and lebne to the spice dealer. Every two steps, he is stopped by a familiar face and once again, explains who were are and what we are doing here.
Stories of the occupation are never far away. Majdi spent several Fridays in Bilin several months ago and almost died from the effect of the tear gas. When he returned home, his friends noticed he was turning red, he went to the hospital and the doctor quickly treated him for blood poisoning, saying, he had about two days to live if his condition went untreated. What hurts everyone the inability to enjoy the holy land’s beauty, feeling confined, feeling on edge from the settlers. Clearly, at some point in the future, the Jewish community will have to give Palestinians the freedom they crave, the freedom to move without restraint. The young women whose faces shine with hope and smiles from their crowded classroom are a clear sign that living together in friendship is better than living apart in fear and suspicion. The future belongs to them.
Blog written by Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb
George Rishmawi is a dedicated activist from Beit Sahour who I’ve known since 1999 when we stood in front of Deiheshe Refugee Camp
as he told the story of Palestinian nonviolent resistance against the background of the ordeals of occupation. Over the years we have visited each other’s homes and met at conferences. I have had the opportunity to travel with George through the varied landscapes of Palestine which he knows so well and meet his network of friends and associates from Hebron in the south to Jenin in the north. Today Dara, Jared and I joined George as he translated speeches from elected officials in Jenin to a special program out of UC schools including Irvine called the Olive Tree Initiative. About thirty three Jewish, Israeli, Palestinian, Muslim and Christian students travel together to learn each other’s narratives and develop a sensitivity to ‘the situation’ by being on the ground. As we stood before a sculpture of a larger than life size horse constructed with ambulance parts collected after the Jenin battle of 2002, students expressed their deep appreciation for each other’s presence and courage. The Olive Tree Initiative tries to hold a neutral position in relation to the conflict in order to create bridges of understanding among both Jewish and Palestinian communities. Students on the trip struggle to make sense of the dozens of stories they hear throughout Israel and Palestine. Many people conclude, “It’s complicated.”
The upcoming UN vote is on the minds of many people. Many express their hope that official recognition by the General Assembly will give Palestine the right to take Israel to the World Court in order to sue them for damages caused by Occupation. People on the ground also hope Palestine remains quiet and secure during this period, but they are expecting trouble from settlers. People are tired of occupation, tired of armed struggle, tired of restrictions and harassment. They just want to live a normal life. The Olive Tree Initiative students missed a wonderful meal with a Woman’s Association in Jenin because they were afraid they wouldn’t be able to leave due to a checkpoint closure and Jewish students didn’t want to miss Shabbat. The four of us however, enjoyed an unbelievably delicious traditional meal prepared by the women along with their warm company. Rice cooked with almonds, Arab salad (finely cut tomatoes and cucumbers bathed in lemon and olive oil), home made soup, yogurt, bean salad, chicken, cookies with fennel and chocolate, tea and coffee.
Almost every family in Palestine carries loss. Um Emad, the founder of the center, still mourns the death of her eldest son a photographer. He was shot during the second intifada while filming events. Like many injured people, Israeli soldiers on the scene did not permit the family or medical personnel to attend to his wounds and he bled to death in the street. Emad was a proponent of women’s rights and this particular center was initiated by his mother due to the desire to honor his memory. The women at the center recognized me from my last visit…as did the representatives of the village of Ramona which we visited after lunch. It’s a wonderful feeling to return and return again and feel people’s appreciation for the ongoing work of solidarity. One of the representatives, Husam, speaks Hebrew fluently so we moved into a deeper conversation. He shared his experience of taking his son to the sea for the first and only time in his life. A Jewish Israeli friend drove them to Acco. His son flew like a bird across the sand and didn’t want to leave. He asked his father, “Why don’t Palestinians have a sea?” Husam is a member of ‘The Golden Walk’, a peacewalk organization of Palestinians and Jews who believe in nonviolence.
Every month he enters Israel to be part of the circle.
For many people in Palestine life is confined to home and village or town. Majdi Shella, our host organizer in Nablus lives his life within a 6 kilometer radius.Two years ago, one of the students Majdi took to Spain asked him, “Is Spain before or after the check point in Hawarah (the entrance of Nablus)? Majdi is an energetic and passionate advocate for women and labor in Palestine. Tonight he accompanied us to his favorite spot in Nablus, a beautiful outdoor garden filled with families sitting at tables around a beautiful fountain. We drank lemon freeze mixed with pistachio ice cream that tasted like heaven called Barad, a hand made specialty of the house. Children with long curly balloons chased each other around the fountain, couples enjoyed apple flavored hukkahs and we talked about the politics of place. Majdi approved of our efforts to come and offer concrete skills and
then return home to spread the world of Palestinian life. We are staying at an International Friends Guest House (I don’t think they are related to Quakers). We have a terrace, large rooms, and a view of the desert sky that sings with the pink and blue colors of dusk and dawn that begin and end each day.
Blog written by Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb
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We’re here! We had no real problem getting through security in Tel Aviv because, luckily, I speak Hebrew and helped shepherd both Jared and Dara through the questioning. Dara was stopped and taken to a special room because of her last name (Hajjar) and Jared because he’s black and seemed to be traveling alone. I intervened and promised I knew them both for a long time and they would be with me the whole time. That’s how privilege works in Israel from the get go.
We spent our lay over in Brussels, which is a bi-national state divided in half according to language regions between Flemmish and French speaking regions. Brussels sits more or less on the border and all train announcements and signs are in both languages. One sees less and less evidence of bi-lingual signs in Israel. We noted that Bethlehem has a welcome sign in 10 different languages including Hebrew.
In Brussels we ate waffles and chocolate and walked around center city which is replete with narrow streets and squares and lots of buildings with angels, lions, greek and romanesque statuary, gold relief and tourism stores featuring the famous and extremely tiny mannequin pis, a small statue of a boy pissing who is said to have saved Brussels from a fire. We also met with Tim Wallis, the director of Nonviolent Peace Force. NPF is a civilian peace force that endeavors to provide space for individuals to work through areas of conflict. Go to http://www.nonviolentpeaceforc
The checkpoint into Jerusalem was staffed by sleepy child soldiers who glance at our faces while talking on the phone or to each other. We were waved us on through. Most Palestinian are searched and questioned. Crossing over into Bethlehem is akin to passing through a prison gate. We were all taken aback by the tourism images of Jerusalem on the 28 foot high wall and compound that isolates Palestinians behind a barrier of separation. While Israelis are protesting privatization by the tens of thousands, we noted that privatization is also happening at checkpoints without much commentary. We are reading about a new awareness between Israeli Jews and Palestinians in Israel but have not yet had first hand experience of the movement.
Today we’re resting in Beit Sahour (Shepherd’s Field) and travel to Nablus tomorrow. Stay tuned.
Blog written by Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb