Welcome to Israel
For me, a flight to Israel is fraught with an intense mixture of excitement, angst, despair, and a powerful feeling of political solidarity. The Delta flight from New York catches me by surprise with pot-bellied bearded men praying in the aisles, their wives with wigs or tight scarves in a bun, negotiating flocks of children, a large Hassidic black hat stowed in the overhead luggage. Arguments break out between the steward and several passengers, and I feel that strange sense of belligerence and entitlement that has become a caricature of Israelis today.
I struggle for tolerance; slow breathing, two glasses of wine, and massive fatigue finally descend. Eleven hours later the overhead announcements morph into Hebrew. We are entering Israeli airspace and can no longer leave our seats. I wonder if a full bladdar could mean certain death. I feel as though everyone passively accepts that these security measures protect us from the ubiquitous "terrorist threat." I think of my friend who observed that Israeli security is the" best," but it tends to collide with human rights. As I sit passively in my seat, (wondering, am I a threat?), I understand that this double vision is a guiding principle for me.
On the walkway from the airplane, there is a poster of the first Italian (a smiling Mona Lisa), the first Dutchman (a troubled Van Gogh), the first Israeli (a big green Sabra cactus), sharp and prickly on the outside, sweet on the inside. In the dazzling Ben Gurion airport, "Welcome Birthtright" flags greet us. Clearly some people are more welcome than others. My daughter and I take the sleak new train to the Hahaganah station where a friendly, slightly agitated Jewish taxi driver tells us he was born in India, his family made Aliyah in 1949. He describes living in a tent for seven years, when the government finally moved his parents and their two sons to a two room house, with no electricity or water for another year. He keeps stressing that life in Israel is very hard; but he is pleased to have produced three children, six grandchildren, with two on the way. We search for a lighter topic and he offers that he loves the Boston Celtics, watches the game in the middle of the night, US time. Offering an friendly response, I say, "I hear Israel has a good football team." He retorts with bitter irony, "Israelis are not good at sports. We are only good at war."
Bridge 4 Peace
The next day we find the bus to Bethlehem across from Damascus Gate in the Old City. The conversation is all Arabic, chattering on cell phones, women in hijabs, breaking off chunks of "kayk," or Jerusalem Bagel, covered in sesame seeds. Young boys offer older women their seats; there is a sense of graciousness as well as resignation as we wait in traffic and take on more passengers. A street sign catches my eye: "Caution: Vehicles from Both Sides." I cannot help but feel the metaphor. Perhaps the next sign should read: "Caution: Collision Ahead."
A sign at the Bethlehem terminal announces: "Pilgrimage to the Holy Land: Bridge 4 Peace." The terminal is an intimidating, ugly affair, with its concrete walks lined by barbed wire and narrow turnstyles. I have a brief interaction with an anonymous young Israeli behind a wall of bullet proof glass, glancing at my US passport. We go down another long narrow corrider lined by barbed wire on one side and the concrete wall on the other, into the arms of the hungry taxi drivers.
On the way to Aida Refugee Camp we keep confronting the eight meter high graffiti convered wall, now made famous through the internet and Youtube. We are clearly now in prison with omninous watch towers breaking the undulating concrete wall. We turn into Aida Camp and the Al Rowwad Childrens Theater. After introductions and settling in, we return to East Jerusalem to celebrate New Years eve with two physician friends and their five week old baby.
This time the Bethlehem terminal has a long line snaking back and forth at the first turnstyle, roughly dressed laborers, elegant women, a variety of head scarves and long robes. After a delay, the light flashes green and one person is allowed through. A certain resigned camarderie develops, a young woman and an older man share the nightmare of being married to a spouse in East Jerusalem, of being unable to get permits to live together or to travel together with their families. The young woman receives a phone call, her children are crying in the car with yellow license plates owned by her husband, waiting for her on the other side. She says, "This life is like heaven on earth, only the opposite." She explains that she runs an arts festival in East Jerusalem and is interested in my daughter who is a dancer. Two men get into a shouting match, one cut into the line, tempers escalate, others shush and implore, patience. The word pressue cooker comes easily to mind as I think of the Palestinian workers lining up at 3 am to get through the checkpoint for their jobs at 8 am in Jerusalem. When my turn comes, I am ready, shoes off; bracelets, earrings, hair clips, coat, scarf, jacket, everything under the x- ray machine. But my body keeps setting off the metal detector. With a mixture of anxiety and frustration, I start removing more: is it my glasses? wedding ring? spare change? The crowd from the other side of the turnstyle are amused but encouraging. The turnstyle will not open for them until I am cleared. Finally I remember my money belt tucked safely under my pants, fling it off, and then I am free. Fifty minutes waiting at one turnstyle on one late afternoon. Welcome to Israeli security.
The Greater Jerusalem Agenda
My friends live in Beit Hanina, a Palestinian neighborhood of 40,000 now part of "Greater Jerusalem," high on a hill with a glorious view. They explain that the Jewish settlement of Ramor, built on the Palestinian village of Beit Iksa, is visible from their balcony as well as Ramallah in the distance and the nearby community of Shu’afat. Shu’afat Camp has many Palestinian refugees expelled from East Jerusalem in 1967 and is a center of poverty, drugs, and criminal activity, often called "The Chicago Camp" after our own Mafia run city. Poverty and occupation have a terrible price.
The post 1967 stretching of Jerusalem boundaries eastward towards Jericho, to create a Greater Jerusalem that blurs the boundaries between Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, is a complicated and personal affair. As we drive down the Ramallah/Jerusalem Highway, once a major connector and now a small secondary road, Dr A, a very well respected physician in East Jerusalem, points to a major highway stretching over the road. This highway divides Arab neighborhoods and also is a spot that is easy for Israeli security to create a checkpoint and lock down the entire area, a common occurrence on Jewish holidays he explains. He also comments that here, Jewish youth come to stone the Palestinians. The Jewish and Palestinian neighborhoods are multi-layered politically and historically. We drive through Jewish French Hill, once a well-to-do Palestinian neighborhood, and the new dorms of Hebrew University, all formerly the Arab village of Lifta, pass the Mormon University on the Mount of Olives, and Ammunition Hill where the Arab League built tunnels to fight the Israelis in 1967. This is now a park and Israeli army museum. After a huge municipal police headquarters and then another headquarter for the border guards, it is clear the Israelis are ready to defend their claims here. As we emerge through a tunnel, Dr. A points to a large house in the former neighborhood of Jorat Al Ennab. He explains this was his grandfather’s house. It is now an Israeli cinemateque. Each street and home feels like an intimate puzzle piece in the struggle for an Israeli "Unified Jerusalem," or a Palestinian" future capital." Traveling with a Palestinian, each neighborhood breathes with a story of loss, yearning, and defiance.
A Kind of Resistance
I have known Dr. K since she was a medical student at Al Quds University, smart, feisty, ambitious. She began attending Seeds of Peace as a young teenager and is well- versed in the art of dialogue and reconciliation. She did clinical rotations at Columbia University in New York and Harvard University in Boston and obtained a Masters in International Health Managment at Brandeis University in Waltham after a residency in Beirut evaporated in a war. She dreams of becoming an ophthalmologist, but cannot train at Saint Johns Eye Hospital in East Jerusalem because the Israeli Medical Association does not recognize her MD. She tried again to train in Beirut in 2008, only to be defeated by the outright hostility towards Palestinians that she faced in the hospital. Palestinians face a host of barriers in Lebanon, including restrictions against work and owning property.
Her husband, Dr. A, is an accomplished obstetrician-gynecologist, has worked with numerous NGOs, Palestinian governmental hospitals, Israeli hospitals, private clinics, headed ob-gyn departments, trained for five years in England, and had further training in the US. When we talked just before he left Beirut with his wife in 2008, he expressed despair at ever having a family, "We would be raising Bedouins."
Both of these physicians are deeply committed to their work, to the betterment of Palestinian health care and society, and to creating a hopeful life for their five week old daughter. From my vantage point, any hospital would be lucky to have them.
But their dream now is to leave Palestine, to turn their backs on the governmental corruption and cronyism they find rampant in the Palestinian health care system. The checkpoints, the restrictions, the IDF raids, the difficulties over water and electricity, have poisened their hopes and their futures; they are now living in a state of suspended rage and despair. They also cannot tolerate working in the Israeli health care system which feels like one arm of the monster that is destroying their lives. Dr. A admits to "a kind of PTSD. I can’t take it any longer." In a few weeks, Dr A leaves for a long awaited interview in Australia.
If successful, he will take his wife and baby thousands of miles away from her close knit family, from the familiarities of language, food, spices music, and cultural expectations. She is already applying for training programs and prerequisite exams. They talk about return in the future with Australian citizenship.
Dr. A gestures emphatically, "You know, this is a kind of resistance." The refusal to be destroyed.
Alice Rothchild is a Boston-based physician and author of Broken Promises, Broken Dreams: The Stories of Jewish and Palestinian Trauma and Resilience.