Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Vacation All Year Round

I passed through the checkpoint in Bethlehem whenever I went to Musalaha’s office in south Jerusalem. Musalaha, which means ‘reconciliation’ in Arabic, is an organization that brings together Israeli Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians through a shared faith, attempting to dismantle the dividing wall of hostility. My attitude always changed for the worse, toward something like hostility, when I walked through a dividing concrete wall, under metal awnings and heard Hebrew barked over loudspeakers at people who mostly don’t speak Hebrew, and watched old Palestinian men ordered back through the metal detector five times. Countries retain the right to have border control, but the seven hundred Israeli checkpoints are not built on any accepted border. They are on Palestinian land. Almost seventy-five percent of the main roads in the occupied West Bank are controlled, or are completely severed, by checkpoints. The World Bank cites checkpoints as the primary reason for Palestine’s critical economic situation. And the Red Crescent Society has reported one hundred and twelve deaths and thirty-five stillbirths at checkpoints because ambulances were denied permission to cross. And not from Palestine into Israel, but from one part of Palestine to another.

The checkpoint in Bethlehem is on the Jerusalem side of the Israeli separation wall, which splits Hebron Road, the main road between the ancient cities, in two. Countries retain the right to build barriers between themselves and other nations, leaving aside whether or not good fences really do make good neighbors. The United States is building a barrier on the border with Mexico, a debatable representation of “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” But the United States is not building that barrier in Mexico, on Mexican land. Over eighty percent of Israel’s twenty-five foot high structure slices into the West Bank, pulling more and more land into Israel. Less than twenty percent is being built on the internationally-accepted Green Line, and none of it is being constructed on Israeli soil. When the good fence cuts into the good neighbor’s yard and annexes the good neighbor’s driveway, water tank, and garden, the claim that the fence is for security becomes suspicious.

The wall cuts off Hebron Road in two places as it curves like a horseshoe, forming a small enclave in between. Every morning, dozens of taxis crowd in crisscrosses beneath the wall’s shadow, waiting to overcharge unsuspecting tourists as they arrive from Jerusalem. A metal fence, like a grated tunnel, runs along the side of the wall’s concrete slabs, now canvases expressing a voice of resistance through a chaotic tapestry of images and words overlaying words. The grated tunnel leads to a door through the wall and into a small fenced area. A small guarded booth and metal detector must be passed before entering a wide parking lot, the threshold of the low-lying roofed checkpoint. Three terminals line the hallway beneath the florescent lights; two are rarely open at a time, no matter how many people are waiting to pass through. And the passing through always takes longer because people in Palestine do not line up for anything. Instead of lines, people form massive stagnant clots; those just entering casually cut and jump to the front and the long line never gets shorter. At least twelve document inspection stations wait on the other side of the metal detectors and conveyor belts and I’ve never seen more than three open at once. All Palestinians must show their special passes that allow them to leave the West Bank and then place their hands on an electronic fingerprint scanner. I can pass through very quickly, flipping my unopened American passport at different windows and pushing through worn-down turnstiles. Usually, the guards barely looked at me and waved me on with a sharp flick of the wrist. Sometimes, soldiers motioned to me to bypass the queue through another gate but I always refused. In some small way I wanted to be with and as the people there, to force myself to experience what they’re experiencing by denying myself the easy option, because I did always have the easy option.

I was on my way to the office on the last Friday of Ramadan. I heard an unusual amount of noise coming from the area next to the wall, and when I came around a fruit stand I saw that every Muslim in the greater Bethlehem area had come that morning to this checkpoint. They had received special passes because of Ramadan to visit the Holy City and pray toward Mecca at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, next to the golden-domed spot where Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven on his horse. The grated tunnel was completely filled, the wired sides almost bulging with the capacity, and every new person squeezing in was like a falling block in Tetris trying to find any available space, except the bottom level in this game didn’t fall away so quickly. Once I got inside I couldn’t get out unless I moved forward with the swarming throng. The noise was deafening as everyone around me was yelling and screaming at one another. Someone climbed up the fence, clambering over people’s heads, and swung toward the front of the horde. A row of weathered Muslim women in hijabs sat in the dust outside the fence and watched as the grated tunnel shook with the pushing and shoving.

I suddenly felt my feet start to lift off the ground as my legs were pushed further apart. I looked down and an old woman on all fours was crawling between my knees. She disappeared between the knees of the next person. I finally got closer to the door in the wall and the small area where soldiers watched through sunglasses beside the armed booth. They started yelling at the disorganized group, attempting to herd them into some kind of line. They tried in vain, because when you dehumanize people to the status of animals, corralling them like cattle through pens and gates and branding them with color-coded IDs, they will begin to act the part.

The turnstiles creaked with the force of three and four people crammed between the swiveling bars. People began pushing more and raising elbows as they carved their way through the person in front. A man next to me held his toddler close to his chest, his protective arms wrapped tightly around the wide-eyed child. The man turned slightly to his left, toward me, and threw up on the cardboard littered on the asphalt. As I waded my way to the door, a small old woman tried to slip in front of me. But by then the swelling crowd was hammering into my back and she became pinned between my body and the wall. I thrust out my arms and pushed against the wall to keep from crushing her; she quickly hopped through the door in the briefly acquired space.

I finally got to the document inspection stations after almost an hour-and-a-half. Tacked between two windows was a poster that only Palestinians and internationals see, because entering the West Bank is illegal for Israeli citizens. The poster showed a family in front of the Roman aqueduct on the beach at Caesarea Maritima. They were all smiling, staring wistfully out to the Mediterranean that reflected their gaze in broken strips of glass-like tide. The daughter held a beach ball and an American football sat in the sand next to the dad’s feet. Israelis don’t play American football. Above the faces and the American football that only Palestinians and internationals see were the words: “Israel- Where it’s vacation time all year round.”


  1. so are you anti-Jew, anti-Israel?

  2. Comments made anonymously are usually not deserving of a response. Such is the case with this comment. I feel compelled, nonetheless, to do so. How one can read a story like this and ask these questions is perplexing and disturbing. One need not be "anti-Jew" or "anti-Israel" to be moved to compassion for a people subjected to such humiliation. And one can certainly be "anti-Israel" (in the sense of opposing the nation's policies and practices) without, in any way, being antisemitic. The reflexive response of suggesting antisemitism lurks behind every critic of Israel is old, tired, ill-informed, and offensive. Perhaps that is why it is offered anonymously.

  3. Not much needs to be added to the reply, but if you're looking for a civil conversation I'm willing to do so. The only addition I would make is to point out that the word "Jew" does not appear anywhere in this story, leading to the obversation that you are projecting your discomfort with the story onto the message of the story itself. If you would like to continue this conversation, you will find just how ridiculous, immature, and uninformed your commment is, not only because of the facts on the ground, but also because of the close friendship I have with many Jews, Israeli and non-Israeli. Peace to you.

  4. And so the Abused become the Abusers. The technocratic, bureaucratic precision of the oppression has a haunting historical parallel. And ironic as well. Neighborhoods are made into ghettos. Homes into cells. Streets become prisoner transports. And the crowded train cars of yesteryear are made stationary so the masses of marked, numbered, guarded people can file past the clipboards and pens, the fences and guns, and the soldiers on the platform.

    But the Star of David is on the other sleeve.

  5. I have tried to post a name, but it asks for a URL - I have no clue what that means.

    You know, maybe if you'd been one of the abused, you'd see why people are suspicious.

  6. The URL is, I think, referring to your website. For some reason, it assumes that you must have one . . .

    You continue to be very secretive, which I think is incredibly disrespectful for such a public forum. I usually refrain from replying to such things, because I'd rather dialogue/argument come out of a relationship and not be impersonally relegated to the blogosphere. If you are Jewish, then be honest and say so. Hiding behind a veiled affiliation with 'the abused' comes across as very passive aggressive. And if you're not, these statements still stand.

    Further, affiliating yourself with the Jewish people as abused does not automatically mean that you are justified in being suspicious of what I, in particular, said. Again, nowhere in this story did I use the word 'Jew.' As I mentioned before, I have many friends who are Jews and they would not read this story and assume what you assumed. Being a Jew does not require the zero-sum mentality that you are presenting.

    I will stand beside you and loudly agree that the Jewish people have been marginalized and oppressed throughout world history, but the State of Israel is something different entirely. Perhaps you could read Martin Buber's philosophy of two peoples in the land, or look up the group called Women in Black; they are Holocaust survivors, or children of survivors, who are nonviolently protesting the Israeli government's continued Occupation of the Palestinian people. And they do so because of what happened to them and their families in Europe, not in spite of it. The suffering of one's people does not justify causing the suffering of another. And I have many Jewish friends who would profusely agree with this.

  7. My name is Belinda. I am Jewish. I have no website. I just enjoy reading blogs. I think I may have found your website thru Mark Elrod's site. Perhaps I am too stupid to understand what you're saying - lots of words but it was unclear to me what you were trying to say. Which is why I just came right out and asked. You are making assumptions too, just as you accuse me of doing. I like plain, to-the point talking. It was never my intent to come across as "secretive." I just don't know any other way to post using the options I'm givin from the pull-down menu.

  8. Belinda, I believe you can use the Name/URL option and simply leave the URL blank. This will allow you to use your name -- in whatever form you prefer -- just so your comment doesn't display as "Anonymous".

    As to your concerns, I don't believe Jon was trying to be obscure, unclear or intentionally indirect in this post. Rather I think he was simply telling a story about his experience of solidarity with the suffering Palestinian people.

    Further, the point or value of the story seems to lie in the way that it reveals the oppressive atmosphere in which the Palestinians are forced to live as a result of the Israeli annexation/settlement policy. No doubt, there are assumptions built into that narrative, but they aare assumptions and understandings that are rooted in the concrete circumstances on the ground, the experiences of the people.

    I can assure you that Jon does not believe the Palestinians are alone in their suffering. This story by no means excludes the abuse which Israelis suffer under the same oppressive system (tho from a different angle). The climate of hatred, fear, suspicion, anxiety, accusation, violence, and injustice is all-consuming and adversely affects both our Israeli and Palestinian brothers and sisters.

    Jon knows well by his own experience the ways that both are made to suffer and may even participate in making each other suffer. Those stories are also being told.

    I hope this story provides an opening for dialogue about the ways that such oppressive structures oppress us all.


  9. Hi Belinda. You're welcome here . . .

    I don't think I can add too much to what Jimmy said. You are right in saying that I made assumptions as well, and as far as those assumptions were inappropriate, then I sincerely apologize. However, when someone asks me if I am anti-Semitic simply because I wrote a story that involved oppression by the Israeli government, I am deeply offended and find it an illegitimate accusation.

    I am like you: I appreciate and value directness. You are certainly not stupid. My intention, as Jimmy said, was not to be backhanded or to be discrete; it was merely to tell a story, a story that happened to me and that I witnessed. That's what I was trying to say. And I appreciate your desire to be direct, but directness and questions of anti-Semitism are two different things, especially when the subject of Jewishness was absent from the story. Again, I know the suffering of the Jewish people, and I know that wrongs have been committed against Israelis as well.

    Thank you for clearing up your intent and introducing yourself. And I hope that all of these responses can clarify anything that needs to be clarified. I am more than willing to continue the conversation, and while your point about assumptions is noted, I would offer that same caution to you, especially in accusing questions concerning racism. Peace to you.

  10. Thank you!

    By the way, I tried adding only my name and leaving the URL part blank - it says "Your request could not be processed. Please try again." So again, this must be Anonymous. Sorry!

  11. Hmmm . . . I've tried to change that and apparently I didn't do a very good job. I'll see what I can do so if you ever wanna leave another comment un-anonymously, you can. Or you can just say "Sincerely, Belinda."

    Either way!

  12. Beautifully written. Disturbing. Invigorating. Twisted. Gut-wrenching. Motivating. All these words and more describe my response when reading this. I've read it three or four times now, and have been moved to tears almost each time. Thank you for being some direct and genuine in doing and writing. It seems to me Israel is either forgetting their history and therefore is being a part of the reliving of its story, or they are well-remembering their story and acting out of resentment. Either way, this intentional corral created by the Israeli government and IDF of the Palestinians is perverse and unimaginable, a violation of national and international law, and something against which the world should rise up in holy anger. Thank you for trying to help facilitate this apocalyptic voice.

  13. Publish. These stories about the occupation need to keep getting told everywhere.