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Friday, October 19, 2007

Confusion in the West Bank

When I heard about the Encounter organization, I was quite interested (http://www.encounterprograms.org/home.html). One of my classmates sent me an email about a trip that Encounter was leading into the West Bank, into Bethlehem. I remembered a conversation I had with my sister in law a couple of years ago that inspired me to apply to be a participant on this trip. She helped me to realize I didn't know an awful lot about the present Israeli/Palestinian Conflict. I was sure I didn't agree with her, but I couldn't disagree with her either. I had to see things for myself. And although HUC has an incredible program, I knew I wouldn't be able to experience anything like this with HUC.

Thank God I was accepted to attend this trip. Rather than give an overall view of my experiences, I would like to speak specifically about each part of the experience. Here goes:

Driving into the West Bank, I didn't really feel any fear as many of the other participants felt. I wasn't scared for my life and I certainly didn't expect to experience any one thing in particular. We exited our bus and walked up a hill past a demolished home. It was explained to us that this was the home of a Palestinian extremist that had been blown up by the Israeli Defense Force. I had never seen a demolished house before. But, I pressed on.

The next place we stopped was at a truly remarkable school, the Hope Flowers School in El-Khader (http://www.hopeflowersschool.org/community.html). This school was the vision of Hussein Issa who said, "To suffer for peace is much better than to suffer for war." What an amazing thing to think and live. He started this school to teach young Muslim, Christian and Jewish children that non-violent, peaceful action was the way to achieve peace. This became a licensed school in 1989, and we were given the opportunity to draw and color with some of the children in the school. These kids were great, and I hope the knowledge they learn in school will one day help them to a better life!

We were then taken on a tour of the separation barrier around Bethlehem. I saw a movie a couple of years ago called "The Iron Wall." I remember thinking that this was a movie filled with propaganda to get people to feel sorry for the Palestinians. This was no separation barrier. This was a gigantic, intimidating wall that gave only one impression, to shut people out. I was terrified as I was looking at this huge wall, and I felt sadness for the Palestinians in Bethlehem. At the same time, I was impressed with some of the messages of peace drawn and written on the wall.

I was able to spend some time speaking with a very nice Palestinian Muslim named Tamer Halaseh. He said, "The Wall hurts the Israelis as much as it hurts the Palestinians." What a powerful statement. When I asked him to explain what he meant, he explained to me that the Wall continues to add to the already massive amounts of hatred and fear from Palestinians and Israelis to each other. This is a Muslim man who hates fighting and only wants to solve the conflict through peaceful ways. He has many great ideas, and I hope to continue my new friendship with him. I truly believe we can learn an awful lot from each other.

After a very delicious lunch and Minhah (afternoon services), we met with a couple of Palestinian Muslims who agreed to share their personal narratives with us. All of the speakers are employees of peaceful organizations working toward a non-violent solution. What struck me the most was the claim by these individuals that Hamas, the elected government in the Palestinian lands, was actually a good organization. We were told that what the media portrays about Hamas is not correct, and they are actually nice people. I was a bit confused, and certainly tried to be a respectful as possible. I asked one of the speakers, a nice man named Bassam, about his feelings toward Hamas. He explained that although he is a member of the Fatah party, the opposition party to Hamas, he supports Hamas. He told me that because the international community stopped financially supporting Hamas, they couldn't accomplish any of the things they wanted to accomplish. I guess this makes sense, but I am still a bit weary of Hamas.

We then met with some youth leaders from the Holy Land Trust, Peace and Reconciliation group. Their executive officer, Eilda Zaghmout was very nice and a great inspiration toward a peaceful resolution. We spent some fun time getting to know some of these youth leaders. Then we went to dinner with our new friends at a restaurant called "The Tent" in Beit Sahour. Dinner was outstanding, and it was just a great night of camaraderie. We spent a lot of time just chatting and getting to know each other. After a VERY long day, it was great to wind down. There I met my host for the evening, a very nice guy named Jiries Sa'di. His family is Christian, and they were very gracious to me and one of my classmates. We stayed up late discussing our views of the conflict. Actually, I asked a lot of questions, and listened to the answers. I learned quite a bit. For example, these very nice people are only allowed to enter into Jerusalem for about a month a year, and this is only if they are given a permit by the Israeli government.

Today was a very different day. While I awoke with a lot in my mind and a lot of new knowledge, today really scared me, actually terrified me. We started out visiting a village, Al Walage, which will be completely surrounded by the Wall that Israel is building. I don't need to tell you that this was a very sore subject for the members of that village. As a matter of fact, the woman who spoke with us actually stated that there were a few times in her life (for example waiting for hours on end just to get through a check point to travel to other parts of the West Bank) in which she actually felt she would have been able to kill an Israeli. This was very hard to hear, and I was a bit terrified. For the first time during this trip, I was almost brought to tears...

The most horrific part of my trip was leaving the West Bank and going back into Jerusalem. I really felt that I was entering into a prison, and this was entering into Israel. That, however, wasn't the hardest part. When we came to the checkpoint to enter into Israel, there was a line of Palestinians trying to get home from Jerusalem. They just let us through without even looking at our passports. These men were helpless, and all I could do was apologize.

If we, as Jews, want to be a "light unto the nations," we have to do some soul searching and realize that to take away the basic human rights of Palestinians isn't the answer. This doesn't mean I believe the blame lies directly on the Israelis. But, it doesn't lie directly on the Palestinians either. Who came first, the chicken or the egg? Do we view a person that has no hope in life who wants revenge as the victim, aggressor, or just a part of the problem? Do we view a person who builds land to further their claim to the land (either Palestinian or Israeli) the aggressor? Do we view the IDF soldier who is following his orders the aggressor? Or, do we view the person who blows himself up as the aggressor?

Clearly, their are multiple sides to this conflict. I don't have the answer, but I want to help find it. I am willing to go to the West Bank to meet with Palestinians to hear their stories and to meet with Jerusalem Israelis to hear their stories. Our last meeting today was with a representative of the Palestinian Authority. He suggested that we don't pick a side. He asked that we keep our loyalties to ourselves to enable us to speak to both sides. Only when we keep an open mind and try to understand each other will we be truly able to begin searching for peace.

Please follow the link to my webshots page and check out my pictures!
May it be God's Will!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Mifgash with Ethiopian Jews and the FIRST RAIN!!

Wow! I have been told that the first rain of the year comes all of a sudden. I have been told it's pretty intense. Nothing prepared me for what we experienced this evening! I was sitting in a coffee shop with some friends putting together our website for our Pesach Project in the Former Soviet Union. All of a sudden, there was a huge BOOM and a giant flash of lightning. Then the rain came! People in the coffee shop were all smiling, as we were all ready for the rain. When you've experienced nothing but dry weather for months on end without a drop of rain, when the rain actually comes, it's pretty exciting!

On another note, Carlie, Batya and I had our first experience with our Ethiopian family. As part of our requirements here at HUC, we work with an organization that arranges Mifgashim (encounters) with Ethiopian families who have moved to Israel in an absorption center. We were a bit nervous at first, but once we went in the home of our family, we felt quite comfortable. The kids spoke Hebrew, so we were able to communicate quite well with them.

The Mom was very gracious and kept giving us popcorn and coffee. It was really great coffee! We had a great time, and can't wait to go next week. We hope to learn a little of their language, and we'll have pictures soon!

One more thing...while were in Mevaserret Zion (the absorption center), Carlie fell down and bumped her chin on the corner of a table in the house we were visiting. She bit her tongue, and there was quite a lot of blood. We were pretty scared, and Carlie of course was screaming for about 1o minutes. But, she recovered with only a little spot on her tongue, and her teeth made it out ok! We were pretty worried, but thank God she's fine!

L'hitraot!

Friday, October 12, 2007

Independence Hall and the Palmach Museum

On Wednesday, we took our 2nd tiyul for the Israeli Seminar. We left Jerusalem at 8:30 am, and traveled to Tel Aviv, to Independence Hall, the site of the official declaration of the new State of Israel. Although, I had been to Independence Hall several times in my life, this time was different.

Of course, I knew all of the same things that most people knew…the dates, the locations, etc. But, I had no idea of the hidden desires of those who settled in Israel in the late 19th and early 20th century. After the first two Israeli Seminars, I thought I was beginning to understand the ideas of the “New Jew.” However, this past week’s readings and tiyul showed me just how much I need to learn and how much I desire to know! When I read through the Israeli Declaration of Independence, I saw many of the same things I have seen every other time I read this document. But, I could sense there was more. I didn’t feel as if I was getting the full meaning behind the words.

This time, as I was sitting with my classmates in a coffee shop and discussing the time period of the beginnings of the "new Jew," I began to get a sense of the real desire and intense yearning for their own land. It wasn't a state they wanted...it was a land they belonged to, a land that cried out for them. That is such an amazing thing, and I am beginning to feel that as well. I am very happy with my life in the United States, but I feel my life wouldn't truly be complete without the existence of Israel, and my ability to come here and feed my yearning to be here!

Our next stop (after lunch---we went to a great little Humus restaurant) was to the Palmach museum. When this museum was being built, it was a bit of a controversial topic. The Palmach was an elite force of the Haganah, one of the three armies that formed in Israel pre-state. These guys were trained by the British to help the British defend against the Nazis in the South and a growing army in the North. However, once the British no longer needed them, they were asked to disband. Of course, they continued underground, and became a very elite fighting force which includes such important Israelis like Yitzhkak Rabin!

The museum itself was amazing, and I recommend it to anyone who visits Israel. Once you enter, the doors close, and you go through 12 rooms experiencing every step from joining the Palmach to training to wartime and everything in between. I won't give away the end of the museum, but unfortunately, the Palmach was disbanded and asked to join the new Israeli army just before the war for independence. Many of the members of Palmach became leaders in the new Israeli army and have served in the Israeli government since it was created.

The museum was awesome!

I am glad to be back in the swing of things and having 2 hours of homework everyday really keeps me focused. I am really enjoying my time here, and I hope I am able to give you guys a glimpse into my experiences!

Shabbat Shalom!

Monday, October 8, 2007

Flip's Trip to Eretz Yisrael

I can honestly say that it was a tremendous treat to have one of our closest American friends visiting for a week. Preparing for Flip's visit was a lot of work, but with the help of a good friend here in Jerusalem, I was able to put together a pretty good trip. We were able to experience many different faces of Israel, from the Druze near Haifa to the Black Hebrews in Dimona. I will do my best to remember each and every funny and interesting event from his visit.

First of all, renting a car in Israel is very different from renting a car in the States. First of all, the cars are very small, and they get terrible gas mileage. With gas prices being as high as they are, that's a double whammy. I picked Flip up from the airport in Tel Aviv and we stayed at a very simple but nice hotel called Center Hotel in Tel Aviv. Flip was a real trooper as we went out quite late for a beer with an Israeli friend his first night!

We awoke fairly early the next morning to begin our tiyul (trip). We started at Independence Hall, where the country of Israel was declared on May 14, 1948. It was a pretty amazing sight! I had been there before, but it was nice to be there again. What was interesting here was that no Israelis knew what we were talking about. We even asked a few police officers about a block away where it was and they didn't know!

We left Tel Aviv and went to Cesaria. Seeing this place was a lot of fun, with a great amount of ruins! The Roman aquaducts were pretty great to see! It was a good day of weather too! From Cesaria we drove up to have dinner in the Bedouin village of Dalyat El Carmel. These people were very gracious, and the food was great! We tried to visit Akko, but there was a big festival going on, so we couldn't get in!

We stayed at a nice hotel in Ma'alot called Hacienda Forestview. The food was great, and the putt putt course was very funny, to say the least. I certainly didn't expect to see putt putt in the middle of Israel! We were able to stop in Tsfat, and it was nice to stroll through the Old City! Our day had only began, as we went to visit the border with Lebanon in Metullah, and then went to see Syria at Har Ben Tal (Mount Ben Tal). Our drive down through the West Bank to Jerusalem was uneventful, thank God!

While in Jerusalem, we visited the Old City, all of the major sites, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, The Tower of David Museum, and we also went on to the Temple Mount to see the Dome of the Rock. Of course, it was really exciting, and a wonderful new experience for me! We also went through Hezekiah's Tunnel in the City of David, and although it was very cold, I love going through that tunnel! What was an amazing experience was being at the Kotel on Shabbat evening. It was full of Kavanah (intention/focus), and it was very inspiring to watch as Flip went and prayed at the stones of the Western Wall.

One of the most inspiring parts of Flip's tiyul was our encounter in Dimona with the Black Hebrews. I was totally impressed with the Black Hebrews. They were very welcoming, and they are a very determined people who lead simple lives based on what they feel is the right way to live. What is the most special about the Black Hebrews is that they are very welcoming and not critical of others. They don't expect others to "do it there way," but are always willing to talk and explain their lifestyle.

There were other things that were amazing, like our sunrise Massada hike, but as this blog is already very long, I am going to wrap this up. I was sad to see Flip go, but our trip was so much fun and so worth the work to get it ready. I hope Flip had a great time, as I surely did!

Check out the pictures I posted!

L'Hitraot!