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Illustrative image: The Jewish settlement of Kochav Ya'akov is seen behind a section of Israel's separation barrier. Getty Images
Illustrative image: The Jewish settlement of Kochav Ya'akov is seen behind a section of Israel's separation barrier. Getty Images
Israel Now

Close Encounters Across The Security Barrier

An educational program takes American Jewish leaders on a listening tour of The Other’s narrative.

Sandee is the arts and culture editor at the Jewish Week.

I didn’t meet the cobbler in Hebron who mixes some local dirt into the soles of the shoes he makes so that his customers will always walk on the soil of their homeland, wherever they go. But I spoke to a man who knew a man who spoke with him. It may be an urban legend, but symbols are deeply felt in the Middle East. Some people keep the keys to the homes they fled in 1948, and above the entrance to the Aida refugee camp, just north of the center of Bethlehem, hangs what residents say is the largest key in the world, a visual reminder of their collective dreams to return.

In February, I visited Aida camp, as part of a four-day trip to the West Bank and east Jerusalem at the invitation of Encounter, an educational organization that seeks to expand the views of American Jewish leaders about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The idea is to hear the voices of Palestinians directly, face-to-face, not to dialogue but to listen. We were a group of rabbis, foundation executives, organizational and synagogue leaders, philanthropists, academics, writers and Jewish educators, all of whom had spent considerable time in Israel previously and shared a deep concern for its future.

Since 2005 when it was founded, Encounter has brought nearly 3000 participants on its various programs. Now, its main focus is on executive leadership, with about 350 lay and professional communal leaders attending since 2016.

“People can read books, but what we give people is the visceral experience of being there and understanding what’s their story and what’s our story and how they are different from one another,” Sally Gottesman, chair of Encounter, tells The Jewish Week. “I do think that American Jewish leaders know that they don’t know what is happening often just a few minutes away in the other direction, and they are interested in learning. We offer them an education in a non-activist way to learn about the issues.”

The entrance to the Aida refugee camp near Bethlehem. The large key is symbolic of residents’ dreams to return to homes they fled. Sandee Brawarsky/JW

Gottesman continues, “Our first value is Ahavat Yisrael, love of the Jewish people. It imbues all that we do. It is also one of the reasons we introduce our participants to Palestinians, for they are our neighbors and our futures are inextricably linked.”

Our group travels to Bethlehem and its environs, Ramallah and east Jerusalem, crossing checkpoints and seeing the graffiti-covered separation barrier up close. On the ground, across the geographic patchwork of Areas A, B and C (the administrative categories of the West Bank, as designated by the Oslo Accords), some Jewish settlements and Arab villages are as close together as Manhattan neighborhoods. Among the preparatory reading materials about Encounter’s basis in Jewish values and other background information is a guiding quote from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “The principle to be kept in mind is to know what we see rather than see what we know.”

Each day, we meet Palestinian activists, including village leaders, former prisoners, businesspeople, teachers and a man recently evicted from his home in Jerusalem’s Old City; they are Christians and Muslims, Bedouins and city folk, who tell their stories, some through translators, and answer our questions. Some speakers offer a litany of daily humiliations, shortages, inequalities, arrests, mistrust and clashes with soldiers. As a reporter, I’m trained to check facts and verify sources, but this is a different kind of information-gathering. We hear their stories as the truths of their lives.

I’m drawn to the stories of hope, of chapters still being written.

Known as the bookseller of Jerusalem, Mahmoud Muna works in his family’s bookshop, having done university and graduate work in England. Born in Jerusalem in 1982, he grew up just outside the Old City. His father taught school in the Shu’afat refugee camp, and he went to school there as well. “I had the refugee experience even though I was not.” For him, “education is a tool for imagining and driving a better future.”

About how the conflict plays out in his life, he said in a phone call last week, “It’s everything, to be honest — the trip from home to here, the roads, the police, the closures, the bad service, the traffic due to lack of planning, the result of the political situation of east Jerusalem. Our books are held up in customs, I get invitations to literature festivals and can’t go. I don’t have a visa or travel documents and the Ministry of Interior has no appointments. It’s endless, to be honest. It doesn’t stop for five minutes. It’s inescapable.”

I sell books, I don’t sell guns. That’s how I resist.

When I ask Muna about whether being around books brings him hope, he says, “You are between ideas. It’s not just being in the books, but meeting people who come where books are. That gives me hope — there are a lot of people with good hearts and good ideas who want to do well.

“I sell books, I don’t sell guns. That’s how I resist.”

Like Muna, others traveled or studied abroad, or had some opportunity outside of their regular life to see the possibility of something better. Ali Abu Awwad, a leader and activist for peace through non-violence, was inspired by the works of Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, which he encountered in an underground university while in prison.

B’nai Jeshurun Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon with Jerusalem bookseller Mahmoud Muna. Debbi Cooper

For Said Issa, an artist, theater director and community activist in Bethlehem, a turning point was an unexpected trip to Poland in 2014. Earlier, talking to Israelis was taboo, but the first time he met an Israeli through his work in producing an arts festival, “a small chain started.” He spent 10 days in Auschwitz on a retreat and then a few weeks filtering his experiences.

“I could understand their fears and trauma,” he says. “I now see two nations in fear; each sees the other as a threat.” He adds, “I don’t want people coming here to cry after 70 years. I have to do something.” Now, his work brings him in touch with people of all backgrounds, even settlers. “I have to listen to everyone,” he says.

He would love to be able to drive freely, to travel freely. “I wish that one day the only passport would be the heart.”

When we visit the Bethlehem Fair Trade Artisans (BFTA) in Beit Sahour, adjacent to Bethlehem, executive director Suzan Sahori says, “I always had the idea of doing good things in my life.” As a young girl, she was walking in the fields near her home with her grandmother, when they saw a group of nuns. Her grandmother asked her to fetch water for them. She ran home, and then her mother invited the American sisters over for dinner, their first experience of Palestinian hospitality. Some years later, these nuns wrote to her family, offering Suzan and her brother scholarships to study at their school in Michigan, Siena Heights College, now Siena Heights University. After college she lived in Germany for some years and then came back around the time of the second intifada, in 2000, to raise her daughter “in our culture.”

Determined to do something for her community — and identifying more as a humanitarian than politician — she founded the BFTA, working with local artisans and people with disabilities to market their crafts — olivewood products, embroidery, hand-painted ceramics — internationally, following fair trade principles, empowering artisans to earn a living wage.

A highlight of our trip was a homestay — participants had the option of spending one night in a Palestinian home. Three of us slept over in Beit Sahour with a Christian family that had lived there for generations. The woman is a neonatal nurse and the man is a tailor with a shop just across from the headquarters of BFTA; their two children attend high school. Their home, with its glass breakfront filled with mementoes, tapestries and photos, was comfortable and oddly familiar. Early on they let us know they are “not political.” We stayed up late talking, looking at wedding photographs and hearing about their travels — when they want to leave the country, they add extra days to travel through Jordan, never knowing how long that will take. In the morning, we had a sweeping view of their garden and surrounding hills from their terrace, where we shared tea, politely turning down offers of breakfast.

Our conversations reinforced my own sense, however naïve, of the basic humanity and resilience of people, and the urgency of peace, justice and security for all. But even as that peace is ever elusive, there seems to be much that can be done to help dispel some of the hardships and indignities of daily life.

A young Palestinian girl in the Aida refugee camp. Sandee Brawarsky/JW

Israel can be strengthened by American Jews having a more nuanced understanding of the Palestinians’ situation, as understanding — and humanizing the other — can lead to change. When I ask Samuel Heilman, the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of CUNY, who participated in the trip, whether he believes that trips like this foster better relations between American Jews and Israelis, he says, “It depends how you define Israelis. It’s no secret that Israel is moving increasingly to the right politically for a number of reasons. I would guess that those Israelis on the left would react positively to my post-Encounter self. They have been much more troubled by and more engaged with the Palestinian issue over the years than I ever was.”

For Heilman, who has two sons living in Israel, the trip “opened my eyes to things I was aware of, but chose to disattend, things I was willing to withdraw my attention from.”

He adds, “When we walked through the checkpoint [crossing back into Israel], I felt so relieved to get to the other side. It occurred to me that for Palestinians, on the other hand, being on the Israel side was not a relief, because if anything bad happens they know they have a target on their backs. Every Palestinian under occupation thinks of him or herself as a potential victim and viewed as an enemy while in Israel, something I hadn’t sensed in the same way before.”

When I’ve talked about this trip, some have asked why we didn’t also listen to the narratives of settlers, but the Encounter group has heard and continues to hear those voices. As Heilman comments, “There’s no absence of knowing what the settler side thinks: that opinion is everywhere.”

At Aida, which is adjacent to part of the separating wall, there was little evidence of hope, no stories of unexpected opportunities. In the refugee camp’s narrow, twisting streets between overcrowded houses, school children head home, carrying universal cartoon-themed backpacks. Adults tell of their insistence on staying in the camp until they are able to return to their villages, which may no longer exist. Yet they cling to their dreams and connection to the land.

Encounter participants break bread in a tent restaurant near Bethlehem. Debbi Cooper

Islam Jamel Abu Oda, born in Aida and now the mother of six, founded a women’s empowerment group to advocate for her eldest child, who has cerebral palsy and epilepsy, and other disabled children in the camp. Previously, these children were kept at home, and now there are educators and therapists helping them and their families. A woman with a radiant spirit, Islam, as she is known, has initiated cooking classes and a guest house in the camp for foreigners, to raise funds.

At the Lajee Center, a community center for refugees just outside the camp, we hear from a woman born in a nearby refugee camp, now living with her husband in Aida. With a graduate degree in environmental studies, she directs a unit encouraging camp residents to keep their streets clean, recycle and grow plants in greenhouses on their roofs. While she’s speaking, there’s a picture of a landscape behind her and another of a car set on fire, its tires in flames. She explains it as a symbol of Palestinian struggle and resistance against the occupation. Later, she shows us a rooftop garden, where plants hang from the walls. At the edge, I notice a planter made of stacked tires. ✡

More from the Israel Now issue here.

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