After the overview of my Chanukkah break, I wanted to go into a bit more depth about one of my day excursions. A good friend of mine, Zak, a Palestinian Christian who owns a shop in the old city, and I were talking, and I mentioned that I wanted to see some of the West Bank cities, but didn’t quite know how to go on my own. He offered to take me, and this week, since I didn’t have class, I took him up on the offer. He works with a Christian organization that teaches English in Nablus, and so on Wednesday, I got up early in the morning and made my way (via Rosh Hodesh tefillah with Women of the Wall) to the East Jerusalem bus station, where I caught an Arab city bus (I didn’t even know they existed!) to Beit Hanina, a neighborhood of East Jerusalem, where my friend lives.
We picked up some other teachers in Beit Hanina, and from there made our way into the West Bank. The rapid change in scenery is incredible – from built up, green Jerusalem, the landscape changed immediately to sparsely populated (well, less densely populated), arid hills, sloping down towards the Jordan River valley. It really seemed like going back in time – in Jerusalem, all of the villages have merged together into one sprawling city, but just over the wall, the landscape is dotted with small villages, each with its mosque, still independent of each other, with farmland in the valleys between.
As we went farther north, the landscape got greener, and more interesting. The whole while, Zak was telling me about the places we were passing. One of the ironies of the present situation is that the real home of the Israelites is the Judaean and Samarian hill country (ie, the modern-day West Bank), and the land on which Israel proper is built belonged largely to others, especially the Philistines or the Edomites. So as we drove along, we passed the sites of many of the major events of the Bible; Shilo, where Hannah prayed for Samuel’s birth, and just down the road, Eli, named after the site at which the high priest Eli died after hearing of the loss of the Ark to the Philistines. It was strange to see this area almost entirely devoid of Jews – the place which seems most natural for them to be is the place where they are least welcome.
After about an hour’s drive, we arrived in Nablus (Biblical Shchem, where Shimon and Levi avenged their sister’s rape by slaughtering the town’s inhabitants; and the first capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel). Nablus is situated in the valley between Mt. Ebal (the mountain of curses) and Mt. Gerizim (the mountain of blessings, and the later site of the Samaritan Temple, which stands, rebuilt, today). Today it’s a pretty non-descript town, with an unattractive, rubble-strewn downtown.
We drove straight to the school, which was located in an office building up the hill. Inside, there were about 20 women waiting for us, and after a few minutes of chatting, we began the lesson. The main teacher gave a lesson on family words (mother, aunt, great-grandfather, etc.), and then split us up into discussion groups, each of us taking a few people to help make sentences with their new vocabulary.
These conversations were probably the most interesting part of the day – it really put into relief for me the difference between their world and mine. While they all had interesting things to say, one conversation was particularly memorable. When it came to one girl’s turn (who was my age), she talked about her fiancee who was killed last year. She didn’t say by whom. As we were talking later, she asked where I lived and if I missed home. I said not terribly – that I’m only here for a year, and am having a great time exploring a new country. She couldn’t really understand that – she had never left Nablus, and couldn’t imagine spending even a day away from her family, much less an entire year. When I told her I lived in Jerusalem, though, she mentioned that it was her dream to one day see Jerusalem. That comment stuck out at me – I, a 22 year old American guy, could travel the world, live in Jerusalem, and cross nearly any border I wished, whereas she, a 22 year old Palestinian girl, had never left Nablus and had never seen the closest city.
Later as we were driving back, after checking out the city and picking up some local treats, Zak asked me what I thought of the school. I told him that I thought they were incredibly nice people, and that I had enjoyed my day. He then asked if I could imagine these same women being under a 100 day 24-hour curfew that had been imposed on Nablus not too long before, sometime toward the end of the intifada, in which anyone who stepped outside was shot. None of them had mentioned that, nor mentioned Israel at all, in fact. They didn’t use our conversation to demonize Israel to me, although they could have. Just to talk. Zak then explained why he came every week: in his eyes, giving these women access to the wider world, through contact with foreigners and through English, was the only way to solve the conflict. Give people a greater perspective, and access to better opportunities, and they will respond to crises in a more positive way.
I don’t know if I agree that this sort of thing will have as big an impact as Zak hopes, but it is certainly an invaluable service nonetheless. I didn’t leave Nablus thinking Israel was necessarily in the wrong, or that the veil of injustice had somehow been pulled away from my eyes, but rather with a better sense of real people living on the other side of the wall.