These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Being a Witness to Something I Saw

Posted on January 3, 2014 by Sarah Pollack

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From my blog:

SarpollLast week, specifically the day after Christmas, I went to Bethlehem. I spent two days in Bethlehem with 15 other participants on a program called Encounter.

When I saw the dates of the upcoming trip, I was eager to participate in the cross-cultural exchange, but also eager to venture into Bethlehem, the site of the birth of Jesus, exactly what the holiday commemorates, the day after Christmas.

A few Pardes students had gone and encouraged the rest of us to sign up and that was the last push I needed and it’s a push that I will give to anyone. It’s not about being right-wing or left-wing or political or religious or a Zionist or anything else. It’s about being a human.

On December 22, I walked into a white-walled room at a near by synagogue for the pre-trip orientation. I looked around the room at a surprisingly large amount of familiar faces and felt somewhat cynical. The trip seemed very structured – the itinerary showed every minute was scheduled. Small groups were involved to debrief the trip – was I really going to need to talk about my feelings? I had seen hardship before, had seen injustice, why did this trip need so much emotional support?

As we went around in our small groups, each of us listing our hopes and fears for the two days that we would be spending in Bethlehem, I was immediately brought back to a similarly white-walled meeting room at Columbia University where I sat discussing about my hopes and fears about spending 8 weeks in Uganda. I thought about how comparably cynical I was at that moment, as I tried to prepare myself for the most intense cross-cultural exchange that I had ever experienced in my lifetime. I then realized the seriousness of the encounter that I was about to embark on, years later, miles away. We were eager to be transformed by an amazing experience, on the ground, hoping to return with more clarity and information. We feared that we wouldn’t be open enough to hear the things that we needed to hear, feared that we would become numb to injustice and that we would distance ourselves from opinions that we didn’t know how to react to.

I was taken aback when we went over the packing list and it was specifically stated that we not bring anything that had Hebrew on it or any type of Jewish markings. We were instructed to, in public space, cover our kippot and prevent tzitzit from hanging out. I became stuck on this point for a few minutes. I came to Israel to express my Judaism freely, to live in a place that stopped for Shabbat, to have kosher restaurants to eat in. I came to Israel because I was born a Jew in America and felt like I had the right, the privilege, to pick up my life and go to the capital of my people. When I was born, because of the right of return, my Israeli citizenship was waiting for me at Ben Gurion – all I had to do was go pick it up and, yet, here I was, in Jerusalem, being told not to speak in Hebrew for the next two days.

We began the journey in Jerusalem the next Thursday – traveling down Derech Hevron, the street that I live off of. In less than 20 minutes, we had arrived. I had traveled all over the world in the name of tzedek u’mishpat, righteousness and justice, and I hadn’t traveled 20 minutes down the same street that I live on? I couldn’t be stuck in this mindset, beating myself up for something that I hadn’t taken enough time or effort to do – I shook my head and took a deep breath to rattle the thoughts from my brain. I couldn’t remain frustrated at something that I was preventing myself from doing, stuck in naiveté, and disillusionment.

Although I had read the biographies of all of the people that we were speaking to over the course of the trip, I couldn’t have been prepared to hear the stories that we heard. After Ali Abu Awad told us how he found out that an IDF soldier had shot his brother in the head for no reason in a hospital room that he was sitting in because a settler had shot him in the leg, he told us, “I knew what it meant to lose land, or lose rights, but this was different. I lost the taste for life.” Ali told us about how he later met with the families of bereaved Israelis, who had also lost people that they love to the conflict. “I learned about the history of the Jewish people. I know that you have been persecuted because you are Jews. I understand that Judaism is a nationality and not a religion and further more, I understand the need for Jews to have a state. I know that you have been victimized,” he said as he placed his hand over his heart to show the empathy that runs through his veins. “But just because you have been victimized, it doesn’t mean that you can victimize us.” This set the tone for the next two days. Clearly, Ali had dedicated much of his time to understanding me, my people, my state and I was prepared to be open enough to understand him, his people and his state.

From speaking with Ali, we went to walk along the…fence? Wall? Security barrier? Apartheid wall? Immense concrete structure, scarring the landscape of Jerusalem? I had never been so close to the wall and, here I was, close enough to touch it. Close enough to read each spray painted jab at the Israeli psyche, each painstaking account of a woman that was detailed in a museum titled The Wall Museum. “The personal story humanizes, opens up, asks for human understanding, whereas the Wall kills the environment, closes up, takes away the human horizon, “warehouses” people behind the Wall. By preserving human memory, the human story is a challenge to the Wall.”

It would have been extremely simple, easy even, to get bogged down in sadness and anger. Bogged down and stuck, unable to move forward. To get angry at the fact that I had an Israeli passport waiting for me, but these Palestinians could never get one. To become frustrated at the injustice that lies in the fact that I have more rights as a Jew in this country than some Palestinians have ever had.  I reminded myself that wasn’t the point of the trip.  Coming from a country as large as America, where the government is almost inaccessible, the trip proved to me that change is possible in Israel and that hope is real.

“I used to think that all Israelis were liars. How could they go into the army and come out saying that they didn’t know about the occupation? I came to realize that not all Israelis serve in the army and not all soldiers serve in the West Bank. More than that, I realized that not all soldiers support the occupation. I thought there was one Zionism, which was Political Zionism. I didn’t know about Cultural Zionism, Liberal Zionism, Social Zionism. I just didn’t know,” Sam Bahor, a Palestinian-American, told us. He used his lack of knowledge as a starting block and read everything there was to know about Zionism. I could say the same thing about many American Jews that I know. Olim hadashim, new immigrants, that I have heard say, “Before I moved to Israel, I didn’t know that anyone lived here besides Jews.” With every stereotype from either side, I can personally contradict it with a stereotype that I’ve heard from the other side.

If I could possibly attempt to make a connection between everyone that I met on Encounter (Jewish, Muslim, Arab, Israeli, Christian, American, etc.), I think it would be that we all stood on the belief that knowledge is the first, and most important, step in any sort of social change. Knowledge of yourself and knowledge of the other. I confidently say “the other” because how can I confidently say that we’re the same? As I returned to my home, took a shower with hot, running water, turned on lights without the fear that there would be no electricity, had the freedom to access what ever part of this country I wanted to, on the other side of a 9 meter high concrete wall, how could I not acknowledge that I am the other?

Last year, I heard Elie Weisel speak at UF. He said that the important part of any experience is being a witness to that experience. He went on to say that by telling us, even a room of a thousand or more strangers, that he couldn’t actually see because it was a dark room and stage lights shone in his eyes, we became witnesses to an experience that we didn’t even see.

I saw the experience in Bethlehem. I looked into the eyes of Palestinians who are suffering. There were no dimmed lights to hide my face, no stage lights to blind their eyes. If I can be a witness to thousands of years of Jewish history, how can I cease to be a witness to what is going on 20 minutes from my apartment?