Rabbis Without Borders
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Spent tear gas canisters. Lots of them. Right at the foot of the wall. I guess that makes it the wailing wall. We have our Wailing Wall and they have theirs. Very different and yet a little bit the same.
Just about every afternoon kids gather to hurl stones at the wall. And the soldiers lob tear gas from the other side, sometimes sallying forth in riot gear to push the kids back. That’s what I was told when I visited the Separation Wall from the Palestinian side. I weighed asking my host to take a picture of me with the wall and its anti-Israel and pro-peace graffiti in the background. I decided against it.
I was hosted by a dear friend, a warrior for peace and reconciliation. I would like nothing better than to sing his praises in the public domain, but alas, it cannot be done. Might damage his reputation in his community. Or worse.
It began when I got into my car and made the 15-minute drive from my home in Alon Shvut, in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc of the West Bank, to the Everest Hotel in Beit Jalla, a suburb of Bethlehem. Even before I parked the car I saw him waiting for me. As I got into his car I began to recount the story of the first time just a year ago that I found myself in a car with license plates of the Palestinian Authority. I had told the people in the vehicle then, two Palestinian friends, that this was a momentous occasion for me. They had no idea what I was talking about, and I kept them in the dark for a few seconds in order to build up a bit of suspense. Then I told them that this was the first time in my life that I was ever in a Palestinian car, and that for 30 years I thought that only if I were kidnapped would I find myself in such a situation! We all had laughed then, and when I retold the story as we drove from Beit Jalla to Bethlehem, the same laughter returned. (And I thought to myself, just as I had then, that it is really more sad than funny…)
The part of Beit Jalla where the hotel is situated, like Alon Shvut, is in Area C, meaning under full Israeli control. We saw no barrier, and no guards as we crossed the border to Area A, which is under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority. Almost instantaneously, we were in Bethlehem, the forbidden. As an Israeli citizen, it is illegal for me to be there. But I went anyway, as an act of civil disobedience, as an act of protest against the separation that has helped turn neighbors into strangers and enemies. I could no longer keep away. Not because I longed to return to the burial place of our Matriarch Rachel. Not because I wanted to again set foot in the city where King David was born. I could no longer continue rapprochement with my Palestinian neighbors without witnessing for myself how they lived. It was another step in breaking down boundaries, emotional and physical.
The memories came flooding back. In the 1990s I had spent many months in Beit Jalla and Bethlehem over the course of repeated stints in the Israeli Army Reserves. As a jeep driver I had guarded the road to Gush Etzion that used to run through the center of Bethlehem, I had made midnight arrests, I had kept the peace and harassed the population. And now I was back. I had been a bit scared then, and I was a bit scared this time as well.
I recalled that up until 1987, before the first intifada, we used to buy vegetables and fruits in Bethlehem on the way home from work in Jerusalem. There had been a certain type of coexistence. Those days are long gone. Are they never to return?
After we got to the wall and climbed out of the car to see it up close, my host took me to a college founded by his father. Walking about the campus, not too far from the wall, he told me about the time that soldiers threw tear gas over into the campus, and then prevented students and faculty from fleeing the burning fumes…
The current president is a friend of mine, and we went to pay him an unannounced visit. I was looking forward to seeing the look of utter surprise on his face upon seeing his settler friend pop into his office for a chat. He wasn’t in. I left a funny note on his chair.
My host’s father however, the president emeritus, was in, and he graciously welcomed us into his office. We chatted a few minutes about our hopes for peace and reconciliation. I apologized for what I perceived as the outlandish way that I was dressed. You see, my normal way of dressing — button-down shirt, big kippah (ritual head covering), long beard and tzitzit (ritual fringes) — would tag me as a settler. I couldn’t have entered Bethlehem looking like that. It would have been too risky, both for me and for my host. So I left my tzitzit at home and exchanged my clothes for an exercise suit, with a baseball hat replacing my kippah.
But it did not help! As we left the office of the president emeritus, a woman approached me and asked if I was Rabbi Schlesinger!?! I exclaimed that my disguise has failed me; I had been outed! Turns out that she recognized me from Facebook, and had always wanted to meet me. (You never know whom you will meet in the middle of Bethlehem!)
It was from the balcony of the institution founded and headed by my host that I noticed the rectangular tanks on the roofs of every building. My host told me that they are water tanks. The water main is opened just once a week, the host explained to me, and at that time everyone fills up their tanks. The rest of the week you have to make do with the water that has been stored in the tanks. Chalk it up to the occupation. Israel limits the amount of water made available to the Palestinians. I had heard such things before, but it was different seeing it up close.*
In the distance the wall could be seen, snaking through the countryside. My host told me that it surrounds the city of Bethlehem on three sides, making people feel they are in a big prison. After having driven through parts of the city and seeing how the wall encloses it, I understood what he was saying …
As the sun was about to set on the horizon, I asked to go back to the wall. I was ready, ready to have the wall appear with me in a picture. My host said we ought to hurry, the daily demonstration might soon begin. Picture taken, we started back in the direction of the car. My host pointed out a few teenagers loitering in the shadow of a building, eyeing the wall. I almost did not see the slingshot that one of them was holding. My eyes locked with one of theirs for a split second. A shiver of fear went down my spine. Had my secret been discovered, this time under more ominous circumstances?
We hurried into the car and sped away, leaving the wailing wall in the distance. I had taken one more step towards breaking down the wall within my soul.
Pronounced: TZEET-tzeet, or TZIT-siss, Origin: Hebrew, fringes tied to the corners of a prayer shawl.