Saturday, January 13, 2018

Today was our first day in Jerusalem! We arrived yesterday in Tel Aviv and then just drove to Tantur (southeastern side of Jerusalem where we live). It was dark outside on the bus ride so we couldn’t see much of where we were going. Once at Tantur, we ate dinner and began settling into our 4-bedroom apartment. We tried to make it feel a little more welcoming by using colorful blankets and hanging personal pictures on the wall.

We woke up and ate breakfast and then got a “Tan-tour” from Karis (our program coordinator). There are many guest rooms, a chapel, meditation rooms, a workout room, a large library, and even a small student center whose rooftop has beautiful views of Bethlehem and Jordanian mountains. After our tour of Tantur, we walked to the bus stop, which is five minutes away at the checkpoint to go in and out of Bethlehem, and boarded a public Palestinian bus. It dropped us off by the Old City where we were met by Robert (academic director) and his son. We walked around West Jerusalem (Israeli) and the Main Street there. However, it was Shabbat (the sabbath for Jews - sundown Friday to sundown Saturday) so everything was pretty much closed. Then we made our way to East Jerusalem (Palestinian, but Israeli controlled) where it was a busy Saturday morning. In some ways it was very similar to West Jerusalem but very different at the same time. It felt dirtier and older in some areas but also less sterile (then again, it was Shabbat in W. Jerusalem). We ate at a falafel and shawarma sandwich store. Janne (my roommate) and I talked to an interesting Palestinian man who was very vocal and has apparently traveled the world quite a bit speaking about Palestine and Peace. He showed us his ID card (most Palestinians don’t have passport) which listed his birthplace as Israel and his nationality as Jordanian. He was born 6 years before the creation of the state of Israel and has no ties to Jordan. I had heard about ID cards and the “Jordanian nationality” trick but it was so surreal to see it in person. And on our first day! From there, we entered the old city via Damascus Gate with a tour guide. We walked through the Muslim quarter first where many shops lined the streets, some selling food and needed items while others sold purely tourist suveniors.

We then went to the Western Wall and got to go up and touch it. Because of Shabbat, we could not take photos (which is considered “work”). We then got a peek of the Temple Mount, the Dome of the Rock, and the al-Aqsa Mosque.

We then walked through the Jewish quarter where everything was also closed for Shabbat. However, there were many families out and about, especially a lot of Haredim or Ultra-Orthdodox. We watched a young group of boys get into a shouting match with an old Jewish man in a square in the middle of town and found it very amusing. We then walked into the Christian quarter. There were many shops there, mostly all tourist and one even devoted to The University of Alabama?!

We then went into the Church of the Holy Seplechure which was crazy busy. We walked up to where Calvary and where Jesus was supposedly crucified. We also went around to a few other areas of the church before walking to the part above the tomb in which Jesus was laid. The line was very long to go up to it so we instead just looked from a far and will be back to visit. The visit here was by far the most bizarre because it felt like a very special place of course but we were so rushed and crowded that we couldn’t fully absorb it. Also, it was a bit crazy because every square inch of the church is owned by either the Armenians, the Greeks, the Copts, the Fransicans, or the Syrians (churches, not governments). It felt like a place that is so Holy was so divided and the opposite of peaceful. We are looking forward to going back, however. After that, we just took the bus home, ate dinner, and then hung out in our apartment and discussed the day. The group of us (8 girls) just sat around and talked about what struck us today and it was a very nice end to the busy day. We are looking forward to sleep tonight and a free day tomorrow when we will go to church and enjoy the Old City in a less rushed manor.

Old City

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Today, we woke up, ate breakfast, and took a bus into the city to go to Mass at the “Notre Dame” center (not affiliated with us, but one of the only early morning, English-speaking, and Catholic services we could find). The chapel was very pretty - on the 2nd floor of the center with has a hotel, a cafe, and a rooftop bar (we are looking forward to checking that out too. :)

After Mass, we headed in through Jaffa Gate and climbed up on the Old City walls for a tour of the ramparts. It had some really interesting views of parts of the Old City.

We stopped halfway through the tour and laid on a rooftop of Damascus gate before heading to a garden balcony at the Austrian Hospice for a pre-lunch soda break. We were outside right during the call for noon prayers and it was just amazing. I think the call for prayers is just beautiful to hear.

We then had lunch at a falafel shop and just sat and talked about our friends and family back home to familiarize each other with the “names” we will all frequently use. After lunch, we finished up the ramparts tour on the other side of the city, ran to a pharmacy, and caught the bus back home. It was very crowded with men returning from work so some of us had to stand (it was a charter style not regular style bus so that was challenging). We made it back though, had a quick workout before dinner, ate, and just hung out in our apartment talking and setting up our group instagram!


Monday, January 15

Today’s activities included:

Introduction to and tour of Bethlehem University where we take one class

Lunch at a falafel place, Afteem, in Bethlehem

Tour of the Church of the Nativity

Walking around Bethlehem’s Old City to meet some local shopkeepers who we could visit for certain needs & get to know well

Reflections on today:

Katie and I spent some time talking about how uncomfortable/awkward/foreign we feel walking through areas particularly like the markets in Bethlehem where we are one of the few tourists. We both said we just want to blend into the crowd and feel less stared at. But then, we reflected on the idea that we should use this to understand the role of the outsider and feel that how it is to be in that position just by the color of our skin, shade of our hair, and style of our clothes. This is still pulling at me and I imagine it will continue to do so over the coming months.

Story of the IDF encircling and shooting at the Church of the Nativity during the Second Intifada when Palestinian fighters were seeking refuge in the church. Is there truly no line that won’t be crossed when it comes to the hate and violence, particularly with the militaries?

So much more confusion and thoughts on how to understand our privilege, appreciate the experience, not be ignorant or feel like I have the white savior mentality, make the most of the time, remain balanced in listening to the narratives, and ahhhhh so much more!!

So much has happened since I last wrote in this journal.... I won't try to cover it all but rather highlight some of the things that have stood out to me.

On Tuesday, January 16, we did a "geopolitical" tour of East Jerusalem. We were taken around by an Israeli Jew who is an activist for Palestinians, particularly on issue of house demolitions. The tour was very interesting because we learned much about how the lives of Palestinians in East Jerusalem, on both sides of the separation barrier because yes it was built in the middle of a community, is controlled in every aspect by the municipal Israeli government. Despite paying the same taxes and being under annexation/occupation, Palestinians do not have the same rights, status, and resources that Israeli Jews living in W. Jerusalem have. From having to obtain a difficult if not impossible to get permit to just add a single brick to their land to being constantly monitored by facial recognition and voice recording cameras, life in East Jerusalem is difficult to hear about. The tour showed us how the Israelis have found the perfect level of suppression and policing to keep the Palestinians from ever being in a realistic position to gain enough courage or power to have their own autonomy.

From Thursday, January 18, to Sunday, January 20, we went on a MEJDI Dual-Narrative tour across Israel and the West Bank. Led by one Israeli (secular) Jew, Yuval who is from West Jerusalem but now lives in Tel Aviv and one Palestinian, Husam who is from Beit Sahur, which is near Bethlehem. They are both amazing individuals who are actually really good friends despite all the aspects of their lives that would keep them apart. Yuval lived until his 20s without ever really meeting a Palestinian who wasn't just a bus driver or a laborer. He has struggled with understanding the Occupation while maintaining his Israeli Jewish heritage yet is an inspiring example of how to be an Israeli who wants true peace. Husam, on the other hand, is amazing in his own ways for his lifelong commitment to the Palestinian cause. Playing a large role in the first Intifada, Husam has been imprisoned by the Israeli government multiple times but continues to choose a life that focuses on a commitment to peace.

On the tour, we traveled around Bethlehem, Nazareth, Galilee, Haifa, and Tel Aviv. However, it was not just simply visiting holy sites and such as our schedule each day was packed with meetings with many different people and organizations. We met with the mayor of a settlement, Effrat, a cultural and arts center, Alrowwad, in Aida Refugee Camp, a Palestinian who has a large piece of farming land that is desired by the government for settlement building, a pair of men, one Israeli and one Palestinian, who have both lost a daughter and a father from the conflict and founded an organization that works for unity and peace... and that was all in one day! We also met a Rabbi of Jewish mysticism, visited a Arab-Israeli women's fair trade co-op in Cana, multiple NGOs working for human rights and peace, a young Muslim woman, a church that works for refugees, and a Druze family. The weekend was overwhelming at many times because we focused much on the Nakba - the "catastrophe" - in 1948 when 750,000 of the 900,000 Palestinians living between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan river (Israel/Palestine) were kicked out of their villages, made refugees - internal and external, and some even killed during the Israeli War of Independence.

At times, I was so angry and at times I was so sad. However, the most upsetting part of the weekend was a surprise that came from talking to Father David Neuhaus, a Catholic Israeli Jewish Priest (!?) who told us about the lives of migrant workers from Asia and refugees from Africa in Tel Aviv. Under Israeli law, you cannot be a refugee unless you are Jewish. So the thousands of people that have fled Eritrea and Sudan to escape genocide and an oppressive government to Israel are given no rights and are facing imminent deportation on February 1 to Rwanda by the Israeli government. It was shocking to hear about this treatment to these refugees from a nation that was built in part for similar refugees escaping similar situations. I surely know the Israeli government is not perfect - the occupation - but the Palestinians pose a "demographic threat" to Israel while these Eritreans and Sudanese do not! I was brought to uncontrollable tears when hearing about this and pray that a solution will be found to protect them.

Upon returning to Jerusalem, we have begun three of our five classes this week, Arabic, Theology, and a political science class at Bethlehem University with Palestinian students. They are all going well thus far and serve as an excellent outlet to continue to explore this land, the people in it, and the issues it faces.

This morning we went to Yad Veshem, the holocaust museum. It again was an emotional whirlwind as I shed tears over the horrific images of the deceased bodies of innocent Jews being bulldozed into mass graves but also felt anger and confusion over the representation of the non-Jews who helped Jews hide from the Nazis and the story of the steps that were taken to dehumanize and persecute the Jewish people. Will those who are planning to hide the Eritrean and Sudanese people in their homes (which many plan to do including Yuval and some holocaust survivors) from the Israeli government next week also be given heroic plaques in a museum? I fear not. Will the Israeli government ever come to realize that when they control every aspect of many Palestinians' lives including herding them like cattle through checkpoints and marking them with ID cards they are in a way repeating the terrible lessons of history? This has been the most troubling thing to deal with thus far - that the pain and memory of the Holocaust was not used for peace but rather to once again separate humans based on religion and race and spread hate and fear.

Despite the aforementioned heavy aspects of our daily life here, we are still finding ways to see the beauty in both Israelis and Palestinians and sometimes try to remove ourselves from the conflict and just be regular college kids studying abroad. We "went out" for the first time last night to a large market in W. Jerusalem that turns into a bar-atmosphere at night. We also find time to read, play games, make guacamole, shop, and are planning a potential trip to Greece! As difficult as it is at times, I am so happy to be here.