Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Little Trip to the West Bank

After writing the last post, I realized I left out the main point I wanted to make. Oops. Funny how the whole post was supposed to come down to the difference between North vs. South in the city I currently live in and I got so distracted that I forgot to add it in. Oh well. So here it is now:

The North-South divide in TLV is very pronounced and impossible to go unnoticed by tourists, locals, and natives. Although I can’t give you a precise dividing line, anywhere below Levinsky St. can definitely be included in the south. I live in a very southern neighborhood; so many people living even in TLV haven’t even heard of it! I’m still considered to be in the city, but the lush parks and residential buildings give it a suburban feel. Although I haven’t experienced it myself, sometimes some of my friends have been asked if they are sure they want to go to Kiryat Shalom, the neighborhood where we live, when in a taxi. Almost every time I take a taxi home though, I do have to give the driver directions, unless of course he has a GPS.

Almost all of the volunteer sites in my track in TLV are located in the south of the city and that is precisely why we live there as well. Not only do I get negative reactions when speaking of the population I work with, but when I mention that I work near the Central Bus Station they can’t comprehend how I could go to work every day. In most cases I don’t even try to explain how I feel completely comfortable walking around near the bus station including the very busy street where Ezu’s restaurant is located. A pedestrian-only street, Neve Sha’anan is usually packed with foreigners selling things outside much like a flea market as well as numerous stores and restaurants. It’s interesting that the only people that have made me feel like an outsider are Israelis living in the north who either feel obliged to yell things at Americans or “cheer” Lisa and me on when going on runs. I cannot recall a single instance when a refugee or immigrant has yelled at me, ever.

In program news, this is the last week of the 1st semester. I don’t think I’ve officially filled everyone in on my decision, but I have decided to leave Tikkun Olam at the end of this semester. I had originally planned to participate in the program for the full 10 months, but towards the beginning of November I realized I wasn’t happy with the amount of time I was being able to put into my volunteer sites. Although it has been very interesting learning about Jewish identity and trying to figure out my own, I think I’ve had enough. I’m going to miss ulpan, the Hebrew classes, but I may be able to pick up some classes somewhere else. Anyway, I’m going home this Sat. (!!!!!) for about 2 weeks and will touch back down in TLV on Feb. 15. I’ve already found a place to live with my friend and roommate Sara (also from Tikkun Olam) and it is definitely going to be a great change for us. Though living in the south was an interesting experience, we’ve decided to move smack-dab in the center of the action next to King George and Sheinkin. If you’re wondering how we stumbled upon this gem, believe it or not, it was Craigslist. I’m going to be volunteering (almost) full-time at the refugee center—I’ve already started to develop new projects—and will continue volunteering a couple hours a week at the day care. I feel like I’m finally going to be a real Tel Avivi!

Last week we traveled on our last tour day. This time we boarded a bus to cross over the “Green Line” into the West Bank. Yes, don’t worry, I’m fine. I’m not sure what I expected to see there, but I was a little nervous knowing we were going to be entering into one of the Occupied Territories. There was no way I was going to pass up the trip and plus, there was also no way our program would take us into a dangerous place. On the way in I didn’t notice any check points, but that may have been because I was asleep for most of the ride.

Our 1st stop was an Arab village that had been divided and put back together and then divided again due to the ever-changing Israeli politics. It sits right near the border between the West Bank and Israel so families and friends have been split up. Our guide for the town, some Canadian guy who made aliyah awhile ago and speaks like 10 languages has been doing research in different Arab neighborhoods and also throughout the Middle East studying linguistics while focusing on the differences in various types of spoken Arabic. Though he was a bit too full of himself for my liking, he surprised us all with a trip to a friend and local man’s house. A friendly man (Palestinian obviously) greeted all 20 of us at his front door and insisted we cram inside for some coffee and pastries. He spoke in Hebrew while one of our program leaders translated to English and told of his experiences living in the West Bank. It was honestly difficult to follow everything considering every sentence had to be translated, but he was a very interesting man. Something I came away from the meeting with was the fact that in Arab villages, street addresses don’t exist. It is thus extremely difficult to give people directions to your home and mail doesn’t get delivered until 2 months later. Apparently a lot of people have the same names too so he said that the whole town ends up reading your letter, which probably isn’t even relevant by the time it arrives at your house.

Our guide also told us that Israelis are able to pass freely from Israel into the West Bank as often as they please. For those Palestinians living in the West Bank though, traveling is not so easy. Apparently—if I understood correctly—since the Arab village where we were is located on both sides of the Green Line, Palestinians can relatively easily travel from one side to the other so long as they remain within the village. If they decide to continue into the rest of Israel, the police will arrest them. How will they get caught, you may ask? Well racial profiling, of course! This doesn’t mean that plenty of people do this quite regularly; I can’t imagine being completely confined to one place.

Next we were off to a Jewish settlement, Beit El. Again, there was no barbed wire, no soldiers patrolling the streets. Everything seemed very quiet and “normal.” We met our guide Baruch on the side of the road. When he got on the bus and so eloquently spoke into the bus’s microphone, “Hi, y’all!” I was very confused as to who this guy was. Originally from Tennessee, Baruch made aliyah maybe 30 years ago and I really wouldn’t doubt if he hasn’t left even to travel somewhere else since. He said that he finished his freshman year at Tufts in Boston, then transferred to Hebrew University in Jerusalem for his sophomore year where he decided that he had had enough of secular studies and ultimately ended up in the orthodox yeshiva in Beit El. He studied and taught there for 10 years and has never lived anywhere else since.

Baruch, in Beit El
Baruch led us around the area where the bus was parked carrying an open siddur, prayer book. We stopped next to what looked like a large puddle, though he enthusiastically pointed out that it used to be a wine press. He stopped for a second and informed us he may cry so someone better be ready with a Kleenex. He read a passage from the book, translated it to English, and then so joyfully stated that we were in fact standing in the very same place Jews had been thousands of years ago. Oh, really? He brought us across the street to the top of a hill overlooking a green landscape dotted with tan stone houses. He showed us a hole and read another passage from the prayer book. Baruch stated that the hole in front of us was a grave for Jews thousands of years ago. Oh, really? Only a few steps away he brought us to a large stone formation that may have at one time served as a shelter, whether a house or other building I’m not sure, and practically yelled out of sheer excitement that this very spot is where Jacob had laid his head upon a rock and had his famous dream of the ladder. Oh, REALLY? I guess that’s what happens when you base your life on a (fictional) text written about 3,000 years ago. You gotta believe it.

Our program leaders informed us we were going to Baruch’s house for an all-American lunch of hot dogs and hamburgers, kosher of course. His beautifully constructed modern house blew me away. His wife barely even greeted us after having prepared an amazing feast and remained in the kitchen for our entire visit. Let’s hear it for equality in the orthodox community! Baruch continued to explain what it is like living in the West Bank. Interesting to note: he never referred to where he lives as the “West Bank.” Instead, it was Judea and Samaria, the names found in the bible. Scared yet?! He obviously went on and on about how important it is to have all of Israel for the Jews and urged us to move there and make Jewish babies, per usual. He said that a lot of Beit El’s residents work in Jerusalem—the commute is only about 20-25 minutes. He deemed the settlement freeze as “silly” and is thrilled that Israel has once again started building Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Er, I mean Judea and Samaria. However, he did mention that he says “Good morning,” to his Arab neighbors, as he doesn’t see a problem with that. Glad to see his southern hospitality carried through all the years.

Settlement of Amona
Thankfully we were on to our last stop of the day. A short drive away, the Jewish settlement of Amona could be seen from the hills of Beit El. When we pulled up to the village I didn’t really understand what was going on. It wasn’t actually a village, or a town, or a city, or anything substantial for that matter. There were a collection of trailer homes and a few buildings standing by themselves. Um, what? We met an orthodox woman who explained that Amona was one of the settlements the Israeli government and army had destructed during a previous disengagement from the area. She showed us piles of houses that have yet to be cleaned up, serving as a constant reminder of what Israel did to their homes. She spoke of the strong desire, even need, to live in the settlement of Amona, in the hills there. Probably as you are wondering now, and as I was contemplating then, why not just move to another settlement, or better yet, back into Israel? Well, she really can’t be budged. We watched a video inside the small visitors’ center including the actual day the Israeli soldiers fought off the residents of the settlement. It was really disturbing to see people being clubbed in front of their children and tear gas being thrown; no one should ever be treated this way. Again though, it was eerie how attached this woman was to the land where she was living in a trailer with her husband and 5 small children just because she “has” to. I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand.
A destructed house 

Following the tour day, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the people we met and the places we saw. (Of yeah, on our way back into Israel, one of our leaders spoke to the guy at the checkpoint and no one even looked twice at our bus). These trips have been so eye opening and life changing that I truly am grateful that I have been able to visit these diverse and unique sites. If anything though, I am walking away from these past 5 months more confused about Israel than when I started. It’s so complex and difficult to not only understand the situation, the politics, the Conflict, etc., but to actually form your own opinions on it, forget about it.

Stay tuned this week for another entry about my volunteer sites and the good-bye party J

1 comment:

  1. No one will ever accuse you of not having strong opinions, Marissa. Of course, you've seen so much more than the rest of us.
    Counting down the minutes, love you, M