Report One >
April 2, 2008
The First Stop
April 2, 2008
The first stop on our first day in Jerusalem was a very special one – the Western Wall of the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem. The Old City is a walled city, with several distinct gates which are the only ways in or out. We entered by the Dung Gate (note, that’s the correct spelling) and went directly to the Western Wall, often called the “Wailing Wall.”
This is the holiest of all Jewish sites, and is part of the foundation of the Temple Mount, upon which the Second Temple stood. The Second Temple was built largely by King Herod over 2,000 year ago, and destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.
All of us had seen the Western Wall in pictures and on TV, but most of us were seeing it in person for the first time. I was surprised that it was not longer. It was several stories tall, but perhaps 100 yards long, including both the larger section for men and the smaller women’s section. Most of the Hasidim (Orthodox Jews) were dressed in black, with their phylacteries in place, and bobbed their heads in prayer in front of the wall. Often they went directly to the wall and pressed their head or their hands to it. Squeezed between the large golden stones of the wall were thousands of pieces of paper with prayers written on them. If only the stones could talk!
It is part of the history of the Wall that the divine presence has never deserted it; it was hard to not feel the presence there; it’s truly a memorable place.
In front of the Wall is large stone plaza which is being enlarged and repaved. It’s hard to believe that the space in front of the Wall was only about six feet wide in 1967 when Israel took Jerusalem during the Six-Day War, and subsequently enlarged the space. There were many other special stops on our Old City tour, but this first one has to rank among the most unforgettable ones I’ve ever seen.
The Ruins of a Home
April 2, 2008
While our group of 13 tries to be diligent and on time to meetings, Jeff Halper, our speaker, was a few minutes late this afternoon. He had been delayed due to his arrest – for the eighth or ninth time. Jeff, a resident and citizen of Israel for over 30 years, directs the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.
We heard about the history of the organization, about their rebuilding of Palestinian houses each year, and about the almost impossible struggle of Palestinians to obtain a building permit from Israeli authorities. This morning, without warning, Israeli soldiers demolished yet another house. Jeff and others were present to protest against this action that made two families homeless.
After Jeff’s presentation a young woman, whose family is rooted in nine generations of Jerusalem’s Jewish community, whose grandparents are buried in the cemetery we overlooked, and who was raised in New York, took us on a tour. We drove through Palestinian neighborhoods, the elegant settlement Ma’ale Adumim built on land of former Palestinian villages, and the Wall Israel has recently constructed, 25 feet tall at the spot we visited.
The van stopped once more, and we hopped out. Our young guide explained that the rubble we faced was the remnants of a 5-story building, home to several families that had been demolished in 2005. Yes, I have seen homes demolished for highways and urban “development”. We were just looking at concrete and rebar and trash. But to my surprise, tears blurred my view. Who lived here? What stories are buried in the trash? Where are these families now? How did the father of the house feel when his children watched him, impotent against the soldiers? What anger is being spewed by the children who watched this demolition-without-warning?
And the biggest question for me. How to relay this experience to people in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania? As citizens of a small planet and United States taxpayer, what is our response?
We stopped at a huge pile of broken concrete chunks and metal support wire. Bright red flowers poked out of a nearby pile of rubble, trash, dead grass, and sand. This is the remains of a five story home that was demolished in 2005. It has become a memorial of sorts. The family who lived here is gone.
It happens like this: early in the morning the Israeli army arrives and surrounds the house. The family is given 15 to 30 minutes to remove their belongings—photographs, books, memories, and toys. The army enters the house and throws everything else out the windows to avoid prosecution for damaging property. Then the bulldozers come in and it is over within a couple of hours.
And then the family is sent a bill for the demolition of their home.
A couple of hours and an entire family is destroyed. The father is often taken to jail for resisting the demolition, the wife loses her status as the woman of the household, and the children lose their home. Our Israeli guide mentioned that a study done by the Gaza Community Mental Health Program found that something like 55% of suicide bombers experienced a home demolition as a child.
The threat of house demolitions is used by the Israeli government to control the Palestinians. It reminds me of how our government warns us of terrorist attacks to keep us scared and obedient.
“To Learn How to Live”
April 2, 2008
After a full first day of sight-seeing and informative meetings, the moment that struck me most was a short conversation with a Palestinian who has recently returned to Jerusalem to live once again in the city in which he was born.
When we met, Ahmad told our group that he was recently back from Europe after being there for ten years, and that since he’d returned he has been having legal trouble with the Israeli government. Ahmad was born in East Jerusalem, and like about 300,000 other Palestinians in East Jerusalem, he has Permanent Residency in Israel—but not citizenship. Permanent Residents of Israel are those Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem legally. They pay Israeli taxes and can own property but are not full Israeli citizens in that they cannot vote in Israel and do not have Israeli passports for travel. To travel they have laissez-passers that are good for one year only.
Ahmad’s legal trouble stemmed from another restriction on Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem — the need to continuously prove Jerusalem is the ‘center of life’ for them. If Palestinian residents live in the West Bank (outside of Israeli annexed East Jerusalem) or travel abroad too long, they risk being stripped of their permanent residency rights by the Israeli government. As Ahmad said, “When I was away, the Israelis deleted my Permanent Resident ID number, and suddenly there was one less Palestinian in Jerusalem. And really, there is one less family too — because when I get married, my wife and children will all have to live in the West Bank with me.” Without Permanent Residency status Ahmad now lives in Jerusalem illegally, in effect, a tourist who has overstayed his visa in his own city.
An Israeli activist, born in the US, but now a full citizen of Israel, filled-out the bigger details behind Ahmad’s story. Israeli planners and politicians feel (and openly and publicly state) that Jerusalem should be at least 70% Jewish. Currently, it is close to 65% Jewish. Strict restrictions on Palestinian residents — like the revoking of Ahmad’s rights because of a ten-year stay in Europe — are meant to ‘solve’ this ‘demographic’ problem and retain the ‘Jewish character’ of Jerusalem.
Later in our tour I found myself sitting next to Ahmad on the bus. I asked where he’d lived in Europe and he told me Belgium. On a whim, and fully expecting a ‘no,’ I asked Ahmad if he’d even met my friend Muhammad, a Palestinian refugee from Damascus who now lives in Belgium. Ahmad thought, paused, and said, “You know, when I moved to Belgium I didn’t meet any Palestinians. On purpose; I tried not to. . . After all these politics, and everything always being ‘Israel’ or ‘Palestine,’ I wanted to get away. I wanted to learn how to live.”
Our bus continued down the road through Jerusalem and I was silent, not knowing what to say. A few minutes later, Ahmad pointed out the window: “That is actually the house I was born in.” It’s a house that’s now illegal for him to visit, let alone live in.
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