September 5-11, 2011
This was the most challenging day of our trip together. So far, we had been bussed from site to site, visited religious historical sites and heard some presentations about current interfaith relationships within Israel. The presenters spoke with relatively hopeful attitudes that we received this information with guarded optimism. Today we were focused on the borders between one and another. During my previous visits to Israel before the 2 Intifadas, the Jews and the Arabs lived side by side relatively quietly. Israelis visited Palestinian villages and cities and many Palestinian people worked in Jewish towns and returned home in the evenings. Now it is very different. To prevent easy access to suicide bombers many of whom came from Jenin, the borders are fixed and well guarded. This is an aspect of the “security issue” that is a thorn in the side of those who disagree with Israel’s position. Today we visited Jenin, a Palestinian town and refugee camp. Our buses, less our Israeli Jewish guide, were boarded by Israeli soldiers so that we could show our passports. Israelis are not allowed to travel to Jenin. We first visited a tiny Orthodox church from the 4th century in Burkin where we were greeted by the church caretaker. There is no Christian community using this church regularly at this time. Again, the icons were beautiful and the light in the church was soft.
Our next stop was to a new hotel which was located next to a midway with rides like a roller coaster and Ferris wheel that was not open at the time. The juxtaposition of the marble hotel and the silent midway in the noonday sun was compelling. The hotel was quiet too. We were welcomed by the Governor of Jenin and district, Abu Musa. He was a serious person who blamed Israel for all the misfortunes of his people. Cookies and juice and water were offered to us before we left for the buses to take us back to the border. I was happy to have had this snack because we spent about 2 hours at the border crossing. Israeli soldiers were serious and business-like in putting us through a security routine similar to what we experience before boarding a plane. Some of us were angry and upset. Others took this experience in stride as a necessary precaution when 2 peoples are at war with each other. There is not only a high physical wall here between the communities but also a strong psychological barrier of deeply felt mistrust. We were hot and uncomfortable with this experience but everyone held his or her temper.
We boarded the buses again and went to Bethlehem to visit the Church of the Nativity and see Manger Square. The Church housed 2 Orthodox communities and was adjoined by a Roman Catholic Church that was build later. Our guide explained the significance of the church layout and described the services and crowds at Christmas time. Opposite the Church facing Manger Square was a newly built mosque to serve the growing Muslim community in Bethlehem.
We were exhausted as individuals when we checked into our hotel in Jerusalem but there was yet another presentation scheduled for that evening at dinner. We heard from two brave and dignified representatives from The Parent’s Circle, a group of about 500 people, both Israeli and Palestinian who lost loved ones in the ongoing conflict. We came to this dinner with many unresolved feelings about our experiences together and the stories that each person, Mr. Rami Ehanan and Ms. Seham (Moira) Ikhalyel, told us, moved each of us as individuals. Everything we experienced so far became the context for how we heard their stories of loss.
We went to our beds exhausted, both physically and emotionally.