Hamentaschen in Qalqilya

The day before Purim and just past Kfar Saba, our bus made a sharp left turn.  Within minutes we had breezed through the checkpoint (it’s always easier to go in than out) and entered Qalqilya.  It feels strange when I first visit places whose names I learned from newscasts during the second Intifada.  But it was sunny and quiet as my friends and I entered the UNRWA hospital to meet with some local doctors.

It was a proper Palestinian welcome, meaning more food than we could possibly ever eat.  One of the doctors  spoke with us about problems with the local health system.  Particularly, he described redundancies between the four major sectors (Palestinian Ministry of Health, UNRWA, NGOs, and private health care) as well as major gaps in care, particularly specialty care.  As I tried to think back to my first year global health seminars to remember the term for proper coordination between health initiatives- is it “harmonization“?  something caught my eye on the plate of cookies being passed around.  Dark filling oozed out between three pinched corners of dough.  I looked around again, and saw them everywhere.  Mixed in with other cookies, they were serving us hamentaschen in Qalqilya, on erev Purim.hamantasch

The doctor concluded his remarks by telling us that he believed that the Palestinian people want peace, and it is the Israelis who are unwilling.  I rolled my eyes, mostly because I have heard the mirror version of that statement from more than enough Israelis.  The microphone was handed off to a young man who worked at the hospital, who told us about what it was like to study abroad, then come back to Qalqilya, where it is a harder life, but there’s a sense of cohesion and community and identity that he wanted his children to have.  He spoke briefly about losing his cousin during the second Intifada, and about his mother dying of cancer (a not very treatable type, but still) after not getting a permit to enter Israel for treatment.

When he finished, the doctor grabbed the microphone back.  He had misspoken, he told us, when he had said that the Israelis didn’t want peace.  Through this NGO, perhaps we had heard of it, Physicians for Human Rights, he had met many Israelis who he knew wanted peace.  He knows that they are a minority opinion within Israel, but he hopes that they will get stronger.

So do I, I thought, so do I.

We then travelled on to Nablus.  We were supposed to meet with medical students there, but a Very Important Dignitary heard through the grapevine that there actually were American tourists in his town, and invited us to meet with him in his office and drink tea and eat kanaffeh (which tastes sort of like mozzarella cheese topped with fried dough and simple syrup, and may be an acquired taste.)  He gave us a speech about how he believes that previous violence, which he once supported,  was a deep mistake by the Palestinians, and how he now believes that negotiations are the only way forward, and how important it is that the current negotiations succeed.

He spoke with the voice of a lawyer and a politician, but I more or less believed him.  I can’t see into his heart, but he is a powerful player here, and of everything he could have said, he used the time to lobby us to lobby our government to make the negotiations succeed.  There was a time for questions at the end, and I asked him what might increase trust between Israelis and Palestinians.  He misunderstood my questions, but part way through his answer, I noticed he was addressing me as if I were Israeli.  Was it the question I asked, or did I look particularly Jewish right that day?

After lunch, which was late,  I split off from our group to try to head back to Beer Sheva in time for the Purim Megilla reading.  A doctor we were travelling with walked me to the bus station.  He referenced our conversation last year outside of ma’arat ha-makhpela, the tomb of the Patriarchs (and Matriarchs) in Hevron.  He said he’d been touched by what I’d said there, to the point where he’d told the story to several groups.  I said that I appreciated hearing that, since I had started to think I’d been a bit overdramatic that day.

At the bus station, speaking a mix of English and Arabic, I attempted to ask for a bus either to Ramallah or Jerusalem.  “Ween al-bus al-Ramallah? Ween al-bus al al-Quds?”

“oh, Yerushalayim?” asked a Palestinian man, in Hebrew.  Again with being read as Israeli, despite the fact that I am not, that I spoke only English and bad Arabic.  Not right, but not wrong, either, according to the local rules of who is an insider and who is an outsider.  “yes, al-Quds” I told him cheerfully, and he pointed me to a bus that would take me as far as Qalandya checkpoint.

We hit traffic along the way, in a long line of cars snared by a checkpoint.  Once we got through, the driver really gunned it.  If I die in Palestine, I thought to myself, it will be from a traffic accident.

The driver let me off with two other passengers and told me to follow them past another traffic jam to the checkpoint.  Cars with Israeli plates periodically drove down the shoulder, forcing us off of it.  I looked more closely, some women wore hijabs, all the boys had tight haircuts.  Israeli Arabs, or Palestinian citizens of Israel, returning from day trips.  More identity parsing.  They grinned sheepishly as they sped by.

One of the other passengers told me he was going to Tel Aviv.  “Inta bishtarril fil Tel Aviv,” do you work in Tel Aviv? I asked him.  He answered affirmatively. We spoke for a few minutes more, then as we reached the checkpoint, said to me with a smile in English, “and now you are home.”  Again with the Jew-dar?

I entered the chicken cages, or cattle chute, or whatever you want to call the part of the checkpoint that is for pedestrians.  Metals bars on either side of us, so narrow a space that a few of the men stood slightly sideways, a wire grate and barbed wire coils above us.  Most people stood bored, leaning against the bars, a few checked facebook on their phones.  The line slowly crept forwards, a few people let at a time through the magnetically locked revolving door.

When I finally reached the end, I put my bag through the X-ray, and walked through the metal detector.  The border policewoman,  from behind sheets of bulletproof glass, buzzed the buzzer at me  and motioned for me to go back.  I was confused.  Had I set off the metal detector?  I walked through it again and again she buzzed at me.  This time she turned on the microphone and said, coldly, “akhora.”  Go back.

So I stepped back until she called me, and she said “passport” and I held it up for inspection.  “Visa”, she finally ordered me, still giving commands the way you tell a dog to sit or stay.  In Palestine I was a Jew, and now in this limbo-world of a checkpoint, I am an enemy until proven otherwise.  She studied my visa for a while, it may have been the first student visa she had seen issued in Kathmandu, and then without a word, she let me through. And then I was back in Israel proper and I could breath again. I thought of the border policewoman, drafted at eighteen and behind the plates of glass, barking orders through a microphone, only able to see threats and enemies. Of everyone I’d met that day, she seemed the most imprisoned.

I took another (Arab) bus to Jerusalem, and then a taxi to the new bus station, and then a bus to Beer Sheva, and then a taxi to the megillah reading.  By the time I got there, they were halfway through.  I saw my friend dressed as Wonder Woman and went to join her.  I listened as they chanted the story of Esther overturning the plans for the Jews to be massacred, listened as instead their (our?) enemies were massacred.  The numbers of those slaughtered in the megillah kept increasing.  It seemed a bit too similar to the stories of massacres that we, Jews and Palestinians, are raised with, and who started it depends on where you start counting, and I don’t know how it ends.

The megillah wasn’t much fun this year.  It reminded me of something a friend had shared on facebook, how the carnival-like atmosphere of Purim isn’t true joy, and another thing a friend and teacher shared, that for those of us who are finding the Purim story troubling, to remember what the rabbis taught about drinking until we know longer know the difference between Mordechai and Haman.  I was stone-cold sober, but right then the difference between the two of them was rapidly shrinking.


I learn slow

I learn slow. I learn
the same lessons
Fingers of my soul reach out
searching to break down
the same heart-walls
I thought I’d scaled
I’ll learn again, if You’d just
help me see Your face
in the face before me.

(still playing catch up, this is from a bit before rosh hashana and yom kippur, and also from   a pediatrics rotation)

A Jewish Prayer for Nakba Day (which was Wednesday)

I’m not sure when I first learned that Nakba Day existed. I didn’t grow up with any real awareness of it, except that we (the community where I grew up identified strongly enough with Israel that “we” seems like the right word) had enemies who considered Israel’s Independence to be a bad thing. My father was born the year after the state of Israel was born, and he was raised in a neighborhood of Holocaust survivors. Israel was something fragile, and precious- something good had finally happened for the Jews. I was raised with my father’s fear in 1967 that when General Nassar said that he would drive the Jews into the sea, he would actually succeed, and I was raised with my father’s elation and pride when Israel did not let that happen. I was taught that Jews should always know how to fire a gun. (Oops, I still don’t).

Nakba Day came gradually into my consciousness, and even more gradually into my calendar. (I wasn’t even sure which calendar at first- I mark Israel’s memorial and independence days on the lunar Hebrew calendar, but Nakba day is the day after Israel’s Independence day, but on the secular, Gregorian calendar. This year, that overlapped with the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, causing some ceremonies to be pushed forward, so I might not be the only one confused.)

The more people I meet (and our hospital draws a diverse crowd), the more it becomes clear that history is complex, narratives are complex, and motives are complex.    But complexity does not mean that nothing is clear. People lived here, and they fled during a war, and they weren’t allowed to come home.

I know a man, and his grandfather was exiled from Beer Sheva to Jordan.  His family remained behind, and he was never allowed to return.  I think he would have been proud of his grandson, who is a teacher, and his great-granddaughter, who wants to go into high-tech.

It’s easy to lose oneself a bit under the politics, the identities internally assumed or externally imposed, and the narratives, both official and unofficial. I was touched to wake up on Holocaust Memorial Day and see a news feed full of Palestinians and Iranians also marking Holocaust Memorial Day, and I realized I wanted to say something on Nakba Day (though you can tell I didn’t finish it in time). It seems important that those of us living in and benefiting from the state of Israel spend a day recognizing the loss that that caused others, and that that loss is still ongoing in many ways. Commemorating Nakba Day this year felt right, and as it meant stepping outside of my own identity, my own narrative, I wanted to write something that was in the voice of my own tradition. I drew on material from synagogue prayers, from songs around the Shabbos table that spoke of return from exile, and from readings from the Torah.

It wasn’t easy to write- it meant putting aside fears I’d absorbed about the idea of Palestinian refugees returning, “Will they kill us? Will the good things that have been built here be destroyed? Will the Jewish people end up in exile again, and will we survive that?”  These are fears that I was raised with, that a lot of the Jewish community was raised with.

I set these questions aside, not because they aren’t important, but because the act of listening alone, even when it’s not comfortable, of feeling each others’ pain, and admiring each others’ strength, changes us and changes what is possible, and allows for the possibility of a future that is not a zero-sum game.  I want options beyond one “side” winning and the “other side” losing. Some things are easier for me- I’m not a policy wonk, I’m a medical student. If I make it through medical school, if Palestinian refugees are allowed to return and I’m still here, my role would be the same: to take care of anyone who comes through the door.

A Jewish Prayer for Nakba Day:

Our God, and God of our ancestors, who answered Abraham when his son was bound on the alter1, who remembered Sarah’s prayers in her tent for a child2, and who found Hagar in the wilderness on the road to Shur3, and who heard the cries of her child in the wilderness of Beer Shava4, may He remember our Palestinian brothers and sisters who were killed, who were expelled, who fled, who were not allowed to return home, and those who are still at risk of losing their homes5. May their prayers be heard so that families be re-united in the land of their ancestors, and they can return in happiness to their land and in joy to their homes6, in the cities, in the villages, and outside the villages. May they dwell securely in the land7, without fear of being uprooted, and may they be free to go up to Your holy city8 and may we all dwell together with righteousness and with justice and with kindness and with mercy9. Help us all to have compassion for one another, as it is written, “and I will take your heart of stone, and replace it with a heart of flesh10.” and we will say, amen.”

אלוהינו ואלוהי אבותינו, שענה לאברהם בעת שנעקד בנו, שפקד את שרה בפתח אהלה, שמצא את הגר במדבר בדרך אל שור, וששמע את זעקת בנה במדבר באר שבע, זכור נא את אחינו ואחיותינו הפלסטינים, שנהרגו, שנעקרו, שברחו, שנאסר עליהם לחזור אל בתיהם, ושעומדים היום לאבד את בתיהם. שמע תפילותיהם לאיחוד משפחות מופרדות באדמת אבותיהם, והחזר אותם לבתיהם, בערים, בכפרים ומחוץ לכפרים, שנאמר “בשמחה לארצך ובששון לעירך.” “וישבתם על הארץ לבטח “, באין חושש שייעקר, “ולעלות בשלום לעיר קודשך, ותן שנגור ביחד ” “בצדק ובמשפט ובחסד וברחמים. ” הנח עלינו רוח אחווה וחמלה, שנאמר “והסרתי את לב האבן מבשרכם ונתתי לכם לב בשר .” ונאמר “אמן “.

1. liturgy, days of awe.

2. Genesis 21:1

3. Genesis 16:7

4. Genesis 21:14-17. Beer Shava is not a typo, but both the masoretic pronunciation here, and also contains elements of the modern Hebrew and Arabic names.

5. Yizkor prayer for Nakba day written by TAU students

6. liturgy, days of awe.

7. Leviticus 25:18

8. A traditional name for Jerusalem that is identical to its Arabic name.

9. Hosea 2:21

10. Ezekiel 26:36

I’d love feedback on it, both on the content as well as on the specific construction and grammar (most especially in the Hebrew).  Discrepancies between the Hebrew an English can be attributed to the limits of my Hebrew.  Feel free to share, and share widely, if you feel moved to.

Things I wrote before and after visiting Hevron

Our bus is unintentionally tracing the route of Avraham when he went from Beer Sheva to Kiryat Arba, that is Hevron, to bury Sarah and to weep for her, except for the detour to the checkpoint.  I’m not that old, I’m old enough that right now Sarah’s story, sparely told in contrast to when God tested Abraham, suddenly takes on personal meaning- will I ever have children?   No reason feminists can’t admit these things.  The moment passes.
If I have a daughter I will name her Hagar, that she may wander but find water, and blessings.
If I have a son, I will name him Yitzhak, that he may laugh, because we aren’t laughing enough here.

[Mom and Dad, don’t take this too literally if you read it.]
The settlers in Hevron were heroes to a few of my teachers in high school. The settlers’ presence there meant that Israel kept soldiers there, the soldiers meant that Jews could pray at ma’arat ha-makhpela, the double cave, the tomb of the patriarchs. Does the divided cave below mirror the divisions above ground?
Last time, the soldiers let me enter the synagogue but I had no words, I couldn’t pray.
My brother and sister once went to Hevron on the Shabbat of parshat chayei sarah, the week that we read in synagogue the section of the torah about Sarah’s death. Jewish families in the settlement host hundreds of guests in their homes that Shabbat each year.
My sister told me that on the way home from services, she saw someone, a Jew, push an old Palestinian woman off the sidewalk saw some young Jewish men shove around an old Palestinian woman who was walking with a child. She asked them why they did that. They said that she was probably raising her children to be terrorists. My sister suggested that they had just increased the odds of that.
I don’t think that was the reason she spoke up. Sometimes we make utilitarian arguments, but they aren’t what we really mean. You don’t push old women of the sidewalk because you don’t push old women off the sidewalk. [Nb. from my sister: “yeah, you’re probably right.”]
This time the soldiers wanted to divide our group into Jews and gentiles, and only allow the Jews in to pray. I couldn’t go in with any decency under those terms. I didn’t go in.

Kiryat Arba, which is Hevron, which is al-Khalil

“Thank you for what you said earlier,” said the Doctor travelling with us, as we got off the bus in Jerusalem. I was confused for a moment, then I remembered he was referring to the scene outside of maarat ha-makhpela, the tomb of the patriarchs in Hevron. And Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, which is Hevron, and Abraham came to mourn for her.

Our guide, Mahmoud, had brought us as far the entrance to the synagogue portion of the building, and told us that he could go no further- he had once asked if he could but they did not let him. Twenty steps or so down the path, the soldiers came back and stopped us. Mahmoud spoke with them in Hebrew on behalf of the group. At one point, he identified us as a group of tourists, which included both Jews and non-Jews. At this point the soldiers said that anyone who was Jewish could present their documents and would be allowed to enter. I wondered how he had known that a few of us were Jewish.

Mahmoud presented this offer to us in English. Of our group of about forty, I was one of three Jews. I hesitated for a second, then barely knowing what I was doing, or maybe knowing exactly what I was doing, I ran up to Mahmoud and to the doctor. “I think we’re travelling as a group, as friends, and I’m one of the Jewish students here, and I don’t think some of us should go where others aren’t allowed.” The other two Jews nodded in agreement from where they stood. So we walked back to the mosque entrance. I wondered if I was allowed in there. I wondered if they would ask if we were Jewish, and if so, if this would be a dumb place to admit it. But no one asked anything except that us women don hooded cloaks, that gave us the appearance of extras from the set of Hogwarts, and that we remove our shoes. Remove your shoes from your feet, for the ground where you stand is holy.

I could read enough Arabic to identify the tombs- Sarah by the entrance, Rebecca and Isaac side by side in the middle.

pretty sure that says "rifka, wife of the prophet is'hak"
pretty sure that says “rifka, wife of the prophet is’hak”

The front of the room- with its calendars, religious calligraphy, and bookshelves with jumbles of crumbling books painting with gold leaf reminded me more of synagogues than I expected, so much so that I picked up a book to confirm that the writing on the spine was in fact Arabic and not Hebrew. Mahmoud pointed out a bullet hole in the wall- it was from the Baruch Goldstein massacre, he said. The past isn’t gone, it isn’t even past.

the bookshelf and calender at the front of the mosque
the bookshelf and calender at the front of the mosque
bullet hole at the front of the mosque, courtesy of Baruch Goldstein, ימחוק שמו
bullet hole at the front of the mosque, courtesy of Baruch Goldstein, ימחוק שמו

A short story: there is a soup kitchen near the mosque entrance, because Abraham is called “al-khalil” in Arabic, “the friendly one,” and kindness to strangers is one of his attributes. They say that no one is ever hungry in Hevron; I don’t know if it is true. The root of the Hebrew name is also “friendship.”

I was jumpy on this trip. I wasn’t worried about violence as our group looked sufficiently international and non-Jewish. I was jumpy because of my own internal conflicts. I don’t want to have a “side”. I don’t want to ever see things as “us” versus “them”, especially not when “us” means Jews, and “them” means Palestinians. At the same time, I share a religion/ethnicity, though not a nationality, with one group of people there. And I don’t understand how they reached the point that they did, but the behavior of settlers in Hevron is regularly horrifying, as is the behavior of the soldiers assigned to guard them (often to the soldiers themselves, as one can see in the testimonials of soldiers from Breaking the Silence.) I don’t know how many settlers in Hevron who would not consider me a traitor, a self-hating Jew because of how frequently I run my mouth on the subjects of coexistence. The proportion of followers of Kahane is high among the settlers of Hevron, some of his followers have included left-wing Jews among their assassination targets, which, I guess if you look at it right, is sort of an honor.

wall between Jewish and Arab streets.
wall between Jewish and Arab streets.

The doctor’s son was one of our guides, and he had lived in Hevron for two months with a team of Christian observers, documenting the random yet routine friskings, harassment, and arrests by soldiers. He told us stories from his time there, and it was clear to me that he had come to love the Palestinians there, and was mostly horrified by the soldiers and settlers he had encountered there, that in principle he believed he should love them, but he could not internalize it.

I don’t mean to single him out, I often get jumpy around international activists, in a way that I don’t around Palestinian activists. I worry that my people are invisible to them- our fears, our dreams, our humanity. I worry they can’t see further than a soldier’s helmet, to look into peoples’ eyes, I worry that they conflate the settlers in Hevron with all Israelis. I worry when they say “oh, I have a side here,” when I have seen Israeli and Palestinian activists, who have so much more at stake, and have endured so much more, who have overcome that sort of thinking, when I believe that overcoming that sort of thinking is the only thing that might ever make a difference here.

And then I chide myself for that jumpiness. Many of them are doing a lot more than I am to document and prevent human rights abuses. It’s often at a certain amount of personal cost, and they often start to carry personal baggage. I know a little something about carrying the weight of things you’ve seen. I know I have my own blind spots. I squirm away from the doctor’s son’s stories, and have to remind myself that they jibe fairly well with the testimonies of IDF veterans collected by Breaking the Silence, that I have no reason to doubt him. Maybe just recognizing our blind spots is a good start.

I ask the doctor’s son how it is for him being back in Hevron. He says it is hard, his stomach has been twisted up in knots all day. I nod in recognition. I know something about that too, Derech Aza in Jerusalem used to do that to me, but that was years ago and last time I was there I was ok.

Maybe I talk about that too much. Sometimes I don’t know how not to talk about it. I probably would have the same views that I have now if I hadn’t been there in the bombing’s immediate aftermath. But just as a tattoo or a piercing modifies the body, there are things that modify the soul, and what I believe is burned into me with fire.

As trauma, scars, and emotional baggage go around here in Israel and Palestine, I got off easy.

I don’t remember how it came up, but someone asked me at dinner how I stopped being a Zionist. I told him that I did not consider myself anti-Zionist, but that my attachment to the land was personal, not governmental. I told him my views in general took form when staring at blood and death, and the moment I knew that I didn’t wish it on anyone.  He said that my perspective was pretty cool. I notice that my hands are shaking.

Also at dinner, a classmate raised the possibility that only violent resistance would change things. I hadn’t really been part of that conversation, but I jumped in, and said that it was the worst thing that could happen, the second intifada had decimated what remained of the Israeli left, had created another traumatized generation. I don’t know why I made a utilitarian argument; it wouldn’t matter to me if I thought a violent third intifada would end the occupation. Maybe I have my own blind spot here, if so I don’t think I can change it.

entrance to the mosque
entrance to the mosque (was a little distracted at the synagogue entrance, so didn’t get a picture.)

There were three Jews today in Hevron who did not behave as soldiers or as settlers. Three Jews refused the privileged status the city offered us. We weren’t the first to do so, or the last. A tree fell in a forest. Did it make a sound?

On the bus, I apologized to my classmate who had made the violence comment for jumping down his throat. He told me he didn’t really support violent resistance, he raised it as more of a thought experiment, because he didn’t know what would end the occupation. I didn’t like this theoretical violence, because at the end of the day it is not theoretical people with shrapnel wounds, or theoretical burnt flesh and a stream of blood trickling down the pavement, and this is true in Jerusalem, and it is true in Jenin and in Gaza. It is not theoretical families who are bereaved, in Ashkelon, or in Hevron. So I pushed him on this line of argument a little further, I made my classic pitch, by which I mean deeply held belief that as future doctors, we have to transcend sides, because we have to be ready to fight to save the life of any patient who comes into the hospital, even if we consider them our worst enemy. Otherwise, how are we different from that which we claim to hate?

I have a side. It’s the human being in front of me, whoever it is. Bullshit, you probably say, and you’re right. But I’m trying. Will you try with me?