As the Christmas season draws near, there seems to be a lot of chatter about the holy city, Bethlehem. However, not many people realize that Bethlehem is in the middle of the West Bank, one of American media's favorite taboo places. I find it ironic that the place that is arguably most important to the Christian religion is in the middle of an intermittent war zone with a community being town between two nations and it's citizens held captive. Yet we sing "O Little Town of Bethlehem" every Sunday and the words never resonate. To many of us Bethlehem is just some far off ancient land that is nothing more than a city in a song.
The West does not look favorably toward Palestine. On the U.S. Government travel website it says something along the lines of, "we highly discourage travel into Palestine, however, if you do decide to go against our recommendations and something bad happens to you in Gaza, we're not coming to the rescue." The message for the West Bank is a little more favorable (they might come rescue depending on the day) but nowhere near optimistic.
Everyone I talked to about Israel said I had to visit the West Bank. I did not make the decision lightly, but with Christmas coming I figured it would be interesting to visit Bethlehem which is also one of the only Christian cities in Israel. Plus, my new knowledge of the occupation had me itching to see the situation for myself and meet some Palestinians.
When I stepped foot into the West Bank I was terrified. As much as I wanted to venture into the area without any preconceptions, the media clips I had seen over the past few years kept replaying in my mind.
I grabbed a pita sandwich and found a quiet staircase to sit and eat while I gathered my senses and gave myself a Palestinian pep talk. I was soon approached by a middle aged Palestinian man who said something that I didn't understand. Reverting to "I'm in an Arab land where they're aggressive and always trying to sell you something" mode I sternly said "no" and shook my head. The man repeated his statement, "bon appetite." Not all Arabs play by the same rules. We started talking and he told me that he was a tour guide in Bethlehem. He was giving a tour of the Nativity Church (the place where Jesus was born) in French, but invited me to join the tour group and translated everything into English for me.
I finally got over my "I'm in the West Bank-I'm going to die" attitude and had the opportunity to wander the streets and poke into some shops. At the first store I went to I met a boy about my age named Saliba. He asked where I was from and invited me into his shop for some tea. Once again, I knew what "come to my shop for tea" meant and decided that since I wanted to meet a Palestinian so badly it would be worth it to sip tea and buy a small something later.
Saliba and I had a nice conversation. I learned that as a Palestinian, he is not allowed to enter into Israel unless he gets special paperwork and permission. Also, there are checkpoints every few miles or so, so in order to travel anywhere in Palestine it can take hours (that is if they allow you to pass through the checkpoints). I didn't ask about his sentiments toward the Israelis, but despite having a relatively suppressed life controlled by another government and a fraction of the economic resources any Israeli would have, he seemed to be pretty cheery!
After our tea session, I browsed around Saliba's shop. I admired some Christmas ornaments and when I was about to leave, purchase-less, Saliba offered me the ornament as a gift. I was overcome with surprise at the extreme generosity of him. I got my ornament (and purchased a few more) and we said our goodbyes. I walked through Bethlehem with my spirits and head held high in amazement at the kindness of the two people I had met.
As the sun sank lower and I began to meander my way through the maze of streets toward the bus stop I passed through a street market. Everyone noticed me and greeted me with a bold "you are welcome" as I passed by. A few people asked where I was from and one man even offered me a tangerine as a welcome gift. I seemed to be the chatter of the market.
I took my final steps away from Bethlehem and toward Israel completely at peace and proud of myself for conquering my fear and opening my mind to a new culture.
The Palestinian flag waving high off a mosque tower in Bethlehem
Standing in the spot where Jesus was allegedly born
“If you’re not Jewish, why on Earth would you travel to Israel?” seemed to be the question I received most frequently during my week-long visit to the Holy Land. I couldn’t tell anyone the real answer, “well, I used to watch this TV show called House Hunters International, and from the way Tel Aviv was portrayed on television, it looked like a wicked cool city to check out.” No, I would sound like the classic uneducated television-crazed American that everyone wants to ignore. Other than the fact that I was terrified yet secretly obsessed with the Middle East, and, Israel was probably the only country I could visit without getting my head chopped off, I came up with an alibi, “I’m really interested in the Israeli/Palestinian situation and want to learn more about Middle East politics.”
The more I recited my “gold star” answer the more I began to believe it and lose interest in Tel Aviv’s poppin’ night life. I came into the country really knowing nothing about the occupation situation. Like most Americans I knew that the West Bank and Gaza were war zones and off limits and that there has been a huge push among American teens and twentysomethings to “free Palestine” and continually criticize the United States’ alliance with Israel.
Once I got a taste and brief history of the actual situation through a Middle Eastern lens, rather than an American one, I was obsessed with learning more. I found myself constantly questioning every Israeli I met. When I should have been asking questions like, “what do you do for a living?” or "what kind of things do you recommend to see in Israel?” I found myself inquiring about the daily bombings in Gaza and the mandatory army service imposed among all young people.
I spent hours upon hours discussing these issues with Israelis, Palestinians, Jews, Atheists and Americans, and found everyone to be extremely open and willing to deliberate on such a sensitive topic. My trip to the Holy Land was different than any other part of my travels. I couldn’t quite pinpoint it, but I felt exhilarated, engaged and like I was getting to know the place on a much deeper level than any tourist ever would. My friend Alon finally put it into words; it is nice being in a place where you don’t have to make up problems.
Traveling a country that has been at war with itself for years, is hated by virtually every country surrounding it (not to mention many more throughout the world), has a pressing water shortage and yet contains some of the most sacred and controversial lands in the world, is sure to guarantee a good dose of conflict. Each morning greets you with the threat of Iran nuking you off the map and the possibility of a suicide bomber getting a little too close; now that’s a real problem. Figuring out how you will pay off the loan on your coveted PT Cruiser and worrying about the security of Facebook’s updated privacy features are not real problems. Our housing crisis, tanking economy and gasoline shortages are nothing compared to what is happening half way around the world, yet day after day our egocentric headlines are all local chatter of domestic hardship rather than bombs dropping, oppressed cultures and wars for freedom. Dear Western World, quit making up problems.
As you all are preparing for the Christmas season, I am embarking on a new part of my journey...returning home for Christmastime in the Rockies! Being away from my family for Christmas didn't seem right, so I made the decision to take a small break in my travels and experience that faraway land called "home" once again (such a strange concept for me after three months). If all goes well, I will be catching a flight tonight and arriving in the United States on the 21st.
Not to worry, the travels are not over! I just need a week or two to regroup, visit with family and friends and process the past three months. After that, I'm off to Asia! Stay tuned for many more adventures...
In the meantime, I just spent two amazing weeks in Israel, Palestine and Jordan. I met inspirational people, had great adventures and spent hours discussing Middle Eastern politics with numerous locals. I am leaving much more knowledgeable but also more frustrated and with a million new questions regarding the Israeli Palestinian situation. It has been a revelational experience and I have gained a new respect for all three cultures I have encountered.
Right now I have many mixed thoughts and feelings and am still in the midst of deciding what it all means and how it relates to my life as an American. Give me a few days to process everything, and I will give you a good summary of my stories, experiences and maybe even throw in a few photos :)
Until then, I hope you are enjoying the Christmas season (I know I will be in just a few short hours) and drink an eggnog latte for me!