Getting Through to The Other Side

by Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb

In September I lead an artist delegation which created three murals in Balata Refugee Camp. Getting between Palestine and Israel is challenging, even for someone who possesses an American passport. To visit Jerusalem from Beit Sahour where we are staying, our small artist delegation takes a cab to the Separation Wall for 20 shekels where Palestinian cab drivers in various states of economic desperation wait to snag anyone coming through in the other direction. We walk the long uphill corridor toward the Israeli side and arrive at the first checkpoint. We are standing outside without cover next to an empty parking lot that connects to the other internal checkpoint. Luckily it’s not raining. If you are disabled, I can only image the trip must be nearly impossible, because the circular iron gates with many bars through which one must pass are not built for wheelchairs.

At the checkpoint booth, a Palestinian woman waving a permission slip with one hand and holding a fidgety toddler in the other pleads with the girl soldier behind the glass barrier to let her through. The young soldier with a ponytail shakes her head no and looks exasperated. The young mother is speaking Arabic, the soldier Hebrew, and they don’t understand each other. The young mother turns to me and starts telling me her story in Arabic, perhaps assuming I know her language since I’ve come by foot through the checkpoint from Bethlehem. Tourists take the bus. Israelis do not enter. Only Palestinians come this way.

The Jewish soldier sees me talking to her and asks me in Hebrew if I can translate. I can. My Arabic skills have gotten a lot better. The young Muslim woman wants to take her baby to the hospital and her permission slip is good for one day only. The soldier says, “Tell her, whoever gave her the permission slip should have known that no one is permitted to go through from this Wednesday through Saturday because of the Jewish holidays. Please translate.” I translate most of it and find myself on the verge of tears. I can only imagine how long it took this woman to apply for and receive permission to cross over, or how far away she lives from the checkpoint, or what is wrong with her child. “Can you check with someone?” I ask the soldier? “Aren’t medical cases allowed through at any time?” The soldier picks up her phone, makes a five-second call, talks to her superior, looks back at the mother and shakes her head no.

The mother begins to cry as she waves her permission slip in front of the woman behind the glass booth. A small line is accumulating behind us. The soldier commands the three of us to proceed to the next checkpoint across the parking lot, but the mother refuses to move and is still trying to explain to the soldier that her permission slip is only good for this particular day. I ask the soldier again if she can check with someone, as this is a medical case, and the entire scene repeats itself. I gaze at a huge sign on the Separation Wall that says, “Jerusalem and Bethlehem: peace and love.” There are a lot of ironic signs posted between the two territories.

A Palestinian joke I hear from Zoughbi Zoughbi of Wi’am [the Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center] a few days later: Henry Kissinger has been appointed manager of the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem. After a few months, reporters ask the dignitary what he has achieved. Kissinger replies with pride, “I have successfully caused the lion to lay down with the lamb!”

“Really?” exclaim the reporters. “How did you do it?”

“Everyday, a new lamb.”

The occupation is sacrificing all of us and is our common enemy. The good news, as Zoughbi likes to say, is that the wall will fall because no injustice can last forever.

Furthermore, he says, “Hope is a form of nonviolence. The struggle keeps us sane. Transformation is possible.” All this is true. But not inevitable. For those of us with the privilege to pass through, it is time to do all we can to end the violence.

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