Back and Forth, The West Bank

This is probably the hardest email I will write. As crossing back the border to Jerusalem and going straight to Tel Aviv, after having spent more than 3 weeks in the West Bank, is nothing short of intense. Not the crossing itself, as it took me no longer than 2.5 hours to make it from Bethlehem to Tel Aviv. It is all in the symbolic, and since we live in the symbolic it is there that the hardest things happen. I crossed on the day that the news of the death of Bin Laden came out and the holocaust memorial-day was happening. Going through the checkpoint as a foreigner was relatively easy. It took a bit of time, but as soon as I held my foreign passport through the window for the young IDF soldier isolated in his cubicle to see I was let go with no questions. Palestinians took much longer. The power of symbols…different papers, different rights. I then walked the already familiar streets of Jerusalem back to Jaffa Street where I took the communal van straight back to Tel Aviv. As I was making my way I admit, in something like an automatic mode, I was called by a friend in Tel Aviv inviting me to come for a yoga class. I was thankful beyond belief.

 

As soon as I met him he asked me how I was. I explained about my journey in Palestine and he became entirely silent. I asked whether it bothered him that I spoke of people in the West Bank. He said that it did not. He was silent because he could not go there, so he was just learning. He was kind, but I knew it was not entirely true. He felt disturbed that I talked of Palestinians as normal human beings. I did not talk of politics, but simply of my encounters with the people I met. As soon as he could he left me.

 

It was not the first time it happened. A week ago, before I returned to Jerusalem, I sent a message to a philosophy student I knew from couch surfing. We were supposed to meet. I told him I was in the West Bank, so I thought the most natural thing to do was to ask whether he wanted to read what I had written about it. He did. Later on he wrote to me telling me he thought it was better that we did not meet. Reading my emails, the same ones you all have read, had really disturbed him. I insisted, we met, he was kind, a bit aloof to the extent Israelis are afraid and think of Arabs as different people. He brought with him an Israeli friend who is involved in putting together ex-fighters on both sides to talk with each other. Even this guy, who is so active in promoting a dialogue, was unconvinced that the people I met had told me the things they did. When I talked about my simple encounters with men and women, boys and girls, and told them about our conversations they just could not believe it.

 

To top it all, back in Tel Aviv I went to meet a friend who had not written to me in ages. He had explicitly commented that he disliked that I was in Nablus on my Facebook status, and made fun of some pictures. But I like him, and I needed to insist on seeing him. He agreed to meet me. As I arrived at his house his first question he asked was what I thought about Bin Laden. I really could not believe it. He felt threatened that I had been in the West Bank. So, in his mind he must have thought something like she must then like terrorists. ‘Why do you like Arabs so much Jules? You really do not understand them. I am going to be very honest. I don’t like them, I hate them’. I heard his thoughts and simply replied ‘you actually do not know them. There is not such a thing as Arabs. There, on the other side, there are people who are not that different from you and me. At the surface maybe. We speak different languages, dress differently, invoke different ideologies, etc.. But scratch the surface and you will find people who have exactly the same searches we do’. He was unconvinced. Was I not harassed? Raped? Did they not want to grab me? I explained over and over again that I had never been treated with so much respect, even when I challenged and asked people about their most cherished beliefs. I explained to him that not all was good in Palestine. It is a fragmented society, with inequality, with some very traditional rules and some very religious people. Yet, treat them with kindness and they will go far in thinking with you, and help you understand them and yourself better. My friend became curious about these things, about the young 22-year-old boy who wanted to learn about Buddhism, about whether they could speak English well, about what things look like in the West Bank. But I felt he was scared. He was scared that I had been there. ‘So you prefer the Palestinians to us, the Jews?’ I hated the question, but as I think we have to deal with these questions I just said what I thought. ‘I like individuals in spite of the group they belong to, for who they are. Both Israeli and Palestinian society is very fragmented, there is no way of talking about Palestinians versus Israelis. It is also different depending on where and who you are with’.

 

He did not really believe me. He was threatened by my pacifism. I explained: ‘Listen, I realise that the things I believe in are the result of having been born in a culturally mixed place, where ethnicity is not important. I could be killed in Brazil, but not because of who I am. It would be circumstantial, people want money and I had money on me. Or I accidentally got in the wring place at the wrong time. That makes the way I look at things fundamentally different. I know of no one who has been in a war. For me fighting over land or beliefs is very alien. I have had a very easy life in Brazil, so I do realise that that makes me think differently. I have no idea how I would behave in a war, how I would behave if I was forced to be in the army. But given the life I have lived and the things I have seen from travelling and living around the world, I just feel that violence breeds more violence, and never really solves anything’. He looked at me and said: ‘See, you have not experienced a war. That is the problem’, he concluded. I looked at him slightly puzzled and said: ‘Well, I think that that might be the solution, right?’. He was silent. And that is why I hate what this wall does. That is why I hate what this division allows people the believe in. I hate the fear that captures them all. the fear that actually makes them believe that people across the wall are very different. I took my camera and showed him many picture of kids and of boys with me. And once again I was astonished of the power of love. How love is the most subversive force there is. I remembered Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ book ‘Love in the time of cholera’ that was next to me every day I stayed in Beit-Sahour. I remember at the end of the book that love is like cholera, it is contagious, so it must be contained, it can only exist in a parallel world, in isolation. Love threatens people’s notion of power, of control, of boundaries. And I realised with sadness that my love for both the Palestinians and Israelis I met, who were captured in the pictures of my camera, was what threatened them the most. My love makes them have to deal with the other as a human being. And to remain living as they do they simply cannot do it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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