My friends Erez and Shimona would like to visit me in Bethlehem but by law, they cannot. Israeli law forbids Jews from Israel to enter Palestinian territory. A big red sign at the entrance to Palestinian Area A reminds Jews of the law. My friends live within the gated community of Newe Daniel, which though inside the Palestinian West Bank is considered part of Israel.
Visiting them in Newe Daniel is in itself complicated. My Palestinian friend Johnny drives me to the center of Bethlehem, and guides me to a shared taxi, called a sharut. But the taxi leaves me off at the base of el Hadr instead of at the summit, the “neutral” zone where I am to meet my Jewish friend. I walk up to the summit, a good kilometer away, and pleasant as I was in the company of Ala’a who spoke English and directed me.
If a direct route were possible, the trip to his house should take no more than twenty minutes. However, given all the restrictions, it takes several hours. That aside, my second visit was pleasant. Each time I learn more.
My activist friends, staunch defenders of Palestinans, find my curiosity and visits to a Jewish community unsettling. But I want to know real people of any race or religion and refuse to pre-judge.
Palestinian news report attacks by Jewish settlers on Palestinian farmers and describe settlers beating them and uprooting their olive trees.
I want to know more. Who are these people? Where did they come from? And why do they act this way toward other human beings? I still haven’t gotten answers. But each time I talk with Erez and his family, I feel I take another baby step toward understanding.
The family moved from New Jersey with their two teen daughters and two younger boys to a community where traditional religious and ethical values would be honored. Seated at the living room table, I listened as Erez explained the community.
Residents prefer to call their neighborhood a community rather than a “settlement,” he says. About 400 families of around 1500 people live in tidy close homes. The by-laws of the community state that residents must all be orthodox and therefore agree to abide by orthodox laws – no driving on Saturday.
Later a tall blond man joined us. Nethanel told me he came from Germany thirteen years ago. Born to a Protestant family, he was first raised as a Christian. His mother began to study Jewish history and converted. He married an orthodox Yemeni woman. He says Judaism made sense to him. “Moses got the commandments… passed from father to son, they are pure.” Jews are taught to question, but the commandments remain law, he explains.
“If they don’t want to follow those rules, there are other Jewish communities such as Efrat, which are mixed. But here, we are all orthodox,” says Erez. He is having a house of his own built across the street from where the family lives in a large rented house.
Asked about the Palestinian plea for their own state, Erez says, “we are troubled by talk about a Palestinian state,” but says that Newe Daniel would be annexed to Israel. According to Abbas, the Palestinian leader, a Palestinian state will not have any Jews, he says.
What would you like to see happen? I asked. Erez said Arab states so far have been failures. And there is a fear of radical Muslims. The Arab mentality is simple; no TV, they want to work.
Shimona, who had been listening from the adjacent kitchen, came in. Since they opened the new Rami Levi, everyone shops there – Arabs, Jews, we all mix. She says, “especially the women… we’re there with our coupons and talking about what’s on sale; we never mixed like that before…”
She says she’s also talking with the Palestinian workers who are building their new home, and had asked them politely to remove graffiti she saw on the walls. “I didn’t know what it said, but I told them the children shouldn’t see it… they got rid of it.” She says it’s important to respect one another; and keep doors open for communication.
“I feel in day to day life, when we’re all interacting – Arabs and Jews – all moms in a supermarket, side by side; we share a deep history of caring for our families; and we see there’s room enough for all.”
I saw through her, a crack in the wall, and can only wish for it to widen. But that will take time. Slowly we will race toward understanding and peace with justice for all.