East and West

(This is a two part post.)
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Two days ago, I wrote about American funding of the Israeli occupation and the Israeli use of tear gas and other “crowd control” (still violent and lethal) weapons manufactured in the US. While this is all true, it would be irresponsible of me to omit the fact that US money is also funding social improvement projects in the West Bank and across the globe.

Yesterday, I passed the UN-run school for boys at Al-Jalazun Camp. (See photo in yesterday’s post.) Across the street, a similar school for girls is under construction. A blue UN sign at the site stated that the project was funded by the US government and is being completed by UNRWA (UN Relief and Works Agency).

I was so appalled by the weapons exhibit at the festival that I failed to (or did not want to) remember that US money does, in a lot of cases, contribute to a better world.

Since we’re on the topic, it might also be worth mentioning that President Bush II, for all of his misguided policies, dedicated millions of dollars to easier access to HIV/AIDS drugs in Africa.
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I am back in Jerusalem after two incredible days in the West Bank. Last night, as I was walking to Bir Zeit, I passed three Palestinian teenagers, probably between the ages of twelve and fourteen. They called after me, “Haji, haji.” Haji is the term for Muslim men who have made the pilgrimage to Mecca, but these boys were using it as a general term for “mister.”

I stopped and waited for them to catch up. When they did, I introduced myself in Arabic and asked them their names. After we had exhausted all of our words in each other’s languages—general words about family and where they lived—I asked, “Football?” (It’s something the world has in common… plus it was the Euro Cup final, which I didn’t get to see. But ¡Viva España!) They laughed and said, “Yes! Yes!”

We continued along. They spoke to me in Arabic, and joked with each other until we reached the turn off for Bir Zeit. I said goodbye. They laughed again and said, “Bye bye, Haji!” It was nice to have the company. I’m sure they went home or wherever they were headed and told stories about the American they met.

And so it went throughout my two days there—in villages as well as in Ramallah. All of the Palestinians I met were so happy to have a foreign visitor, especially an American. Whether I spoke to Palestinian soldiers, shopkeepers, taxi drivers, or people on the street, it was always the same. (There are some tourists in the West Bank, but not many, and even fewer Americans.)

In my experience—granted it was brief and limited to a small part of the West Bank (though I’ll soon travel to Bethlehem, which is also in the Palestinian Territories)—the current State Department travel warning is a bit outdated and does not accurately reflect the situation on the ground. If anything, people should visit the West Bank as a nice contrast to Israel. And I mean more than just a day trip to Bethlehem or Jericho. It’s a different country (unofficially, or course), less than 10 miles from Jerusalem but a world apart.

I have not felt as welcome in Israel, but perhaps that has to do with the fact that the country has completely adopted a Western lifestyle. West Jerusalem is just like any city in Europe or even the US (except everything is in Hebrew), with wide, café-lined streets, fashionably dressed people on cell phones, and a sad but familiar lack of eye contact. Sleek, modern buildings are everywhere. It’s the seat of the Israeli government and the city’s financial and commercial hub. Sure, it’s easy to strike up a conversation when you’re in a shop, but you don’t get the same type of friendliness on the street here as you do in Amman or Ramallah. After all, when’s the last time you had a meaningful conversation with a stranger on Newbury Street?

East Jerusalem, by contrast, is very much an Arab city, with vendors spilling out onto the sidewalks, crowded streets, and women carrying garbage bags full of mint and grape leaves. Other than official buildings, such as the police station, everything is in Arabic. A maze of electrical wires connects each building, and there isn’t any modern construction in sight. It’s completely different than West Jerusalem, but the two neighborhoods are very close. It’s only a few steps from my hotel to Jaffa Road, one of West Jerusalem’s main thoroughfares, and only about a five minute walk to Nablus Road in East Jerusalem.

There does not seem to be much outreach between the East and the West, and even less between Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Israelis cannot travel to Ramallah, and West Bank Palestinians have to apply for permits (almost always denied) to travel to Jerusalem.

East or West, it’s officially the same city. There is only one Jerusalem. The Palestinians hope to make the East the capital of a future Palestinian state. The Israelis say that Jerusalem will remain undivided (though the divisions are abundantly clear).

And then there is the Old City, just existing, witnessing the absurdity, as it has for two thousand years.

If I can be idealistic and naïve for a moment, I would suggest that Israelis and Palestinians celebrate their differences and build an Abrahamic state together. Abraham is the common link, the Godfather, if you will, of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths. And contributions from all three faiths make this city what it is.

But I’m not naïve, and the window for a one-state solution to the conflict has long been slammed shut. So the disputes continue…

Signing off at the crossroads of East and West.

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Jaffa Road, West Jerusalem

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Nablus Road, East Jerusalem

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