Reflecting On A Visit To West Bank: History, Citizenship, And The Accidents of Geography

When I am walking back to Jerusalem’s city center from the German Colony area, I often like to cut through Liberty Bell Park.  Not only does it provide more compelling scenery than King David Street, it also features super cute and curious cats.  It’s also a great place to observe the demographics of the city.  It’s one of the few places where you see Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis interacting with each other–there is even a plaque that states that the playground is for “All of the Children of Abraham.”  On early Friday evenings, when most of Jewish Jerusalem is observing Shabbat, the park is full of Muslim families enjoying barbecues to wrap up their holy day.  Saturdays the park fills with secular Jewish Israelis looking to give their kids some fresh air.  I’ve often longed to know what goes on in the heads of the guys who run the ice cream truck that I always see parked at entrance, how they observe the coming and goings of the different communities.

When I returned from my Encounter trip to the West Bank this afternoon, I decided to walk back to my apartment instead of taking the taxi.  Like I have many times before, I cut through this same park and sat down to collect my thoughts.  As I observed groups of smiling Muslim families watching their kids play on a shiny new playground in one of the nicer neighborhoods of Jerusalem, I couldn’t get out of my mind the contrast in what I had only seen a few hours earlier in the West Bank village of Khalet Zakariya.  In the last several years, this village has found itself surrounded by Israeli settlements on either side.  We met with the community leader of the village, who discussed how because residents are often unable to obtain building permits, most of the houses have corrugated metal roofs so as to avoid becoming a target for demolition.  Even the minaret of the mosque remains unfinished due to army restrictions.  When roadblocks made it impossible for parents to send their children to their regular school, there was no schooling for five years until the community managed to raise money to build one there.  The tiny three-room building not only serves as a school for 45 students, but also a school, clinic, city council building and a community center.  On a hill above we could clearly see the Israeli settlement of Gush Etzion, where children where playing in front of a state of the art three story school complex.  Looking at this tiny village surrounded by the development of settlements, I couldn’t help but think of the classic children’s book The Little House, about a quaint little cottage that over the course of industrial development finds itself squeezed into an urban center.

The school in Khalet Zakariya, with the Israeli settlement Gush Etzion school in the distance

In one day, I got to observe two Muslim communities less than a half hour apart in driving distance, but who might as well have been living on other planets.  On the one hand, you have a community whose members happened to have been living inside the borders of what became Israel in 1948 and so was automatically granted citizenship and access to the economic and social benefits of the growing Jewish state.  And then on the other hand, you have communities that lay on the other side of the border, who spent several years as part of Jordan, and then in 1967 found themselves living in the territory of Israel.  But while Arabs living within Israel were granted automatic citizenship in 1948, the Palestinians whose lands became part of Israeli territory were instead given the choice.  From what I have been able to understand, those who chose not to accept Israeli citizenship on principle no doubt believed a resolution to the conflict in the form of some new Arab state would come soon. But for nearly 50 years these people have continued to live in a state of limbo, suffocated by the development of barriers, checkpoints and Israeli settlements.

Arab-Israeli Muslim families enjoying Jerusalem’s Liberty Bell Park on a Friday afternoon

Due to the increasing restrictions and lack of opportunities, we were told many young people in village of Khalet Zakariya have moved away, which no doubt has caused a crisis of faith for elders in the community. No doubt many Palestinians living in similar circumstances in the West Bank wrestle with the decision as to whether staying in the community is worth it.  The same decisions Arabs in living in cities like West Jerusalem, Jaffa and Haifa had to make in the years leading up to and during the violence of the 1948 war–stay and risk possibly getting killed or leave and maybe not being able to return to their homes when the violence was over? This isn’t just a problem facing Palestinians currently–increasing numbers of young Israelis have also left the country for reasons ranging from violence to cost of living increases. When the future is so uncertain, how do you possibly make the best longterm decision for both your family and your integrity?

I think about the decisions many Jewish families in Eastern Europe made between World Wars I and II.  My great-grandfather left Poland for New York, while other family members decided to go to France and Cuba.  How could anyone have really predicted the level of acceptance Jews were able to achieve in the U.S. versus the horrible genocide that swept continental Europe?  Or residents of Berlin who found themselves living in separate universes for half a century? In most cases, people are making what they believe are the best choices given the information they have at the time.  And in times of political upheaval, where you happen to be standing in relation to where boundaries are drawn on a map can have profound consequences for not just you but your entire community.

These issues lack easy answers.  In a few weeks, we’re going on a tour with Perspectives Israel, which will expose us to more Israeli views about the conflict.  My dad always says “You can’t write history while your making it,” so all I can do right now is ask as many questions and collect as many narratives as I can.



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