After going through Checkpoint 300 from Bethlehem to East Jerusalem, we split into different tracks. I chose the track that was focused on Palestinian Culture and art. I don’t know why I chose it, but that’s what I had selected. Boy am I glad that I did.
Our guide for the day was Mahmoud. He and his family own a bookstore in East Jerusalem and he is very active in the art community there. He is also a passionate Palestinian Nationalist/Patriot which to him means he believes in the Palestinian culture and identity and he wants them to continue and for them to have equal rights. As somebody who lives in East Jerusalem, he is not a citizen but has permanent residency status. This gives him freedom of movement but not the right to vote in Israeli elections.
Mahmoud talked to us about some of the challenges in the art community. They are not eligible to receive funding from the PA because they are in East Jerusalem. And they won’t ask for, and don’t believe they would get funding from, the Jerusalem municipality. They choose not to ask because they feel they are treated as 2nd (or 3rd) class citizens and don’t want to legitimize a government that looks at them that way or that treats them that way.
We began by visiting El Mamant, which means workshop in Arabic. It’s called this because the building used to be the home to a tile factory where people would come to get their tile designed. The building was built in 1900 and they began in 1998 creating art exhibits, hosting concerts, talks, and social activities. It was a beautiful building and the programs they run reminded me of many programs we hold at our JCC. As we talked about the role of art, music, and sports in Palestinian culture, it quickly became political.
Mahmoud spoke to us about how the Palestinian football championship could not be played because the two teams were from the West Bank and from Gaza. Neither was being permitted by Israel to travel to play the other. He talked about how they couldn’t bring artists to East Jerusalem from the West Bank or Gaza to participate in exhibits. And he talked about the problems of getting academic professors from the West Bank into Israel to present at conferences. All these things, which are not inherently political, had become political.
Safety and security are essential and come first but it’s hard to understand how these type of blanket travel bans make sense. It was troubling to again hear about the problems with freedom of movement and how significant that is in everyday life.
Building on this, Mahmoud explained to us the rank of privilege the Arab community from his point of view:
1. Israeli Arabs. They have citizenship, likely because their family was already in Israel in 1948.
2. Jerusalem Palestinians. They have residency rights but not citizenship. They can’t vote except in municipal elections. They have access to social services and pay taxes to Israel. Their family has likely been in Jerusalem since 1967.
3. West Bank Palestinians. They have no residency and need permission to cross checkpoints into Israel. In areas A & B they have access to social services provided by the PA. These are provided by Israel in area C. They pay taxes to the PA.
4. Palestinians in Gaza. They are stuck and can’t leave Gaza. Hamas is responsible for any social services.
5. Palestinians in the Diaspora. They can’t return.
It was an interesting summary and viewpoint. This would be reiterated by others throughout the day.
Next Mahmoud took us to the Palestinian Heritage Museum. I had a lot of problems at the museum. Our host talked about the museum and history with very different facts. His narrative did not include the Partition plan on 1947. He said that the war of 1948 was Israel attacking defenseless villages and that Egypt and Jordan were not involved at all. He laughed, saying ‘think about it’ telling us if the Egyptian army was involved they would have rolled through the streets and destroyed the Israeli army. He diminished the concept that people would voluntarily leave their homes and villages, saying ‘Think about it. Who would leave to live in tents?’
I thought about it. In 1979 I lived in Harrisburg, PA, about 10 miles from 3 Mile Island. I remember the day of the accident and the scary news coming out. Nobody knew how bad the accident was and if there would be a nuclear meltdown. My family packed bags, left everything else we owned in the house, and evacuated to relatives in Connecticut. We had no idea if we’d be able to return (if there was a meltdown) and if not, when we’d be able to return. I found myself asking how different is this than 1948 in Palestinian villages. There were Jewish terrorists who slaughtered people in Palestinian villages. It’s embarrassing and nothing to be proud of, but it happened. Is it unreasonable to think if it happened in one village that fear could be used to make people think it would be happening to them so they’d leave? Or that if their leaders told them they needed to leave and in 2 weeks they’d come back and have more that they’d have left ‘for 2 weeks’?
I didn’t want to argue but once again, I was losing hope. How could somebody with such a different set of historical facts be a partner for peace? How could somebody who talks like that be somebody to trust in building a new status quo? I was troubled and happy when we left. Nobody wants the status quo to continue however how can you take even the first step in this situation?
We went to Mahmoud’s bookstore for lunch and our next speaker. As we sat to each lunch, we got to meet a Jerusalem Armenian who is the lead singer of what has become a very, very popular East Jerusalem band. Their first hit song exploded and they are regarded as one of the top bands in the area. The four other bandmates happen to live in Bethlehem which creates a problem. He can go to them (he falls into category 2 above) but they can’t come to him (they are category 3). As such, they had to move the band headquarters to Bethlehem. Most of their live concerts are in the West Bank because of travel issues. Because his bandmates are Palestinian Christians, they typically get to travel to Jerusalem for Easter and Christmas, so that’s when they do concerts in East Jerusalem. When they fly to do concerts in Europe, he flies out of Ben Gurion airport while the bandmates have to fly out of Jordan. He struggles with the inequality he and his band mates face, all because of where they live. As I said above, this is an ongoing theme with the Palestinians I have met. I struggle with this – I know there are security reasons for much of what is happening but I also wonder is this the best we can do. I’m troubled and don’t have answers but only a lot more questions.
Before I end this post, when we went into the bookstore, I asked for the Wi-Fi password. I was not surprised when they told me it was jerusalemisours.