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Category Archives: Semester Proper

It has been a good run, this particular blogging experience. I have done my best to keep everyone updated on where I go, and who I meet, and what it is like, and so forth, to the utmost of my ability. I do this both to keep a sense of what happened here for myself, later in life, as well as to provide a sense of what happens here on the ground, without the biases (on both sides) of the terrible mainstream media. I only sought to describe what I personally have witnessed, as I understood it. I hope it was enjoyable thus far.

At this point in time, however, I have run out of something very important. Specifically, I can no longer post photographs for free to this blog, as I have reached the limit.

Take heart!! Dear friends and readers, I come bearing good news of great joy. I give unto you a link: it shall be called Exploratorius Palestine, and it shall chronicle the rest of my adventures here in this land, up until the point in time when I go home. Thank you for reading thus far, and I hope you enjoy my semester in Jerusalem Part II.

This Holy Land place gets on the brain, sometimes.

“Here I stand: I can do no otherwise. God help me. Amen!”

The above quote is from the namesake of my given religious affiliation, Martin Luther. It is attributed to him as his closing statement at the end of his apology (think the Greek root word “apologia”; his defense speech) speech at the Diet of Worms in Germany, 1521. This is a fitting opening for this post, given how I spent this past Friday and Saturday.

Some information on EAPPI

The Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) is quite accurately summarized by the title of their organization. It is a group of clearly-marked Christian internationals, and they seek to accomplish the following (the mission statement of purpose is an excellent explanation):

>>The mission of the EAPPI is to accompany Palestinians and Israelis in their non-violent actions and to carry out concerted advocacy efforts to end the occupation. Participants in the programme monitor and report violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, support acts of non-violent resistance alongside local Christian and Muslim Palestinians and Israeli peace activists, offer protection through non-violent presence, engage in public policy advocacy and, in general, stand in solidarity with the churches and all those struggling against the occupation. <<

Today, the EAPPI is involved in a variety of areas in Israel and Palestine. They are not the Christian Peacemakers Teams, meaning they will never ever directly interfere or even get particularly close to settlers who have come into the areas the EAPPI is there to watch. They have a chain of reporting to do in the case of problems, which revolves around contacting the local mayor, then the local rabbis affiliated with the closest settlements (who, in some cases, I am glad to report, actually do attempt to stop the violent tendencies of the settlers), followed by the local IDF command (who arrive but almost never do anything to stop the violence perpetrated by settlers), and finally the EAPPI head offices. They live in and among the communities which need the protection, in teams of 3 or 4 for three months at a time, and report weekly to various international organizations. It is a wonderful thing, albeit frustrating for the EAPPI folks on the ground – they can tell the whole world what happens before them, but are personally unable to do anything to stop it – because if they interfere, the settlers will indeed leave (they cannot afford to hurt internationals), but will take it out on the innocent Arab people further.

Some Background Details on the Area Around Yanoun

Yanoun is a small village about 12 kilometers south of Nablus, one of the major Palestinian cities of the north. Located within sight of the border with Jordan, and overlooking the Jordan River Valley, this village of around 150 people is nestled in a small valley with beautiful mountains and hills all around it. Unfortunately, there is an illegal Jewish settlement called Itamar located on the edges of the hills around Yanoun. The settlers have a particular point of view:

>>Interestingly enough, not many Jews have come to resettle this Land. It is still a hidden place to most. In all Gav Hahar there are no more than 500 families. They are spread upon these ancient mountains, Harey Kedem, sparsely.<<

The above quote, drawn from the website of the Itamar Settlement which is slowly encircling and choking off the Palestinian lands with verbal and physical threats, is telling. One reads what they have to say as though 1) there are no other people there (false); and 2) Jewish people need to settle the entirety of “Eretz Israel,” the entirety of the current State of Israel as well as the West Bank and Gaza (a fundamentalist opinion at odds with the UN, the USA, the EU, and a whole slew of other groups in the world). Unfortunately, as happens in some/many (as a matter of opinion) places in Areas B and C, settlers have this preconception that the West Bank really belongs to the Jewish State of Israel and no one else, and hence they will work towards this end by using violence. I wish I could say this was guesswork, but below is a map of the Yanoun village, and the numbered sections are where acts of violence from the settlers towards the peaceful villagers have occurred.

Map with attack locations

(See the full-sized map in its original form here. There is no copyright information given anywhere on the site, and as I have also seen the original map hanging on the wall of the mayor’s home, I figured I could use this photo as long as I clearly gave credit where it was due.)

Map location 1
Map location 2
Map location 3
Map location 4
Map location 5
Map location 6
Map location 7
Map location 8

My Personal Experiences in the Area

My experiences this weekend involved fulfilling the directives of the organization from the above statement of purpose. Leaving Jerusalem in the early afternoon, I experienced something very odd with the Arabic bus system of Jerusalem – I was refused entry onto the Arabic bus 1 in front of Hadassah hospital. Not really sure of why, but already running late, I ended up taking a cab down to the Damascus Gate to do two vital things. First and foremost, I purchased a kebab pita for breakfast/lunch, and was intensely pleased at having done so. I eventually got on the bus to Ramallah, and was let off near the taxi parking garage in the center of town there. I got into a shared taxi van, and off we went towards the Huwarra checkpoint in the north, where I was told to meet a specific cab driver.

At Huwarra, I indeed met up with Razan, a friend of the EAPPI teams in Yanoun and who always drives their visitors and is able to introduce them to the team’s work due to his excellent English. Early on in my trip, I experienced the reality of Area C full military occupation. The road we were going to take into Yanoun had been blocked by the IDF with large rocks in less than 40 minutes after Razan had last been there, and when I suggested that we get out and move the rocks, he told me that we could not, because if the soldiers were still around, it could be very dangerous. We later saw additional evidence of the IDF’s handiwork – they have slowly but surely closed off all routes to Yanoun and Aqraba over the years. Not just with a gate, though – they bulldoze a ditch into the ground, and then use the dirt to build a mound on the other side of the new hole. The small hill of dirt is usually covered in cement and brought to a steep incline, so that the road is unusable completely.

Arriving in Yanoun, I was dropped off right in front of the International House, where the EAPPI teams live and report from. As per usual, the settlement had erected armed watchtowers and water towers on the tops of the mountains looking down in the valley (in Arabic, Wadi Yanoun, or the Yanoun Valley). I was introduced to the 3 team members I would be working with: Lena, a retired lawyer from Sweden; Elaine, an adult education focused on employees of international organizations; and Johanna, a retired historian and professor from England. Among other things, our weekend conversation included religion: as I found out, Lena is a very spiritual Christian woman who is mostly attracted to singing and in that she finds God; Elaine is sort of Deist/agnostic, who believes in God but doesn’t have the details at present, thank you very much; and Johanna is a Quaker.

After telling me a bit about the place, and giving me a chance to sort of explain a little bit about who I am, we departed for the house next door – the home of the mayor of Yanoun, Rashid. We went inside and sat down on the cushions in his living room, and heard a little bit about his life story. He also told us about the difficulties faced by the villagers – a farming community, the settlers have slowly but surely taken more and more land. They will come down from the hills with weapons drawn, and tell Palestinians that “this rock” or “this tree” is now the new border past which Arabs cannot go. In this way, there is no longer enough grazing land for the animals of the Yanouni farmers. They are forced to spend some of what little money they have in order to buy feed for the animals from Nablus, which was heartbreaking to hear about. His seemingly identical daughters were not told to do so, but they brought us freshly-made coffee, and were very polite. In between discussing the situation in Yanoun, I managed to get into a running argument with Lena (a Swedish lawyer, you’ll recall) about copyright law and why (in my opinion) it is morally unjustifiable for speeches and other publicly-vital knowledge… heck, lets say all knowledge to not be freely available to all people. Quite the odd place to argue such things, but I think I made progress in convincing her of my side of the debate 🙂

After an extended stay at Rashid’s, we departed on foot for the long hike over to Lower Yanoun. We met with the extended family of a man named Josef, who had to leave on his tractor to get some work done just as we arrived. Josef lives in a small walled-in compound of several houses, each owned by a brother of his. Josef’s father Khader is the oldest man in the community, said to be 130 by the locals, but probably closer to 100 years of age. We met all of the children, and sat and spoke with some of them and Josef’s brother Abu Mohammed. The conversation was focused partially on how safe conditions seemed to be recently (no problems for over two months with the settlers there), and then other small talk. Eventually, the older kids of the combined families got their English class books and were very proud to recite lessons and sentences to us (they were pretty good, as it were). Our visit to the homes there ended with the older kids gathering around to sing a Palestinian national song, about hoping to one day return to their land. Given that their land was around them and being stolen by armed settlers, it was a fitting choice it seems. I recorded them:

On the second day, I learned more about EAPPI and the people I was working with, and things got exciting early in the day. There was a settler or two or three (it was high up on the hill and thus difficult to see) regarding some Yanouni people shepherding their flocks. “Regarding” through the scopes of their rifles. As is their purview, the EAPPI members and I quickly went out to be near the villagers and ready to call the list of organizations prescribed, as well as to help the villagers. Not a pleasant feeling to have people on the top of a hill with guns pointed at you, to say the least. Thankfully, our presence or perhaps some other factor persuaded them to leave and the 2 month streak of peace at Yanoun continued.

We then walked back towards Upper Yanoun, and visited the home of Um Hani, to go see how they were doing as well as to purchase some freshly dried almonds. The matron of the household is not fluent in English but was a lovely hostess – serving us almonds and Arabic-style (read: overly sweet) tea. Her daughter-in-law, Fayide, was our hostess for most of our stay, and her very young son was absolutely adorable. He had all of us laughing the entire time we were there, mostly because he couldn’t decide if he liked the presence of us visitors, or didn’t like us. We returned to the International House, and Lena persuaded me to try some sheep’s milk… which was a MASSIVE mistake. I am told that the look on my face was priceless… and while it is nice to know that I brought smiles to the faces of the EAPPI people, I strongly caution people against trying it in the West Bank, to put it very politely.

All of that said, my weekend at Yanoun was a positive experience – it was difficult to see what the inhabitants there are still forced to live through, but the world is slowly starting to realize that the settlers need to be stopped and now. The next visitors to Yanoun after I left? German political advisers, gathering additional evidence to back their recent public call to stop Israeli settlements.

I hope you enjoy the photographs I took: although the reality of the situation in Yanoun is difficult to accept, the area was breathtakingly beautiful.

The alternate title for this post was going to be “Areas, Areas Everywhere.”

Why, you might ask? Because although my previous posts have speculated about the difficulties of living in the West Bank and traveling for the Palestinian people (and me, and other internationals), I have never actually laid out the official rules regarding the governance of the West Bank (because I figured since I know them, everyone does… which is not a fair thing to assume).

Under the Oslo Accords (which, the more I see them implemented on the ground, the more I think it was a mistake for both sides in many ways), the West Bank was split into three areas of political governance. Area A is land directly under the control of the Palestinian Authority. Area B is in some cases under Palestinian control, but usually has anywhere from partial to nearly-complete ruling based on the Israeli military. Area C is fully under the military occupation of the IDF, which runs a military judicial system in lieu of a civil one, and thus lets all sorts of settlers do whatever they please in the area.

The checkpoints one hears about in the news are well-fortified areas on main roads where the IDF mans cement fortified guard booths, with their M16s pointed at oncoming traffic while one of their compatriots stands aside and motions cars ahead one by one, to check papers, and sometimes trunks, and sometimes full body searches. Not so pleasant to go through, to say the very least.

For more details, I encourage you to go check out this report by the Israeli peace group Peace Now (so therefore more solid facts and less editorializing that a more biased group might put into this sort of report).

The reality of the West Bank (not even thinking of Gaza, which is fenced and walled in and surrounded by quite a few guns) – it is well and truly a military occupation for all of Area C, and a fair portion of both Area A and Area B. Israelis and supporters of Israel will be inclined to refute the preceding sentence, perhaps making claims that “it is necessary for security” or something similar. While they are welcome to their opinions, I would suggest two things. First of all, I have gone through the Calendia checkpoint into Jerusalem multiple times, and once near a group of Jewish American people. They were outraged that they had to wait in such a large press of people to get through, and couldn’t fathom why they wasn’t a quicker line for American people, since “we didn’t do anything wrong so why do we have to wait?” American impatience aside, perhaps they need to more carefully listen to what they themselves said; well golly gee, could it possibly be that maybe the majority of Palestinian are just as innocent and therefore are also highly inconvenienced and psychologically-hurt from constantly being treated like a probable criminal? Perhaps they too would like to have a “fast line” for the innocent – and I can guarantee you, the majority of them would pass through that line and be just as innocent when they came out as when they entered the queue.

Secondly, for those advocates of “security” via the checkpoint/military occupation method, I would challenge them to go through one of those checkpoints, just once. No need to go far out into the West Bank – just go out of Calendia and then join the line to come back in. Be prepared – it takes a very long time, sometimes several hours. Be prepared to enter what is essentially a prison (or far worse, depending on what one makes of what they see). You will come up to a warehouse, and then enter a queue to go through extremely narrow metal fences. Like, my shoulders are broad enough where I am almost forced to walk through at an angle. The huge metal bars of the fence are accompanied by metal fencing across the top of the vertical walls, thus caging a person in (think like a prison, or far, far worse). At the end of this narrow Alcatraz-style corridor is a turnstile with ratchets (to only allow people to go in), and with an electronic locking mechanism to only allow a certain number of people through at a time. I shudder when I think about the number of lives that would be lost in the event of a fire in that hellhole.

Passing through the first turnstile, the mood was set by a girl in the IDF screaming in the microphone (from within her tank-armored little building) at a pair of Palestinian mothers with twins trying to get her attention to let them through the handicapped with their stroller. The girl in the IDF was rudely calling for someone who spoke both Hebrew and Arabic to show themselves and assist the IDF with its business… because 1) why would they assign Arabic-speakers to a checkpoint used almost completely by Arabic people; and 2) why would politeness be a good idea when attempting to solicit help from the people around her? Anyways, with the cacophony of her shrill interrogative speech in the background, I cued up underneath a bank of 5 CCTV cameras, always watching everyone in the place. If the high metal fences, barbed wire, steel armor-plated command rooms, and low-sound quality police-style loudspeakers didn’t already make the character of the place clear, the fact that we were constantly being watched only added to the “fun” of the experience.

There was a man several people ahead of me who got through with two other Arab guys, as they only let 3 people through Security Turnstile #2 at a time. This poor man was late for some sort of important meeting, I gleaned from the people in the crowd around me. He had papers with him, and yet after politely explaining himself, and then more hurriedly pleading, then outright yelling, then begging to be let through, the soldiers would not let him pass. As a matter of fact, they told him that he would have to pass through the Huwarra checkpoint before getting into Jerusalem again. Well, “they” isn’t quite right – an IDF grunt came out of his armored room with full battle gear and weapon at the ready to “explain.” The individual who called himself a soldier added insult to injury – while telling the man what he needed to do, he refused to make eye contact with him even once. I cannot explain why – perhaps he is very racist and doesn’t like Arabs (which I have seen in soldiers here), but more likely he was uncomfortable that he was the one chosen to tell this poor man he had to go all the way to Huwarra. Huwarra, where the Arab guy just came from. Huwarra, which is an hour and 15 minutes drive to the north. The dejected man left and started to the north… again, because he had no choice when the “legitimized” force of the military compelled him to do so.

This would all be accompanied by photographs, but the IDF doesn’t take kindly to people recording the truth.

I suppose that there is only one way to end this post – I truly have to pose the following question, as many people seem to have never thought of it. At the end of the day, it is truly worth treating human beings like hardened criminals and animals, and forcing them to wait for long periods of time for a sort of Russian Roulette to get see if they’ll get through the gate this time? Besides the fact that this only causes hurt and doesn’t create too much in the way of “security,” consider the further implications. Do supporters of the military occupation as a method of achieving “security” REALLY believe that treating the innocent, both young and old, like prisoners is really going to incline them to want to like Israel, or coexist with Israel, or even acknowledge Israel as a country; as an equal?

Watchtower and High Fences

This past Tuesday afternoon represented the culmination of a lot of work on my part, and additional motivation to go the last few miles and finish my Hell paper strong. Yesterday was the Honor’s Program Research Symposium, where the 5 students in the program were supposed to present the research they had done for their papers.

I opened the event with my presentation; I encourage you to watch the video of my speaking below, as it is a minor miracle. The week leading up to yesterday, I didn’t get to sleep earlier than 4 AM on any of those nights due to multiple assignments and my application to lead a trip to Vietnam this coming winter (hence the existence of an Exploratorius Vietnam, to be filled come January). As a matter of fact, I was up until 6:45 AM the morning of the presentation, finishing up bits of it and getting things done, so the fact that I gave the presentation without going into a coma was surprising, to say the least.

Other than my presentation “From GeHinnom to Hell: An Etymological and Conceptual History,” there were four other presentations given. After my talk was Micah, who hadn’t written a paper but instead presented preliminary research for his intended undergraduate thesis; a look into race relations and the Spanish Inquisition. After him, we got to hear Angela’s presentation on mainline Protestant churches (i.e. ELCA, PCUSA, and the Episcopalians) and their theology regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The fourth presenter was Keenan, who had a fascinating talk on the constantly-evolving state of religious law (his two examples were excellent: 1) the thousand-year absence of the special blue die for tzitzit; and 2) an inquiry into just how and why the Pope of the Catholic Church has managed to attain Papal Infallibility, and the implications therein. Soly, who hadn’t originally planned on presenting, decided to go to the front and do a short impromptu presentation on the general methods of governance in Islamic states and why, which although short, was quite interesting.

Here is the PDF of my paper, for those people interested in reading it. The photo gallery will eventually be expanded to include a photograph of the cover of the publication my paper ends up in, as has been explained to me by Dr. Knafo of the Honor’s program.

(you need to right-click the link, and then choose “Save link as” in order to get the PDF to download properly)

From GeHinnom to Hell

Creative Commons License
From Gehinnom to Hell: An Etymological and Conceptual History by Michael A. Repas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

(embedded youtube videos from Keenan will be here in the near future)

Here are a few photographs taken by Yoni Kaplan, head of the Rothberg School (drawn from here, so go check out the rest):


מִי – In Hebrew, “mi” corresponds with “who” in English

כָ – “kah,” a shortened form of the preposition “coma,” it means “is/are like”

אֵל – “El,” one of the shortened forms of the name of God in the Old Testament (often “Elohim”)

Read as one, and contrary to modern translations of this name (which seem to imply that the name “Michael” is denoting God-like qualities to the bearer of the name), “mi-cha-el” translates as a vital question for all people; “Who is like God?” Read with a certain inflection, one might even translate this less literally and go for meaning, coming up with the equally vital concern: “Who is God like?”

Although ancient Judaism/pre-Judaism Israelite religion is not alone in assigning deep importance to a person and their name, I suppose I am partially tied into that tradition, having a Hebraic name after all. Case in point – King Saul, of the Book of Samuel and predecessor to King David fame. Saul is anglicized for “Sha’ul,” which is a derivative for the Hebrew verb “to ask.” The pivotal part of his life on Earth was his asking of Samuel where he could find the local man of God; Samuel informed Saul that he came to the right place, and thus anointed him. I am not personally planning on seeking out a prophet of God and looking for the annunciation required to be crowned King of Judah and Israel; I just point out that there is a huge importance placed on a person’s name as determining their pathway through life.

I can promise you, my readers, that my time here in Israel/Palestine has really, truly, deeply forced me to come to terms with this question thrust upon me by my name, and grapple with it in a different way then ever before. As my beloved SIS advisor Julie warned me while I was still considering coming here for this spring, “this is a hard place to live.” That may actually qualify as the understatement of this era; being non-Jewish and studying abroad at the Hebrew University already puts me in a minority of a very few people. Being Christian puts me into another, smaller minority; being a Christian who isn’t a Christian Zionist puts me into a REALLY small minority. Being a Christian who doesn’t completely take the Palestinian side either might actually put me in the unenviable position of being a minority of 1, for nearly six months now. So from my position of refusing to take political “sides,” I instead adhere to the “human side,” as that is really the only side ever worth taking.

Unfortunately, in the face of such a belief, I have continually witnessed the worst of humanity rearing its ugly head in all sorts of ways while I have been here. I have been shown the greatest of hospitality by Israeli families, and then had our dialogue turn into a situation where I received a two-hour-long moral lecture on how I must understand and therefore feel about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I have been shown hospitality in a refugee camp for Palestinians, run by the United Nations, but them I was also shown to the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade where they venerate people killed for resisting the oppressive force of the IDF. I have been mistreated by something like 60% of the Israeli police and IDF I have yet come into contact with, as I am never doing anything wrong and yet I am continually barred from enjoying pilgrimage sites, tourist locations, and even walk where I want to. I have watched Arab guys in a car cuss out Hasidic Jewish guys, who replied in kind by offering some select arm motions. I have friends who have witnessed a fire in the Old City of Jerusalem which destroyed a Palestinian home next to an Israeli school, and Jewish people stood by and watched without doing anything. I am always reminded by very pro-Israeli individuals of the 1000-day plight of a conscripted Israeli soldier, stuck a prisoner somewhere in Gaza. I have witnessed all of this, and far worse.

I have also been to the Dominus Flevit, the chapel built on the spot where Jesus is said to have wept over Jerusalem. Perhaps this is one clue to the character of God – humans being graced with the blessing and curse of free will, perhaps God is compelled to watch the horror of the news just as often as people do in the world. I once attended a sermon at the National Cathedral where the preacher made use of hyperbole – he repeated the phrase “Jesus weeps for them” after each conflict situation/disaster situation on his list of 25 items. He overdid it, and I don’t entirely agree with the message he was sending – he advocated prayer and meditation upon these problems in the world.

Why do I disagree with him? First of all, because I can read the next few verses after the aforementioned ones; the verses telling us that Jesus wept over Jerusalem and then went down into the Second Temple to throw the money changers and usurers out of the antechamber to the Temple. I am aware of the fact that Jesus is reported as advocating prayer in a variety of situations; while I do not fault others for accepting this premise, I can no longer accept it myself. I have been to far too many church services on different continents where the message was one of sitting back and praying that things improve, and then forgetting about the problems of the world. If people are truly created in God’s image, that means we have a touch of desiring to help others about us, something that gets shoved to the background far too often. Having walked around Nazareth and taken on part of the shame of being looked down on as a Christian with my Arab-Israeli Christian friend, I can honestly tell you that I utterly rebuke some of those churches I have been to in my life. Two Christmases ago, I went to Texas to visit a friend and we decided to go to a Southern Baptist megachurch, just for the experience. I don’t know whether it was the Bentley in the pastor’s parking spot; or the fact that their “church” had an attached gymnasium and several cafes and bookstores; or the fact that his “sermon” on the “7 things you need to do to be like Jesus” failed to include or even hint at “humility,” but something about that place made me embarrassed to even consider myself a Christian. I hate to break it to you, folks, but Jesus backed up his lofty moral ideals with direct action: he said to forgive people their sins, and then he sat down and dined with the lowest of the low in Kingdom of Judah society. He consistently made the claim that God is a loving God, and he acted this out by looking after people (feeding 5,000, for one small example). Perhaps the “Christians” of this world would benefit from a little bit more rolling-up of their sleeves to take care of other people, and a little bit less Old Testament-style condemnation of the people around them. Maybe.

And, having explained just how much I see that is wrong in the world, I end with three short, positive anecdotes. 1) Rami, a guy who grew up in Balata, is 21 and a university student of psychology and sociology. Why? Because he wants to go back and help the people he grew up with deal with the intense stress life puts on them every day. When I asked him what he thinks about this conflict, he looked at me sadly and told me something that matches up with my views: both sides need to apologize and repent of morally unjust actions, there needs to be governmental changes and revisions, and there needs to be one state where people live together as neighbors. Anything else is a dead end and will only prolong this conflict. Is he going to fix everything? No, but at least he is trying. 2) This news story, although slightly older, is a vital sign of the possibility of change for the better here. If Israeli Defense Force commandos from the IDF’s most prestigious unit will publicly come out and acknowledge that there is morally-unjustifiable action occurring, then perhaps more people can one day acknowledge the same thing, and thus enact change. 3) Finally, and most personally, my personal sanity and continued ability to function normally has been derived from increasingly larger amounts of time spent doing service work here in Israel AND the West Bank, and listening to many people’s hopes, dreams, and fears. It is intensely frustrating to be relegated only able to help a few people a little bit, and only some of the time, but it is the reality of my current situation in life. Although much of what there is to see here is negative (don’t get me wrong, there have been good times too), at the very least I will come away from this semester absolutely certain in the knowledge that I am set up for international religious aidwork of some sort.

I remain here in Jerusalem, working on final papers and finalizing my plans for this summer (hopefully traveling to nations around Israel – more on this later). I also remain here in Jerusalem, grappling and wrestling with who God is really like, as I probably shall continue to do for the remainder of my life.

What is in a name?

For Théo’s birthday, which was a few weeks earlier, a couple of us decided to go up to Haifa for a soccer game. He is a huge fan of soccer, and Justine, Eti, and I are also big fans, so it promised to be a good time.

We left Jerusalem very early, at like 4 in the afternoon, because Eti explained that getting seats at an Israeli soccer game is not so easy as having tickets – you might have a seat number on your ticket, but getting said seat all depends on getting there early enough. We took the bus up to Haifa, which was a fairly smooth trip. Arriving, Mr. Pitilon picked us up and drove us towards the stadium. As a former cab driver, he knows all the best nooks and crannies to park one’s car in the city, and we got the ideal mix between close proximity to the stadium/ease of driving away afterwards ratio.

We walked up to the stadium (which in typically Israeli fashion looked more like a prison than a sports venue, with high concrete walls, barbed wire, CCTV cameras, and machine gun-wielding police all over the place), and waited to get our tickets. Again, in typical Israeli fashion, they compartmentalized all the entrances to the stadium so that you had to enter into the stadium by the gate closest to your seat, thus allowing for many, many more security guards and quick lines. I was livid, though – they told me I couldn’t bring my water bottle into the stadium (I understand the “make people buy overpriced beverages” line of business), but they wouldn’t even let me bring it in empty. I have carried that water bottle across a couple of continents now, and it has served me well. I tossed it off behind a pillar and was luckily able to retrieve it later, but the principle of the matter still irked me.

We got inside very early (by like 2 hours) and got our seats, and watched the stadium start filling up slowly. Then, it began to fill more quickly. Then the floodgates REALLY opened (as the ticket office fixed several of the printers which had wonked out at the same time), and suddenly the stadium was FULL. Not like “every seat with a person” – more like “every seat with at least one person, and then the stairs and walkways filled with people on their feet the entire game. Full.

The game started in earnest, and was enjoyable experience. It was entertaining to watch portions of the stadium all grasp their heads in anguish as if choreographed – if Haifa missed a shot, the green portions of the stadium would simultaneously all be outraged. Haifa was definitely the better team for the entire game, with the only factor preventing a bigger disparity in end scores being the Tel Aviv goalie.

It was a long, long, long trip back to Jerusalem, with a car ride, a train ride, and a shared taxi ride all involved. I eventually got into my room and thus had my first experience of being awake late enough in Jerusalem to hear the Al Aqsa call to prayer for the really devout Muslims. As the next post will explain, it was to be the first of 8 consecutive nights being up past 4 AM, but the only one of those nights not spent working the whole way through.

Here is a short video I took, of the end of one Haifa soccer chant that involved the two halves of the stadium responsively yelling; the second part is the ever popular “haYarok Oley,” or “the Green is on the rise,” referring to Haifa’s team colors.

And a couple of photographs I took – the best one is the shot I got of the Tel Aviv goalie missing one of the shots, what ended up being the winning goal for Haifa.

Preemptively, please take note of the intended specific use of “attempted” in the title, and know that my respect for the IDF, Israeli police, and “security” guards just dropped another 5 or maybe 6 notches.

After a grueling week of working on papers, the Vietnam trip application, and a million things in between, I had a bright spot scheduled into my week. As Pope Benedict’s visit to Israel was only the third time in history that a Pope would visit this land, I desperately wanted to see and ideally hear him speak. I was in luck; my neighbor in Reznik is an Israeli-Arab Christian (that is one heck of a mix, right?), named George. He is a native of Nazareth, where the Pope was to speak on Thursday of his time here, and George’s family was nice enough to secure a ticket for me as well (we had been planning on this trip for over a month). As a matter of fact, my Class B1 (don’t know what that refers to) ticket is number 11901. I was all set and ready to go, and George assured me that leaving very early the morning of the event would leave me plenty of time. A mistake, as it turned out.

From the moment I walked out of my dorm at 7:05 AM, I was already accosted by IDF units lining the streets on Mount Scopus. As a short background, the only helipad in Jerusalem is adjacent to the Kfar haStudentim, the Student Village; given that the Pope was staying on the Mount of Olives, his route took him across the campus every day twice, which meant they absolutely closed down the place like a military prison. Therefore, instead of being able to simply walk down the hill to a bus (no traffic on the hill meant NO traffic), I had to waste 30 minutes explaining in Hebrew that yes, I had a ticket to go see the Pope, and yes, I realize that he was going to be driving this way soon, and yes I realize that the buses aren’t running on the hill, and yes I know I have to walk to a bus… as was my original intention. A lovely start to the day. It got worse; I was told to get on the wrong bus for the Israeli Central Bus Station, and thus eventually asked, found out I was misinformed, and jumped off the bus and took a cab over to the right place. I ran upstairs to the upper level and found… that the last bus towards Nazareth had recently departed, and although it was 8:12 AM, I had to wait until 9:30 AM for the next bus. Lovely.

One of the few high points of the day was the fact that the Jerusalem-Afula (the nearest drop point to Nazareth) was running on time, and quickly to boot. We got there a bit faster than the given transit time, and then I ran over and caught the connecting bus to Nazareth. As we approached, I saw massive impromptu parking lots on farmer’s fields, and police restricting traffic very much so, only allowing vehicles to approach Nazareth South. Fair enough, as the Mount of the Precipice (where the crowds gathered to hear the Pope) is on the northern part of the city. The driver let me off, and I could already see the massive 70,000 person crowd about 2 kilometers away. What was insane is that I could also hear them singing hymns from that distance… I have trouble imagining the noise to be within that crowd. I asked a policeman (in Hebrew mind you) how to get to the Pope, and he disinterestedly told me that he wasn’t from there, and didn’t know. Lovely. I started wandering towards the general direction of the hill, and picked one side of the street to wander down. That ended up being a mistake.

I arrive at the bottom of the hill, having noticed along the way that the street was gradually becoming more fortified, with police officers lining temporary metal barricades and preventing me or anyone else from crossing. I politely explain that I a Christian pilgrim, with both a Bible on me AND an authentic ticket to see the Pope, and they respond gruffly that I can “go through in a couple of moments.” Israelis and Arabs are less polite; they attempt to cross. They are made to back up and get behind the barricades by police threats of force, at which point the scum that had police uniforms on resumed asking how each other’s families were doing and other small talk. So it was a “dangerous” situation for Christian pilgrims, dehydrated tourists, and natives of the town to try and cross, but not so dangerous that those bastard police would need to be on the look-out for much of anything.

To make a long, deeply- and intensely-frustrating story short, I was trapped behind that barrier for 3 hours. I did not get to walk the last kilometer and see the Pope, even though I had a ticket and could see the area of the crowds and his stage from where I was trapped by the unnecessary, highly offensive use of oppressive police force. For 2 hours and 45 minutes, no one used the road. In the last 15 minutes, the Papal limousines drove by to pick up Benedict and his entourage. Apparently, seeing the Pope was not on the list of allowed actions by those so-called “police,” who seemed to derive pleasure from blindly but unwisely enforcing orders and thus creating visible distress amongst the dozens of people who just wanted to cross.

That tale of woe, finished, I also have to report that beyond the predominantly-Jewish police forces and soldiers preventing me from seeing the Pope all day long, George and I met up and walked around for a little while and had some “balancing out” by Muslim people around Nazareth. To be more clear: George was raised speaking Arabic, so he always knows what other Arabs are saying. I am clearly not Arabic, and he had a white-and-yellow Papal cap on, so we were clearly Christians in the eyes of the Muslims in the town. George explained to me that at the minimum, 80% of Muslim men and women we passed by called us either “pigs,” or “monkies,” or both in Arabic, due to our being Christian. This was just what I needed – after being treated like a criminal all day and thus losing the opportunity to see the Pope in the land of Israel for the third time in all of history, I really desired and required to be labeled a “pig and a monkey,” based on my religious beliefs. This wasn’t all; the Muslims who lived closest to the Greek Orthodox church said to house the original well from Mary and Joseph’s house decided to more clearly and openly signal their dislike for the Christian presence. They set up 2 subwoofers taller than I am, and blasted Latin American dance music pointing at the church, at an unthinkable level for even a party. The entire town square was rattling, and the message was clear: Christians aren’t welcome in the town of Jesus, according to the local Muslim population.

Days like that one make it harder and harder for me to fight what is right in this world. Having done nothing wrong, I was mistreated all day due to my lack of having a certain religion… I can only begin to fathom just how terrible life must be on average for George. To give more specific evidence, we met up after he got out of the Papal speeches and he had tears in his eyes: he explained to me that it was the most wonderful feeling in the entire world to feel like part of the majority and not a despised minority, if only for a few hours. I can almost tell you that hearing him say that and truly mean it almost made the rest of the day’s injustices easier bear, in a way. His family has invited me to stay at their house and tour the town when it ISN’T locked down tighter than the Guantanamo Prison… an offer I will take them up on, and hopefully blog about in the future.

At the end of the week when I visited Nablus and so forth (the preceding 3 posts here), I attended the second talk put on by the Honor’s Program here. One of the professors in Rothberg is a psychologist who focuses on creativity as one of her primary teaching topics, and thus she was the ideal candidate for a presentation for us, given our Program’s theme of creativity for the semester.

As it turns out, much of what she taught us I had previously learned in two courses at AU: “Psychology as Science,” and “Language and the Human Experience.” Therefore, the lecture part of the event was less intriguing to me, but the papers she handed out were fascinating. The best of the papers she handed out had multiple sets of three words, and we had to come up with a fourth. As drawn directly from the sheet’s instructions and contents, have a look at what I mean:

Directions: Find a fourth word that is related to all three words listed below. For example, what word is related to “cookies, sixteen, heart?” The answer is “sweet.” Cookies are sweet; sweet is part of the word “sweetheart” and the phrase “sweet sixteen.”

Do this in 10 minutes.

1) surprise, line, birthday
2) base, snow, dance
3) rat, blue, cottage
4) nap, rig, call
5) golf, foot, country
6) house, weary, ape
7) tiger, plate, news
8 ) painting, bowl, nail
9) proof, sea, priest
10) maple, beef, loaf
11) oak, show, plan
12) light, village, golf
13) merry, out, up
14) cheese, courage, oven
15) red, star, house

And, now a short poll so there is a space between questions and answers:

1) party
2) ball
3) cheese
4) cat
5) club
6) dog
7) paper
8 ) finger
9) high
10) sugar
11) floor
12) green
13) make
14) Dutch
15) light

Leaving Balata with a couple of the friends we had made, we got into a couple of taxis for the short distance ride over to the nearby city of Nablus (maybe 2 kilometers away?). We got out of the taxis in the main square of the city, and I was finally in one of the largest Palestinian cities, one that is firmly pro-independent Palestine. The square itself was a testament to this; the banners and crisscrossing lines with small flags depicting the colors and symbols of the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, the Palestinian National Liberation Front, and a couple other groups which have resorted to political violence. As per usual with Palestinian places, I was again immersed in a much more real type of “bustle” than any Israeli or American city could ever claim. People walking past and in between and around and through each other, all on their way to something but with a completely different sense of “personal space” and the lessened necessity of feeling the need to be on time. We met up with an acquaintance of the guys from Balata, a Brazilian man who works as a tour guide, or more accurately, head of public relations for Nablus. With him as our volunteer guide, we got quite the amazing tour of the Old City there that we couldn’t have gotten otherwise.

That guy knew EVERYONE.

Our first stop was an unexpected one; just like every other stop. We went into an olive oil soap factory, apparently a large part of the economy of Nablus (or at least it once was). We went inside a huge building where the the smell of olive oil was in the air, and got to walk in and amongst the boiling contraptions that prepared the oil for turning into soap. We walked up very narrow stairs that were slick with spilled olive oil, as all of the movement of things between levels of the building are done manually. The upstairs room of that soap factory is one of the coolest places ever… like the sort of place that is the dream of every child (and not a few adults), as half the floor is taken up by a giant cooling-to-a-solid retaining area for soap, and the other half is slippery enough that it puts most ice skating rinks to shame. Yes, even though I am now 21 (!), my shoes were worn down enough that I did me a little bit of “soap” skating, as it were. We slid on over to the next room over, which can only be described as the soap cooling towers room. They stack up the soap into chimney-like structures, and leave them there to age – as we were told, soap needs to be aged like fine wine, especially since they only offer fine soap 😀

We each bought some of the soap (which I have yet to use, now that I think about it), and departed for our next stop… a walking tour through parts of the Old City of Nablus. Amongst other things, we saw a famous old mosque whose name escapes me at the moment (but you can see it too in the photos); we also walked by an unbelievable number of small shrines and commemorative monuments to people, innocent or engaged in (sometimes armed) political opposition to the state of Israel, who have been killed. Although I don’t particularly appreciate the fact that many of those memorials have weapons and guns and calls to continue fighting as part of them, it was overwhelming to never walk more than 20 meters without seeing another plaque proclaiming that this person was killed at this spot by the IDF on this date. These were no fakes or mere propaganda, either – many of these sites, and plenty of stretches of walls in between were riddled with bullet holes. Hearing some of the accompanying stories to the destruction we witnessed was also horrifying. Attached is a photograph of a house undergoing reconstruction for the 11th time… and the 9th time it was destroyed, it was bulldozed by the IDF without any warning given to the occupants. The mother and 7 of the daughters of that family died, leaving a father with one son and his last surviving daughter to try and pick up the pieces. Perhaps it is “understandable” for outsiders and Israelis to subscribe to the “security” argument, but think for a moment – what good came of that IDF incursion? Innocent people were killed in a very graphic and public way; private property was treated with callous disregard and destroyed (again); the IDF didn’t get whichever alleged terrorist they were looking for; and maybe 1, maybe 5, maybe 20 more residents of the West Bank now had additional impetus to consider political violence as their only course of action. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard an Israeli/foreign supporter of Israel tell me that “this is what those terrorists do to us; how can we make peace with them?” in a tone of moral indignation and with the assumption of automatically holding the moral high ground. Now, forgive me for trying to apply systematics to my experiences and the way the world works, but is it so different for innocent people to get killed by a terrorist attack with a bomb (thus destroying a building) as compared with other innocent people getting killed by a bulldozer (thus destroying a building as well)? Did either of the sets of innocent people have any warning? Did either of the sets of innocent people do anything wrong? This is the point in time when far too many people I know would make an “it was in the name of security” argument, which I categorically reject. That sort of argument has the built-in assumption that somehow it is worse for innocent Israelis to die as compared with innocent Palestinians, which is racism at its ugliest (particularly since I routinely hear these sorts of sentiments from individuals who are in the liberal American system of higher education, supposedly).

That put out there for your consideration, we eventually stopped into another outstanding little anomaly… a former British Mandate prison converted into a candy factory. Nablus, it seems, is known as the “sweetest city in the West Bank,” as it apparently adds sugar to EVERYTHING. As my experiences that afternoon proved to be true. The candy factory was probably the best-smelling place I have ever been… imagine going into a place where very fine sugar powder and dust is in the air constantly, so the very air you breath in is a riot of various [delicious] flavors and sugary heaven, essentially. We also had some candied chickpeas, which were surprisingly delicious.

We stopped into a spice factory and retail shop, which holds a special place in my heart: to date, of all the places I have been in my life, this one wins the Most Eclectic Pile of Stuff award. As you can see in the photographs, they had everything from authentic Turkish fez and scimitars (check out the photo of me modeling them, Ralph Lauren-style) to World War II artillery shell casings-turned flower vases to everything in between. The spices also made the air in that place almost too strong; one breathed in a mix of the freshest coffee, cumin, saffron, cinnamon, and then HUGE barrels-worth of zatar… it smelled good, but when mixed together, it smelled… strong, lets put it.

We visited one of the original Turkish bathhouses in the city, and since it was a men’s day (they alternate genders on different days), only a few from our group were able to go in and see. I have never been to a place as humid as it was in that area… I actually couldn’t breath, it was so hot and steam-filled. It seems like I am not cut out for working shoveling coal into any trans-Atlantic ocean-liner’s boiler room. We were told that we HAVE to return and set up appointments to get the full body treatment, as we would feel like brand-new human beings afterwards (I have to wonder if that experience will renew my warranty).

The last major stop of the day was two-fold: first we stopped and got authentic, fresh kanafeh. Let me be a bit more emphatic… our buddy the tour guide brought us into a kanafeh shop’s kitchen and put us in the way of the poor guys just trying to cook the stuff, so we would know EXACTLY what we were about to eat and why we should expect to enjoy it. And my goodness gracious did we enjoy it… it is a base of fresh goat’s cheese on top of very thin pasta, and then all sweetened with fresh honey…. Even with that description and the photos of it, I still cannot successfully impart to you just how incredibly delicious that experience was. After eating that and walking around a little bit more, we eventually went for lunch in a hole-in-the-wall place owned by a buddy of our guide… but not just any buddy. This kindly old man was 1) a really good cook and 2) a retired HARDCORE Communist from back in the day, when he did prison time under the British and so forth. Good times, and good food… although I think some of the vegetables were unwashed, as I was very, very sick for several days after returning home.

We had some intensely sweet drinks at a cafe (like, fresh lemonade + 2 lbs of sugar and then some sort of fruit syrup + whipped cream ambrosia mmmmmmm), and then departed for the long, long trip back to Jerusalem. Check out the next post for the end of the story. (I am aware that this post and the last post have some pictures not flipped the right direction; I tried fixing it and nothing worked, so they remain as they are for now)

A few weekends ago, I had the opportunity to travel with some good friends up north to the city of Nablus (I talk about that part of our visit in the next blog post) and the nearby UN refugee camp known as Balata, because of the village they still lease the land from. Operated by the UN since its creation in 1950, the camp today is incredibly large in terms of population, but extremely small physically: it is a one square kilometer piece of land with 26,000 people living on it. The official UN figure given is closer to 22,000, but they haven’t done a recent census according to the refugees who showed us around the camp. That is getting slightly ahead of myself, though; the trip to even get there is quite an endeavor in and of itself.

We departed in the early morning on Saturday, taking an Arabic bus from outside the Student Village towards the nearby Palestinian provisional capital of Ramallah (as a point of pronunciation, think “ruh-MULL-lah”). On the way, we had to pass through the massive walls around Jerusalem, and then walk through them on foot to go find a shared taxi towards the north. In the middle of Ramallah, the taxi drivers all congregate in a massive parking garage structure where there isn’t really enough room for all the vehicles present, but nevertheless they eke out a successful living based on squeezing people in between taxi vans to climb in for the ride. And what a ride it turned out to be – a whole bunch of firsts for me that day. It was the first time I got to see the very conservative fashion for Muslim women, where they wore not only a hijab (head-covering) and a long skirt, but also a veil and even gloves, to cover all skin except for their eyes. It was the first time I had driven through a large Palestinian town which was so clearly Muslim in character, so the character of the street was different than Bethlehem for example, where one could see nuns walking past Muslim girls with their hijabs. We got to see a great many settlements on our way north, since our status as foreigners afforded us the right to take the settler’s road which had much fewer roadblocks and was of much higher quality than the roads taken care of by the Palestinian Authority. The two other points of interest were things I was unable to get photographs of as we drove by so quickly. First, we drove past a small Palestinian neighborhood’s town square with a monument in the middle. It wasn’t just any monument, however; it was a stone tablet with the iconic image of Saddam Hussein firing a gun upon the front, and the Iraqi coat of arms going down the side. Not what I was expecting to see, but that is how life goes here. Speaking of which, the other point worth mentioning was that we passed by a Palestinian furniture store being raided by 10 or more IDF soldiers, but it seemed fairly calm – perhaps a “routine” check or some such? I will never know, but it was another reminder of where we were.

We had to get out of one van and into another at a certain checkpoint, and traveled the rest of the way to our final destination. We arrived in the outskirts of Nablus near the Jacob’s Well church, and walked towards the Balata camp entrance. One of my friends, Zehra, is a student who spent a summer volunteering with the people of the camp to try and alleviate the suffering of the 6,000 children there through enabling them to plan, set up, and then film short movies about whatever subject they can think of. As such, many people in the camp knew Zehra and we were treated as esteem guests. We went in and already saw the signs of problems – many of the buildings were very old already, and the first several signs of the UN looked rusty enough to be the original signs from 1950.

We got into the Cultural Center (read more about it in the next paragraph), and got a minor introduction to the state of affairs in the camp. Everyone who currently lives there is either still a refugee from the 1948 Israeli declaration of statehood, or has inherited the status from being born into the camp. Unfortunately, the presence of 26,000 people in such a small community which is only residential means that many of them are unemployed. We were told (and the following is merely reporting what we were told, not personal opinions on my behalf) that the IDF makes it their practice to invade the streets of the camp at night and either kill or make warrantless arrests of individuals from the camp. This was awful to hear, but it is also important to remember the other side of the story: Nablus and Balata have been hotbeds of active and violent resistance to the continuing Israeli occupation of the West Bank, spawning such groups as the Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade (see the photographs – I got within 10 feet of their Martyr’s Shrine with their distinctive yellow flag flying above it, which is slightly concerning in retrospect). I cannot pass an easy moral judgment on the situation, and for good reason: this entire conflict is one huge exercise in “who can you actually blame for the original wrong committed?” Is it the fault of poor and frustrated Palestinian refugees raised in an environment free of hope and opportunities? Is it the fault of Israel for continuing the occupation? Is it the fault of the British Mandate for not doing a better job at ceding their control of this area? Is it the fault of Abraham for favoring Isaac (according to the to Jewish tradition) over Ishmael (who is the favored son in the Muslim tradition)? These are only partially rhetorical, as both sides have done all sorts of things wrong. Perhaps the situation would benefit from 1) both sides being able to admit that they have done wrong and thus contributed to the situation and 2) after apologizing to the other side, working with them towards a one-state solution (a two-state solution, I am sorry to report from personal experience, is an awful idea that cannot work-more on this opinion in a future post).

Amidst all of the difficulties, there exists at least one island of calm and healing. This organization is known as the Yafa Cultural Center (YCC), and their name refers to the Arabic city of Yafa/Jaffo, which since the 1950’s expanded and grew into Tel Aviv. They named it this because many of the residents of the camp are from the city of Jaffo, and they feel the need to educate the younger generations about their culture that they were forced to leave behind, and also provide creative and constructive outlets for the rage and sensation of being powerless shared by most of the children in the camp. In addition to being staffed entirely by people who were born and grew up in the camp, the staff plans daily activities of all sorts to keep the kids busy and focused on something other than the problems. As one of our guides explained, they will fight tooth and nail to ensure that this current generation of kids grows up understanding what “hope for the future” means, as the previous generation did not. Although much of what we encountered that day was terrible and saddening and hopeless, there was a humorous detail amidst the hope of this cultural center. Apparently, using a donated computer lab, many of the children of the camp all take turns playing daily rounds of Counterstrike. I am not kidding – they spend a lot of time playing rounds of a computer game famous for placing terrorists against counter-terrorists, and the kids do this to reduce internal senses of aggression and violence that can and do arise from their situation. Having spoken with some of the kids, I can tell you that they had intense positive gains from this virtual method of letting out anger; I am intrigued by the possibility of doing some sort of study there, although the reality is that I would be not entirely safe (given the consistent IDF-resistance clashes that take place there).

I don’t know how to impart all of what I saw and hear and experienced for most of that Saturday in Balata. I have attempted to impart some of what the experience is like, but I think the only way I can even come close to truly conveying the experience is to have a conversation with interested parties in person; face-to-face. That is an offer, by the way, to whomever is so interested on my return home.

The photographs I have chosen to include offer a good mix of the positive and negative aspects of life in the Balata Camp; I just want to try and show what life is like for those 26,000 people visually.