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freedom

This post is not entirely meant to be sarcastic. Earlier today, I finally escaped from the inherent evil that was my forced participation in Hebrew language classes this semester. While I understand that it is a useful way to get to know a culture, and equally useful to know the language of many people on the streets, I am going to have to echo Thomas Paine’s Common Sense:

>>And as this frequent interchange will establish a common interest with every part of the community, they will mutually and naturally support each other, and on this (not on the unmeaning name of king) depends the STRENGTH OF GOVERNMENT, AND THE HAPPINESS OF THE GOVERNED.<<

The "frequent interchange" suggested above, mentioned in terms of governmental forms and the American revolution, also failed to take place when it comes to my class list for this semester. I was subjected to the strength of the "government" (Rothberg's academic administration), and thus made to take 11 credit hours of Hebrew. Don't get me wrong – knowing some Hebrew helped me out a lot, made for some interesting linguistic pondering, and will assist me the next time I sit down and want to read the Torah the original way. In fact, for people who come here seeking to become fluent in Hebrew, the intensive language program is an excellent tool.

Again, don't get me wrong – teaching me one of the official languages of Israel was key to me getting along well and trying to prosper here. At the same time, though, I can also promise you that 11 credit hours' worth of Hebrew did nothing to contribute to the aforementioned "HAPPINESS OF THE GOVERNED," or more specifically, "me and multiple other people." In fact, our class was supposed to be the intensive course for our level of Hebrew, but at 19 people, it was the largest class of any Aleph-level Hebrew course (intense courses are supposed to be the smallest, to encourage additional speaking and listening comprehension).

Long story short, I looked at my schedule, and saw that Hebrew had finished, and I saw that it was good.

After waiting for an inordinate amount of time in a queue of vehicles waiting to get into Jerusalem, we arrived at the wall and were let out so we could join the queue of people waiting to get “processed” and let into Israel again. Before we went in, we decided to take a look at the graffiti-covered West Bank side of the wall.

There are many Israelis and visitors here who call it the “security fence,” which is faulty for a couple of reasons. It is a concrete wall on par with the Berlin wall, with much more sophisticated Israeli guard towers, and a whole lot of barbed wire on and around it. This “fence” also has the odd tendency to cut off Palestinian communities from each other by “accidentally” being constructed within the West Bank proper. The wall also means that there are closely guarded entrances and exits between the West Bank and Israel, and those are less than friendly or enjoyable places. Supporters of the wall will explain earnestly that it has kept Israelis safer, which although possibly true for the first 2 years, Shin Bet (the Israeli internal intelligence service) has reported that the decrease in attacks is due to other factors. The former defense minister, Moshe Arens, argues that the decrease in terrorist attacks stems from the IDF’s entry into the regions of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank as it would otherwise be called). Again, people are more than welcome to their opinions on anything and everything, but be sure to read the last section of this post, when I describe the “processing” experience.

We walked a little way along the wall and photographed a bunch of the artwork/graffiti, and enjoyed the sunset. Well, enjoyed it as much as was possible being stuck next to/behind a 25-foot tall concrete barrier with barbed wire at the top. Not a pleasant sight, but the reality of this situation. Hopefully, this physical wall that encourages psychological barriers between the two sides will someday fall peacefully. I am not holding my breath waiting for that eventuality, however.

Onto describing the “processing” experience. We entered a warehouse of sorts, where in typical Middle Eastern fashion there was a cone-shaped mass of people – the people closest to the entrance were the most narrow, and then everyone else jumped into the mass of people behind them. There were two very narrow corridors of metal fences, with metal fence ceilings atop them. To get inside the corridor (as one of them was closed when we got there), one had to go through a security turnstile (meaning it only ratcheted one direction, only allowing people in). That meant that once you were in the line, you were stuck as such. Then, you slowly inched your way forward as the second security turnstile unlocked every so often… that’s right, that means that 3 minutes out of every 1 were spent locked into a caged receptacle, essentially in prison. I dread to think of the absolute panic and stampede that would ensure in the case of a fire….

Getting through the very draconian first corridor, we found ourselves confronted by the next environment in this Orwellian maze. Directly in front of us and slightly above, a bank of 5 CCTV security cameras watched our every move. In front of us, 4 portals (for lack of a better term) were our choices, and we got to play Israeli Roulette on which portal would be the quickest/most free of problems to get through. After examining them, and seeing that the farthest one down (call it #4) was seemingly leaning towards at least verbal outbursts if not possible violence (the crowd over there seemed unwilling to wait any longer, understandably… this humiliating process takes a very long time to get through). We decided to try our luck with Portal #1, which as per usual was again a mass of humanity trying to get through without any semblance of the familiar Western 1) I arrive first so therefore 2) I get in line and will get through sooner. No sir. This was the Push-Your-Way-Through 2009 Championships, where the winners got to leave a claustrophobic area and then… get stuck inside security turnstile number 3. As a matter of fact, both Scott and then subsequently I got stuck in the tight enclosed space, each of us with a random Palestinian woman to whom we each apologized profusely. Given the reality of the situation (they had been pressed forward by the crowd just as much as we had), we simply bided our time and stepped through into what a room patterned on a tank mixed with a security checkpoint at an international airport. The IDF soldiers sat behind 1/2-inch thick bullet proof glass and 3/4-inch steel armor plating, and rudely demanded the passport of everyone who went through. In addition, they had a hyper-sensitive metal detector and x-ray conveyor belt for possessions to be searched. I got through after being treated like a criminal… again while having done nothing wrong… again.

The elderly Palestinian woman behind me was not so lucky. She was having difficulties walking, and painfully stepped towards the heavily armored pod the IDF sat within with her purse forgotten around her arms. That scum who called himself an “officer” in the IDF proceeded to start SCREAMING at this poor old woman, who looked around in bewilderment, as she didn’t understand what the problem was and seemed to think that someone else was trying to do something. The verbal abuse of this woman continued, until the IDF officer realized that screaming and shouting is **GASP** disconcerting, and tried pointing to her purse and asking her to put it through the x-ray machine. She complied painfully, hobbling back over to set her purse down, and then back to begin a second argument over her ID card. Heaven seems to forbid that people in the IDF treat people like human beings, I am sorry to report.

On the day after Pesach break ended, Sunday, I decided to check out a place I have heard a lot about but never been to – Eizariya, the Arabic name for “Place of Lazarus.” In the West Bank, about 6 miles from Jerusalem, this place has the traditional location of the first tomb of Lazarus, and the house of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. Scott was also interested in visiting there, so we departed Sunday using our tried-and-true method… we took the Arabic bus #1 to their central bus station, and simply asked around for the correct bus to take. In this case, it was a complex answer: we needed to take the 36 bus, but only a specific iteration of the 36, off in the corner of the smaller central depot.

Getting aboard, we slowly drove through the streets of Jerusalem, and eventually made it into the West Bank. We drove along for a little bit longer, and at some point I realized that although we were on the right bus, we really had no idea of where to get off. Being the one seated in the aisle seat (due to height issues, as one can imagine), I “volunteered” to go try and ask the driver where we needed to get off. It wasn’t that he wasn’t friendly; its just that when we asked if his was the bus to Al-Eizariya, we got an emphatic nod but no English-based response. I tried a bit in English and a bit in Hebrew, and thank God that the older Palestinian gentleman seated behind the driver heard what I was asking and pointed me in the right direction, as well as explaining to the driver where we wanted to go. It turns out that the name of the Church of Lazarus in Arabic sounds quite similar to how it would be in Hebrew, “knessia al-eizariya.”

Getting off at the suggested spot, we immediately saw where we intended to go, up a hill. The road we walked on, as you’ll see from the attached photographs, was very recently the recipient of US taxpayer assistance through the USAID program, which pleased me; it is reassuring to know that at least a small portion of the money taken by the US government is used for a good purpose. The road itself is brand new tile done from Jerusalem stone, and is a beauty to behold; it really prepares one well for the Christian and Muslim holy site they are about to enter. Walking up that new tiled road, we arrived underneath an orange sign proclaiming “the Tomb of Lazarus.” There was a gentleman who walked with crutches underneath, “asking” for a 5 shekel donation to get in, but it was clear that we needed to pay to get in. We entered the narrow corridor, and Scott was immediately accosted by an elderly pilgrim who insisted on Scott becoming his photographer.

After assisting that man with photos, we descended downwards for quite some time; close to 5 meters under the ground, actually. We arrived in a small alcove filled to the brim with Russian Orthodox pilgrims, and then a small table with votive candles and a donation box. We each were handed candles (so not really donation-based, as it were), and then attempted to go down into the tomb itself. I say attempted, as more than half of the Russian Orthodox pilgrims in the upper part of the tomb instantly and loudly admonished us, promising that “THERE’S NO ROOM FOR YOU IN THERE.” Not wanting a fight, we waited patiently until something like 8 people came out of the tiny tomb. We then proceeded down into the tomb, which was problematic for me. Being 6’4″ and wearing a backpack, I instantly handed Scott my camera and candle as he nimbly crawled down into the tomb. I then managed some 5-star contortionist acts to get in crawling on hands and knees through the very small whole leading to the Tomb itself.

Once therein, the temperature actually managed to get even warmer (a minor miracle, to be honest), and there were several alcoves with votive candles burning. There are photographs attached which do justice to just how small of a space the Tomb really is. After climbing several meters up to the street again, Scott and I noticed that we were both sweating, but breathing really heavily; like, the sort of out-of-breath that people who run a marathon have going on. Thinking for a moment, it all clicked in my head: a very small space with a small corridor leading down to it (not much air flow); a bunch of people generating heat and carbon dioxide, as well as constantly burning votive candles = a recipe to get really light-headed, if not worse. It was actually sort of scary to realize just how out of breath (partially asphyxiated, given how long we were down there) we were upon coming up again.

We wanted to get some lunch first, so we went and had some excellent chicken schnitzel at a nearby Arabic stand, for quite the cheap price of 17 shekels each (a bit more than USD $4), and thats including a can of Coca Cola per person. After eating and a discussion ranging from reactions to the neighborhood to the oddities of Newfoundland accents (as Scott explained, a “cross between Canadian and Scottish, but less comprehensible”), we departed to go and actually see the inside of the church, but ended up needing to wait for the Catholic Arabic service to end. After sitting and admiring the ancient pillars in the courtyard for a while, the service finally ended and we went in… accompanied by something like 85 Spanish-speaking tourists (at first, I couldn’t determine if they were Italian or Spanish, but then the all-telling “yo pero” came forth and truth was determined). They were just as welcome to go in as Scott and I were, but they were a different sort… Scott and I like to visit places and interact with the people there (I said “Salaam” to every member of the congregation leaving the sanctuary), while the other group in that church literally pushed congregation members out of the way in their fervor to be tourists. Its a big difference that I see all too often, and I can’t say that I appreciate the way that people act when they come to Israel or Palestine as “tourists.”

In any event, we left the church and started walking along the main road because 1) we needed the 36 bus to get back and they come somewhat infrequently; and 2) I wanted to see some more of Al Eizariya as the modern neighborhood. I hope you enjoy the attached photos of what I did get to see.

And a short video of the very end of the Muslim call to prayer from the mosque above the Tomb of Lazarus.

The photographs, as per usual with captions.

Due to the uncertainties of my Internet connection while I am here, I wasn’t able to post this video with the original post, where you can read more about what happened.

The first part of the wedding procession we caught on video, as we were caught in the middle of their procession:

and the other part, giving a glimpse of the greatly excited Muslim women singing the counter-melody to the men’s part:

These videos were both taken by Théo Cohen, and are posted here with his permission.