The Colgate Scene
May 2003

Living the questions
A collection of personal stories from Jerusalem

On July 31, 2002, a bomb exploded in the cafeteria at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel, killing nine students and teachers. I had arrived in Jerusalem two weeks earlier to spend a sabbatical year in Israel on a grant from the Dorot Foundation. Since I was supposed to be on campus that day, my cell phone rang every five minutes, with calls from the concerned voices of my friends and family in both Israel and America. I could not possibly speak to every person who might be wondering whether I was among the injured or even the dead, so I sent out the following e-mail:

"I know there are a lot of you who are thinking about me and wondering whether I'm okay. I wanted to send you a quick note to let you know I am fine, that I was not near the bomb at school yesterday, and that I am doing everything I can to stay safe, as much as that is possible.

"It is hard to describe how it feels to be in Israel right now, especially to be in Jerusalem, studying at Hebrew University, the site of such a serious, awful event. On the one hand, life goes on as usual, whatever `usual' means. I went to class today, next door to the cafeteria, along with hundreds of other students. On the other hand, the flag outside my classroom is flying at half mast, providing a constant reminder of the lives that were lost here. The only way for me to live in this reality is to go on living normally, learning, [and] being with other people. It feels much scarier to sit in my apartment and read news articles online and talk on the phone to everyone who is worrying about me. I have learned quickly that sitting still, imagining scenes of terror and death, creates fear, while going out and continuing with my normal daily activity creates a stability in which my eyes can be open to what is beautiful more so than to what is horrific.

"There are beautiful things that surround me every day . . . and these are the pictures you will not see on the cover of the New York Times, or on CNN . . . the beautiful winding tree-lined streets with smells of jasmine wafting from the gardens, golden pink stone-sided houses gleaming in the light as the sun goes down in Jerusalem, families celebrating Shabbat in the light breeze on their balconies at night, students preparing for a new year of classes, people sitting, laughing, drinking a strong cup of coffee in a cafe, friends being there for each other and people living through hard times together, reacting in all their individual ways, many of which are quite loving and supportive. Please know that this is most of what I see every day, and I feel lucky and blessed to witness such life! I will stay in touch with you throughout the year, and share with you my observations, feelings and opinions as they are felt and formed."

Indeed, my time in Israel is about observing, feeling and engaging the questions that arise about the state, the land, the people, the conflict and the history. I am meeting people and having difficult conversations, reading and listening to a variety of news sources, watching documentaries by Israelis and Palestinians, reading articles, stories and histories, and traveling to parts of the country that are shrouded in a terrible mystique cast more by stereotype and fear than actual reality. I am paying attention to what people say, what informs their experience, and where their fears and hopes originate. Most of all, I am challenging my own notions, struggling not to allow my fears to control me, and attempting to live the questions that arise for me every day.

Shortly after the bombing at Hebrew University, I accompanied a Palestinian classmate on a visit to her family in Calendia Refugee Camp, just outside Jerusalem on the road to Ramallah. Though I had been told that this is a dangerous trip for a Jewish American woman to make, I wanted to know firsthand what it is like for the thousands of Palestinians who have to cross checkpoints every day just to get home, or go to work. As we squeezed our way to the front of the long line, three Israeli soldiers no older than 19 shouted and pointed guns at us, but then only glanced at our identification before letting us through. I wondered whether the job of the checkpoint soldier is more about intimidation and humiliation than it is about security.

But what about security? What about my Israeli friend Meron, who while on reserve duty at the Nablus checkpoint stopped a Palestinian ambulance and found a pile of explosives beneath the body of an elderly woman who had died of natural causes? While I was at the Calendia checkpoint I wanted some reassurance that someone is doing something to make sure the terrorists do not get across the border. I am angry that there is a group of Palestinians who think it is better to kill us and celebrate our deaths rather than try to find a way to live together. On a daily basis I do not walk around in fear. But, then again, I am walking -- I am not taking the buses, and I resent that I have been forced to adapt to live in a place where it is not safe to take the buses.

I am one individual . . . trying to grapple every day with the questions of what is right, and what is feasible . . .

Realities, visions, points of view
As part of my fellowship, I have the opportunity to volunteer with the nonprofit, social service organization of my choice. Based on my desire to better understand how different people are experiencing and dealing with the reality of the conflict in Israel, I am facilitating the Women's Dialogue Group of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel. The group is composed of six Palestinians and six Israelis, all of whom live in Jerusalem: East and West. They are professional, educated, amazing, dedicated women who are unwilling to passively accept the situation as it stands in Israel, and are instead motivated to listen to each other's realities and share each other's visions.

At our first meeting I asked them to talk about their lives in Jerusalem today. Their own words reveal the spectrum of their realities:

  • As a woman I feel I need to do something to change the situation.
  • I feel imprisoned.
  • I have a desire for people to accept me and mind their own business.
  • I experience daily humiliation.
  • In general I am happy, but there is nowhere safe to go.
  • I think we are rejecting each other.
  • I believe in the possibility of change.
  • I am angry.
  • I am afraid to make relations with my neighbors.
  • I am divided — the city is divided, and my feelings and experiences are divided.
  • I am ambivalent.

In comparison, the collective picture they then drew of their visions for Jerusalem in the future presented an optimistic portrait of unity:

  • We live in a shared Jerusalem, where there is trust, safety and equality in everything. We live together; we don't have to cut ourselves in half. We interact with each other and exchange our talents and gifts; we relate to one another with respect, but we do not interfere with each other's lives.
  • There are no tanks, no guns, no soldiers, no walls, no religious domination. Arafat and Sharon are living on a deserted island somewhere far away. Everyone is safe; no one feels threatened.
  • Through our different religions we are working together with open minds, spirits and hearts. This is a sacred, shared city, with free access to all places, both holy and fun, where hope, happiness and creativity abound in an open city.
  • Our shared city is a mother who never gives up hope, an olive tree that always bears fruit.
  • Our hearts and minds are able to agree.

Getting to know these women as individuals has helped me to see how reality can be bent like light in a mirror, where different images are reflected depending on who is looking through the glass. They have taught me that the Israeli soldier who represents the violent and humiliating occupation that prevents one child from getting to school in the morning is also the protection and security that enables another child to travel safely home from school in the afternoon. What people here see depends upon their point of view.

What is right, what is feasible
One day in December I was sitting on a couch in Zuriyah's home in Kfar Kara, an Arab village in the center of the country. She asked me why I had come to Israel, and why I was working with the women's group. I told her that when I am in the United States I feel a very live connection to the state of Israel, its conflict and its future, and that being here, in the land, doing something about it, addresses a visceral need in me. Zuriyah asked me about my identification to the state of Israel: did I mean the state, the country, the political entity, or did I mean the Jewish people? Because if I meant the latter, the Jewish people, then my connection and my identification and my desire to do something for and with the state of Israel excludes her, a Muslim Arab Israeli. But if I meant the state as a whole, then she is part of my concern, and part of my work. In that moment I felt the heat of her insight as it became a spotlight on me. I answered her with the newly realized truth that I do mean both: that I have come to understand my desire to heal the wounds of the state of Israel as a non-discriminating desire to repair the lives of all those people who call this land their home.

Samah is a religious Muslim woman about my age, who lives in East Jerusalem and is studying to be the first female Palestinian psychiatrist while traveling around the world educating Muslims about the imperative for nonviolent resistance to what she calls "the military occupation of her people's homeland." In addition to sharing stories about our families and plans for our careers, Samah and I have spent a lot of time discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in particular about doing, as she puts it, what is right rather than just settling for what is feasible. For her this means ending the occupation: the whole thing, as she sees it, from coast to coast, effectively dismantling the state of Israel and replacing it with a non-religious -- neither Jewish nor Muslim -- multicultural state whose every citizen enjoys the same rights and freedoms. It is hard to disagree with her when I consider that the state of Israel was created on a land inhabited by thousands, even millions, of people who had lived here for more generations than I can even trace my family. And today, any Jew in the world can become a citizen of Israel, build a home, get state subsidized health insurance, even monetary incentives to live here, and [Samah], whose grandparents grew up here, is forced to live behind a wall and under a government-issued curfew.

Yet, I can't join Samah's struggle because I also possess an irrational, emotional and even existential need for there to be a Jewish state. I am trying to challenge my attachment to this country as a Jewish state, and I am grappling daily with what feels like a deep need for there to be a place where Jews can live with the freedom to practice their religion and not be persecuted on the basis of it. Still, what freedom do I have as a human being, knowing that the existence of the state that was created to protect me, the daughter of generations of persecuted Jews, currently relies on military force, exclusion, violence and daily acts of oppression in order to do so?

Live the questions
On February 10, the Israeli Defense Forces reported that they caught a Palestinian man with 20 kilos of explosives strapped to his body. That same day, an IDF captain was reported killed by a group of Palestinians in Bethlehem. Israel immediately imposed a curfew on Bethlehem and closed the road between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. In their attempt to get into Jerusalem for the celebration of the Muslim festival Id al Adha, several Palestinians were shot and wounded by IDF soldiers. Upon hearing this news, I picked up the phone to call Samah, whom I knew would be crossing that checkpoint. I reached her, as did other friends of hers, and was reassured to hear that she was already in Jerusalem and had not been among those injured.

With this phone call I realized that the longing I feel to be surrounded by people whose daily concerns are the same as mine can no longer be applied according to who is doing the killing and who is being killed. There was no difference between the feeling that made my friends in New York call me after the bomb at Hebrew University and that which forced my hand to the phone upon hearing about the shooting near Bethlehem.

In his "Letters to a Young Poet," Rainer Maria Rilke advised that we try to live the questions: "Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer."

I do not purport to have any answers to the reality that is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I am neither politician nor historian. I am one individual, moving among communities and trying to grapple every day with the questions of what is right, and what is feasible, of whose land this is, and whose legacy it holds.

Amy S. Hannes '93 is a lawyer, community organizer and professional facilitator. She has spent the past 10 years living, working and studying between Cambridge, Mass. and Israel.
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