“It is better that you come to this part of the world and leave with a headache that lasts for weeks.” Naomi Chazan, former deputy speaker of the Knesset and current president of the New Israel Fund (and our dinnertime speaker)
We began our day by leaving Bethlehem through the checkpoint into Israel. An armed soldier boarded our bus, walking from front to back and staring at one of our number who was taking pictures, not realizing that she was being watched. When she turned and saw him, he very curtly said to her, “Are you finished? Delete it.” It was a rather tense moment. The luggage area was searched before we were permitted to proceed. When we entered Jerusalem, we picked up our morning guide, Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli attorney specializing in Israeli-Palestinian relations in Jerusalem, and the founder of Ir Amim, an NGO that furthers Jewish-Arab coexistence in Jerusalem. Daniel is a passionate advocate for a two-state solution to the troubles in Israel-Palestine, but believes that the current situation is deteriorating at such a pace that the possibility for that solution will end within 18 months to two years. As he says, “There is too much history and not enough geography.”
Daniel took us to a few of the “radioactive” spots in Jerusalem that are creating a seemingly intractable barrier to a peaceful and equitable resolution. While there is too much intricacy for me to even begin to detail here, it is clear that continued expansion of the Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem, increasingly exclusionary religious groups controlling the dialogue, and control of the religious sites are major obstacles. They are not, however, insoluble, and he believes that with the right amount of political pressure and leverage, an agreement can be reached to deal with all of the issues on the table. He said more than once that he believes US engagement to be at an all-time low in the twenty years he has been involved in his work for peace in Jerusalem, and these are not issues that can be solved without US involvement as we have a stake in this process for our own security.
After a lunch on the run (we are continually pressing our schedule to the breaking point!), we arrived at the Palestinian area of Silwan just south of the city where the City of David archaeology project has been underway for decades. Excavation of the Hezekiah (Siloam) Tunnel, built in 701 BCE to provide protection for the city’s water supply at the Pool of Siloam during the Assyrian Siege, has provided a window into the area below the Temple Mount back to the time of the Canaanites in roughly 1,800 BCE. The water source, Siloam, is familiar to readers of John’s gospel where, in 9:1-10, Jesus heals a blind man by placing mud on his eyes and has him wash in the pool of Siloam. The excavation site is a cause of tension as it is located in a Palestinian area, and the work is carried out by Israeli workers who are perceived to be trying to find justification for Israeli possession of land they consider of religious and historic significance. We met with one of the archaeologists on the project whose position was clear: archaeology is not a weapon to support any one view of history, and “the story of Jerusalem doesn’t mean Jews have more rights to the history. All have rights to the history.”
Dinner was held at the nearby Leonardo Hotel in West Jerusalem (Israel), followed by a talk by Naomi Chazan, with whose quote I began this entry for today, International Women's Day. She is a passionate advocate for women’s rights in Israel and sees a current climate in which these rights are being rolled back and curtailed in very alarming ways. For instance, there are currently 59 gender-segregated buses in Jerusalem to satisfy Orthodox sensibilities. Military service is compulsory for men and women in Israel, yet women are treated differently and rise through the ranks only very slowly. The first female general was only appointed last year. Naomi believes that the democratic health of a country can be measured by its treatment of women, and this is a low point in Israel. This hurts not only women but Israel itself, because “when the playing field is level, it creates a marketplace of ideas.” These ideas are much needed in this country living in such tension internally and in its relations with some of its neighbors in the region.
Elaine Ellis Thomas