Written by: Yehoshua Ratz, educator
“Why have you brought us here?!” Hadas screamed at me with tears in her eyes.
“Us” – the mixed class at the special project, Jews and Arabs, observant and secular. “Here” – the Sheik Jarrah or “Shimon Hatzadik” area in Jerusalem, near the university on Mount Scopus where we have our classes, very close to “road 1” well known to every native Jerusalemite.
As part of our educational outlook, we the teachers, also consisting of both Jews and Arabs, both observant and secular people, have attempted to bring together our students with the city’s reality, with no mediation involved, and to have our encounters derive from the program’s unique title: “citizenship and multi cultures in Jerusalem.”
Hadas’s distress touched my heart and I felt guilty for what had happened. We started the tour at “Shimon Hatzadik’s tomb,” where a small settlement had been erected with a few small crowded houses whose Arab inhabitants had been driven out and some Jews had moved in. The neighborhood spokesperson, from the family of Rabbi Ovadia Yoseph, welcomed us and pleasantly explained that the houses belonged to Jews in the previous century, and Palestinians had invaded them when Eastern Jerusalem was occupied by the Jordanians. He proudly explained his point of view while I looked with concern particularly at the faces of the Arab students who listened mostly quietly.
We finished our first encounter and descended a narrow path into “the heart of darkness,” a place where two families live back to back: one Palestinian and one Jewish. A one-story house whose one side had been vacated of its Palestinian inhabitants through pressure waged by the Ir David Foundation (ELAD), while its other side was yet inhabited by a family who hasn’t given in.
We sat down for a conversation with the Palestinian family, and as we were listening to their story, their Jewish neighbors came closer, holding an agitated German Shepard dog on a leash, baring his teeth and stretching his leash. “Do you see?!” said the Palestinian mother, “they do this every time we come home from work or go out. They are trying to scare and harass us so that we leave, and they can take over the whole house.”
The bizarre episode continued and then came the moment when Hadas who was upset, left the site, and I followed, afraid that she’d run to the main road and we’d lose her.
“Why do you persist on exposing us to all this evil?! And what do we gain from this? I don’t know these people and I don’t want to know them! Why did you bring us here?!” She screamed at me.
We returned to university, had a recess, some bread with chocolate spread and a glass of juice did wonders for our adolescents and high schoolers, things calmed down a little and after summarizing the trip I began my long drive home, up north, and the darkness on both sides of the road well epitomized my doubts.
Like the doubts I’d had after meeting Mr. Liftawi at his falafel stand, I reflected on our mode of action. At school we teach out of books, and during our annual school trips we quickly pass through cities and villages in order to wander through the empty desserts, valleys and canyons, thus helping our students avoid the need to deal with the conflicted reality and come head to head with complicated situations that have no solutions. It’s sort of a conspiracy of silence encompassing us all – parents, teachers and students, as a defense mechanism for our children from monsters and evil, and by what right do I take nice, innocent Hadas and her nice friends, and bring them straight into the back yard, full of metal detritus, trash and the bodies of dead cats?
Especially as again we cast the Jewish students into the role of the ‘bad guys’, the violent ones, the conquerors, the thieves. It’s kind of indirectly laying the blame upon them, for things they didn’t do and in no way had any part in, and maybe we were overdoing it by piling on them these heavy burdens over and over again?
Our lesson on the following week focused on the closeness so typical of Jerusalem, of religions and peoples, holiness and tension and radical love bordering on hate. One of the students brought a line from a poem by Yehuda Amihai about the holiness of Jerusalem: “father, don’t let me down, our father and king, keep us up, our father our king!”