Derry community relations worker Eilis Haden reports from life as a human rights observer for the World Council of Churches in Hebron (al-Kahlil) in israel-Palestine. And this wekk she meets Ihudith and is struck by her amazing strength and resistance....
I heard last week that there were rumblings in Sandino’s Bar, Derry that my reports from the West Bank were a little too ‘pro-Palestinian’.
Never one to turn down a challenge, I decided that I should address this matter and set off down the hill from my apartment to look for Israeli settlers who might want to talk to me*. The best place to start seems to be the leafy surroundings of Abrahams cave (the burial site of both he and his wife Sarah) a major centre of pilgrimage for Jews from across the world. There I lie on the grass and listen to the dulcet tones of a young woman sitting under an olive tree reading aloud from some holy book or other.
I noticed that her face is really beautiful, she seems to radiate serenity and spirituality, so different to the angry faces I have seen of settlers involved in conflict with their Muslim neighbours about the town.
Of course I cannot disturb this girl so after I have soaked up the mid-day sun I pay my first visit to a nearby Jewish cafe. I order a diet cola and squeeze myself into a corner worrying that I might be spotted through the window by any of our Palestinian contacts who are quite sensitive about us talking to the settler community.
I admire the photographs hung on the wall telling the story of this cafe, which started out as a stall serving refreshments to a Jewish wedding party in the 1960’s. It seems that once built, the shop was destroyed by the Israeli government who deemed it an illegal structure but the owners never gave up and have rebuilt it twice since.
Soon I’m approached by the owner’s wife, an attractive lady in her 50s called Ihudith (pronounced like Judith), who observing my curiosity, sits with me to explain. We get talking about the Jewish community in Hebron and I tell her there is so much I want to understand. Through being a regular at Sunday worship with the Quakers in Derry, I have learned that positive change will only come through seeing the humanity in people, and that writing others off will entrench them in their position further so, despite my feelings about the occupation, I am happy to listen to Ihudith and learn about what is going on for her and other Israelis based in the West Bank.
We talk about the importance of this city to her people. Ihudith tells me it was the prophet Abraham who first bought this land and then passed it on to the Jewish people. “It is like a child” she says “You cannot cut a child in half so that it can be shared between families. And so,” she says “my people must fight for this land. Of course this struggle may kill me and it may kill my children but we must never give up..” “But what about the Palestinians who live here?” I ask. “When they accept our ownership, they can stay” she answers and then goes on to explain. “We are not doing this for greed. We do not want to own individual pieces of land just for the sake of making money – what we came here to do is to cultivate God’s law. When we first arrived the land was a desert, now it is fruitful. This is a sign that this is meant to be.”
I ask more questions to try to understand the deeper personal connections which Ihudith has to this place. She tells me that her mother, who came here from Romania, had been in Auschwitz.
“She had no place where she belonged” Ihudith explains. “And without a land of your own you are like garbage”. I express my concern to Ihudith that this struggle for ownership involves hurting other people. She smiles with a sparkle in her eyes like a woman who has heard this many times before. “I can see that you feel the pain of this” she says, “but you have to be realistic. People will always hurt one another. Peace is what happens when you believe in the truth and then fight on one side. If you want to live and have a new generation you have to act this way.” I tell Ihudith that I cannot imagine having something as terrible as the holocaust in my family history. She draws a breath and looks away. “The holocaust makes us stronger. We know now that the Jewish people must have a land and this cannot be just anywhere. We are only here because it is ours through God. It is easy for the Arabs, they have so many places to go but for us there is nowhere else. And so I have had to make the decision to make a place (a home) for my children. It is not easy to be here; the Palestinians hate me want me to leave. They try to destroy us and so only the strong remain. Those of us who stay, do so for God.”
Talking with Ihudith I get a striking sense of her strength and resistance. I can understand that her people have suffered and need to protect themselves from the Holocaust ever happening again. I find the straightforwardness of her argument and the romanticism of belief in the Old Testament very attractive and know that I would have far fewer sleepless nights if I could also think in terms of black and white. Yet for me the truth lies in the intricate complexities of things and so I suspect I have years of insomnia to come.
As I walk home through the Jewish quarter I stare at the murals which talk of ‘Arab marauders slaughtering the peaceful Jewish people.’ I think of the American Jews whom my friend Gabriel met in Hebron last week who believe that the Palestinians will decapitate them, the first chance they get. I remember the language of hatred and fear used in my own history books, read as a child and I wonder if we have even reached a starting point for dialogue in this holy land.
Over the next few weeks our team start to wind down our work in Hebron/Khahlil and prepare for the arrival of a new batch of EAs. During this time I will be lucky enough to spend three days visiting the tiny town of Jayous where the local Muslim women are commanding the workforce. Until next week, Masalama.
*For those of you who might not be familiar with the concept of settlers, simply put, these are Jewish people who move to the West Bank for either economic or ideological (religious) reasons. As there is no current census programme for these people in Hebron, it is difficult to assess their numbers but figures vary from 500-700.