Today was a good day…hard, but good. We need days like today to remind us that we have a job to do. We need days like today to remind us that there are voices crying out from the wilderness; crying out from behind the walls of inhumanity. We need days like today to help break the silence.
Today we traveled to Bethlehem to visit the holy sites related to Nativity and I will share that in another post. But as part of our time in Bethlehem we spent some time at the separation wall as it essentially surrounds the city of Jesus’ birth. At least for me, back home you hear about the wall, but I think that most of us do not realize the full impact that this wall has on the people of Bethlehem and others throughout the West Bank. And so, it was good and very hard to walk along the wall; to see the images, the cries for help, the sparks of hope that still remain in the hearts of the people who call this place home.
The construction of the wall began in 2000 after the Second Intifada, which was the second Palestinian uprising against Israel; a period of intensified Israeli–Palestinian violence. It started in September 2000, when Ariel Sharon made a visit to the Temple Mount without any advance planning, which seen by Palestinians as highly provocative; and Palestinian demonstrators, throwing stones at police, were dispersed by the Israeli army, using tear gas and rubber bullets. Both parties caused high numbers of casualties among civilians as well as combatants: the Palestinians by numerous suicide bombings and gunfire; the Israelis by tank and gunfire and air attacks, by numerous targeted killings, and by reactions to demonstrations. And so in the name of security Israel started building a wall that has now completely separated Israel from the West Bank and is separating families in Jerusalem from their relatives in the West Bank.
Three checkpoints control entry into and out of Bethlehem and who controls the checkpoints…Israel. Palestinians living in Bethlehem need a permit to travel to Jerusalem and even with a permit that does not guarantee entrance into Jerusalem. And in the name of security, these checkpoints can be shut down, without warning and for any reason. When this occurs Bethlehem effectively becomes an open air prison.
The wall has been used as a canvas for many paintings and writings. It has been called the “world’s largest protest graffiti.” Graffiti on the Palestinian side of the wall has been one of many forms of protest against its existence, demanding an end to the barrier, or criticizing its builders, its financiers, and its general existence. Here are some images that struck me from the separation wall.
As we walked down one of the side streets to follow the wall, Iyad stopped the group to tell a story of how the separation wall had impacted him and his family. A few years ago Iyad’s mother had been sick with cancer and the family knew that she would not get better. She died while he was in Los Angeles and he knew he needed to get home for the funeral and to be with family. The next day he boarded a flight from Los Angeles to New York and then boarded another flight from New York to Tel Aviv. Iyad traveled over 7,500 miles in order to be with his family for his mother’s funeral. But his family who live i the West Bank and indeed in Bethlehem, could not travel the twelve miles to Jerusalem for the funeral. The wall, and the rules around who is allowed in and out, prevent Iyad’s family from being together to say goodbye to their loved one.
I wish I could say this was an anomaly. I wish I could say that there were some exceptions that would have allowed the family to be together…but this is the reality of life in Bethlehem, and really all over the West Bank. There are two classes of people in this land; those who have the power and authority, and those who do not have any say in how they are told to live their lives. It is a sobering reality that one can only truly experience by coming to see this for yourself.
After Iyad finished telling his story, he read this to us and I was able to find the poster to share with you:
I heard this and I was completely lost for words. What did Antoinette do to have her whole life ripped away from her? What did Antoinette do to be persecuted and oppressed because of who she is? Nothing, she did nothing. She and all the Palestinians are being punished for the heinous actions of a few. It is absolutely heartbreaking to hear stories like this, which again I wish were rare, but everyone living here has been impacted by this wall, everyone has a story to tell.
Before we left the wall Iyad invited me to read this passage and to pray that one day this dividing wall may be torn down.
So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. – Ephesians 2:11-14 (NRSV)
As we rode home later that day a song kept playing in my head because the verses were so true for where I was and what I experienced. Here is the song that was in my head and in my heart:
Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Within the sound of silenceIn restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
‘Neath the halo of a street lamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silenceAnd in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silenceFools, said I, you do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you
But my words, like silent raindrops fell
And echoed in the wells of silenceAnd the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said, the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sounds of silence
Everyhting about these lyrics speaks to the situation here in Bethlehem; narrow streets of cobblestones, people talking without speaking, people hearing without listening, and words of the prophets are written on the wall. This song is the soundtrack to my experience.
After seeing the wall and hearing the stories from the people who continue to live and worship God in the place of Jesus’ birth, I cannot help but feel that we must not only disturb the sounds of silence, but break the silence entirely. It is up to me and any others who come to this place and see these things to go back home and share our stories. Someone asked me, “how do we begin to share this with others at home?” I told her to begin with yourself. I told her to use “I” language and share her experiences, how she felt, how she was impacted, how she now saw things differently because of this experience. To break the silence we must be willing to stand up and share our experiences so that the world will hear the voice of those crying out in the wilderness from behind the walls.
As we drove away from the wall, I wondered…is this we want? Is this what we really want on our southern border?