Sarah: I’m in JerusalemJanuary 30, 2011
As most of you know I am currently spending the semester in Jerusalem, Israel studying abroad at the Rothberg International School at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I have now been here for about two weeks and am feeling more adjusted to life here. Even though I have been here once before it is a totally new experience to be independent in Israel and not be on an organized trip. There are a lot of specifics to my program but I don’t want to bore you with the details so I will point out the things I think most people are wondering!
- I am living in apartment/dorms in the area translated in English as “The Student Village.” Currently, I have one roommate named Paula who studies at Harvard University and is great. We will most likely be getting two more roommates, we’re both hoping Israelis but don’t know if this will be the case.
- I am currently in a “Hebrew Ulpan” which is a four-week intensive Hebrew course where only Hebrew is spoken. Although I always got an A at the U of M for Hebrew, it is extremely difficult here. I have realized that I am such a visual learner, that learning a language is very difficult for me. I know that I need to study really hard and will need to force myself to do so because as you might expect it is very tempting to simply explore this country everyday.
- One thing I don’t like about the program thus far is that it is fairly isolating of the international students. I am going to have to go kind of out of my way to make many Israeli friends but am willing to do so. I am applying for two internships and hope to get one. The two places I am applying are “The Ethiopian National Project” and “IMPACT-SE- Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education.”
…Okay, now for what I think is interesting! The weekend here is different than in America. You have classes Sunday-Thursday and then Friday-Saturday is Shabbat. Shabbat is the day of rest in Judaism and most things that are run by Jews are shut down these two days. It creates a very different atmosphere than a Friday night in America but that is part of the charm of Jerusalem. I started this past weekend in a very militaristic/nationalistic way and this theme continued throughout the weekend. On Thursday night I was with some friends in downtown Jerusalem and we stumbled upon the ceremony that swore in new soldiers to the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). The entrance we went through happened to be the one where the thousand of soldiers were gathered to march into the ceremony held at the Western Wall or “The Kotel.” It was interesting for me to really look at these soldiers. Ever since I was a young girl, I remember the Israeli Scouts, who were around the age of soldiers, or soldiers at Talmud Torah coming to Minneapolis and myself and all the other young girls admiring the handsomeness and cuteness of these young men. Now, when I looked at them I saw them for what they were, boys. In Israel everyone, both men and women, are required to serve 2-3 years in the IDF. There are ways to get around this, as most of the religious people in Israel do, but it is a requirement. These soldiers I looked at were so incredibly young and were starting something so incredibly big. Yes, many 18 year olds join the army in the United States, but there is a different attitude towards the military in the US. It’s a special kind of person that joins the military (sometimes…) but in Israel it is everyone. The soldiers marched in entering this new chapter of their lives and were awarded a gun. Someone high up in the military gave a speech in Hebrew. I couldn’t understand all of it but did get the overall theme. He stated “We remember” over and over again, each of these “We remember” were followed by a big war that Israel was involved in, such as the Yom Kippur or Lebanon War. At this moment, the man giving the speech was telling these new soldiers (who were all men, I am not sure when/where the women’s ceremony was) what they were getting into. I cannot imagine the thoughts going through these young men’s minds, but as they took their huge gun and wore a soldier’s uniform they were now militaristic representations of Israel whether this was something they wanted or not. I sound very critical right now and I am actually not. I am just writing my thoughts, not my opinions regarding army requirement in Israel.
Day two: JStreet U Jerusalem put on an event called “What is A Settlement?” This event attempted to demonstrate both sides of the issue of settlements specifically in the West Bank. They brought us to the settlement bloc, Gush Etzion, and sat the full bus of about 40 of us down with two men of the settlement. Neither of these men were born there and one of them was not even born in Israel. Both men though had family ties to the area. They presented the settlements as simply their home and somewhat distinguished themselves from the “extremists that burn down olive trees and live in illegal areas.” Yet, both men agreed that they would view their settlement growing as a positive, even when these people moving in are Anglo-Saxons not from the country of Israel. This is not so simple though. Land does not simply come out of thin air and the West Bank is already such a small area of land, therefore what happens to the other people living in this area and their land?
After, leaving this settlement we picked up the director of “Peace Now-Settlement Watch”, Hagit Ofran. She is an Israeli woman who identifies as a Zionist, yet also truly wants peace for all peoples of the land. It was interesting, I was sitting next to my friend Brigitta and as this woman began to speak both of us looked at each other and she said “She has our heart.” Brigitta and I had previously discussed our journey with Israel. We love Israel and believe that there must be a state for the Jews and therefore we identify as Zionists, yet still we recognize and want more for the people that have suffered due to this dream. Hagit took us on a tour via the bus of various areas of settlements. We also stopped and got off the bus where she spoke to us more about the issue. I learned so much from her and at the same time still know so little.
Settlements are a complicated issue because like the majority of land in the Middle East, problems surround lines. Lines of what country is what. Lines of whose land is whom. Lines of legality and illegality. But these are complicated manners because who is deciding these lines? My program at Rothberg is in East Jerusalem, which is predominately an Arab side of the city, yet you never hear leaders at this institute mention this. Yet, they mention to us which areas to not go into which all happen to be Arab neighborhoods. So here, they are the creators of lines.
Okay, day three of nationalism. Three friends and I decide to go to Ramallah, the capital of the West Bank. We go on a Saturday and the Israeli buses are shut down so we take an Arab bus to where we catch a different bus to go to Ramallah. The way in is fine, our passports aren’t checked and a nice man on the bus walks us to the direction of Arafat’s tomb. In Israel, there are Israeli flags everywhere. In the West Bank, there are Palestinian flags everywhere. In an area where identity is so important, a symbol means so much. Where as in America, an American flag really in many ways means nothing to most people. Arafat’s tomb is guarded by two Palestinian policemen who are not allowed to speak. After we visit the tomb, we decide to walk around the main part of the city. Just for safety, I decided to not wear my Star of David necklace to Ramallah. And although I will wear it some days here, I have made the decision to not wear it all the time so that I can feel comfortable in most locations. As we walk around Ramallah I notice something very different from Jerusalem. In Jerusalem in most stores there is no tag with a price. Store owners and workers are ready to take advantage of Americans and other tourists at any moment. In Ramallah however, most stores did have tags. I never felt that at any shop they were trying to trick me. I discussed with the friends and I went with and my friend Liza said she thought it was because they are not prepared for tourists. I think there is definitely some truth to this. At one store we were in after hearing us speak English, a man asked if we were human rights workers.
In Ramallah it was interesting to see the political graffiti on walls and items sold at shops. There were Che Guvera necklaces right next to necklaces with the shape of the State of Israel but instead Palestine written inside. Honestly, I felt very safe there and at no moment felt otherwise. On the bus out, we stopped at the checkpoint and just like everyone else were required to get out and wait in line. The process took probably about 30-45 minutes and we were told can take longer. I cannot imagine having to go through this everyday. I know there is an issue of security but it just seems that there is another way to do this. I had no problem getting through but my friend Liza from Germany was told she had to delete all of her pictures that she took in Ramallah, but neither I nor the other two girls from Poland were told the same.
Israel is a place I think about every day when I am in America. I am so glad I have the opportunity to spend a great deal of time here and see the politics, beauty, culture, religion and more of all aspects of this area.