Marla Erlien's Comments on the Trip Through a Jewish Lens

Marla Erlien

As Chair of the Cambridge Human Rights Commission, I returned to Cambridge from Israel/Palestine in time to recognize the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I had recently left a city, Bethlehem, walled in by Israel’s separation barrier, unable to sustain an economy for its residents, where the declaration of human rights has no power. Rather, a militarized Israeli culture controls every move of Bethlehem’s residents: whether the children’s schools are open or closed, whether university students can get through check points to reach their campus, whether producers’ goods can enter or be shipped out of the city; whether the Israeli Defense Force would literally occupy an area, perhaps to assassinate an alleged terrorist; whether a person in need of medical attention could reach the hospital; even whether internationals could enter a nearby village. The Palestinians have no control over their daily lives. There is an occupying force in power.

I grew up in a Midwestern City where anti-Semitism was the norm. As a Jew, I lived as an outsider in my daily life, a suspect person whose family, like the other Jews, was excluded from most clubs or organizations in the city; whose house was separated by the neighbor’s fence from the rest of the continuous lawn for blocks in any direction. That fence, that separation barrier, appeared within two weeks of my family's arrival in the neighborhood. It dictated we were not welcome there, we were not them, we were outside the bounds of their culture. For some we were outside their conception of humanity. Their anti-Semitism meant they were not accountable for how we were treated. Thus, upon visiting Bethlehem, I found it unbearable to move through a terrain completely penned in by a reversal of prejudice--a policy of privileging Jews over Palestinians, no less on Palestinian land, where Jewish Israelis set the terms of Palestinian survival; where policies exist to coerce Palestinian emigration; where Israeli bigotry and racism mean they are not accountable for their treatment of Palestinians.

In Bethlehem our delegation became friends with many people, spent time at schools, economic cooperatives, a hospital, refugee camps, and met with both government bodies and non-governmental organizations. At Bethlehem University, we asked the students who came from outside Bethlehem how they sustained four hours of travel every day to reach the campus and return home (what was once only an hour before the many check points were in place). Their answer was uniform and simple: Education is a form of resistance to the occupation. In the late 1980s, with the first Intifada, when young people rebelled with stones against the Israeli military presence in their area, Israel closed Palestinian schools for a number of years. But Palestinian families, students, and school personnel creatively figured out ways to keep education alive by drawing on all the educational resources in their areas despite the fact that Israel had declared such popular education illegal. These students today continue to be determined to maximize their learning even though they know no jobs await them while the occupation continues. But until they can end the occupation, their freedom of thought survives and their indomitable spirit sustains their humanity within an inhumane context. At the dinner that followed our meeting with the students, I sat with one of the professors. We discussed the difficult relationships between Israeli and Palestinian academics. She picked up from our conversation that I was Jewish and asked if I was. When I said yes, she said, "That's fine as long as you see me as an equal." It was a non-issue that I was Jewish; it was an issue that we related from a place of mutual respect. Over and over, Palestinians distinguished between Jews and Israelis--always noting the differences among Israelis, between the settlers who harassed them and those that fought for human rights, between the Israeli Defense Force and those who helped rebuild their demolished houses. They know that in the US media and government, Palestinians are portrayed without complexity, reduced to stereotypes, to being terrorists. They welcome Cantabrigians to Bethlehem, to experience their daily lives, to listen to their concerns, to build connections.