Cambridge Delegation Returns with Stories from Bethlehem

Cambridge delegation returns with stories from Bethlehem   
by Phyllis Bretholtz and Cathy Hoffman              
We were part of a 15 person Cambridge delegation that visited Bethlehem in November.

For many people, Bethlehem is the birthplace of Jesus, a religious center of great significance. Some people know Bethlehem as a Palestinian city near Jerusalem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Still others know that Bethlehem is surrounded by a wall and the ability of people or goods to move in or out depends on permission from the Israeli government. Because of the occupation and most recently the wall, Bethlehem put out a call to people around the world for help. A group of people in Cambridge responded by forming the Cambridge-Bethlehem People-to-People Project (CBPP).
The mission of this on-going project is “to bring people together for direct communication and learning about one another, the sharing of cultural expressions among all age groups, and a process of mutual education which would build on and expand existing relationships between people and organizations in both communities.”

Our delegation returned from Bethlehem with stories of people we met and many different perspectives which we look forward to sharing Wednesday, January 16th at a public report-back at 6:30 at the Cambridge Senior Center at 806 Mass. Ave.
Our impression of Bethlehem was a city marked by contrasts  We experienced a welcoming city, but saw the dominating 20 foot high wall and its impact - severing one part of the city from other parts that were annexed by Israel, leaving some occupants cut off from family, services and in some cases from their land. We visited a Chamber of Commerce advertising marble, embroidery and other quality goods without means to export or import. We toured a rehab hospital that can’t rely on patients getting there or reimbursement from insurance and an all volunteer children’s cancer project serving children and their families who cannot predictably travel to receive needed services.  

For us, Bethlehem was a place of great hospitality yearning to rebuild its economy, bring people back to this historic place, and free itself of checkpoints, travel permissions and military sieges and be seen for their true selves. The Palestinians we met expressed deep frustration with the invisibility or distortion of their lives in the media. Gail Epstein from the Cambridge Peace Commission expressed the delegation’s sense of responsibility to communicate what we learned.
“People in Bethlehem were generous with their stories,” observed Epstein. “They offered them to us as gifts of friendship and trust, allowing us to be witnesses of their suffering, their humanity, and their ‘beautiful resistance’.  For teens at the Aida Camp’s Alrowwad Cultural and Theater Training Program, beautiful resistance is in dance, choir, theater, puppetry… preserving their folklore and heritage, and showing their beauty to a world that sees Palestinians through a biased media lens.  For high school students at the American Jerusalem School and college students at Bethlehem University, beautiful resistance is getting the best education they can, even if they never have the opportunity to work in their chosen professions.”
Childhood educator and grandmother Kathy Roberts was “haunted by the story of the 11th grader who related going through a checkpoint with her grandmother. A tear slid down her cheek as she recounted her experience of a soldier pulling down her grandmother’s pants.”
“How can the residents of the West Bank focus on relationships, …their futures, on peace and optimism, when on a daily basis they are subject to humiliations, hardships, and prejudices?” Omar Bandar reflects, “Although I do not know the answer to this question,...they do. The residents of the West Bank do focus on their relationships and they do have optimism for the, albeit distant, future.  
“…The Palestinians that we met are eager to  connect with their Cantabridgian counterparts… to develop new relationships even though they have felt the pain of losing loved ones.  
“…Not only has being part of this delegation stoked my sense of optimism, increased my respect for the endurance and emotional strength of human beings, but also, being part of this delegation has motivated me to want to further the people-to-people mission of the initiative not just to support the people of the West Bank, but also, so that other Cantabrigians can learn, as I have, about the power of the human spirit.”
Phyllis Bretholtz is a member of the Cambridge Women’s Commission. Cathy Hoffman is director of the Cambridge Peace Commission. Both were members of the delegation.