Day #3 Part II

BEIT JANN -- After lunch in Nazareth, our bus started driving further into the hills of Galilee. Our first stop was in Cana, where Jesus is said to have performed his first miracle, turning water into wine at a wedding celebration.

Sister Karen received us in Kafr Kana, at a Christian school teaching English, Hebrew, and Arabic to children from three to 13 years-old. Originally, Sister Karen comes from New Jersey. It’s her eighth year in Israel. Prior to teaching English, she spent a year on the Mount of the Beatitudes. Here, she enjoyed discovering a new culture. “Here, wedding receptions last for almost a week,” laughed Sister Karen. “That’s maybe why they ran out of wine!”

Back on the road, our bus wove into the heart of the Galilean hills strewed with olive and pomegranate trees, to the Druze village of Beit Jann. As we enjoyed the spectacular views, Ophir recalled the early history of Jewish inhabitants in the Holy Land. Back at the time of the Roman Empire, the Jewish Zenati family settled in a few villages of Upper Galilee. The Jewish community was numerically insignificant, but it has a symbolic representation of the continuity of Jewish demography in Israel.

Today, Beit Jann is home to another religious community that faced persecution in the Middle East: the Druze and their estimated 140,000 adherents in Israel. There, Sheikh Jamil Khatib, a prominent faith leader from the Druze community, welcomed us in his wood-paneled living room overlooking a Galilean valley bathed in a picturesque sunset.

“The encounter between people make them closer together,” said Sheikh Khatib. “And for us to develop honor, respect, warmth, and love.”

The leader of the Druze community and Beit Jann native explained to our group how the Druze faith developed in a strong commitment to monotheism while respecting all the prophets and other religions. The community is divided into two segments of worshippers: the religious, who are the only worshippers who have exclusive to the holy texts, unlike the secular, or the uninitiated, freer in their daily practices.

Sheikh Khatib explained that Druze ceremonies and traditions are unique. One does not convert to the Druze faith, but can only be born in a Druze family. It takes three months for a believer to become a religious leader, who represent role models for the whole community. The role of these leaders is crucial to pass on the traditions and keep the religion alive. Sheikh Khatib’s grey mustache revealed a proud smile as he mentioned that unlike other religions, no Druze leader had ever been accused nor convicted of crimes of some sort. “He who is heroic can control his impulses and let his values guide him,” said the sheikh, quoting a rabbinic saying.

We were presented with the diverse symbols of the faith, such as the colors of the flag and the faith’s main leader, Sheikh Amin Tarif, whose portraits were hanged in almost every corner of the living room. The flag of the state of Israel hangs proudly near the Druze symbols. Outside of honor and religion, the attachment to the land is the third fundamental value of the Druze faith, and tradition requires them to remain loyal to the state of the land they inhabit.

Our discussion was interrupted by Sheikh Khatib’s wife Ibtisam - meaning “smile,” in Arabic- and the rest of the family who brought food platters for us to enjoy Druze food. Stuffed grape leaves and zucchinis, rice and lentils dishes, home-made bread and hand-picked vegetables salad: obviously reputedly the best food in the region.

After we unabashedly helped ourselves to more food, dinner was followed by a discussion with Sawsan Kheir, a double Ph.D. candidate at Haifa University and Abo Akademi University in Finland, working on the evolution of Druze and Muslim communities in Israel.

Kheir walked us through her research on how the Druze youth has been slowly turning away from religion as they progressively open up to a more Westernized environment, with access to social media and other cultures influencing their identity.

But deep inside, Kheir explained, the Druze maintain a profound sense of spirituality and remain proud of their identity. Even if Israeli Druzes are prevented from connecting closely with their Lebanese and Syrian neighbors, they support each other and believe that they form one community. “Keeping this brotherhood is fundamental to us,” said Kheir. “There is this spiritual connection, this mutual help that unites us.”

Day #5 : Bethlehem, Part II

BETHLEHEM – After visiting the Church of the Nativity, we headed to Dheishah Refugee Camp, just southwest of the city that was the birthplace of Jesus.

At the entrance of the camp, we were greeted by Omar Hmeedat, a young Palestinian man who recently graduated from college with a media studies and political science B.A. He walked us through the camp where he grew up.

The first and largest wave of Palestinian refugees was in 1947-1948.
During the fighting surrounding Israel's independence, nearly three quarters of
the Palestinian Arab population of what would become Israel fled or were
expelled from their homes by Jewish militias. Another refugee flow in 1967
produced a smaller number of Palestinian refugees. Millions of refugees and
their descendants still live in camps like Omar's on the outskirts of
Bethlehem, unable to return to their homes.

The UNRWA, the UN Agency set up to take care
of Palestinian refugees' humanitarian needs, undertook
the mission to assist the Palestinian refugee cause and provided the camps with
food, medication and later on with water, social welfare and education. According
to UNRWA, today more than 5 million Palestinians, or more than 40% of the
worldwide total of Palestinians, are refugees.

The camp looked nothing like
one may imagine a refugee camp to look like. Instead of tents or mobile-homes
that serve as offices or medical facilities, the camp was composed of muddy
floors, dusty air, cracked walls and homes made of cinder block and cement. While the area and its structures
were either in despair or partially demolished, some blue, burgundy and olive
green walls stood out. Some colorful clothing hung from the rusty iron
windows on the run down homes.

I noticed a small medical center at the center of the camp which seemed
to have two rooms inside to assist patients. The sign above the facility
displayed “donated by the government of Japan.”

Omar Hmeedat (photo by Eleonore Voisard)

Omar explained the meaning of the ubiquitous art work that adorns the camp’s walls. The colorful yet gloomy art included Palestinian resistance symbols, freedom quotes written in Arabic letters. The walls  also displayed portraits of members of the camp who have lost their lives in confrontations with Israeli soldiers. Others were members of an organized resistance who died as martyrs-- the term that Palestinians use to define anyone who dies because of conflict with the Israelis, from bystanders to fighters to terrorists. One green quote on a red wall came from Naji al-Ali, a Palestinian caricaturist and cartoonist: “Those who want to write for Palestine and those who want to draw for Palestine shall know they are going to die.” Other slogans shouted “walls and armies do not bring security. Justice will bring security and peace.”

Despite the unpleasant
environment Dheishah’s residents live in, their lively personalities resonated.
Each passerby greeted the group with a smile, and groups of teenagers were
loudly teasing each other in conversations that ended with laughter.  “The energy that you see is because there is
nothing else to do,” said Omar as children ran around in the decayed streets.
“We are drained, we just want peace and freedom,” Hmeedat said.

camps are overcrowded, and refugees who can afford it move out and settle in
nearby cities

Hmeedat also spoke about the
importance of education for the Palestinians’ personal and economic growth. The
issue, according to Hmeedat, is that the Palestinian history curriculum only briefly touches on many vital
historical events. Therefore, many end up turning to political parties for
history lessons which tends to lead to radical behavior and a lack of
understanding on the current status-quo.

Unemployment remains the
primary concern for youth. Camps in the West Bank have the highest unemployment
and poverty rates amongst the Palestinian people. According to the Palestinian
Information Center, 16.8% of the people were living in destitution in 2018.

“People help each other to
find jobs, and this is very important,” said Hmeedat. “And for the very poor
families, people outside of the camps provide food and clothes.” Despite
their difficulties, refugees have developed local businesses, such as
restaurants, and some look beyond the wall for other opportunities.

Hmeedat talked about a recent
awareness happening within the young refugee population. They are understanding
that education is key to move their people forward and therefore are starting
to collectively invest in it further.

Now that he graduated, Hmeedat wants
to become a researcher in the field of forensic architecture in order to
investigate state violence and human right abuses for people through
architecture. By using these skills, he hopes to help Palestine gain independence
from the occupation.

military forces conduct regular raids on the camp. The raids, which are often
conducted in the middle of the night, regularly end with Palestinian
fatalities. The trauma and unpredictability of these clashes has an overwhelmingly
negative impact on the well-being of the residents, particularly children.

“Everything we do, we’re
watched,” he explained , “if not by the Israeli Army, it’s by the Fatah, Hamas
(Palestinian political parties) by our community or by any other political
institution in place. There is no margin for Palestinians to progress because
of the economic situation but also because of the atmosphere we live in.”

Another important point
mentioned at Dheishah camp was one that came up regularly by a variety of faith
leaders throughout the trip.  When living
under the occupation of the Israeli government, the only relationship
Palestinians have with citizens of Israel is with the IDF.  The IDF is often present on the ground and
their presence creates a
hostile and intimidating atmosphere for Palestinians, not only on the streets
of the West Bank and on roads, but also in the comfort of their own homes. This
causes Palestinians to only have this one image of the Israeli people.
“That’s the problem and that’s why it is so hard to even bring up the topic of
peace amongst our communities,” Omar explained.

then headed for a conversation with Rabbi Arik Ascherman, an Israeli human
rights activist who has led protests to defend Palestinians against Israeli
settler violence. Ascherman met the class on the top of a windswept hill in
Herodium during a pastel orange and pink sunset, where we could see entire
villages and settlements from above. The astonishing soft green view helped
take the class physically to the settlement issues Ascherman preached against. As he
shared stories about his advocacy work, he pointed out settlements that
encroach on, surround or eliminate Palestinian villages. Having the opportunity to see such a
phenomenon with your own eyes definitely made it much realer than reading about
it in the news from afar, and the impact was stronger.

Ascherman is the founder of Rabbis for Human Rights, an organization with the purpose of reconciling both sides of the conflict through intercultural immersion. Rabbi Ascherman’s goal is to achieve the destruction of stereotypes. “The single best thing I can do to protect my children is to break stereotypes and promote this model of peace” he said.

Arik Ascherman (photo by Eleonore Voisard)

Over the course of his
career, Ascherman has multiple times taken the side of Palestinian citizens and
farmers against Israeli police and settlers, something he has heavily been
criticized for by the Israeli Jewish community. He shared with us an incident
in which he intervened in the questioning of two Muslim women who were
representatives of the International Women's Peace Service in a Palestinian
village.  Ascherman followed them to the
Israeli police station where the women were accused of obstructing police
activities and incitement to riot because the women had questioned Israeli
soldiers who had fired live ammunition into the village. Ascherman not only
translated documents for them, but he also drove them back to Jerusalem after
their release eight hours later.

of Ascherman's interventions were more confrontational. He is known to having
volunteered to act as a human shield to protect Palestinians from assault by
settlers and to protect their olive harvest. “It is easier to better understand
each other when you’ve both been beaten up together,” he said to further mark
his point.

The main obstacle Ascherman has faced throughout his mission is the dehumanization of his leadership by members of more conservative Israeli circles. He says he has often been considered a “traitor” by his fellow people, and as someone who is misinterpreting Judaism--a charge he contests. “You can both be the victim and the victimizer at the same time,” he said. “But I make it my mission as a faith leader to prioritize our responsibility to fight for justice of all humans rather than just our people’s.” Rabbi Ascherman has decided to take on that criticism as a positive challenge. He started to also focus on working with the Israeli community to educate them about the current reality suffered by the Palestinian people. His mission is to work along both parties to break the stereotypes that divide them so much. “Israelis do hear about Palestinian attacks,” he said, “but they don’t know the whole story.  They don’t know about medics who are being targeted, about the humiliations and the excessive force against unarmed protesters. “When I talk to Israeli reporters,” he said, “they ask if my source is Palestinian or if it’s the army. The fact that Palestinians are not considered a legitimate source shows there is a problem.”

All photos by Eleonore Voisard

Day #6: Jerusalem

JERUSALEM – Our day on Friday started just inside of Jaffa Gate, one of the seven entrances to the Old City of Jerusalem. We also had an extra addition: Professor Ari Goldman.

The night before, some of us had celebrated Purim by dancing to Israeli music and eating Israeli-Yemenite pastries on the streets surrounding city’s Mehane Yehuda market. Even the next day, as we stood outside Jaffa Gate, people were still carrying holiday gift baskets and dressed in costume. But, instead of continuing our Purim celebrations, we were preparing to explore the holy sites of the Old City.

Arnita Najeeb, our tour guide for the morning, started with the Jaffa Gate to give us a sense of Jerusalem’s complex and extensive history. The gate was originally constructed by the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century and was eventually expanded to include a bridge, used by Kaiser Wilhelm II, to enter the city.

From the gate, we were led through the Armenian Quarter, where we learned about the city’s four quarters. While Jerusalem is split geographically into Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Armenian quarters, residents are not exclusively tied to these areas. Jews can and do live in the Muslim Quarter and Armenians do not have to live in the Armenian Quarter.

We eventually arrived at Zion Gate, one of the newer entrances to the city. The gate was officially re-opened in 1967 after the Six-Day War, but the craters and cracks around the arch stand as evidence of the conflict the gate was witnessed.

In telling us the history of the old city, Najeeb presented us with a theme that still resonates today. Jerusalem is, and has always been, a city characterized by the constant building up and tearing down of walls.

“Here, walls do not help people,” Najeeb said. “They make it difficult for people to work and they make people more stressed.”

We then visited the site of the Last Supper, the Cenacle or the Upper Room. In the room, a tour group from Indonesia cried out hymns in a circle, worshiping one of the holiest sites in Christianity.

Located above King David’s Tomb, the Cenacle is also a demonstration of how one site can be overtaken and refurbished by different religions. Across the room, Arabic inscriptions can be seen and a dome-like structure sits at one corner. In the 12th century, while Jerusalem was under Ottoman rule, the Cenacle was converted into a mosque.

Discussions about the intersections of religions in Jerusalem continued outside of the holy sites. Between the Jewish and Armenian Quarters on Ararat Street, Najeeb had us stop. Behind him stood both a mosque and a church. In front of him, back on Chabad Street, were Jewish homes.

“Do you see people fighting here?” Najeeb asked us. “People can live together in peace.”

Weaving our way down the cobbled streets and steps of the Jewish Quarter, we eventually arrived at the Western Wall.

In front of the wall, Jonathan Harounoff, a fellow journalism student, gave his personal insight into a Jewish ritual: wrapping the Tefillin. Two sets of small boxes with leather straps, the Tefillin is meant to be wrapped daily. One goes over the head and one is wrapped around the arm.


( Photo Courtesy of Eleonore Voisard)

“It symbolizes your relationship to God,” Harounoff said. “It’s the ultimate mitzvah, or good deed.”

After viewing the main section of the Kotel, some of us broke off to observe the southern part of the retaining temple wall. The southern part is often referred to as the egalitarian section, as both men and women can pray and read Torah together and without any separating barrier.

The egalitarian section can only be accessed through the Davidson Center, the archaeological site adjacent to the Western Wall. While the Kotel is free, a ticket to the Davidson Center and the egalitarian section costs 29 ILS for an adult ticket.

The southern section is home to one of the best views of East Jerusalem, spanning from the Mount of Olives to the walls of the Jewish Quarter. However, only two other visitors were taking advantage of the view and the egalitarian section. Unlike the Western Wall, at midday on Friday, no one was praying or reading Torah.

A few hours later, after we broke off to report on our own stories, we regrouped at the Western Wall for Shabbat service. The mood of the wall had shifted. There were many more observers than tour groups, and the Kotel began to feel like a true place of worship, rather than a tourist site.

In the women’s section, a line of women stood up at the barrier to hear the men chant and sing Shabbat prayers. A few women sang along and clapped their hands, while others stayed silent and focused on the wall. The praying was individualistic and each woman kept to herself.

The men’s side of the Western Wall featured small groups of men, praying and dancing around tables. Their chants were loud and relatively in sync, although some went at their own pace and lagged behind.

Once they finished their prayers, each of the women would back away from the wall with slow steps. Each woman’s gaze never left the wall.

After the Sabbath prayers at the wall, we made our way up a small hill to our hotel, the Sephardic House Hotel in the Jewish quarter. There we had a “family style” Shabbat dinner with a number of guests, including Professor Goldman’s nephew, and Columbia Journalism Professor Gershom Gorenberg’s wife and son. Our guide and educator, Ophir Yarden, also invited his wife and four of his children. As students, we were treated to a traditional Shabbat dinner, complete with the blessing of the bread and the wine. An hour in, Ophir interrupted our conversations and presented us with a question.

“What is your holy envy?” Ophir asked the table. Theorized by Krister Stendahl, holy envy refers to one’s willingness to admire aspects of other faiths. Ophir took this further, asking us if there were any rituals or practices in other faiths that each of us almost wish we could partake in.

While others took time to reflect on the rituals of other faiths, his son answered immediately.

“I’m jealous that others don’t have to wrap Tefellin,” he said.

Day #5 : Bethlehem, Part I

BEIT SAHOUR -- This morning we woke up in the homes of the Palestinian families who hosted us overnight in this town just east of Bethlehem. Maiz, the school-age daughter of the family, sat at the breakfast table and learned that school was cancelled. If the math exam she had been diligently revising for the night before was consequently postponed, Maiz was far from celebrating.

Maiz’s school, like most of the businesses and shops in Bethlehem  remained closed in an act of solidarity. The night before, just a few miles away, Ahmad Manasra, a 26-year-old  Palestinian was shot dead at an Israeli military checkpoint. The young man’s death marked the fourth killing of Palestinians in the past 24 hours.

As we left the homes of our hosts and made our way to the Christmas Lutheran Church in the  Old City of Bethlehem, a climate of tension was palpable.

Yet, the tension around us was just a regular feature in the life of  Pastor Munther Isaac. As he sat in the chilly basement of the Christmas Lutheran Church, the pastor   gave us a brief introduction into the Christian Palestinian community, a group he called “second class citizen in their own land.”


( Photo Courtesy of Eleonore Voisard)

Isaac explored five main contemporary challenges faced by the Palestinian community:

1:  A gap between the people and the Christian religious establishment, mainly on issues such as the selling of church-owned land to Israel.

2: The political  reality of the occupation,  means that  Israel controls  every aspect of their life, from freedom of movement to who Palestinians  can marry.

3: The unemployment rate in the Occupied Palestine Territory  currently sits at approximately 27 percent. For recent graduates, the situation is even tougher and the unemployment rate reached 55 percent  in 2017. Pastor Isaac also cited water as one of the sources of economic hardship.

4:  As the Palestinians are cut off from both their Jewish and Arab neighbors,  Christians started developing a minority complex in the West-Bank.

5: “The Church worldwide is part of the problem, not the solution,” said Isaac. Evangelical Christians – who see 1948 and the creation of the state of Israel as a sign of God - are particularly not helping the debate to move forward according to Pastor Isaac.

Our heads filled with new perspectives on the conflict and the issues playing out on the ground, we rushed to the Nativity Church without time to process and digest the enlightening conversation we just had with Pastor Isaac.

( Photo Courtesy of Eleonore Voisard)

There, our tour guide Nour was seemingly moved by Wednesday’s night tragic event. Yet, the young Palestinian remained professional and gave us a rapid tour of the Nativity Church built in 565 by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian.

One by one -like the 3.5 million tourists and pilgrims who visit the site each year - we entered the Basilica through its 1.2 meters high  door that forces every visitor to bow down and show respect, but also “lows the egos of several state leaders who come to the church,” said Nour with a smile.

If the Basilica is currently being restored, our group still got a comprehensive tour of the UNESCO World Heritage and especially the grotto - a small alcove under the main altar area - regarded by various denominations as the birthplace of Jesus. An unsettling and enriching moment.


Day #4, Part I: West Bank


“What’s the most common thing in journalism?” our professor Greg Khalil asked.

It was a little after 7:30 a.m., and for a moment, the group was quiet – groggily awaiting the energy promised by cups of coffee we downed minutes ago at our hotel in Tiberius.

“Plans falling through,” Leah Feiger called out.


Khalil announced that we had to cancel our plans for the first half of the day: our trip to Nablus to see Jacob’s Well, our stop at Mt. Gerizim and Beit Filasteen, a tour of the Kasbah, our meeting with Munib Masri, and a lunch conversation with the Samaritans.

(Zahi Khouri, photo by Natacha Larnaud)


The reason for our spontaneous shift was instability in the region. This Sunday, two Israelis were killed and one injured at Ariel Junction, a transportation hub for Ariel, a West Bank settlement. The suspect, 20-year-old Omar Abu Lila, had remained at large until he was killed by Israeli soldiers—along with two other Palestinians in the area.

Khalil made some quick calls, and soon we had a new plan for the morning: a trip to Ramallah, a bustling Palestinian city in the central West Bank, and a stop in Taybeh, the only entirely Christian town left in the Holy Land.

We sped between lush green plains, the white minarets of Palestinian village mosques rising in the background. Vehicles with green and white license plates, Palestinian cars, zipped past us on a parallel highway. Our road allowed Israeli cars only.

When we reached the checkpoint going into Ramallah, traffic snarled around a roundabout bloated with cars, Arabic ads for clothing stores and apartment buildings plastered on a wall by the roadside. Yasser Arafat, former president of the Palestinian Authority, and Marwan Barghouti, a Palestinian leader imprisoned for killing Israelis, stared out at us, their faces spray-painted on the cement barrier separating Ramallah from Jerusalem. Khalil pointed out Qalandiya Refugee Camp on our right.

After the slow crawl of traffic through shop-laden streets, we found ourselves outside a shiny, red building emblazoned with a familiar insignia – Coca-Cola. In a bright conference room, we met Palestinian entrepreneur Zahi Khouri, founder of the Palestinian National Beverage Company, which has a license for the Coca-Cola franchise. Khouri described fleeing his home as a 10 year old in 1948 and shared his experience building his business in the Palestinian territories.

Khouri has strong religious roots in the region. His great grandfather headed the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem before moving to Jaffa, where Khouri was eventually born.

He doesn’t think religion is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – though he does see a “Judeo-Christian struggle,” a tension between churches and the Israeli government over taxes and land acquisition. But before the state of Israel, Jews and Arabs in Palestine had “enormous common interest, common culture,” he said.

Khouri has taken part in multiple interfaith initiatives with other entrepreneurs, like “Break the Impasse,” with mixed results.

“It ended up going nowhere because, frankly, I felt the Israelis didn’t have the guts to push their leaders toward a two-state [solution],” he said.

For Khouri, bringing the National Beverage Company to Palestine wasn’t just a business venture. It was an attempt to uplift his community.

“I thought, ‘I have to open a business that puts Palestine on the map,’” he said.

Now the National Beverage Company employs about 900 people in total. It’s the largest employer in Gaza, since it opened a branch there four years ago, he said.

It’s important to him to keep young, educated Palestinians in the region.

“I consider brain drain our biggest problem, not occupation,” he said.

(The Coca Cola headquarters. Photo courtesy of Sara Weissman.)

Back on the bus, we headed toward Taybeh, famously Jesus’s last stop before his crucifixion in Jerusalem. But again, we had to change our plans. Outside the checkpoint we intended to pass through to leave Ramallah, people were gathering. One woman in a blue hijab carried a tire. A Palestinian flag waved atop a cement pillar across the street. It was clear there would soon be a protest there. Our bus driver turned around and found another route out of the city.

After passing several church steeples, we dismounted the bus and found a steaming lunch spread waiting for us at Taybeh Golden Hotel. There, Dr. Maria Khoury – who manages public relations for the hotel, Taybeh winery, and Taybeh beer – greeted us warmly with shot glasses of local Palestinian wine.

Khoury talked to us as we helped ourselves to Palestinian classics like maqluba, a fried vegetable and rice dish, and mujaddara, spiced lentils.

She told us Taybeh existed 3,000 years before Jesus was born, and the name of the village “Taybeh” means “good” or “delicious” in Arabic. She and her husband decided his hometown was the perfect name for their family-owned winery and microbrewery.

Like Zahi Khouri, she hopes her businesses will bring commerce to the area. In 2005, 50 percent of the town was unemployed, she said. But Taybeh Beer’s annual Oktober Fest event draws people to the village and encourages them to buy local products like honeys and soaps.

Khouri also hopes to show people the beauty of “the last little Christian stronghold.”

“It’s not all bloodshed and violence like my friends see on TV,” she said. “We’re a peaceful village here.”

Born Greek Orthodox, Khoury feels blessed to live in Taybeh.

“I live here by the grace of God,” she said.

Toward evening, we arrived in Bethlehem.

(Top image: Near Qalandia checkpoint. Courtesy of Sara Weissman.)