Daily Dispatch: March 21, 2010

By Jose Leyva

Inside the coach as we drive into Jerusalem from the West Bank, and pass the wall that separates it. (Lim Wui Liang/Journey to Jerusalem)

After traversing Jordan and Israel over the last 10 days, on Sunday we entered the troubled region in between the two countries known as the West Bank. It is an area that was captured by Israel during the War of 1967 and has been a source of tension ever since.

In keeping with the religious focus of our trip, we visited Jewish and Arab Christian holy places but the political story was never far behind, especially given the recent announcement by Israel that it was going to continue to expand its hold on Jerusalem.

We started the day at Kfar Etzion, one of the early 20th Century Jewish settlements on the West Bank. The village is part of a series of villages known as the Etzion Bloc that is home to 30,000 Jews. As our bus rolled into the region, expectations were high.

“I really was looking forward to talk to the people” said our colleague Mariana, “to get to know their point of view of what was happening.”

To get there our bus drove for 10 minutes from Jerusalem along a grey concrete 26-feet-tall wall, which marks the division between territories under control by Israel and by the Palestinian Authority. To enter the settlement, surrounded by fences, we crossed two vehicle-barrier trenches.

Once our host arrived, we were ushered into a cinema-like auditorium. The lights turned-off and a short film about the history of the settlement started. The film made reference of how difficult was for the first Jewish settlers to establish a kibbutz in that area due to the rocky and dry conditions of the land and also the tensions with neighboring Arab towns. The film also showed the religious motivation of the settlers, noting how important it was for them to build a village near Jerusalem, the lands that according to the Bible belonged to the Jewish people.

The climax of the screening was when the film stopped, the screen was lifted and we were shown a bunker were several people died on the kibbutz during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

“When I was 5 years old they took me here and told me the same story, without all the audio-visuals obviously, and I was impressed.” said our guide Ophir Yarden. “Then I learned that there are other points of view of the reason and legitimacy of this neighborhood.”

After the audio-visual show, we met with Rabbi Dov Karroll, who gave the group a tour through the neighboring Yeshivat Har Etzion, a religious center where around 450 male students study the Torah and other Talmudic studies. During his lecture about the relevance of the Torah studies for the Jews, many of us realized that Jews connect to God through study in a way that Christians do not.

“Studying the Torah has a relatively similar importance than praying,” said Rabbi Karroll.

Karroll also mentioned that studying the Torah is also important because the study leads to practice God’s commandments and values. “If you can understand the law, you can fulfill it better,” he said.

After visiting the Etzion Block, we made our way to Bethlehem, where the group had to be divided on to two buses. The Israelis among us — Maia, Ophir and Professor Gorenberg – took a bus back to Jerusalem since, for safety reasons, they are not permitted to enter the West Bank.

Maia was not happy. “I hate it,” she said. “I understand why, but as someone that want to have the full experience of the trip, I feel like something is being taken away from me.”

The rest of us headed to Bethlehem, the town where Jesus was born, and one of the most important destinations for Christian pilgrims. Currently, 60 percent of the population in Bethlehem is Muslim and 40 percent Christians.

Hungry, we asked our new guide, Farraj Tamari, a Bedouin Muslim, to take us to a place where we could eat falafel and shawarma. After all, this was our last day in the Middle East and we wanted a last taste of the traditional food. Besides, Bethlehem meaning for the Jews is “the house of bread” and for the Muslims “the house of meat,” so we felt that we had the duty to prove it.

After a quick lunch in the Manger Square, the city’s main plaza, we headed to the Church or the Nativity, the oldest church in the world, which is shared by Greek-Orthodox, Catholic and Armenian Christians.

Inside the temple, Liang, Carolyne, Mariana, Yaffi, Rory and I decided to go to the cave where Christians believe Jesus was born. Inside it, a 14-peak silver star marks the exact spot of the birthplace, known as the Altar of the Nativity. In front the spot, another altar commemorates the manger in which the Virgin Mary laid the baby Jesus.

The two spots were crowded with hundreds of tourists, and it was hard to find a moment of privacy to pray, even to take photos.

After the visit to the church, a few of us spent some time interviewing Palestinians about Israeli government plans to build new Jewish homes in East Jerusalem and over the re-opening of an old synagogue.

“I was surprised of the kind of responses I got,” said Mariana, “definitely the tension is increasing.”

On our way back to Jerusalem, we crossed a checkpoint, through the Israeli West Bank barrier. A couple of Israeli soldiers walked through our bus, sometimes asking for our passports before we had permission to continue our ride.

For Mamta, the experience was unsettling. “I come from a country that’s been partitioned once with Pakistan and then with Bangladesh, and always the partition of a land is arbitrary and unacceptable to the people who live there,” said Mamta.

After the visit to Ezion Bloc and Bethlehem and a few hours of rest in hour hotel, the group headed to our last activity of the trip: a festive dinner in an Israeli restaurant called Eucalyptus, downtown Jerusalem.

Before the dinner, the chef Moshe Basson, an Iraqui Jew, gave us an explanation of the flavors, origins and biblical references of the feast we were about to enjoy. Beans, potatoes, beets, wild herbs and leafs, figs, olives, cucumber, tamarind, poultry and meat were some of the main ingredients of our fantastic dinner.

During our feast, Professor Goldman toasted all the people involved in planning and executing the trip, especially Ophir Yarden, Professor Gorenberg, Dean Melanie Huff, our T.A. Cindy Bernstein and Mike Phillips, the head of the Scripps Howard Foundation. We then presented Professor Goldman and the others with thank gifts: they each got a tapestry inscribed with a traditional blessing for one’s home.

We also shared our favorite moments during the trip. Together, we remembered the majestic view of the Sea of Galilee, the talks with several religious leaders and our visits to the Western Wall, Al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

It was a bittersweet and emotional moment because we knew that the trip, one of the most important professional and personal experiences in our lives, had ended.

Our moment of reflection extended for a little while, while having dessert. We knew that our 12-day visit to Jordan and Israel was productive: we had good, newsy stories to write about, great journalistic photographs and also compelling and captivating footage and stand-ups. We also had a clear idea of the challenges on reporting on religious matters. But ironically, the group’s need of understanding grew exponentially due to the trip. We knew that in order to report on such complex matters such as religion, knowledge is crucial, and we felt somewhat ignorant.

“The more I know, the less I know.” Liang said.

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