border crossings

Since the imaginary line separating Jerusalem from the West Bank solidified into a thick, twenty foot high concrete wall, crossing the border from Bethlehem has become a momentous affair. First, the traveler must hike up a long ramp (caged in with steel bars) and through the wall itself; the first steps on the Israeli side of the wall take one through a metal detector and a revolving gate watched over by a soldier in a glass-and-metal booth. Then the traveler crosses a parking lot scattered with traffic barricades, enters a long ramp that doubles back on itself—again, enclosed with steel bars—through another revolving gate, and comes at last to a big, echoing building, architecturally a cross between a prison and a livestock barn.

In this building, the traveler goes through the third revolving gate of the journey to the second security check, this one with an x-ray machine for bags and a metal detector for people—and of course another soldier in a booth. Finally, the end is in sight. Yet another soldier in yet another booth examines identity papers and scans the men’s fingerprints. This soldier has the power to turn the traveler back, or permit entry into the Promised Land.

A successful border crossing feels more like surviving Judges 12:5-6 than the triumph of Joshua 3. The ‘security fence’ was built, after all, to keep dangerous ‘others,’ the Palestinians, out of Israel. It seems to me that the atmosphere of the checkpoint in Bethlehem reflects that desire—it is an uncomfortable, unwelcoming, dehumanizing experience to navigate the barred hallways and revolving gates, always under the watchful eyes of soldiers and security cameras.

That feeling of dehumanization may fade with familiarity, but it is reinforced every time the soldiers shout, a traveler is turned back, or the revolving gates suddenly lock shut. One day, I saw a man get stuck in the middle of a gate, unable to go forward or back until the soldiers unlocked the gate. And last Sunday morning, as I approached the second metal detector and x-ray machine, I found myself in a human traffic jam: the gate had locked, and the reason, it seems, was a Palestinian family struggling to get all their members through the metal detector.

A young mother and her little girl had the most difficulty. They went through over and over, at least five times. All the while, the soldier on guard was shouting at the woman in both Hebrew and Arabic, and on about the third try, the frustrated, irritated men waiting for the barricade to open started shouting suggestions as well. The soldier finally let the pair pass (though the metal detector was still beeping). The barricade was opened, the rest of us flooded through without trouble, and I made my way to St. George’s Cathedral for the 11am service.

Church could not pull my mind away from this mother and daughter, though. I wonder how the mother felt—I can imagine a bit scared, embarrassed, frustrated, and confused. I wonder how the child might tell the story of her trip to Jerusalem, and what lingering effects the experience might have for her. And of course there is a third woman’s perspective to consider: the soldier in the glass-and-metal box. Of course, she had no choice about joining the Israeli Defense Force. But how does she feel about working in the checkpoint? Her job forces her to participate in the objectification of travelers, and I think it thus objectifies her as well—she is separated from the people who pass through, ‘protected’ behind walls, part of the machinery of the border crossing. What would her version of the story be? Did she see only Palestinians passing through the border, or did she see her own sister, her own niece?

The scripture readings for the day, Exodus 32:7-14, Psalm 51, and Luke 15:1-10, had a different poignancy after my own experience of the border crossing, and certainly praying for the peace of Jerusalem when one is in Jerusalem takes on new urgency. What would it look like to forgive transgression, seek the lost, and make peace at a checkpoint?