Living, researching, and writing behind a wall

This is the final post of my year as a Fulbright scholar in the West Bank. I returned to the States last week, and I’m taking off the next month to cuddle my new niece (well, new to me!) and play with my ‘old’ niece and nephew and sit on my parents’ front porch swing watching the corn grow, and other important tasks. Today’s post is a brief reflection on the impact of life in the West Bank on my research over the past ten months.

This year was not my first experience in Israel or the West Bank. I lived in Jerusalem through the first year of the most recent intifada, and I traveled there with students and alumni just two years ago. I knew that living in the occupied territories would have an impact on my research and writing this year: seeing heavily armed soldiers on the streets, passing through the checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, the occasional whiff of tear gas on the wind, the stories of neighbors and friends. My expectations, however, revolved around academic questions of statistics, rhetoric, other people’s stories and experiences, interpreting ancient texts through, in part, the lens of modern war. I had not really considered how living in an occupied land, behind a very large wall, amidst constant reminders of ancient and modern wars, would affect me on a personal level, and how that effect would influence my research.

The Herodion

The Herodion

The Herodion is one of Herod the Great’s fortified palaces, built to protect him from his real and imagined enemies (Herod was a bit obsessed with his own safety). The site was captured and partly destroyed by the Romans in the First Jewish Revolt; the rebels of the Second Jewish Revolt used it as a fortress and hide-out, and visitors today can see the remnants of their war—a foundry, boulders stockpiled for use as weapons during siege, and tunnels for sneak attacks against the Romans. Every time I walked through Bethlehem or hung my sheets to dry on the balcony, I could see this reminder of ancient wars.

The Herodion is south of Beit Sahour. Just to the north is this modern version of Herod’s desert fortress:

Har Homa

Har Homa

This site was developed for housing in the late 90s. It’s either an illegal settlement (according to the Palestinians, the European Union, and the United States), or a legal neighborhood of Jerusalem (according to Israel). It’s built in part on land taken from the residents of Beit Sahour, and whether it’s legal or illegal, the security fences for the site cross Palestinian land—cutting Beit Sahouri farmers off from their fields—and it’s growing. I was shocked this year to see (from the road from Jerusalem to Beit Sahour, or from my gym, or even from my own street) how much of the surrounding farmland has turned into apartment buildings and private homes and shopping centers.

Beit Sahour is a rather quiet, peaceful town these days, completely within the area of the West Bank under Palestinian control (‘Area A’). Even so, it’s impossible to avoid the constant visible presence of ancient battles and modern occupation. The views of the Herodion and Har Homa remain views, though. Security barriers at Har Homa prevent Palestinians from entering the site (unless they’re working construction), and Palestinians also are forbidden to visit the Herodion, although it’s located inside the West Bank (the site is now an Israeli national park).

Area A Warning Sign

Area A Warning Sign


Every time I went to Jerusalem this year, upon my return my neighbors would remind me that they cannot go to Jerusalem—at least not without going through a long, uncertain application process. My landlady’s daughter lives in Ramallah, about twenty miles away, just north of Jerusalem; they only visit over long holidays, because the journey through roads and checkpoints accessible by Palestinians takes at least an hour and a half (if not longer, depending on how many ‘flying checkpoints’ are set up by Israeli soldiers, and how many other people are waiting to cross).* I could travel freely and quickly to Jerusalem, depending on traffic, but I carried a load of guilt with me every time I passed through the checkpoint.

The Wall around Bethlehem

The Wall around Bethlehem


The wall around the West Bank is not just a physical barrier. It’s a psychological weapon, too. I had easy passage through the wall with my American passport, but even so I felt closed in and limited; how much more for those who are not allowed out? According to Israel, on the ‘other’ side of the wall, it was built for security—to prevent suicide bombers and other violence. But that security only goes one way; the wall does not prevent Israel’s army or Israeli settlers from carrying out acts of violence within the West Bank. Violence is a constant threat hovering over cities and villages and farms. Olive trees are ripped up, homes and businesses damaged, cars stoned, children harassed and attacked on their way to school, protestors shot and killed. The attacks following the kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers near one of the settlements around Hebron showcase the lack of safety for Palestinians.

In response to the kidnapping, the Israeli military blockaded Hebron and initially prevented any Palestinian from crossing the borders into Jerusalem. I visited Nablus, in the northern West Bank (the opposite end of the occupied territories from Hebron), a week after the kidnappings (and, we now know, the murders of the three teenagers by Palestinian militants**). At Balata refugee camp, we heard about nightly raids from the Israeli soldiers and visited two homes that had been raided—furniture overturned and ripped open (to see if anything was hidden inside), carpets thrown on the stairs, shelves and wardrobes and refrigerators emptied onto the floor. In one of the homes, the soldiers had blown a hole through a wall to see if anything was hidden inside, and shot the tv for good measure on their way out the door. The mother of this family showed me around the apartment. I’m sure I missed some things, because she was speaking rather quickly (in Arabic), but she told me that her daughter-in-law was still in the hospital from injuries sustained in the attack. The men in both households had been arrested, one because he was an official in the Palestinian government, but the other, according to his family, was ‘nobody.’

The same status of ‘nobody’ is true of a family in Beit Sahour, my neighbors’ relatives, who had the same experience. The soldiers came with five enormous military dogs at 2 a.m., pounding on the door; they overturned furniture to rip open the backs, threw clothes and toys and food on the floor, and arrested the teenage son of the family (he was released a few hours later). This family was not in the military or police force, not in the government, and certainly not in Hamas—they are Christians. But in an occupied land, as Palestinians have been reminded over the past weeks, no one is safe. While my group was in Balata, the guide asked one little girl (perhaps six or seven years old) if the soldiers had visited her house; she replied, ‘Not yet.’

Much has been written by Palestinians, Israelis, and foreign observers about the daily indignities, violence, and dehumanization of the occupation. It has been striking to me this year, as I’ve worked through the ancient situations of women and children during war, how much continuity there is between the biblical and modern worlds of Israel and Palestine, in terms of rhetoric (the emphasis on the violence against women and children in the press, for instance) and lived experience (the effects that the violence of war necessarily has on those who are not involved in fighting, planning, or decision-making).

Children and kin are by the law of nature each man’s dearest possessions; they are swept away from us by conscription to be slaves in other lands: our wives and sisters, even when they escape a soldier’s lust, are debauched by self-styled friends and guests… (Tacitus, Agricola 31, Loeb Classical Library)

Children and trembling mothers rounded up in a long, endless line… (Vergil, Aeneid 2.951-952, Penguin Classics, on the destruction of Troy)

Living behind the wall, among and with people who are living the experience of occupation and war, has kept me from ‘ivory-towering’ texts like these. They’re rhetoric, for sure, but they’re also reflections of the horrors of war. I can’t emotionally disengage from Luke’s woe to the pregnant women and nursing mothers, because I know a pregnant woman who was scared she might miscarry when the soldiers came to raid her home; carrying out my research and writing here this year has made the daily experience of war more real.


Teaching in the West Bank

Bethlehem University, main gate

Bethlehem University

This year, every time I arranged a meeting with administrators or professors at the university, or set up lecture schedules, or discussed plans for specific classes, the final word of the conversation would be “inshallah.” Inshallah means “if God wills”: inshallah I will see you later this afternoon; inshallah the computers will be working for a power point presentation; inshallah there will be a translator available; inshallah the lecture we’ve scheduled for tomorrow will actually happen; inshallah the students will learn something.

Inshallah is a good summary of my experience at Bethlehem University this year. I’ve ended up offering lectures in other people’s classes, rather than having my own classes—which is not what I had expected to do. I taught on women in leadership around the world today, family structure in the modern United States, the history of feminism in the West—topics far outside my own field. Students have included undergraduates at the university, and mothers and grandmothers in the local community. And planned lectures, with the requested (and carefully prepared) accompanying power point presentation, have been derailed by students’ questions and demands.

From the administrative side, I’ve grown accustomed to lengthy meetings over tea or Nescafe or sometimes real Arabic coffee (the strong, sweet kind served in espresso cups half-full of coffee grounds), in which we talk about life, the universe, and everything in it, but put off making decisions or scheduling lectures “until next time.” Inshallah, of course. Halfway through the year I gave up developing my own ideas for lectures; it’s much easier to let the administrators and professors tell me what to prepare. And I also learned to call before leaving home to reconfirm lectures or meetings—because inshallah is a serious matter; who knows what last-minute emergency may have intervened to change plans?

In the classroom, I’ve found the undergraduates to be curious and eager and very, very talkative. Lecturing is not really possible; students want to jump straight into discussion, and they will (and did) interrupt a lecture to ask questions. Active engagement like this is something I appreciate in students—the problem is that the questions rarely related to the material. In a lecture on the history of feminism in America, for instance, the students were not all that interested in the philosophy and theory and social impact of the various waves of feminism in the States (the issues I had been asked to address by the professor of the class). So they interrupted the lecture (despite the lovely, meticulously-prepared supporting slides!) to ask about my impressions of Palestine, women’s position in society here and how it compares to America, my age and marital status and salary, and other important issues.

In general, the undergraduates are very practical. They want to know why a particular topic matters, how it relates to their life in Bethlehem or Jerusalem or Hebron today, and what they can do with the material. They are not interested in philosophies or historical developments as much as life in the world today. They are interested in hearing about America, and what Americans do, how they think, why they act in certain ways. They are interested in hearing about Palestine from an American’s perspective. And they are very interested in the private lives of professors (it’s not just me, either—my upstairs neighbor, a Palestinian who teaches in a local high school, says he also gets alarmingly personal questions from his students).

Lectures for the women in the local community were completely different. The mothers and grandmothers listened and took notes to lectures, and it was more difficult to get them to ask questions or discuss the material. They were taking time out of their days—away from children and husbands and mothers-in-law, possibly time away from family businesses or jobs—and they wanted to learn, not to talk themselves. They also did not challenge my authority or right to be teaching, like the (mostly conservative male) students did. However, once the lecture ended, the women were just as interested in my life, my family, and my impressions of Palestine. As my neighbor says, “privacy” doesn’t really exist here.

Of course these are broad generalizations. There were individuals who were engaged with lecture material, and asked insightful questions that furthered the discussion (rather than derailing it). There were broad ranges of opinions represented in classes—Muslims and Christians, men and women, those who hold more conservative and traditional values and those who want to challenge and change society. And there were mothers and grandmothers who played Candy Crush throughout entire lectures (in the front row, nonetheless). Overall, though, I learned to use “inshallah” as a mantra in preparing and delivering lectures—inshallah we will stay somewhat close to topic, inshallah someone will be interested in this material, inshallah the questions won’t get too personal.

My year at Bethlehem University has certainly not been what I expected before I came, but it’s been delightful in surprising, challenging, and occasionally frustrating ways. Can’t we skip the tea and talking and just make the plans? No! The relationship is what’s important here, not the business. Do I really have to explain yet again why I’m not married? Yes, yes I do, because the ability to be a single adult woman, living alone far from my parents, supporting myself, is a major cultural difference between Palestine and the States, and it opens up fascinating discussions on women’s roles in society and family, the opportunities for women in education and the professional world, and perspectives on “equality.”

I’m certainly grateful to the administrators, professors, and students who have been so talkative, curious, and welcoming this year. I said farewell to the professor with whom I’ve worked the most, and his assistant (perhaps the most helpful woman at the university), a couple weeks ago. The final word we exchanged? Inshallah, of course: Inshallah we will meet again.

Bethlehem University courtyard



I’ve said many goodbyes in the past week — I had my last meeting with the students at the university (a celebration of their year-long course on leadership), and also with the professor and administrative assistant with whom I’ve worked this year; I had my last Arabic lesson; my landlady left for a visit to family in the States (she’ll be returning a day after I leave). Last week, I went up to Nazareth for a few days to say goodbye to friends there.

As a result of these numerous “inshallah I will see you agains,” I’m feeling a bit displaced and out of sorts. So this week, in lieu of a real post, here are some photos of my holiday for you to enjoy… Pretend you’re sitting in my living room, watching slides click through a home projector, stifling yawns as I drone on about all the buildings/food/bridges/flowers/etc. I saw on my trip to the Holy Land.

This is a picture of the cliffs of Arbel, above the city of Migdal on the Sea of Galilee. It was a bit hazy, as you can see, and so windy (but luckily the wind was keeping me on the cliff tops, rather than pushing me off). Josephus claims that one of the first “manly” actions of Herod the Great was clearing “bandits” (e.g., rebels) out of the caves in these cliffs, which the army did by lowering soldiers in baskets from the top of the hills. Today, you have to hike down… and back up… if you want to visit the caves.

Arbel CliffsOne day I visited Gamla, a city besieged and destroyed in the First Jewish Revolt. This is the spot the Romans broke through the walls — and into a house that had been built into the wall for extra fortification. There’s very little left of the city beyond the hole in the wall, which makes it a nice desolate place to read Josephus’s description of the fall of Gamla: “at that moment the rage of the Romans was such that they spared not even infants, but time after time snatched up numbers of them and slung them from the citadel. Thus on the twenty-third of the month of Hyperberetaeus was Gamla taken…” (Jewish War 4.82-83, Loeb Classical Library).

Gamla My holiday was not entirely taken up with sites of war, destruction, and suffering. I also saw lots of rock hyrax (hyraxes?), including these at Korazim. I did  not know they squeaked at visitors; I was slightly nervous at first, hearing all these squeaking noises, since I thought I was the only one at the site.

Korazim rock hyrax (2)

Here we have a tree growing out of the ruins of the cultic site at Dan; the ruined foundations of the Temple/Tomb of the Sacred Dancing Goats (yes, really) at Banias; and a hungry lion on a sarcophagus at Bet Shearim (where many, many rabbis were buried way back when).

Dan cultic site Banias tomb temple of sacred dancing goats (1)Bet Shearim cave of the coffins sarcophagi (18)

I was rather surprised to find corn growing in a small patch of garden outside the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. It was a little taste of home.

CornTwo of my very dear friends took me to a local ice cream parlor in Shefa’amr, an Arab city near Nazareth. They ordered the largest size for me — pistachio, mastic (gum arabic), and lemon. I was almost too late to get back into the convent guesthouse (with a 10 pm curfew) because of the traffic jams on the streets leading to the shop… It had been a very hot day, and everyone wanted ice cream.

ice cream with Ibtisam Shefar'amI have a few hundred more pictures, if you’re interested. Just let me know.



A friend here was telling me about various Palestinian Easter traditions (especially the special Easter cakes), including the following legend: On the very first Easter, early in the morning, people were out doing their shopping in the markets in Jerusalem—bargaining for only-slightly-wilted vegetables with traders who had come up from Jericho, maybe, and buying fresh eggs from urban chicken farmers. Just then, Mary Magdalene raced into the market, laughing, waving her arms around in her excitement, and telling everyone that Jesus, who had been crucified on Friday, was alive! She raced out just as quickly, on her way to find the other disciples.

Well, no one believed her. “What a nut!” said one shopper. “Yes,” her friend added, “perhaps grief has driven her mad.” Just then, the sellers and buyers of chicken eggs noticed something strange: The eggs had all turned colors! Shocking pink, deep purple, green as the weeds sprouting out of cracks in the walls—shoppers all over the market gaped at the eggs in their baskets, and the chicken farmers scratched their heads in confusion. This strange occurrence made people think twice about Mary’s message. Perhaps she wasn’t so crazy after all… and that, my friend, is why you dye eggs at Easter.

Celebrating the mystery of the resurrection in Beit Sahour

Celebrating the mystery of the resurrection in Beit Sahour

Of course, my friend added, this is just a story for children, to explain Easter eggs. I like this story, though, for its reminder of the unbelievable strangeness of resurrection. In Luke, no one believes the women’s story of the empty tomb:

It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them—they were telling the apostles these things [about the stone rolled away from the tomb, the missing body, and the message of the two men in bright white clothing]. But to the apostles, these words seemed like nonsense. They did not believe the women (Luke 24:10-11, my translation).

In part, the unbelievability of the women’s message comes from basic distrust of women’s testimony, especially when it’s about strange events in cemeteries. It was women’s work to care for the dead, as the women among the disciples are doing on the first Easter Sunday. But the association with the dead was reason for suspicion too. Cemeteries were unclean space for the Jews, and being in that space, touching dead bodies, made the women ritually unclean. And across the Mediterranean world, cemeteries were also places of witchcraft. Since it was women’s work to mourn the dead and maintain tombs and memorials, women could be accused of witchcraft (cf. 1 Sam. 28!). The Marys et al., with their story of an empty tomb and angelic visitors, could be dismissed by the male disciples as examples of female hysteria.

The disbelief of the reports of Jesus’ resurrection also, however, reflects the fundamental unbelievability of the idea of resurrection. After all, the male disciples’ stories are also greeted with derision. In John 20:24-25, Thomas famously refused to accept the other disciples’ reports of meeting the risen Jesus; Paul spends fifty-eight verses in 1 Corinthians 15 arguing for the reality of this crazy, topsy-turvy idea of resurrection (both Jesus’ resurrection in the past, and the physical, embodied resurrection of all believers “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet”).

According to Matt. 28:17 and Luke 24:36-42, some of the disciples doubted even as they were in the presence of the risen Jesus. For Jews and Gentiles, the idea of Jesus’ physical resurrection was madness. For the Greeks, physical resurrection was impossible—the reason Paul has to spend so much of 1 Corinthians insisting on the possibility of physical resurrection. For (at least some of) the Jews, physical resurrection was an acceptable idea, but it was not going to happen until the end of time, on the day of judgment. To have Jesus being raised from the grave in the middle of time was incomprehensible. The world had clearly not ended; the general resurrection of the dead had clearly not occurred; what were these followers of Jesus talking about when they said Jesus was alive again?

According to the early church, the crucifixion and resurrection did, in fact, mark the end of the world, the turning of the times, the apocalypse—the beginning of the new creation. One of my favorite traditions of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is the location of Adam’s grave directly below the site of the crucifixion, with cracks in the rock that allowed Jesus’ blood to drip onto Adam’s bones. This tradition is historically implausible, but theologically it is spot on.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for just as everyone dies in Adam, in the same way everyone will be made alive in Christ (1 Cor. 15:20-22 NRSV, slightly modified).

Jesus’ resurrection was unexpectedly ahead of time, according to Paul, but truth nonetheless, and a foretaste of the harvest to come. And Jesus’ resurrection marked the beginning of the end of the story of humanity that started with Adam and Eve. Adam brought death into the world—Jesus, the new Adam, brings life.

Christ is risen; he is risen indeed. Happy Easter, everyone.

Triumphal entries

For the past few months (though part of a longer pattern), various Israeli settlers and right wing politicians have been entering the Haram al-Sharif (the area formerly known as the Temple Mount), exploring and praying under police protection. These visits have the explicit aim of recovering the site for Jews to rebuild the temple. Unsurprisingly, the presence of the settlers and politicians has sparked demonstrations and protests from worshipers at Al Aqsa Mosque.

It’s Palm Sunday today, the day the Church celebrates another incursion of sorts, another challenge of sacred space—the same sacred space, in fact. Palestinians today refer to Jerusalem as “Occupied Jerusalem.” In Jesus’ day, Jerusalem was also an occupied city. There would have been Roman soldiers everywhere, and in fact more than usual because of Passover; much like today, when Jerusalem is crawling with soldiers and police, security in those days was increased during festivals in response to the crowds of pilgrims. Although the First Jewish Revolt did not break out until 66 CE, tensions were simmering all through the first century. The concentration of people in Jerusalem during festivals also concentrated the political upheaval.

The stories of the triumphal entry in the Gospels reflect the political and religious tension of the Roman occupation and Jewish nationalism. Jesus chose to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey, a royal mode of transportation in Gen. 49:10-12 and 1 Kings 1:38-40. Matthew makes sure we get this point by quoting Zech. 9:9; if you read that particular text in its context, you find it’s about a warrior king defeating Jerusalem’s enemies, bringing peace, and ruling the nations. The kingly imagery is also part of the people spreading their cloaks and palm branches on the road—this was also done for Jehu in 2 Kings 9:13, and it also happened during a Hasmonean celebration of the expulsion of foreigners from Jerusalem (held in the temple itself – 1 Macc. 13:51).

Jesus, in other words, enters Jerusalem as a conquering king, a symbol of political revolution. And the crowds understand what he’s doing: “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Mark 11:9-10 NRSV). No wonder the Jewish authorities object (Matt. 21:15-16). This is precisely the sort of thing to which the Romans would respond with violence.

The political tensions remain central throughout the events of Holy Week. The challenges posed to Jesus by the priests, scribes, elders, Pharisees, Herodians, and Sadducees show that they understand Jesus as a political revolutionary. The disciples themselves agree—John and James ask for prime seats of power in Jesus’ government (Mark 10:35-37), and the disciples have swords with them in Gethsemane (Mark 14:47; cf. Luke 22:38). In part, the disciples’ distress after the crucifixion lies in the apparent failure of their hope for the restoration of the political kingdom, something they continue to expect after the resurrection (Luke 24:19-21, Acts 1:6). They think the whole Jesus thing has been about Israel’s independence from Roman rule.

Jesus’ own actions and words, ‘cleansing’ the temple, cursing the fig tree, the parable of the wicked tenants, and foretelling the apocalyptic disruption and destruction of Jerusalem, suggest something else is going on. In Mark’s gospel (my favorite), Jesus has been trying to redirect the expectations of his disciples, the crowds, and the authorities for several chapters by the time we get to Jerusalem. This redirection defines another “way” (ὁδός, hodos, which is sometimes translated as ‘road’ or ‘path’):

  • In Mark 8:27, Jesus asks his disciples along the “way” to Caesarea Philippi who they think he is. Peter says he’s the messiah—by which he would mean the king who would restore Israel. Jesus immediately tells them that his way of kingship is suffering (verse 31), and their way of following him will also be the way of suffering (verses 34-35).
  • In Mark 9:33, Jesus asks his disciples what they were arguing about on the “way.” They hem and haw, not wanting to admit that they were arguing about who was the greatest among them. Jesus knows anyway, and he tells them that the way to be great is to be the least, and to be the slave of all (verse 35).
  • In Mark 10:32, Jesus is on the “way” to Jerusalem. Everyone is amazed and afraid—and Jesus again takes the opportunity, for the final time before they reach Jerusalem, to warn the twelve disciples of the suffering to come (verses 33-34). Immediately after this, John and James show that they, and likely the other disciples, still don’t get it—they still think Jesus is going to overthrow the Romans (verses 35-37); Jesus responds by again telling them of his suffering, and teaching the disciples to serve each other as he himself serves them, to the death (verses 38-45).

Mark 11:8 is the last mention of Jesus’ “way” in the gospel. It establishes the context for the rest of the story; it reminds us that the triumph and conquering and joy of Palm Sunday have a great cost. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord”—even when the coming is unexpected, surprising, and full of suffering.

Preparing for Palm Sunday in the Old City, Jerusalem

Preparing for Palm Sunday in the Old City, Jerusalem

The finished product, St. George's Cathedral, Jerusalem

Celebrating Palm Sunday, St. George’s Cathedral, Jerusalem

Contested space

This past week I spent several days in the Negev (the desert in the south of Israel). The flowers were blooming, and the baby camels were frolicking; it is lovely to be in the desert in spring.

Before heading south, I visited St. Mary of the Resurrection Abbey in Abu Ghosh, near Jerusalem, one of the possible sites of Emmaus (Luke 24). The church here dates back to the Crusaders. When they lost the kingdom to Salah al-Din in 1187, the church was abandoned, but survived the centuries to be restored as a Benedictine community in the early 1900s. Somewhere along the way, however, the frescoes in the church were defaced (literally): St. Mary of the Resurrection Abbey, Abu Ghosh

The defacing was most likely done long, long ago by aniconic Muslims (that is, Muslims who believe it is wrong to picture the human form in sacred art because it is idolatry—as in Judaism, and the icon wars of eighth century Christianity).

While I was in the church, I overheard an Israeli guide telling his American tour group that the defacing was a sign of Muslim contempt for other religions, and an indication that in Islam it is okay to disrespect the sacred space of Christianity or Judaism. The guide’s comments implied that Christianity and Judaism are different; that Christians and Jews would never do such a thing. But of course this implication is incorrect. That very day, in fact, Deir Rafat, a Christian monastery near Jerusalem, had been vandalized by Israeli settlers, all Jews (as reported here); mosques have also been graffiti-ed and damaged (see this report, or this one). Christians don’t have a better track record. Though the Church has not been blamed for any recent vandalism in Israel or Palestine (as far as I know), the Crusaders certainly did not respect the holy sites of the Muslims or Jews in Palestine, and in the States Christians have burned Qur’ans and damaged mosques (see here or here, for instance).

These examples of vandalism mark sacred space as contested space. Beyond vandalism, this contesting also happens through the taking over of sacred space: an ancient synagogue or Jewish memorial might have become a church when the Christians gained power in Roman Palestine; the church might have become a mosque when the Muslims took over; and that mosque might have become a synagogue again when the Israelis returned. Dome of the Rock

The Temple Mount or Haram al Sharif is precisely such a contested space. The Jewish temple was destroyed by the Romans, who built a temple to Jupiter on the site in the second century; the Muslims built the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque in the seventh and eighth centuries; the Crusaders took over the site and turned the Dome into a church; later the Muslims took it back, and today Israeli visits to the site are often understood as attempts to reclaim the space (as in this incident two weeks ago). Similar recycling has happened at the Tomb of Rachel in Bethlehem, the Tomb of David on Mount Zion, the Mosque of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives, and numerous other sites. The current claimants of these spaces may limit or refuse access to others—an attempt to limit the holiness of the space to only one religious community.

The challenging of sacred space is (obviously) very political here. Laying claim to sacred space suggests the right of that particular community to be in the ‘holy’ land; denying access to those of other religious communities equally suggests that ‘they’ do not belong in the land. But restriction of sacred space is not the only option. The Tomb of Abraham et al. in Hebron, for instance, has been divided into Jewish and Muslim sections so that people from both faiths can worship there. Even better, some sites are open to all faiths. In Syria several years ago, I saw a Muslim family bringing a sheep to sacrifice to the Virgin Mary at the Convent of Our Lady, Seidnaya, in acknowledgement of answered prayer. Convent of Our Lady, Seidnaya, Syria

The same sharing of space by Muslims and Christians happens in Palestine (as at the Monastery of St. George near Beit Jala, or at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem). I’ve seen Jews visiting the Armenian Cathedral of St. James and the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth (though I don’t know that they were worshiping). And I’ve heard of a group of Israelis and Palestinians who have turned the Separation Wall into a sacred space of sorts, joining together there to pray for peace.

The contesting of political space and sacred space are intertwined. On my way out of Jerusalem Tuesday, I was delayed by John Kerry’s motorcade (which required the closing off of one of the main streets in Jerusalem), on the way to the latest Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. This round of negotiations seems to have been remarkably unsuccessful. Wouldn’t it be nice if the sharing of sacred space could become a model for the sharing of political space, rather than another stone to cause politicians and citizens to stumble?

Mothering Sunday, and mothers and daughters in Palestine

Today marks the halfway point of Lent. In the Anglican church, it’s ‘Mothering Sunday’—way back when, the one Sunday a year when people would return to their homes and home churches (thus visiting their mothers as well as ‘mother churches,’ according to the Diocese of Ely); now, a day to honor mothers. Mother’s Day was celebrated here in Palestine a week ago Friday (21 March). The Beit Sahour municipality handed out fancy wallets to the women in town, and the mothers in my Palestinian family received new clothes, jewelry, even a television. My upstairs neighbors held a big family dinner, and the men did at least some of the cooking. (As a side note, the table was, as usual for a Palestinian meal, crowded with numerous dishes, and yet everyone kept apologizing to me and asking if I was disappointed in the food – I finally figured out that there was no meat because of Lent, so they were worried that I would be dissatisfied and hungry! Needless to say, I was not.)

The Mother’s Day celebration reminded me of the celebrations for married daughters at the beginning of Advent. The local Christian families invited their daughters with their families back to the parents’ home for a big meal; there was singing in honor of the daughters, and they were given gifts. Similarly, International Women’s Day at the beginning of March was a government holiday, and women again received special gifts from the municipality. There are no equivalent celebrations for fathers or sons—they don’t keep Father’s Day here.

In some very obvious ways, then, women are valued and honored in local culture. Women are present in society as shopkeepers and shoppers, working in and managing restaurants, on television and online. Every pharmacy I’ve been in has been wholly staffed by women (okay, I’ve only been in three pharmacies, so it’s not a great sample size!), and my gym is run by women, for women. There are women on the Palestinian police force. There are a number of businesses run by women for the production and sale of handiwork made by women—traditional embroidery, pottery, jewelry. Seventy percent of the student body at Bethlehem University is female. The mayor of Bethlehem is a woman, and there are several women who serve as ministers in the Palestinian government.

When you dig a little deeper, though, it becomes evident that the visibility of women masks their marginality in society, politics, the economy, and the family. 70% of the student body at the university is female because families prefer to send their sons abroad. According to recent data from the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics (for 2013), only 17% of women are in the workforce (compared to an international average of 52%, according to UN report ST/ESA/STAT/SER.K/19), and for every shekel earned by a man, women earn only eighty cents (agarot). The majority of women in the workforce hold lower ranking jobs—secretaries instead of professors, shop attendants instead of business owners; only 13% of the doctors in the West Bank are women, for instance, but 59% of jobs in the service industry are held by women. 35% of women were unemployed last year (compared to 20% of men); among women with at least some college education, the unemployment rate skyrocketed to 47% (reflecting the wider availability of work for women in the service industry, I would suspect).

Women on average spend about six hours a day cooking, cleaning, and caring for children, compared to less than two hours for men. In 2012, as reported in AI Monitor, 37% of married women experienced domestic abuse in Palestine (51% in Gaza alone)—and those statistics are based on the number of women who report abuse, but not everyone does. The police spokesperson in Gaza claims the police force “refrains from publishing statistics about the number of women who file complaints against their husbands, as well as the number of those subjected to violence, so as not to encourage more women to speak up, as it is not socially acceptable.” Even more alarmingly, there has been a surge of violence against women over the past two years (according to Al Jazeera): in 2011, five women in Palestine died as a result of ‘honor killing’; in 2012, thirteen women died; in 2013, twenty-six women died; so far in 2014, eight women have been killed by family members for offenses against ‘honor.’

A few comments from students in the lectures I’ve given at the university this spring reflect the realities of these statistics. One lecture addressed the history of feminism in the United States and its effects on society, including women in the workforce. One male student questioned the necessity for women to work. He said he wanted to be the provider for the family; his future wife certainly could work if she wanted to, but her wages would be for her own use only (to buy clothes, or special treats). His salary would support the household. I had the sense that this student thought his plan should be praised—he values women so highly that he would not want his wife to be forced to work. But actually, his plan turns his future wife into an ornament; she will not be an important or essential member of the household. (None of the women in the class greeted his plan with any enthusiasm.) The limitation of women to low-paying, low-ranking jobs across Palestine likewise limits their power and influence in society and the family.

Another lecture was on the family in America today. Several of the students had done study abroad programs in the States in high school (and I’d imagine most of them have family members in America). One woman had stayed with three different families during her study abroad year—all of them headed by single mothers with multiple children, sometimes with different fathers. Based on her questions, I think she was still working through the ramifications of being a single mother. It’s not possible here. Women who get pregnant out of marriage may get married right away, like the high schooler in my neighborhood whose parents found out about her pregnancy on a Monday, and married her off by Friday. Alternatively, they might leave town to stay in convents who care for pregnant women or go abroad to stay with family members until the baby is born, and then give the baby to an orphanage. Adoption is not common here (partly by culture, and partly for religious reasons).

After class, the student told me she wants to change the system to make adoption more available—even for single women. She herself is not sure she wants to be married; I’ve heard the same from several university students and recent graduates (all women, though that may simply be a result of my own gender rather than reflective of a male-female divide). It’s quite difficult to be a single woman in Palestinian society, though; the cultural norm is marriage. The average age at marriage for women is twenty (twenty-four for men), and the rate of marriage for women under age 19 is still quite high at 45% (in 2012). Women who choose to remain single face a long struggle against social opinion and family expectation (there are no special celebrations for unmarried daughters or childless women).

I certainly don’t want to say that the situation is wholly oppressive or denigrating for women in Palestine. There are women who hold positions of power in society, even if they are few in number; women can be very important in the family, and they have the power to shape the future through their children (an opportunity the mothers in the university leadership program eagerly embrace). But there is still a long way to go, as the students realize. This Mothering Sunday, coincidentally the last Sunday of Women’s History Month, is a chance to remember all the women of Palestine—to honor those who have gone beyond the traditional expectations of society, those who thrive within the traditional expectations, and those who suffer from the constraints of tradition.