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Walking back from Shavuot dawn prayers

Today with a friend (thanks Betsey!) I visited an arts organization in Tulkarm. Both the journey and the destination were fascinating. First, this morning at dawn thousands of observant Jews gathered at the Western Wall after staying up all night studying in celebration of the giving of the law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. As I walked to East Jerusalem to catch my bus to the West Bank I passed a practically continuous parade of the celebrants heading home. I find the all night study ending with a public ritual a wonderful way of showing gratitude for a sacred text, and I’m glad I saw a part of it.

On my minibus ride a woman sitting next to me pointed to a small Israeli settlement and said, “That was my grandfather’s land.” As we spoke more, I discovered she was a member of the wealthy al-Masri family, and as we entered the city of Nablus she noted several of her family’s beautiful houses on the hills. My trip up took me past Yitzhar, one of the many small Israeli settlements deep in the West Bank. Yesterday, as reported in the Jerusalem Post, “A man from the West Bank settlement of Yitzhar shot and wounded a Palestinian man on Saturday in a clash that began when a group of settlers set fire to fields belonging to a Palestinian village, officials said.”

From Tulkarm, with Netanya in the distance

Out of the window of the arts group in Tulkarm one could look to the high-rises of Netanya on the sea (though visiting the beach is almost impossible for the people of Tulkarm.) The director noted that he did not get involved with politics, yet also described a putting on a play for Nakba Day about how rumors spread “and caused our grandfathers to flee.” My confusion about this seeming contradiction cleared up when later he said that a few years ago one (Palestinian) political party or another tried to “make us illegal” but that he and his arts organization “fought back” and won. While I was not entirely clear why a political party would want to shut him down, he also noted that for a while the mosques also preached against his group because the music and drama workshops were co-ed: “boys and girls together!” he imitated the Imam saying in a shocked voice. He laughingly claimed that for a while he and his colleagues would “decide what the sermon would be next week” based on what provocative act they would undertake that week. So as I’ve noted before, while the occupation is the background burden for all here, Palestinian political structures also make life more difficult. Palestinian political parties (and religious groups, sometimes amounting to the same thng) seek to control arts groups to control their message.

Fortunately this arts organization seemed to be thriving, and operated on almost no money. At the moment they had space in a building, but the director described plenty of times when they “set up chairs on the street” and put on performances wherever they could. We joked that this was the ultimate in organizational transparency.

All in all, another complex, disturbing and rewarding trip from West Jerusalem to the Occupied Territories and back.