For many people, Bethlehem is the birthplace of Jesus, a religious center of great significance. People with some current knowledge know Bethlehem as a Palestinian city near Jerusalem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. A delegation from Cambridge has returned from a visit with many perspectives told through the stories of people they met, stories understood differently through the diverse lenses of the delegates.
The 15-person delegation from Cambridge traveled to Bethlehem in November as part of the Cambridge-Bethlehem People-to-people Project, with the mission “to bring people together for direct communication and learning about one another, the sharing of cultural expressions among all age groups, and a process of mutual education which would build on and expand existing relationships between people and organizations in both communities.”
The delegation will be sharing stories and images Wednesday, January 16th at a public report-back at 6:30 at the Cambridge Senior Center at 806 Mass. Ave.
Impressions of Bethlehem were marked by contrasts. It is a place of great hospitality yearning for a return of tourism and visitors in the midst of restrictions of checkpoints, travel permissions system and military sieges. It is a welcoming city cut off by a wall that separates parts of the city from other parts, and the entire city from the rest of the West Bank and next-door Jerusalem. It is a city with a Chamber of Commerce advertising marble, mother of pearl dioramas, embroidery and other quality goods for trade without means to export or import. Delegates visited a Rehab hospital which can’t rely on patients getting there or reimbursement from insurance and an all volunteer children’s cancer project serving children and their families who have no ability to travel back and forth for health services.
The Palestinians we met with all expressed a deep frustration with the invisibility or distortion of their stories in the media. Gail Epstein from the Cambridge Peace Commission shared the delegation’s sense of responsibility to bring back the stories they heard and bear witness to their lives.
“People in Bethlehem were generous with their stories. They offered them to us as gifts of friendship and trust, allowing us to be witnesses of their suffering, their humanity, and their “beautiful resistance”. For teens at the Aida Camp’s Alrowwad Cultural and Theater Training Program, “beautiful resistance” is in dance, choir, theater, puppetry and other performances, which allow them to travel locally and overseas, preserve their folklore and heritage, and show their beauty to a world that sees Palestinians through a biased media lens. For the high school students at the American Jerusalem School and the college students at Bethlehem University, beautiful resistance is getting the best education they can, even if they never have the opportunity to work in their chosen professions.”
Childhood educator and grandmother Kathy Roberts was “haunted by the story of the 11th grader who related going through a checkpoint with her grandmother. A tear slid down her cheek as she recounted her experience of a soldier pulling down her grandmothers pants.”
“How can the residents of the West Bank focus on relationships, their lives, their families, their futures, on peace and optimism, when on a daily basis they are subject to humiliations, hardships, and prejudices?” Omar Bandar reflects that “although I do not know the answer to this question, there is a silver lining…they do. The residents of the West Bank do focus on their relationships and they do have optimism for the, albeit distant, future.
“…The Palestinians that our delegation met with are eager to connect with their Cantabrigian counterparts. They are eager to develop new relationships even though they have felt the pain of losing loved ones.
“Not only has being part of this delegation to Bethlehem stoked my sense of optimism, increased my respect for the endurance and emotional strength of human beings, but also, being part of this delegation has motivated me to want to further the people-to-people mission of the initiative not just to support the people of the West Bank, but also, so that other Cantabrigians can learn, as I have, about the power of the human spirit.