Sunday, January 9, 2011

Bus Ride in Israel

Attached is a guest column article in Chapel Hill News from the latest pilgrimage in the Holy Land.

Click here for the original:

And here it is below:

Anger is expressed with sharply honed words.We use ferocious gestures to accompany angry words. Indignation caused by powerlessness can rip into placid lives, leaving long-lasting scars.

I experienced such toxic anger on a bus ride in Israel the week before Thanksgiving.

As part of my Carrboro-based non-profit, the School of the Pilgrim, I was on a pilgrimage in Egypt's Sinai desert. Before the pilgrimage, I followed news of the uneasy cease-fire between Israelis and Palestinians.

It is a transitory truce contingent on the building or freezing of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory. And while Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas engaged in the erratic dance of diplomacy internationally, on an Israeli bus I witnessed the perceived absence of peace and sense of injustice underneath the appearance of the general public's civility.

I experienced unbridled rage, conjured up by decades of hostility. I remembered that I am not only a Chapel Hillian: It is important to take my place as a world citizen.

I sat in the front seat on the bus from Eilat, Israel's southernmost city, to Jerusalem. The first four hours were calm. I smiled as an Israeli assumed I was a citizen, talking to me in fluent Hebrew. Sitting next to me was Shookie, an Israeli. We shared photos of our familes and swapped stories of our careers.

The easy-going environment was shattered as we neared Jerusalem. It was nearly 6 p.m. on Friday, the beginning of Shabbat, the sacred Sabbath for observant Jews.

This means that all businesses and public employees - including the driver of the government-owned bus - must cease work by 6, or face a fine.

It also meant that military buses and armed Israeli security would be routinely posted to block passage from Jerusalem into the Palestinian territories of the West Bank. This made it difficult for the Palestinians riding on our bus to get home.

Not knowing the bus stops around Jerusalem, I was unaware we passed the one stop that most of the Palestinian passengers used to go home. Seeing that we skipped his stop, a young Palestinian man stormed to the front of the bus, his hands banging the overhead rack, yelling, "Stop" to the driver.

The bus driver yelled back angrily. With Shookie translating, I understood what was happening: The Palestinian loudly asserted his right to get off the bus to go home.

In vulgar language, the driver explained that he couldn't stop at the usual stops. Shabbat was approaching, and he would be fined if his bus were on the road after 6. Hoping to quell any violence, the driver promised to stop soon.

The young Palestinian seemed placated, but then the bus driver drove by another stop where the Palestinians might have gotten off. This stop was blocked by another bus, and armed Israeli soldiers.

Angrier, with more Palestinians enraged at the driver's action, the young man ran to the front of the bus, demanding the driver stop immediately, "or else!"

Shaken by this aggression, the driver brought the bus to a jolting stop, farther from the Palestinian homes.

Tension between Israeli and Palestinians, evident for generations on the world stage, enveloped that bus.

Feeling a great wrong had been done to them, the Palestinian crowd on the bus let go with a fierce barrage of menacing words. Shouting at the top of their voices, bodily gestures engaged in swearing at all Israelis, the Palestinians stomped off the bus, rocking the vehicle, yelling threats at the driver for his insensitivity.

The driver wasn't innocent either, verbally engaged in this war of acrimonious words.

I was scared for my own well-being as I listened and watched. I worried that the violence would escalate rapidly in the tight confines of the bus.

Israeli citizens huddled next to the window, wanting to avoid the rupture of peace. I felt helpless as the crowd stepped off the bus, banging their fists on the bus' side as it departed.

Then Shookie leaned over and said: "The land belongs to the Jews! It's in the Bible. They'll have to learn to live with it."

I was scarred by brittle barbs of hate and distrust.

In hindsight I realize that what happens there - from international diplomacy games to the exposed, savage wound on a bus - affects us here. I witnessed people in the Holy Land demand equal measures of respect and justice, which is necessary in order for peace to exist.

Until justice comes as a prelude to peace, all peoples will be in constant turmoil. Until justice comes, we will continue to witness repeatedly an unraveling of every tentative truce between warring human souls.

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