Monday, August 30, 2004

"Do you think it would be ok for me to go take a picture of that banner welcoming Ghandi and his delegates?"

I am far too confused to give R. any answer short of a bewildered look. She disappears into the crowd toward the banner. Trying to stick close to people I know, I make my way through the crowd until I find myself standing beside the Green Sheikh's two daughters and Laura, the documentarian. A Palestinian boy taps me from behind.

"Shalom Alechem. Salaam Aleikum"
"Salaam Aleikum." We smile at each other and shake hands, and before I get a chance to figure out what to say next, one of the many local security guards swarming around us pushes the boy back, and suddenly we are being hurriedly escorted and pushed back into the cars. As the police cars flanking the multi-car processional (motorcade, is it called?) through Bethlehem start up their sirens, I shake my head and wonder how Eliyahu's invitation to take a bus with him to Bethlehem turned into this. I look around and realize I did not see R. get into a car--I look back and see a blue bandanna floating in the throngs behind us.

Shit. I just lost R. in the middle of Bethlehem. Yosef, who is sitting next to me, offers me his cell phone, and I call her, and again and again, but there is no answer.

Before I have a chance to figure out what to do next, we are being pulled back out of the cars, where we find ourselves at the center of an enormous parade in honor of Arun Ghandi's visit, led by Palestinian children and teenagers in uniforms of yellow and brown and green (imagine variations on the boy scout uniform) marching with instruments. I find one of the women who seemed to be coordinating the event marching next to me, and I ask her if she has seen my friend. She says that she hasn't and offers me her cell phone to try to call again. No answer.

We arrive at the main square of the city, at a building called Bethlehem Center for Peace, or something of that sort. As I find myself being pushed onto a stage by various large, friendly men in security and military uniforms, I finally see R. arrive, flanked by the delegation from Rabbis for Human Rights. She had gotten into a car further back, with two reporters from a South Florida newspaper.

On stage, we find our way to a spot in the back, where we can stand slightly less conspicuously behind several rows of chairs. The square in front of us is flooded with thousands of people--many in the front have framed pictures like those I saw in Ramallah, but there are fewer this time, and there seems to be a greater diversity of people in the crowd.

A series of speakers take the podium, each to welcome and introduce Ghandi. Eliyahu in front of me, and a very kind woman beside me who explains that she is a friend of Rabbis for human rights, provide explanation and translation of the speakers. Among the speakers, they tell me, was the Mayor of Bethlehem, the Chief Imam of the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian American organizer of the event (I think the group is called Palestinians for Peace and Democracy), and a Rabbi from Rabbis for Human Rights. Only after this long series of introductions and speeches did Ghandi take the podium.

Many of the speakers spoke about Palestinian suffering, the wall, the oppression of Palestinian prisoners, and called for peace to come, peace with dignity and respect. The representative from Rabbis for Human Rights gave a beautiful speech in Hebrew and English and Arabic, calling for mutual compassion for the suffering of Israelis and Palestinians, and asserting the inherent spiritual bonds of Jews, Christians and Muslims in yearning for peace. Ghandi's speech mainly focused on his solidarity with Palestinian suffering and ended with general calls for peace in the region.

I was disappointed by the drift from the intended focus--non-violence and non-violent resistance as a new approach for voicing political demands and working toward peace. When Ghandi spoke in Ramallah, he spoke directly and much more extensively on the importance and efficacy of non-violence, but in the addresses at this event, non-violence was barely mentioned. Even though I did not agree with or feel comfortable with all the claims and approaches of the speeches given, I think there is at least some value in the fact that the rally was focused on the motif of peace, of calling for peace. A will for peace can be powerful--I was only disappointed that the event did not direct this will more forcefully toward the promising new path of nonviolence that (I think) was intended by the organizers.

After the speeches finished, the security guards herded us back off the stage through the crowd and into the Church of the Nativity, where a guide showed Ghandi the place of Jesus's birth, and other key sites. The back into the sirening procession of cars, back to the hotel we departed from. When we arrived back at the hotel, I found Eliyahu sitting at a table with Ghandi and Rav Froman, a charismatic peacemaking Rabbi from the settlement of Takoa. The Green Sheikh and his daughters also joined the circle, and I pulled up a chair to listen to a frank discussion of Israeli and Palestinian suffering and mutual fears, and the importance of spirituality in peacemaking work. After the hubbub and the great show of the evening, I found this small discussion refreshing and hopeful. Everyone listened intently.


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