The ‘othering’ of people is a human trait displayed by powerful societies for time immemorial. Separating ourselves from those we deem inferior on the grounds of religious belief, colour, ethnicity, caste, gender and language has always been an operating tool in the hands of society and government. But today, this is happening far more insidiously, at times beyond the public eye. Even the most democratic and secular of nations have been unable to break free of this human craving to establish the primacy of the ‘superior’ over the chosen ‘inferior’.
Ordinary citizens are morally coerced or forced to take sides and, in the process, strengthen those who survive by maintaining the status quo. Authority to implement and execute such discrimination is derived by instilling fear and hubris among the people – fear among the oppressed and hubris in the dominant community. The fear of imminent danger combined with aggressive marginalisation triggers attack, counter-attack and deaths in an unending cycle. One such nation that has mastered this grotesque art in the name of mythical and prophetic land inheritance is Israel. And the world has allowed it and continues to abet its annexation and infiltration of Palestinian land and the persecution of the Palestinian people.
As we got into the taxi on January 20 at Tel Aviv airport, we were greeted by a boisterous, Israeli-Jewish taxi driver. He was keen on sharing myths with us and as we rode the highway, many fables unfolded. God, he said, gifted the Jews the most beautiful, fertile land, rich in honey and water, with enough to fulfill the needs of all Jews. It was almost as if God had given the Jews, a perfect people, the perfect place – Israel. So, said our driver, God was asked how he could be so partial. For which he said “Partial? Just look at the kind of neighbours I have given them.”
A telling story that unveiled the inner mind of conservative Jews across Israel. On the ride to our hotel in Jaffa (Yaffa), he never once mentioned Palestine, even in passing. Only when I enquired about Bethlehem did he say, “Oh! that is in Palestine,” in a tone laced with disregard and implying concern for our safety. Israel, for conservative Jews, is not an arbitrary and unequal creation of the 20th century, it is the ‘promised land’ that has from time immemorial belonged to them, only them. Ironically, the people of the land, the Palestinians, have become usurpers.
The first thing that strikes you about Israel and Palestine is the tininess of the land. But the religious centrality of Jerusalem that brings together Christianity, Judaism and Islam, the Holocaust, the magnitude of the Palestinian struggle, the financial and political clout wielded by Jews across the globe and the simultaneous political hijacking of the Palestinian cause by terrorists from other nations has resulted in this small piece of land looming large over the rest of the world.
Over an unforgettable week in January of 2017, on the invitation of David Shulman, one of the world’s foremost scholars of Indology, Indian languages, culture and music, and the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, I travelled across the geographical and political landscape of Jaffa and West Jerusalem in Israel, Jericho, Jordan Valley, Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem and Bethlehem in Palestine. It was a week of sharing music and listening to Palestinian and Israeli voices – thinking voices, feeling voices, speaking voices and singing voices.
There are many complex stories of lives coming out of those voices that I could narrate, but in this piece, I would like to speak about one simple pilgrimage to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Palestine. And I want to write about this because many tourists would have travelled this path and come back touched by the sanctity of the church itself. For those deeply engaged in the Israel-Palestine conflict, this is just a touristic trip that touches the surface, missing the hidden ugliness that the Israeli establishment perpetrates. Bethlehem was for me a disturbing experience that made me question some basic assumptions about my own equanimity.
The place is just about 40 minutes by road from Jerusalem. But travel to and from Bethlehem is not exactly straightforward. We need to take two taxis, one on the Israeli side that will drop us at an intimidating cement coloured check post. And once we pass the check post, we need to transfer to a Palestinian taxi to get to the Church of the Nativity believed to be the birth place of Jesus Christ. As per the Oslo agreement, the West Bank was divided into three sectors: Area A – entirely controlled by Palestinian Authority, Area B – civil administration comes under the Palestinian Authority while security is under the Israeli authority and Area C – entirely controlled by the Israeli army.
Israeli Jews cannot enter Bethlehem which comes under Area A and hence (there is) this need for a taxi transfer. We were lucky to get into a taxi that was driven by an Arab Israeli citizen who could drive us directly to the church. We need to understand that about 20% of the Israeli population is Arab or Palestinian – and they are treated as second-class citizens. Any traveller who visits just Tel Aviv and West Jerusalem with a short trip to the Dead Sea would wonder what this entire ruckus was all about. Israel comes across like a western democracy, rich and capitalistic, luring us like another country. But all we need to do is keep our eyes open as we cross in and out of the West Bank and the bubble bursts.
Every time we cross into the West Bank, the economic and cultural differences are evident, even in and around the touristy shops that dot the ancient by-lanes around the Church of the Nativity. The landscape, layout and the spread of the homes in the West Bank, Palestine are very different from the regularised and orderly facade of Israel. For a person from Asia, the West Bank is closer to home and so much more real. But this feeling of bonhomie disappears the moment we pay more attention to all that is around. On the way back from the church, my colleague, the mridangam artist Praveen Sparsh and I decided to walk to the Israeli check post which was about three kilometres away.
Initially, it was just a lovely stroll down main roads that housed curio shops, archeological sites, mini-malls and restaurants that obviously catered to the constant influx of Christian tourists who make their way to Bethlehem every year. And on one side was a valley dotted with under-construction buildings, apartment blocks and roads that wound their way through the greenish-brown, undulated landscape. But very soon we were walking down small dusty back roads. We enquired about the check post with some locals and their directions led us directly to ‘the wall’ – the Israeli West Bank barrier. A massive structure that takes control over your mind and body. Long and mighty grey vertical slabs of cement, tightly packed alongside one another and topped with barbed fences. It might have been about 25 feet high, I am actually not sure because it seemed much larger. I was dwarfed and crushed in its presence and it swallowed my space and vision. Soon my heartbeat was racing and I was hoping to cross the checkpoint as fast as possible.
At regular intervals there were watchtowers for Israeli army personnel to watch over us from their commanding position. I had seen this very same wall as we drove in and out of West Bank but I never realised the magnitude of its presence until I took the long walk alongside it. The wall is decorated with wartime graffiti that demands a free Palestine, more love, peace, small memoirs for martyrs and anger targeted at Israel and the US, including one that said “Obama Sucks”. On our left were shops, homes, a petrol station and cars and taxis went back and forth from the check post. It was obvious that for people on the ground, anger, laughter, resentment and resignation co-exist in a way that we cannot imagine.
It is not just the size of the wall that terrorises. It is what it means, what it says. It is a statement that divides, segregates and subjugates those within its confines. Every time you see the wall, it shows you your limits, stops you from dreaming. Life is bound by how you behave within and those outside are always watching and pointing guns at you from way above. It constantly informs Palestinians that they are all terrorists, untrustworthy, people who need to be controlled, limited, under observation. Even as a transitory visitor I felt every one of these emotions – it was as if my freedom had been taken away, I was a suspect and wondered whether I would be allowed through the check post. The wall does that to you – it makes those sitting on top and the other side omnipotent and supremely powerful. What does this wall mean to a person who is born and has grown up watching the permanence of this monstrosity, demands its demolition and is crying hoarse for her own legitimacy and dignity. The wall is a constrictor that crushes Palestinian space, mind and body. The wall is a prison.
The check post is no less intimidating, a tunnel like dark entry, nothing of culture or sharing adorn the walls. It is dry and lifeless. We pass through many corridors and take a few turns to once again find ourselves facing an expressionless Israeli officer. Palestinians who make this trip everyday may be used to the drill but there is always that possibility, especially during times of conflict, that you may suddenly become a terrorist. When I emerged on the other side, I breathed easy, I felt free and all of a sudden, I was back in control. The ugliness of this kind of freedom must disturb anyone who visits Bethlehem. We go there to visit the supposed birth site of a man of peace, love and compassion. But the divine child is suffocated in this prison. Pilgrims come from across the globe to pray for their own happiness while their very arrival and departure from that spot of spirituality is ridden in hurt, oppression, violence, hate and death and we just don’t see it. To feel blessed to visit Bethlehem is a spiritual crime.
The Israeli government and its sympathisers will of course have numerous reasons to justify the presence of the wall. But this is an unusual wall. It is only meant to keep the Palestinians within. Jews with the active support of the Israeli government and army appropriate lands, build settlements in Area C and occupied East Jerusalem, and the world just whines about it for a few days. Attacks on each other are a norm in this part of the world but there is no doubt that the official machinery used by the Israeli establishment is at a scale that can never be matched by a few freedom fighters. Yes, I have used the term freedom fighters and not terrorists. As much as I condemn any kind of violence, after travelling to Palestine I am unable to say with confidence that I would remain a quiet non-violent activist if I was one among them. If I was physically, functionally, culturally and spiritually pushed like the Palestinians have been for decades, can I be sure that I will never take to arms? The truth be told, none of us really knows if reduced to the position of a suppressed ‘other’, we will not do that.