It took a bus with Palestinian plates, a Palestinian driver and about 60 minutes to begin our transformative journey to the West Bank. Aside from the traffic on the way to the border crossing, our group of 10 Reform rabbis (on a trip sponsored by the Central Conference of American Rabbis) barely knew we had left the outskirts of Jerusalem. As we wound our way to our first destination, we viewed a myriad of brand-new multi-story buildings, showing us that the West Bank’s national bird is the same as Israel’s -- the construction crane.
Soon we arrived at ZAMN, a comfortable coffee shop in Ramallah. Again we could barely tell the difference from Israel’s Aroma Café except for the names of a few cheeses and an amazing apple tart that I haven’t seen on Aroma’s menu. We relaxed on comfortable couches as we awaited a visit from senior Palestinian official Nabil Shaath. Shaath spoke openly about his views, some of which we agreed with more than others. While he said he doesn’t believe Israel should be a Jewish state, he explained that the Palestinians are focusing on economic growth rather than violence to improve their situation and status in the world.
Then Huda el Jack, a partner in ZAMN, picked up on the theme of economics in the West Bank. El Jack dispelled my preconceived notion that every woman in the West Bank wears religious garb -- as if the same thing happens in Jerusalem. Instead, el Jack was dressed in casual clothes similar to any American businesswoman. She spoke eloquently about the need for economic development in the West Bank, emphasizing that young people are extremely frustrated because they cannot get jobs. El Jack, who has an MBA from Kellogg School of Management, even pointed out that the cooks at her coffee shop make more money than new lawyers.
We then headed to the new city of Rawabi, so eye-openingly modern that visitors can tour the entire town from the information center by viewing a mini-city with videos showing activities ranging from life at home to shopping and eating at restaurants. Again the people and activities looked just like those occurring in Jerusalem or Los Angeles. The actual city, built on a series of hills, has units ranging in price from $65,000 to $125,000. Again I noted my “surprise” as our tour guide entered the bus. She was a casually dressed young woman engineer whose head also was uncovered. Women visitors to the Rawabi information center were dressed in a variety of ways. As I waited for the rest of my group at one point, more of my preconceived notions fell away as I watched the office staff work together. They chatted and joked just like all co-workers. Furthermore, they kindly offered me a refreshing drink.
Eventually, we had to return to Jerusalem. We drove through older areas of the West Bank where the streets were narrow and the stores were small, again not much different from those in older parts of Jerusalem. We passed a square guarded by statues of lions that has been the scene of protests and violence in the past. But now it is calm and a place for pedestrian and car traffic. Only six hours after our journey began we again sailed across the border. But this time our hearts and minds were filled with a transformed perspective of the West Bank and its people. We carried with us new hope for continued understanding and communication, and hopes for shalom.