NABLUS -- I am a Jewish West Virginian teaching at an all-Muslim university in Palestine (the West Bank). On Dec. 9, I lit a menorah I bought at a second-hand shop in Nablus. I am burning candles that were made in the Gaza strip. I will even invite a few Palestinian friends to my home to light the menorah with me, this week. This could be viewed as irony.
Across the border, in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, windows sparkle with menorahs, made from burning cups of oil, like in ancient times, unlike the candle-versions most Americans light.
During the eight nights of Chanukah, Jerusalem becomes a city aglow. The eight small cups of oil, and a ninth to light the others, are enclosed behind a glass box so the wind will not snuff them out. Thousands flock to see the scene, much like people going out to look at Christmas lights. In the old part of the city, the streets are white and beige, quarried from the mountainside; they reflect the gilded light. They are dangerously slick, polished smooth as glass by thousands of footsteps over thousands of years. Feet of every religion, and none, have made pilgrimages here.
At night in Jerusalem, you hear the sound of church bells, the Muslim call to prayer and Jewish chanting, simultaneously. It is both one of the most elegant and brutally violent places.
This Chanukah, I wish for no more bombs to be dropped by either side in the Palestinian-Israeli issue. And for no more illegal Jewish religious colonies (sometimes called settlements) to be built in Palestine, which Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu decided to do, pronto.
Now, every Palestinian village is surrounded by such colonies. I have been to copious Palestinian villages and, in addition to every sunset over the mountain, I see, in relatively close range, the red-roofed colonies, which look like 1950's American suburbia. Some are several years old; some are built this second. They are replete with Orwellian watchtowers and rolls of wire. It was dramatic teaching George Orwell's 1984 to my Palestinian university students at An Najah University. They found ominous parallels between that dystopian novel and their own lives.
I'm sick of the ignorant divisions. The power plays, the use of prisons by Israelis to subdue an entire population. Most all fathers or men I have talked to here have been detained in Israeli prisons. Yes, people throw rocks, but the media never asks why. Every human being believes in self-defense; however, popular media call it self-defense only on one side. You can tell who is in charge by who controls the prisons. By who determines when fathers and mothers can return to their families.
Palestinian families are the most tight-knit families I have ever met. To me, they are like the quintessential story of the pastor who would give the shirt off his back to anyone who needed it, no questions asked. All Palestinian people are like that. Palestinians, a poor people because of historical inequalities, have given me their finest everything, even when they knew I was Jewish. There is no act of kindness I have not been shown. People pay for me so often for everything that once, I almost walked out of a shop, forgetting to pay for bread.
There are things I disagree with here, surely. Such as a fierce patriarchy that most here perceive as equality. Since so many of the cultural norms are based on the Koran, it seems unpopular and anathema to be able to dispute or critique society, and so most people do not, openly. Perhaps they critique the government, but rarely things like gender roles. However, this region has no monopoly on patriarchy. It abounds in our own backyards, too, perhaps in different ways.
It is not easy being a closeted Jew here. Since I do not "look" stereotypically Jewish I can "pass" for being Christian. However, I do not want to do that. My ancestors felt like they had to assimilate and actually hide their Jewishness too much in America, where, in most places, you were treated differently. And, even as a high school student at South Charleston High I remember lying about a Jewish holiday and saying I had a dentist appointment because I did not want to raise the discussion of my religion. However, this is something I regret. It was a lost teaching moment. Later, when some people found out that I was Jewish, they were excited and wanted to learn about my faith. They wanted to hear me say prayers in Hebrew; I was giving them a gift by sharing with them.