On the way to Jerusalem, teacher Jane Batarseh sat nervously with her daughter, Amanda, family friend and cab driver in a specially licensed car as they approached a checkpoint. Their odds of being able to visit the city were good with the guards who manned the point. But when a third guard appeared, things changed.
That kind of uncertainty was common this summer, when Batarseh visited Bethlehem for the first time since 1975 and experienced the shocking physical and political changes there.
Bethlehem is famous for being the birthplace of Jesus Christ and King David, the second king of the United Kingdom of Israel.
But for Batarseh, it is also the home of her husband’s ancestors, who came to the area in 1616.
Batarseh continued her studies of Spoken Arabic when she visited this summer, June 25-July 25. Yet something has shifted since she last visited in 1975.
Until around 1914, Bethlehem was a mostly peaceful place to which tourists flocked to see historical and religious landmarks, but every ethnic group has become increasingly hostile toward each other, Batarseh said.
“It is simply contested ground because it is sacred to the three monotheistic religions (Islam, Christianity and Judaism), each of which has occupied in successive years the same land,” Batarseh said.
When Batarseh looked around the city in 1975, she saw a broad vista covered in olive groves, surrounded by beautiful hills dotted with a few refugee camps and settlements. Now refugee camps and settlements cover the hills.
And as old families of Christians, Israelis, Muslims and Palestinians grapple for the ground in the city, tensions are rising. Every group believes they—not the others—belong there, Batarseh said.
Batarseh believes in a one-state solution, which would recognize all in the area with citizenship and equal rights.
During Batarseh’s visit, she was astonished by the presence of so many nationalities and religious backgrounds in such a small area.
While staying with her husband’s family in Bethlehem, she remembers seeing her relative, a Christian woman, cleaning the house together with a completely covered Muslim woman.
Though it surprised Batarseh to see the two cultures together, she said, to them it was just ordinary teamwork.
Diversity was common in Bethlehem.
“The accents are so pronounced,” Batarseh said. Only three miles one way in Shepherd’s Fields, a small community, everyone had a distinct dialect of Arabic, and seven miles in the opposite direction everyone had another. Thus you could tell where someone lived based solely on their voice, she said.
Batarseh found this same diversity at the university, where she took language lessons with people of different nationalities, many of whom were journalists and doctors. She said everyone was “jovial” but very responsible and dedicated.
Her favorite part of the trip was both learning the language and reading indigenous literature.
“Indigenous literature has never really interested the West,” she said, noting that the viewpoint in most literature is that of the victors.
Security was an issue thoughout the trip.
Everything was monitored by the government, Batarseh said, even where they were sleeping at night.
Though she found the security restrictive and nerve-wracking, she said she understands its necessity. “It’s considered protection on their side,” she said.
Batarseh said she appreciated being able to learn about history, both the area’s and her own, but that “the feeling of claustrophobia” was ever-present and that everything they did had some risk.
So when the third guard at the checkpoint told the group they needed to turn back, everyone was shaken.
They had been cleared to go through by the first two armed Israeli guards, but a third guard of a Muslim background stepped in and grilled them with security questions.
“They just kept asking, ‘Why are you coming?’” she said.
Everyone was nervous that they wouldn’t be able to enter the city, especially since they were supposed to be dropping their family friend off at a hospital to visit her relative.