When I packed my bags and decided to spend my summer in Bethlehem through the Holy Land Trust’s Palestine Summer Encounter program, the most interesting part of my preparation was the look on people’s faces when I told them about my travel plans. “Are you in Israel for the summer?” my friends would ask. “I’ll be in the region”, I answered, afraid of getting myself into yet another political shouting match. Little did I know that once I got to this city, there was no way out of the political conversation that constantly surrounds a society living under occupation.
The first challenge was to understand the city’s societal norms and figure out how to place myself in this world while still feeling like myself. Bethlehem has a strong Muslim and Christian presence, and what is acceptable behavior and dress code is quite different from any other setting I have lived in. Though the summer is hot and dry, I felt more comfortable wearing long pants and skirts and loose long shirts so I don’t draw too much attention as a foreigner.
The second challenge was much more sensitive. As a Jewish woman who grew up in a heavily Zionist community, I knew I could face a couple of issues with disclosing information about my family and my background. At first, I decided to tell people my real name, and be honest about my religion if I was asked. Though my host family has been extremely caring and supportive, after a few days they advised me not to tell people about my background and choose a different name for myself that sounded less Jewish or Israeli. So now, when I introduce myself, I say my name is Nina and that I am from Brazil, without getting into too many details. If they ask about my religious background, I say my parents are Christian but not religious. It’s not ideal, but again, we can never escape the political tension that living under occupation raises.
If I am being completely honest, my first ten days in Bethlehem haven’t been the most comfortable. Yes, coming back and forth from the checkpoints is a stressful and takes time. Yes, arriving in Jerusalem for the first time and being able to speak Hebrew freely without being overheard was a relief. However, asie from the Occupation and the trauma this society has endured for the past decades, I am having the opportunity to learn about Palestinian culture and being inspired every day by their welcoming homes and incredible ability to keep their heritage alive no matter what their reality is. Bethlehem is not a place that can be understood in passing. The only way to fully experience it is if we take a step back to listen and share our lives with those who have built their worlds in this holy place, and understand what is beyond the political situation they are forced to endure. I look forward to the next couple of months, and can only imagine what other nuances this place will reveal the more I integrate myself in this society.