Identities

Public Transportation in Jerusalem: Locus of Separation or of Integration?

I had the pleasure of writing a final paper for my Masters degree on the public transportation in Jerusalem. By focusing on public transportation in particular, I hoped to understand the ways in which the patterns of mobility are shaped in a city of conflict like Jerusalem in order to further understand the inter-communal relations. Is public transportation a locus of separation or one of integration? What are the effects on intergroup relations? By analyzing these spatial politics, I sought to understand the ways in which public transportation in Jerusalem either brings different ethnic groups together, or keeps them apart. From my own observations from living in Jerusalem for a year, and by placing it in a context of existing literature, I used these observations for analyzing the myriad of borders that crisscross through the city. This will be a summary of my findings.

United Jerusalem

In order to answer these questions, three separate premises must first be analyzed: Jerusalem as a united city, Jerusalem as a divided city, or Jerusalem, as Dumper phrases it, as “a many-bordered city.” I focused on Dumper’s analysis of Jerusalem as a many-bordered city. Borders, while a modern phenomenon dating to the 18th century with the invention of state-sovereignty, become politically significant as they are used as a key tool to define us/them, inclusion/exclusion, who is in and who is out. While this is easier to define on an international scale, on the scale of a city, it is harder to draw these lines.

Dumper defines several important types of urban borders: soft, hard, invisible, and porous. Borders within a city may be hard (i.e. a wall, checkpoint), soft (i.e. the Green Line), invisible (i.e. no-go zones that emerge after violent outbreaks), or porous (i.e. the daily interactions between different groups that cross assumed borders). Within public transportation, we can see each of these realities. By looking at the separate Jewish and Arab bus systems, and finally the light rail, it is apparent that there are both clear boundaries and porous barriers within the city today.

Before we begin analyzing the urban development, a concise contemporary historical context of Jerusalem’s urban planning is needed.

Historical context of current urban reality

Jerusalem’s existing reality is deeply implicated in the constantly shifting political context. Upon the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, part of the city was under Israeli control, the other (including the Old City) under Jordanian. After Israel’s conquest in 1967, Jerusalem was “re-united.” According to the Israeli Basic Law, Jerusalem is recognized as the capital of Israel, yet the international community does not recognize Israel’s sovereignty of occupied East Jerusalem. Meanwhile, in the Palestinian Declaration of Independence of 1988, Jerusalem is declared to be the capital of Palestine. However, Jerusalem is not recognized internationally as belonging to anyone.The United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 478 in 1980, which declared that the Basic Law is “a violation of international law… null and void and must be rescinded forthwith.” This controversial point reemerged recently in 2015 with the United States Supreme Court Case about whether or not someone born in Jerusalem could name their country of birth as “Israel” in their American passport. Only recently, during the Geneva Initiative, have both the Israeli and the Palestinian side acknowledged the others’ claims to Jerusalem as the capital of the two nations should a two-state solution materialize.

Jerusalem thus figures at the center of the political turmoil surrounding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Yet besides being an abstract symbol of history, politics, sovereignty and nationhood, Jerusalem functions on a day-to-day level as well. It is an urban space with strengths and weaknesses just like any other city in the world experiencing increased urbanization and the challenges that follow. Jerusalem and its surroundings encompass not only the Old City and the main urban area, but also the enclave of Hebrew University in the East and the suburb Meveseret Zion to the West. The official municipality currently extends from Har Homa and Gilo in the South to Atarot and Neve Ya’akov in the North (all of which are well beyond the internationally recognized Green Line of 1967).

Map from   Ir Amim

Map from Ir Amim

Constantly evolving relations between the surrounding villages and growing suburbs of Jerusalem means that the borders of the city are constantly growing and shifting. The municipality currently oversees a 63% Jewish and 37% Palestinian population. Israeli controlled Municipal government oversees the entire municipality. Palestinians may vote in the local elections, but they tend to abstain for the political protest against normalization.

For the most part, these populations live in separate areas that reflect the pre-1967 unification of Jerusalem. West Jerusalem remains an “almost exclusively Jewish zone,” according to Romann and Weingrad's book Living Together Separately, while East Jerusalem continues to be similarly confined to Arab residents and commercial areas. However, since the 1970s, this has shifted dramatically with the construction of Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem (Ramot Eshkol, French Hill, Pisgat Ze’ev, Neve Yakov) and South periphery of Jerusalem (Gilo, East Talpiyot, and Har Homa). This is not to mention the continual eviction processes that are taking place in the Old City and predominantly Arab neighborhoods such as Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah in which a Jewish family replaces a Palestinian family in their own home.

The political game of placing facts on the ground has greatly blurred the previously clear distinction between East/West, Arab/Jewish areas making it almost a checkerboard pattern (termed by Romann and Weingrad 1991). Yet even with this blurring of populations, there remains a voluntary self-segregation between the two ethnic groups. Romann writes, “Crossing the ethnic boundary is, for both Arabs and Jews, a highly conscious act that is normally done under specific circumstances and for well-defined purposes.” (Roman, 1991). This complex, multi-dimensional reality serves as the basis for my investigation of the public transportation systems of Jerusalem.

Segregation: de facto versus de jure

While lines drawn on the map of the greater municipality of Jerusalem may seem clear cut, many different overlapping realities exist. Take the case of buses—there currently exist two systems. One Jewish, one Arab, with separate bus routes, lines, and services available. The Arab buses serve Arab neighborhoods; the Jewish buses mainly serve only Jewish neighborhoods however with some overlap in East Jerusalem.

The companies who oversee the majority of the buses were both established before the unification of the city in 1967 (Egged in 1933 and the East Jerusalem Transport Association in 1953) and thus had already established certain bus routes that have been maintained until today. Both systems are now overseen by the Jerusalem Ministry of Transportation, which instituted a new Master plan in 2002 that aimed to integrate the Arab buses of East Jerusalem to the larger transportation plan of the city. As Pfeffer writes, “For now, the Jewish and Arab buses coexist peacefully on parallel lines.”

However, as pointed out in an article in +972 Magazine the separation is not equal. The conditions of the two central bus stations are radically different: the Jewish bus station is indoors and air-conditioned while the Arab bus station is outdoors with a slight roof to protect against rain and sun. The two buses also run on very different systems: Jewish buses are constrained to a time-schedule; Arab buses wait for the buses to fill up completely before they begin their route. This reality is created by the fact that higher governmental subsidies for Jewish transportation allow for an empty bus to run regardless of the wasted money. However, according to the Jerusalem transportation office, much money has recently gone into the improvement of the overall system and as of January 2015, the Arab buses will now also be constrained to a timetable.

Furthermore, Guarnieri goes into detail of the experience of the riders of the Arab buses having to be pulled over and checked at checkpoints while the buses serving Jewish settlers on Jewish buses are waved right through. The two systems perpetuate other larger policies of discrimination and inequality that are dictated by occupation.

The division between Jewish and Arab buses is based on a situation that has developed into de facto segregation. While there are currently no laws that ban an individual from one ethnicity or another from riding buses (although, there were attempts in 2012 and 2014 to ban Palestinian day workers from riding buses with Jewish settlers back into the Palestinian Territories), a certain level of segregation exists.

“Few Jewish city residents are aware of…the totally separate transport system, with its own central bus station and stops,” writes Pfeffer, a columnist of Ha’aretz. Romannn writes, “Jews…will rarely ride on an Arab bus even on those occasions when this might represent the most practical choice. Few Jews have had the experience of riding on an Arab bus; for them it is like entering alien territory and is thus generally avoided”(Romann, 1991, p. 51). It is also important to make note of the way in which buses have also come to represent deep trauma in the Israeli consciousness after the numerous suicide bombing attacks on buses throughout the 1990s and 2000s during the second intifada and the impact that this collective memory has on decisions to ride an Arab bus or not. 

Yet, for an Arab living in East Jerusalem and working in West Jerusalem, they have no choice but to take a Jewish bus. Due to the spatial and economic dependence of Palestinians on the more developed West Jerusalem, this creates a forced space of crossover. Romannn describes how the Jewish buses also traipse through East Jerusalem, and thus for Arabs they have the option of taking whichever bus comes first. ACRI writes in a report,

“East Jerusalem's transportation system, which connects Palestinian neighborhoods and runs through the commercial center near the Old City, is separate and distinct from public transit in the West. As a result, those who work in West Jerusalem often must take more than one bus in each direction, which equates with longer travel time and greater expense. The situation today is better than it once was, with the improvements that have been made to East Jerusalem's public transportation system, but the general problem of accessibility has yet to be solved in a satisfactory manner.”

-Association for Civil Rights in Israel Report: “Policies of Neglect in East Jerusalem: The Policies that created 78% Poverty Rates and a Frail Job Market.” 2012

Jews, however, have almost no need to use the Arab buses as they only connect to Arab neighborhoods. The major institutional centers (i.e. Parliament, Courts, Offices of Ministries, and the Municipality), several main commercial centers, hospitals, and more are all located in West Jerusalem.

Yet even with this divided system, the buses also share several stops with the other bus system.

The question then becomes how aware are the passengers of their overlapping commuter routes, and does the public transportation create a space of interaction or not?

Overlap:

Click to view larger map. The yellow line is #17, the light green is #19 and the orange is #34. All three buses have a terminal stop at the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus.

The Number 17:

Egged (Jewish) buses cross borders and invisible lines within the city. Bus Route #17 is a great example of this. The route runs from Givat Masua through the center of West Jerusalem to Hebrew University Campus on Mount Scopus by following Nablus Road in East Jerusalem. Nablus Road is one of the main old routes in East Jerusalem that connects the Old City at Damascus Gate to the North. This road is generally a “no-go” zone for Jewish drivers. Most would also point to Route 1 as being the dividing road (an invisible border) between East and West Jerusalem (See Wendy Pullan, “Jerusalem’s Road 1: An Inner City Frontier?” City, 11(2), 2007. pp. 175-97). By looking at the map (the yellow line is #17, the other two lines are two other buses that also arrive from downtown West Jerusalem to the University),  you can see how the other two routes follow this road before jumping over towards the university at the last moment and how route #17 deviates from the invisible borders inside the municipality. Why? This is both a question of creating points of access to the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, a question of practicality, and a clear example of overstepping sovereign boundaries. If we look to the end destination, Hebrew University Campus, and the stops along the route it becomes clear that it serves practical reasons for those who desire Jerusalem be a united city. The #17 includes a stop at the conspicuously located District Court of Jerusalem located in East Jerusalem (at the intersection of two main roads: Nablus Road and Salah a-Din), as well as the square near Shimon HaTsadik’s tomb  (a pilgrimage site for religious Jews tucked behind Arab houses in Sheikh Jarrah), before turning up the hill  towards Mount of Olives and the University. Furthermore, it is important to acknowledge that Hebrew University is located in an enclave on Mount Scopus inside East Jerusalem. (For more history on Hebrew University see here).

The #17 route highlights these fluctuating barriers and shows that there are many points of possible interaction between groups along the route. However, in practice, the bus tends to zip through East Jerusalem, the driver breezes past women in hijabs standing at bus stops (based on the assumption that she is not waiting for the bus that he is driving), and races up to Hebrew University. The bus is packed with Jewish students who barely make note of their route that crosses the Green Line several times. The bus-route creates an access point to these locations in East Jerusalem for Jews, yet is not used by the Arab communities who the line could also serve.

Dereh Hebron:

The Arab buses share many of the same official bus stops as the Egged buses and run parallel on certain routes, yet, with fewer interactions. A great example of this are the southern Routes 21, 231, 232, and 234 which leads to the Southern Jerusalem Palestinian neighborhood Beit Safafa (within Jerusalem municipality), Bayt Jala (Area C), and Bethlehem (Area A in Occupied Territories). These buses runs along Dereh Hebron and connect Eastern Talpiyot (a Jewish neighborhood) to the Old City with the terminal stop at the central station at Damascus Gate. Dereh Hebron cuts through many Jewish neighborhoods as well including Baka, the mixed area of Abu Tor, the German Colony and the Kibbutz Ramat Rachel. However, Jews do not ride these buses, preferring instead to wait for the Jewish buses that also run along these routes (Route # 71, 72, 74, 75, and 30 for example). Even on Saturdays when the Jewish buses are not running but the Arab buses are, non-observant Jews will opt to walk, drive, or remain without transportation for the duration of the day rather than use the Arab buses.

Arab Bus Line 231 and 232 which runs down Dereh Hebron and connects the Old City to the Southern Palestinian neighborhoods by traversing several Jewish areas of West Jerusalem. Click to enlarge.

Jewish Bus lines that trace similar paths and share bus stops with the Arab Bus #231 or #232 and share. Click to make bigger. 

It seems that the Jewish buses may create more space for inter-communal interactions, and the Arab buses seem to remain restricted to their own community.

Light Rail

The Jerusalem Light Rail serves as an interesting counterpoint to the bus systems, which, on a whole, remain very separate. The Jerusalem Light Rail was constructed from 2002 to 2010 and began functioning properly in 2011. The first line runs from the settlement Jewish Pisgat Ze'ev in East Jerusalem, through the Arab neighborhoods of Beit Hanina and Shu’afat, past the Old City with a stop at Damascus Gate, pauses at the Jerusalem Municipality building at Kikar Safra, through the city center of West Jerusalem, and ends finally at Mt. Herzl. According to the train’s website, “Development of the light rail line is bringing prosperity and growth to the city's real estate and business sectors, an upsurge in cultural and entertainment centers, and accessibility to the downtown area for residents of large neighborhoods, such as Pigat Ze'ev.” (Interesting to note that the language of the website calls Pisgat Ze'ev a neighborhood and not a settlement).

The train was lauded as an example of co-existence in the united city. Anshel Pfeffer wrote in Ha’aretz,

“The three communities of Jerusalem [Arabs, Secular Jews, and Haredi Jews] are now being forced into the same carriages of the light rail network - years overdue, billions over budget, under speed and with a route of debatable efficiency, but finally up and running. And over the last five months, it has been the one closed space in which members of all the communities have been rubbing shoulders.”

However, this space of peaceful coexistence did not last for long. The train quickly became a spot of resistance in July 2014 and a further nexus of violence in October and November 2014. During the summer of July 2014, there were more than 170 incidents of rock throwing and during the initial protests/riots in Shu’afat after the discovery of 16 year old Palestinian- Jerusalemite Muhammad Abu al-Kheider’s burned body, the train stop in Shu'afat was the first thing to be targeted. An article cited that, “Ridership dropped 20 percent in the summer…CityPass, the company that operates the line, reported last month [October] that 15 of its 23 trains have been damaged by stones and firebombs thrown by Palestinians. Nine trains were taken offline for several days for repairs.”

Map of Light Rail route. Click to enlarge.

The train came to represent a symbol for the larger political context and the imposition of the Israeli government’s urban planning and end goal of a united Jerusalem. For Palestinians living in Shu’afat, many voiced their concerns that they were not consulted on the train route or on its construction. Daniel Seidemann, a Jewish lawyer who promotes Palestinian rights in Jerusalem and founder of Terrestrial Jerusalem, described the route of the railway as ideological, saying, “It serves the mantra of the undivided eternal capital that few believe in today. Given the reality of life here, and the glass walls between the neighborhoods, it goes against the grain of how the city works."

Furthermore, in October and November 2014, the train became the site of several violent and tragic attacks on Israelis when Palestinian drivers drove their cars directly onto the train platforms and killed several bystanders.

While all this violence highlights the way in which the train becomes a political target, it is important to also note that most days, during times of relative calm inside Jerusalem, the train runs without any obstacles and many people use it as a convenient form of transportation. Booth captured this sentiment of complex layers of violence, conflict and lived realities in an article in Washington Post, “I personally have some concerns about riding the train, especially after the attack [in October], but what choice do I have?” said Tomer Ben Shoshan, a Jewish Israeli who lives in French Hill, near the station where the car attack that killed two people took place. “I need to get to work, and I don’t have any wings.””

It is used by many as a practical form of transportation and has widened the overall framework for public transportation in the city while also creating a space where otherwise isolated communities are interacting.

Mental maps: How do people perceive and imagine their city?

As my research shows, it is clear from looking at these examples of public transportation that there exist very separate systems that dictate movement and mobility within Jerusalem. While these systems have developed as a result of city planning and development, and politics between two divided communities, the ethnic divisions of the city’s demography are perpetuated via transportation. These bus lines and train-lines create borders that either limits or open access to other worlds within the city. However, after my analysis it is clear that even with clear overlap, these worlds tend to remain separated. Public transportation thus extends the invisible boundaries within Jerusalem that keep ethnic groups separate—even with the attempted reconciliation as symbolized by the light rail. The very real politics of understanding Jerusalem as either a united or divided city plays out in the quotidian realities of Jerusalem residents.

The question becomes how are people experiencing the same place differently. Similar to Weizmann’s discussion on the symbolism of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif and the ways in which people have radically different understandings, logics, and experiences of the same physical location (Weizmann, 2007), the mundane action of taking a bus to work creates a similarly powerful separation of realities. Jerusalem is best understood as residing perpetually in a liminal space—neither here nor there—with people interacting daily on many different planes, be it spiritual or secular, historical or contemporary, Arab or Jewish, tourist or resident, Palestinian or Israeli. By using the public transportation of Jerusalem as a case study, it is clear to see these parallel, overlapping, intersecting and separate realities.


Great books to read if you want to know more:

Michael Dumper.  Jerusalem Unbound: Geography, History, and the Future of the Holy City. New York : Columbia University Press, 2014. 

Michael Romann and Alex Weingrod. Living together Separately: Arab and Jews in Contemporary Jerusalem. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991. 

Eyal Weizman. Hollow Land: Israel's Architecture of Occupation. London: London : Verso, 2007. 

Cited Reports on Jerusalem:

Association for Civil Rights in Israel, East Jerusalem 2015: Facts And Figures.. Jerusalem: N.p., 2015. Web. 6 Sept. 2015. Accessible here.

Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Policies of Neglect in East Jerusalem: The Policies that created 78% Poverty Rates and a Frail Job Market. Jerusalem: N.p., 2012. Retrieved 5 Sept 2015. Accessible here: http://www.acri.org.il/en/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/The-Poverty-Policy-in-East-Jerusalem_ACRI_May-2012_ENG.pdf.

B’tselem Attempt at bus segregation appalling. N.p., 2012. Retrieved 5 Sept 2015. http://www.btselem.org/press_releases/20121127_separation_in_buses.

B’tselem. Minister of Defense not content with moving Palestinians to the back of the bus, means to keep them off entirely. N.p., 2014. Retrieved 5 Sept 2015. http://www.btselem.org/press_releases/20141026_separation_in_buses

Ir Amim, Evictions and Settlement Plans in Sheikh Jarrah: The Case of Shimon HaTzadik. Jerusalem: N.p., 2009. Retrieved 6 Sept 2015

Ir Amim, Sheikh Jarrah. Jerusalem: N.p., 2009. Retrieved 6 Sept 2015

Ir Amim, Silwan. Jerusalem: N.p., 2009. Retrieved 6 Sept 2015

 

Thanks

Many thanks to Arran R. Walshe for passing on notes, reading lists, and a general camaraderie of curiosity. Always happy to ride buses with you; at the end of the day it does come down to transportation.

Walls

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Back to Jerusalem and back to school. I have one class that looks really exciting, it's all about Jerusalem as a multi-layered city and the inter-group relations that play out within it. The professor had us read Georges Perec and we sat around discussing what it is that we see when we look at something. 

Stumbled upon this chapter in the book about walls: 

Walls:
I put a picture up on a wall. Then I forget there is a wall. I no longer know what is there behind this wall, I no longer know there is a wall. I no longer know that in my apartment there are walls, and that if there weren't any walls, there would be no apartment. The wall is no longer what de limits and defines the place where I live, that which separates it from the other places where other people live, it is nothing more than a support for the picture. But I also forget the picture, I no longer look at it. I have put the picture on the wall so as to forget there was a wall, but in forgetting the wall, I forget the picture, too. There are pictures because there are walls. We have to be able to forget that there are walls, and have found no better way to do so than pictures. Pictures efface walls. But walls kill pictures. So we need continually to be changing, either the wall or the picture, to be forever putting other pictures up on the walls, or else constantly moving the picture from one wall to another."
-Georges Perec, Species of Spaces

This felt apropos as I looked out the classroom window at the separation wall right next to the university which divides "us" from "them" and "there" from "here."

In the last 10 days while I was lucky enough to be on holiday, a 17 year old Palestinian from the Qalandia Refugee camp was shot three times and killed. A friend of mine recounted how he doesn't believe the "official" story that is being circulated around. Supposedly Muhammad al-Kasbeh threw a rock at an officer's car and destroyed the windshield. B'tselem just posted video footage of the event. 

A few days previously, a 20 year old Palestinian woman attempted to stab a female soldier near Rachel's tomb; a molotov cocktail was thrown at a bus that was driving through the West Bank and an ambulance driving through the West Bank's main highway Route 60 was shot at; then there is the shooting and death of an Israeli in the West Bank who was driving to a spring, and 4 more Israelis were shot at a junction in the West Bank. 6 attacks in 10 days (Ynet News)

To put this into perspective: 

"An average of two Israeli civilians per week have sustained injuries by Palestinians so far in 2015, with one Israeli killed, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

In the same time period...an average of 39 Palestinians have been injured by Israeli forces per week and 13 killed, including two since the beginning of this month." (Maan News)

This all coincides with Ramadan and the one year anniversary of last summer's war. June 30th was the day when the 3 kidnapped Israeli boys were found dead. July 2nd marks the kidnapping and murder of 16 year old Jerusalemite Muhammad Abu Kheider, July 8th was the first official day of the operation in Gaza. July 18th will be the beginning of the ground invasion. 52 days when you weren't sure if the nightmare would ever end. I remember the feeling of isolation I felt last summer. Of hearing bombs dropping on Gaza from the swimming pool of the kibbutz. Of the surrealism around the dinner table feeling alone in also counting the deaths of Gazans. Of how shallow my breathing got every time the news came on the radio in case there was news of my cousin. Of the back and forth between guilt and fear. 

Women Wage Peace, an organization I've been following this year for my research that was founded last summer after the war, has been sitting outside the Prime Minister's residence in Jerusalem where they have begun a 50 day fast. They call for an end to the cycle of violence, negotiations with Palestinians, and the signing of a political agreement. They're calling it Tzom Eitan meaning Eitan's fast, a play on words for the Israeli name for Operation Protective Edge, Tzok Eitan. I'll be there later this week for interviews and will be sure to report back. 

Welcome back to Israel and Palestine, where the coffee is strong and the conflict is never ending. 

"The Yishuv"

I'm not supposed to be writing this right now. 

It is Shabbat and I'm sitting in a room in my cousin's house. Not just any house, it is a Haredi house. Not just any Haredi house, it is in a settlement in the West Bank. Writing is not allowed, but it is nap time and everyone has disappeared for a few hours to hide from the afternoon heat. 

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This weekend, I've donned my long black skirt (ankle length), my stockings (tan and modest), and my button up shirt (covers my collar bone and goes past my elbows). I've slipped into the role of the religious, modest, Jewish-law following young woman that they want me to be. 

My Aunt and Uncle are celebrating their 32nd wedding anniversary, which in their tradition the number correlates to the word "lev" or "heart" in Hebrew. To celebrate, their entire family has gathered together this weekend in the "yishuv," a tiny circle of habitation on the top of a hill in the middle of the Judean desert. 50 families live here behind a chained fence. Yet when you look off into the distance, it feels as though  nothing separates us from the rolling hills which lead your eye all the way down to the Dead Sea. In the not so distant distance, we see Jordan. It feels completely isolated and quiet here. 

Yet along the hills wander Palestinian shepherds and their sheep. At the yellow gate, 2 Israeli soldiers sit. Bored. Gazing off at the quiet road and the single tree sitting on the hill in front of them. This life is not isolated.

We took a bus which cut through Palestinian areas and Israeli settlements. Double paned glass, so dirty between the layers you could barely see outside the window and discern whether we were now traipsing through Palestinian villages or Jewish ones. But the striking red placards which declare loudly "This is Area A, it is dangerous, Do Not Enter" or the red-tiles rooftops of homes in rich settlements were visible through the foggy windows. 

We arrived in a midst of dust, suitcases, children, black hats and strollers. Within seconds of stepping off the bus, I was hit by the complete silence out here. The fresh fresh desert air. The smell of dry plants and pine trees. 

And then began the bazaar: 11 kids—ages ranging from 2 months-8 years old—and 10 adults, all crammed into a living room turned into an epic dining room. My aunt's 4 kids, their spouses, and all the grandchildren arrived to honor their marriage while spending Shabbat together. 36 hours together. Slumber party for the children, a bit of a nightmare for the adults, never ending food, all with the backdrop of the Judean desert all around us. 

Each person in this house is a veritable character; the 9 month year old smiling baby David bangs on his high chair table along with the singing just like his father who is banging on the dining room table. Or the cherubic 2 year old Elisheva who seems to psychoanalyze everything happening around her with her brow furrowed only to announce that it is going to snow today. Or the three girls who spend an hour choreographing a dance in the kitchen to present to the group. Or the older boys who have a competition stacking the plastic chairs and sitting on them, proving once and for all who is tallest. Or the two year old who points at every cup, fork, and napkin and says, "That's mine." Or the 7 year old who lives here in the yishuv—a combination of Heidi and Pippi Long-Stocking, she isn't afraid of the centipedes or the stray cats and leads the way running through the neighborhood and yelling that she loves her home. Every little drop of air within it. Or the neighbor who, once he found out I was from Colorado, offered me a joint, to my own jaw dropping. 

My cousins are every bit as fascinating as the kids. They debate, they bless food, they recount stories from their childhood, they sing, they put food on the table, they take food away, they scold their kids, they praise their kids, they hold each others kids, they feed their kids, they ask their father for his approval, they laugh at their husbands for making a mistake. The familial support is incredible. 

One of my cousins is a real "modern woman": she has a job, she has a drivers license, she has an email account, a smartphone, and she even has birth control so as to not have more kids until she is ready. Her husband has on ongoing joke with his mother-in-law and they call each other kamtzan or "stingy" back and forth. My other cousin's husband is always hot—he has to sit by an open window or fan, and he vociferously engages in debates about people who are cold and people who are warm and what that says about their personality. At the head of the table sits my uncle, white beard tied in a knot under his chin so the babies won't pull on it, he sits silently and observes all that has come from his life—two capable, studious, smart sons with large families, two daughters who have found suitable husbands and now run their homes with control and care, and eleven grandchildren who all sit wide-eyed in silence as he tells them stories. I must admit, it's impressive. 

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I began questioning my own life; by appearances they seem to have it all sorted out. They have the answers, anything that happens is because God has made it so, and it's all for the best. They know what role they play in this life; they are waiting and readying themselves for the arrival of the Messiah—who they are sure is here already. They live for their families and their children and God and the building of the Third Temple. I look around the table and while I see tired mothers chasing after their 6 children, I also see an inner peace that you don't find in a secular world. Politics? Not interesting to them. Why get mixed up in it if God will set it all right soon enough? Why lose sleep over problems you can't solve and do not have the power to solve? Leave it all in His hands, they say. Climate change and sustainable practices? Not even on the agenda; they alone can keep the plasticware industry in business. For them, it's easier to keep kosher and throw out plastic plates and cups and cutlery than wash 21 sets of dishes between each course. The stacks of plastic filled garbage bags would make even the most disillusioned hippie depressed. Feminism and equality and fights against injustice? Not even a conversation, to each individual there is a role for him/her. Mothers are mothers and husbands are husbands. Period. Their lives are planned out and with the lack of questioning, there seems to be peace and meaning. 

I am struck once again by how many separate worlds are simultaneously unfolding in this place. There's an entire world contained in this house, on this street, in this settlement that is completely separate from the village of Palestinians next door, or from my world as a student hanging out with artists and internationals and activists in the local bars of Jerusalem. I'm struck yet again by how delusional it seems to try to reconcile these realities and attempt to live together in one place that encompasses all these differences. 

And then you walk out the door and the wind catches your long black skirt and it almost feels as though there is nothing to catch you before you fall all the way to the Dead Sea and that really there's no conflict and nothing to be fighting against. 

The desert can make you crazy. 

I can't help thinking how next weekend I'll be back in the area, but for a very different reason and on the other side of the fence of a settlement like this one. Next weekend is the big action which All That's Left has been organizing in the South Hebron Hills. I'll be reporting from the action--live on Twitter and writing about it later. So stay tuned.