Yoel Oz
Co-Founder of the Abrahamic Movement

Culture Shock: From Bnei Brak to Husan to Beit Lechem and Back

I am exhausted from culture shock today. I took the bus from Bnei Brak to Beit Shemesh, filled with 50 shades of black. I was picked up by my dear friend Phil at a mall, and he drove me around to see the area. The views were breathtaking. You could see just how intertwined the lives of Israelis and Palestinians are in the area. We then drove to Husan, a small village across from Beitar Illit, where we were warmly greeted by our friend Ziad. This was my first time in a Palestinian village and every one greeted us very warmly. We then got into Ziad’s car and he gave us a tour of the village. Finally, he took us to one of the most serene places I have ever been. It was a lush green field nestled in the stone terraces in a valley overlooking the ancient city of Beitar, where Shimon Bar Kokhva’s revolt against the Romans was crushed. Ziad picked some cauliflower from the field and gave some to us to taste. I was hungry and it was delicious. I had never had fresh picked vegetables like that before. Then, just standing there was this white donkey. Ziad tried to get me to climb on top of it. At first, I refused, but then I gave in. It was such a fun and funny moment. We took some pictures together with the donkey and had just a magnificent time.

We walked back up from the valley and headed back to Ziad’s car. He asked me if I wanted to see Beit Lechem. I said, “Sure.” I had lived in Efrat for two years, but had never been to Beit Lechem. It was exciting just to overcome the fear of going to such a place. We entered deep into the city and drove through Manger Square and past the Church of the Nativity. Also, something I had never seen before in all my time in the Holy Land. I was intrigued by the fact that the Muslims took the church as a place of pride. Definitely not “ISIS” or al-Qaeda (though I do wonder how Hamas relates to the place).

We then drove to see “the wall” and the entrance to the Aida refugee camp. That the political graffiti on the wall was English was intriguing. It’s clear that the messages were for outsiders. It was interesting seeing the propaganda up close. I have my own opinions on resolving the conflict, but it was important to just see things from the perspective of the “other” side, agree with them or disagree with them. It was much less theoretical and posed the problem of how do we change people’s perspectives when they are so entrenched in their own narratives. These are major obstacles to overcome.

What was also interesting was that Ziad said numerous times that he doesn’t want separation. We are together in this land and we have to learn how to live WITH each other. Seeing Beit Lechem up close drove home the point of why this may be so difficult.

We were hungry, so Ziad took us to a restaurant. Because I keep kosher, I only had some vegetables and a Coke, but what was interesting was how similar it was to many Israeli “al ha-esh” kinds of restaurants. The same pita, hummus and salads. We had a lot in common culturally, which I already knew, but again, it was different seeing it from up close.

It was getting late, but Ziad wanted to host us in his house for some tea. There was a wood furnace in the center of the living room to provide heat. Ziad said they also use it as an oven to bake pita. There was a big, flat screen TV on the wall. We talked some politics and headed back to Phil’s car.

As we said our goodbyes, we shook hands and gave each other hugs. I thanked my host for the learning experience. Phil drove me across the rode to Beitar Illit to catch the next Haredi bus back to Bnei Brak/Givat Shmuel.

When we arrived back in cosmopolitan Givat Shmuel, my head was spinning from culture shock. How many countries had I just been in over the past couple of hours? As I looked up at all the high rise apartment buildings, I wondered what do those of us who live in Gush Dan have to do with the West Bank/Yehuda and Shomron? It’s easy to remain inside your little bubble. But on the other hand, this is all the same country. Yet, it did felt good to have a little bit of distance to look at things from a fresh perspective.

What I gained was a deeper understanding of the issues and a feeling of confidence that people were ready for new ideas about resolving the conflict, especially as concerned utilizing Avraham Avinu/Nabi Ibrahim as a common unifying symbol. There is a lot more to say, but I left feeling inspired and proud of the fact that I had overcome my fears and had deepened friendships. It really is different when you know your neighbors and you care about their lives and they care about yours.

Love your neighbor as yourself, the Torah teaches. I hope that I was able to take one step closer to fulfilling this great command.

About the Author
Yoel Oz is the co-founder of the Abrahamic Movement and the author of "Abrahamic Federation: A Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict." He served as an Orthodox rabbi and educator in the Washington, DC metro area for five years. He studied at Cornell and Yeshiva Universities and Yeshivat Hamivtar and Yeshivat Rabbenu Yitzchak Elchanan. He currently resides with his wife and daughter in a suburb of Tel Aviv.
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