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Winter and Summer Pockets of Hope

European Judaism

by Christine Cohen Park

Jerusalem has been much in the news lately. First, Trump’s provocative declaration of his intention to move the American Embassy there, and, quickly on its heels, the Knesset’s latest ruling increasing the number of its members who must vote in favour before East Jerusalem can be released to the Palestinians should a two-state solution ever materialize. Casting the likelihood of peace, or any solution to the present situation, even further into the hinterland. Against this background, as we move into 2018 to think positively about the Israel/Palestinian situation, which for a long time has required an act of faith, does so even more!


So I want to start the year by writing of two ‘Pockets of Hope.’ First, a BBC2 documentary of the staging of the Alternativity in the car park of artist Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel in Jerusalem, and still available to watch on I-player as I write. Banksy invited director Danny Boyle to mastermind his project: a good choice.  Boyle’s engaging personality and enthusiasm melted away all obstacles in their path. And there were many. A day trip to Hebron and a stint at the Wall early in the morning watching the daily queue to pass through the security barriers were enough to make anyone wonder how the nativity play with its message of peace and hope could be made relevant to today’s Palestinians. Then there was the Wall itself, with its ugliness, its monolithic presence, its watchtowers, its snipers. How to transform the carpark it overlooked into a place of magic? How to persuade families to see a play in such a location?


The manager of the hotel explained that many families don’t even tell their children there is such a thing as the Wall so as not to burden them. Few parents, he said, would want to bring them to a performance held under its shadow, or want be reminded of its daunting and potentially dangerous presence at times they didn’t have to.


Would providing snow turn the tables, Danny Boyle asked. And how about a donkey? A donkey in Jerusalem should be easy. But it wasn’t. Donkeys were the wrong colour, badly behaved or turned out to be mules. Banksy made a flitting visit in the middle of the night. Boyle enthused about everything Rihan, the local director, had done in his absence. His laugh was infectious. He was respectful to everyone, especially to the children and of their innocence.


Boyle stuck to the traditional tale with nice modern additions like Mary discovering she was pregnant through a text from God. The acting/singing, the children’s vitality and originality, the bright look in their eyes, and the eyes of the children in the crowded audience as a ‘snow storm’ descended, the boy commentator’s gritty humour -–‘Jesus came to bring Peace to earth: we’re still waiting!’– were enough to melt hearts. But beyond this, through Banksy’s vision and Boyle and others’ efforts, in England and around the world, people who have little concept of the Palestinians except as modern-day terrorists get a glimpse of ordinary people’s lives, hopes and difficulties, on the other side of the Separation Wall.


If they’d let me, I’d like to add Banksy and Danny Boyle’s Alternativity to other beacons of light and hopefulness I’ve been celebrating in this issue of European Judaism.  One of my favourites is the Greenhouse project at kibbutz ein Shemer which I visited one hot summer day. From winter ‘snow’ to temperatures soaring in the 40s: what a contrast. But the intention behind these projects is remarkably similar.


As we sped along motorways interweaving between heavy traffic driving southeast from Tel Aviv, I heard from the driver, Ilana Yron how after a career in cancer research and stem-cell biology at Tel Aviv University she became involved in the Greenhouse project. Up till that point, while both Jewish and Palestinian Israeli schools used the Greenhouse (I50 schools in the year before I visited), the classes had been held separately. Ilana, with a team of dedicated Israeli and Palestinian Israeli co-workers, have now for several years led ­an innovative twelve-week programme, ‘Growing Together’, which involves equal number of Jewish and Palestinian Israelis learning together in classes with dual teaching in both languages.


It was Noam, the son of the Greenhouse’s originator, architect Avital Geva, who showed me around with Ilana. Imagine walking into a greenhouse the size of a football pitch, 7 metres high. Imagine it being pleasantly warm, but in no way overbearing, a huge open space divided into many smaller spaces. Imagine an Aladdin’s cave construed as a space where young people could engage in scientific, ecologically-based inquiry as a way of breaking down barriers – between Jews and Arabs, but also between children from regular schools and children with special needs, the victims of crime, all sorts of ‘others’, and that’s the Greenhouse!


What is particularly heartening here is that not one but two of the world’s arguably most pressing conundrums are being addressed at one and the same time: how to protect our planet; and how to unite two of the most tragically conflicted peoples. Does it work? These are very small numbers, Ilana will be the first to agree, and there can be problems in the initial stages which need careful handling. But as the project progresses, the children stop thinking of  ‘them’ as ‘other’ and friendships evolve as they work for a common goal.


When I think of the Israeli/Palestinian divide, and that inhuman Wall, no time seems more urgent than now to attempt to break down barriers. The Palestinians cannot be shut on the other side of the Wall for ever. And those of us with our freedom to go where we please can only applaud such attempts as Banksy’s and those working at The Greenhouse to remind us of the desires we share – for peace and freedom, a safe place to bring up our children, a continued green planet.


Christine Cohen Park

January 13th

For more on this topic see Christine Cohen Park’s previous blog entry. Park’s journal article, “Pockets of Hope,” is temporarily free to access on our website. Visit Park’s website here.