An Encounter in Beit Jalla

by Brian on November 30, 2011

in Living Through Terror

Outgoing Encounter Director Ilana Sumka

The last time I even thought about Beit Jalla, it was when rockets were being fired from that Palestinian village towards the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo. Israeli helicopter gunships would regularly fly over our home on their way to fire at terrorist targets. I would wake up at night afraid – that is if I was able to fall asleep at all. To this day, I attribute my ongoing insomnia to the precariousness of those nights.

So it was with no small amount of trepidation that Jody and I made the journey from Jerusalem through the checkpoint toward Gush Etzion, then up the hill to Beit Jalla’s Everest Hotel. The occasion: a goodbye party for Ilana Sumka who, for the past five years, has directed a program called Encounter, which aims to create meaningful dialogue between Jews and Palestinians.

The Everest proved to be no more threatening than a shidduch date in the lobby of a 3-star hotel in downtown Jerusalem. And the evening’s itinerary was the exact opposite of my stance towards Beit Jalla ten years ago.

Several hundred people filled a large events hall, mingling, eating humous, and listening to speakers extolling the virtues of both Ilana and the program as a whole. The attendees we met included several Orthodox rabbis, a secular Jewish filmmaker and a Palestinian tour guide. I wish we’d had time to meet more people.

Of all the speakers, Ilana spoke most evocatively, describing the program’s goals using a real life metaphor of a shared taxi ride from the airport to Jerusalem. She had arrived from abroad early in the morning and was waiting for a sherut to take her home. About 30 people had gathered by the time the first vehicle showed up. The usual Israeli pushing and shoving to get a seat ensued, but Ilana prevailed.

One of the other travelers who made it onboard was, Ilana explained as politely as she could, “unsavory.” He was loud, rude and outspoken. He sat in the front seat and, as the shared taxi made its way up the hill to Jerusalem, began yelling at the driver. The other occupants shifted in their seats uncomfortably.

But as the trip continued, Ilana realized that the unsavory man wasn’t being rude at all. The driver was falling asleep at the wheel and the man was trying to keep him awake. As the other passengers caught on to the predicament, they began doing their best to keep the driver alert too. There was singing, conversation, music.

The experience taught Ilana a number of lessons which she applied to the Israeli-Palestinian divide. First, when Ilana first encountered her “unsavory” character, he was the “other,” someone she had little interest in getting to know. He was not  exactly her “friend” now, but nor was she as frightened of him. Second, when it became clear to the passengers that they were all in potential mortal danger, these former strangers, even adversaries, were forced to work together towards a common goal.

We drove back down the hill from Beit Jalla feeling hopeful. True, the program has only had 1,000 participants since its founding in 2005 – hardly a political game changer (at least yet). And the optimistic statements about peace are not always easy to swallow when you drive home past the separation barrier and recall the very legitimate reasons why it was built. But this is the way dialogue starts – one person at a time.

I wish Ilana luck in her future endeavors. And I hope that I will be able to participate in Encounter myself someday. Perhaps even in Beit Jalla.

This post appeared last month on Israelity.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: