|Rama Jyoti Vernon||
This is the fifth installment in a series about my trip to the West Bank in May 2015.
Today was to be a day off, but one of our interpreters arranged for us to tour Bethlehem and while we are there, teach children and women at a refugee camp.
The checkpoints from Ramallah to Bethlehem are difficult so it was suggested that we return to Jerusalem and then cross into Bethlehem from there, rather than go directly from Ramallah. This is one of the realities the people of this region must deal with every day. Even though life is difficult, they seem to rise above the challenges of the occupation, with humor, resiliency of spirit, faith, love of their families and of course, yoga! It is the fulfillment of my lifelong dream to see yoga spreading throughout the world. Wherever I have travelled or put on yoga conferences, the yoga community has a common language, and understanding that defies borders, stereotypes, prejudices, and separation. I have believed since the early l960s that Yoga is a way to bring peace to our world. It is not only a state of Union or “Oneness,” but it is the methodology to bring us to that state.
The Islamic call to prayer began just before 4 am. I was usually awake to receive its inspiration. Every few hours until 9:30 pm, “the call” served as a continual reminder to pray and remember God as one arises, goes to sleep and goes about their daily lives. How wonderful I thought, even though Yoga is theistic as well as non-theistic, the call to prayer could be seen as “Iswara Pranidhana,” one of the most frequently mentioned practices in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. “The name of Iswara is Om,” Patanjali says in the first chapter. “Meditate and contemplate it’s meaning.” I thought, “How wonderful it would be if in Yoga, we had a continual reminder throughout the day to humble our ego and offer ourselves in prayer to the creator of us all.”
What used to be a 15-minute journey from Ramallah to Jerusalem may now take one and a half to two hours. When my husband Max and I were taking groups back and forth from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and other parts of the West Bank, it was so simple. At that time, the time of the first Intifada uprising, the Israeli military had moveable makeshift barriers with barrels for checkpoints. They roamed the streets with their repeating rifles and set up guard towers and weapons stations on Palestinian rooftops.
In 1990, my husband and I met one of these soldiers who shared his exceptional story that mesmerized us. His mission was to patrol the streets of Bethlehem. One day, he came across a Palestinian man who simply wanted to grow tomatoes in his front yard to feed his children. The occupation at the time was making it difficult to work or travel more than a few blocks. The Israeli soldier with a gun pointed at the Palestinian man’s chest threatened him with arrest or punishment if he did not rip out whatever he had planted. The man was non-combative and complied with the threat. When the soldier got off duty, he was on his way home to Jerusalem when a thought came to him. He had only viewed a Palestinian from the barrel of his gun. And perhaps the only Israelis they ever saw were in uniforms with guns. The soldier went home and changed out of his uniform and returned to Bethlehem that afternoon, to visit the Palestinian man’s home, wanting to get to know him, not as an enemy, but as a friend. Even though the Palestinian man was not allowed to plant seeds of tomatoes, the two men together planted seeds of trust. They began to dialogue, sharing their cultures, their experiences of the occupation, stories of their children and families. They explored cultural similarities and differences. It was such a rich experience for both that they continued to meet, bringing a growing number of friends to the meetings. The Palestinians were not free to travel so the Israeli soldier would bring his friends to Bethlehem to meet in the Palestine man’s home.
They were hungry for this dialogue and when my husband and I were in Jerusalem, the Israeli soldier brought us with him to Bethlehem and included us, and our groups in their dialogues. Now, over the past 27 years this movement has grown into the Palestinian Center for Rapprochement Between Peoples.
The brave founders of this organization catalyzed an ideal that now the youth are striving to continue. The work in dialogue and cultural exchanges is ever challenging in creative ways. It is especially difficult at this time since some universities and countries throughout the world are supporting and instituting Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). Even though Israel sees BDS as anti-peace, the Palestinians and their growing supporters in other countries see it as a peaceful alternative for transforming human rights issues. Even though my original vision was to bring Israeli Yoga teachers to the West Bank, it is not at all possible at this time.
I have always found geographical apartheid enhances stereotypes and fosters mental and emotional apartheid. Thinking of the BDF sanctions, I had a flashback of meeting with the Palestinian and Israeli founders of the Rapprochement Center when the Palestinians held one hand up high in the air and the other lower. “You cannot have dialogue when the parties are not on an equal footing. Israel is here,” he waved his upper hand, “and we are here,” he illustrated with his hand that was quite a bit lower. “To have real dialogue, we must become equal to Israel. His hands were now level to one another as he said, “You cannot have dialogue between the warden and the prisoner.” His Israeli counterpart, listened and nodded his head in agreement with his Palestinian friend.
That night, a quote from the Mahabharata (The Great Epic of India) popped into my mind: “When one prefers one’s own children to the children of others….war is near.”