The rooster crowed at 4:30 a.m.
Anticipating the wake-up call from the hotel, we were already preparing for our meeting at 6 a.m. with Hannah, age 75, one of the founders of the 10-year-old organization Machsom (Checkpoint Crossing) Watch.
The Jerusalem streets were empty and the air was crisp as we began the 30-minute walk to meet her. Machsom Watch is a human rights organization of Israeli women that monitors the way the Israeli army facilitates the passing through of Palestinians with permits who are on their way to work, school or hospital visits, and writes reports about their vigils. There are over 100 checkpoint crossings in the West Bank.
Kalandiya, or its new Hebrew name Atarot, is between Jerusalem and Ramallah. It is encircled by the grey concrete wall, which, over the years, has inched its way throughout the West Bank, through valleys and neighborhoods. Each morning any Palestinian who wants to enter arrives in the pre-dawn hours, stands in line with the required documents, and waits. Sometimes the lines move at a steady pace, resulting in the person’s arriving to work on time. The day we were there, the line hardly moved.
After 10 years, Hannah is well acquainted with army officers and calls them to inquire about any delay or difficulty. This morning, she was told, the soldiers who were checking each person are new to the job, and consequently, it was taking more time. Whether a person is late for work is not of consequence to them.
All of this is difficult enough. However, what made it unbelievably dreadful was the physical setting. People waited in line in a long metal cage, the width of a person’s shoulders. When they reached the turnstile and the light turned green, they enter, one at a time. However, the light could suddenly change to red, capturing a person between the bars of the turnstile. All around were grey metal fences and blue plastic bags swirling in the wind.
The necessity of checking the documents of Palestinians has become a reality in their lives. However, the system by which this is done should make that reality less humiliating.
Several days later, we awoke again to the rooster’s crow. This morning was Rosh Chodesh Iyar, and we walked in another direction — through the market of the Old City toward the Kotel (Western Wall). Because of the early hour, the shuk was empty and the air was fresh even under the closed roof. On a two-day Rosh Chodesh, the Women of the Wall meet on the second morning. The border guards in their green uniforms mill around, waiting for the women to arrive. It is a ritual repeated each month. The 70-plus women stand in the back of the women’s section. The ages span generations.
The soldiers pointed to those of us wearing tallito, indicating that we either had to cover them with our jackets or remove them. In order to be able to wear their tallitot, several women wrapped them around their neck, in a scarf fashion.
Open white umbrellas were positioned on the top and along the length of the mechitza (ritual divider). Perhaps this was done to prevent the throwing of chairs or garbage from the men’s side, which has become a frequent occurrence. The guards were also positioned along the length of the mechitza on the men’s side.
Toward the middle of our service, a man with a tallit covering his head began to yell from the men’s side. “You are destroying Judaism. You are goyim. You are Nazis.” His yells became screams, and he came as close to the mechitza as the guards would permit.
Over the years, the women have become accustomed to these ugly disturbances, and so his words do not disrupt our praying.
Following our service, we walked to Robinson’s Arch, an archaeological area next to the Kotel, which the Israeli Supreme Court ruled could be used for the Women of the Wall to read Torah. On a raised stone surface covered with a cloth, the Sefer Torah was placed and unrolled. Women took turns reading and receiving aliyot. For one of them, it was her first time receiving an aliya, which was followed by the spontaneous singing of “Siman Tov u’ Mazal Tov.”
The long mechitza of the Kotel has been lengthened over the years. At one time, there was no separation there between men and women. After the Six-Day War, a short mechitza was set up, still providing space in proximity to the Kotel for men and women to pray together, and for b’nai mitzva families to conduct their service. Presently, the mechitza is at full length, with two-thirds space available for the men and the remainder for the women. A new ruling requires that restroom facilities, located in an area near the men’s side, be changed. The women will use portable toilets that will be positioned on their side of the plaza.
Walls and barriers and fences and partitions, whether political or religious, are a constant visual in Israel.
(Malke Frank, a member of The Chronicle board of trustees, lives in Squirrel Hill.)