Chag Sameach

April 13, 2009


Alison Prager

I was delighted I would miss Christmas-time in London when I moved to Israel, as it’s a time of year when everything slowly grinds to a halt for something I don’t celebrate. It’s like a month of Sundays with no transport on the Bank Holidays, everything closed and everyone at home celebrating, eating and not going out. I was so pleased that I lived in an area of London where most shops and cafes are open 365 days of the year.

Living in Jerusalem I discovered that every week is like Christmas, things build up to Shabbat and slow down from Wednesday. On Thursdays everyone says ‘Shabbat Shalom’, I was saying ‘Shalom Shabbat’ for a while. There is no public transport from Friday afternoon until Saturday evening. At least 99 per cent of businesses, shops and cafes are closed. The place comes to a complete standstill. This is probably one of the reasons why (West) Jerusalem is losing five thousand Jerusalemites a year, which goes against the trend of cities worldwide.

Even if people work in Jerusalem some would rather have the journey from Tel Aviv every day, so they can live in a less oppressive environment. But that’s only half of it. Public services and banks have what appear to be arbitrary and limited opening hours. I had to see a public official and learned through trial and error that she sees people twice a week and only answers the phone on Mondays. So, I am left pondering whether Jerusalem is a city that is half-open or half-closed.

I also didn’t realise there were so many Jewish holidays when everything closes down. We have just had Purim, which meant enduring the sight of a lot of adults walking around in fancy-dress. A waitress told me to try it as “it’s a good way of playing around with your identity.”

This year the first part of Pesach is immediately followed by Shabbat, so this week has been publicly dead. The rest of Pesach and yet more holidays and national celebrations are due shortly.

At Pesach Jews say ‘Chag Sameach’ (joyous festival) to each other and are busy cleaning and shopping for food for the seder and the whole Pesach period, they make arrangements to see family and friends and welcome family from abroad.

Palestinians in the West Bank also make preparations for Pesach, because it has a special meaning for them, as do all Jewish holidays. They have to shop not because their shops will shut but because they cannot get to them if they have to pass a checkpoint to do so, nor can they go to work, visit loved ones, friends, or a doctor.

On Jewish holidays there is closure throughout the West Bank. Freedom of movement is precarious at the best of times, but on Jewish holidays it is usually forbidden for Palestinians to pass through any of the hundreds of checkpoints even if they have been issued with the relevant papers.

In Hebron, the largest city in the West Bank, Pesach has an extra special meaning as a curfew is imposed every year. No-one is allowed out of their house. This is because the first settlement in Hebron was started at Pesach and thousands of settlers descend on the city to celebrate, so non-Jewish residents are put under curfew for the duration.

I ate, drank and sang at a seder, with my relatives and their friends. We read from the Haggada, tasted the maror (bitter herbs) to remind us of the times of oppression and we celebrated the exodus and parting of the Red Sea. Less than ten minutes drive away Palestinians taste the bitterness of closures and wait for the opening of the checkpoints and the wall to carry on any semblance of normal life they have left from the occupation.

Do Israelis join the dots? No, they don’t know about the reality of the closures because they don’t care to. If they do know anything they will repeat the IDF public relations speak of ‘security,’ ‘holidays,’ ‘terror attacks’ to end any questioning or discussion.

Should they care? Well, Palestinians may be joining the dots. Could there be a more effective way of engendering resentment and creating hatred towards Jews than stamping out everyday life for non-Jews at the same time as Jews celebrate their own freedom from oppression?

Amnesty International Publications, 2007

Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories: Enduring occupation. Palestinians under siege in the West Bank

‘The Israeli army also declares “general closures” in the OPT, usually on the occasion of Israeli national or religious holidays. When such general closures are imposed, no movement is allowed for Palestinians through checkpoints into East Jerusalem and Israel, as well as through other checkpoints between Palestinian areas near Israel, except for emergencies. However, when checkpoints are closed it is difficult and time-consuming for Palestinians to contact the appropriate Israeli army officials to notify them of the emergency and obtain authorization to pass.’

Voice of America. 09 March 2009

The Israeli military is imposing a three-day closure on the West Bank, banning Palestinians from entering Israel during a Jewish festival. The military says it began the closure early Monday and will maintain it throughout the holiday of Purim, which ends at midnight Wednesday. Israel considers Jewish festivals likely times for Palestinian attacks. The military regularly imposes closures during such holidays.

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