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Posted on 07/31/2011 @ 03:29 PM

Today we continued one of the major themes of our trip . . . transitions.

After spending Shabbat in Jerusalem we left the hotel and went from the “center of the world to the end of the world.” During temple times, when the Temple stood where the Dome of the Rock currently stands, the priests would send the sacrificial scape-goat outside of the city walls to the desert. The desert just at the edge of the ancient city was the “edge of the world.” These days we know the world exists far beyond the surroundings of the walled city of ancient Jerusalem. In many ways the distinction is no less severe though.

Jerusalem is a city of contradictions. It is serene and bustling. Holy and dirty.  Inspirational and completely secular. Leaving Jerusalem in many ways was an extension of this conflicted identity. Traveling from Jerusalem towards the south and the Negev we drove through conflicted territory in the shadow of the security barrier/fence and military checkpoints . At one point a soldier boarded the bus to discuss his role and the role of the checkpoints. Before being called back to inspecting vehicles, the soldier told us briefly about his role inspecting cars for both security and commercial purposes. Smuggling of goods and workers from the West Bank is also a concern, not just the more widely reported security threats.

Our first stop in the Negev was at Sde Boker, the area where David Ben-Gurion lived and died. We toured his home which is now a museum and had a chance to explore who he was, his family and his role in shaping the development of the Negev, the Israeli Army and the Israeli State. In addition to his home we also saw the spot where he and his wife Paula are now buried. One of the compelling aspects of Ben-Gurion was his humility. He specifically requested in his will to have a simple funeral and burial. In keeping with those wishes his burial site merely notes his name and the date he made aliyah. The simplicity of his burial site is only accentuated by the impressive viewpoint overlooking the Negev from where he is buried.

Following our tour of Sde Boker and the Ben-Gurion College area we drove further into the Negev to visit one of the many Bedouin settlements in the area. We walked about 1 mile from the highway through fairly barren desert until we were welcomed by Salman, some of his children and relatives in their traditional Bedouin tent. Salman greeted us with tea, made Bedouin pita in the charcoals of a fire and shared his personal story with us. Salman told us of the challenges and struggles of maintaining the Bedouin culture for himself and his family. The Bedouin lifestyle has been constrained by technology, the ongoing development of the Israeli nation-state and the conveniences of running water and electricity. For Salman, maintaining the Bedouin way of life and passing on his traditions is something he is clinging to but seems to sense it slipping away.

In the evening we had dinner at a private home in Yerucham, a development town in the Negev. Our hosts were born in Libya and Tunisia and told us the story of their arrival in the city of Yerucham and how it has evolved over the past 60 years into a town of 9,500 people (and 27 synagogues). Theirs too was a story of connection to a land and the continuity of a way of life.

We’ve explored many themes on the trip so far including holiness of a place and various peoples’ connections to land for various reasons. Over the past week we’ve met with many people who have shared their personal stories of connecting to the land and how that connection has shaped who they are and what their daily struggles are for. That seems to be the unifying factor for most people living here. From the 4th generation Jerusalemite who led us on walking tour of Jerusalem, to Salman who lives in a Bedouin village in the Negev, the struggle is to stake a claim to land that is part of who they are. It seems like everyone in Israel these days is in a struggle with “place”. Ben-Gurion came to Israel and in his 60’s he began a struggle to develop a place, the Negev. Generations later Salman, a Bedouin, is struggling to hold on to a tiny piece of land that is historically his own and desperately trying to maintain an ancient way of life. The people living in Yerucham are creating a new history blending their past with their future.

Identity, history, modernity and ideology intersect everywhere and within everyone we’ve experienced over the past few weeks. Today was another stop on that journey. No big questions were answered but the complexity continues to deepen in a way that in some ways is making the questions make more sense.

Aaron Katler

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