A sooty watchtower, part of the wall separating Bethlehem from Jerusalem, looms over Hebron Road in the West Bank. Photo Byron Rempel-Burkholder
A sooty watchtower, part of the wall separating Bethlehem from Jerusalem, looms over Hebron Road in the West Bank. Photo Byron Rempel-Burkholder

Topics: Justice | Human Rights, Society

Making the pilgrimage to Rachel’s Tomb

Approaching a biblical holy site on foot becomes a journey through the tangled reality of Israel and the occupied territories today


From the roof of our guest house on Hebron Road in the West Bank, we have a good view of the watchtower. Like an air traffic control pod, it perches on one corner of an eight-metre wall of concrete splotched with graffiti and soot. This is the boundary of Bethlehem, birthplace of Jesus. Our neighbours, Palestinian Christians, say it prevents Bethlehem’s urban growth northward, while allowing Jerusalem’s sprawl to continue creeping south across the few ancient olive orchards that remain.

The watchtower gives Israeli guards a perfect view of Friday demonstrations that occur frequently on the street below: boys with slingshots facing young soldiers with guns and tear gas. A sliding slab of grey steel lets soldiers and armoured vehicles through the wall. The West Bank stretch of Hebron Road ends here.

From their roost, the guards also watch the other side of the wall: Rachel’s Tomb. The shrine squats inside a gnarled finger of Jerusalem that pokes into Bethlehem. Here, it’s said, lie the bones of Rachel, second wife of Jacob and the mother of Joseph, a prophet revered in Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Religious tradition says that Rachel died in this place while giving birth to Joseph’s brother, Benjamin, the progenitor of the Israelite tribe of Benjamin.

These days, four millennia after her death, she still groans in labour.

My spouse, Melita, and I have lived on the West Bank side of the wall for two weeks. Today we will visit Rachel’s Tomb, one of Judaism’s holiest sites. The guidebooks name it as a pilgrim site for Jews, Christians and Muslims. Our Palestinian neighbours, who have ancestral ties to the land, no longer dream of going there; it is now restricted to Israelis and tourists. Later, these friends will ask us what we saw and then shrug their shoulders as if to say, “Yep, that’s the reality now.”

Before the building of the wall and the steel gate began in 2002, it took five minutes to walk there. Today, it will take us 20 minutes to walk north to Checkpoint 300, another 10 to pass through the border controls and at least another 10 to find our way back south to the tomb.

As we exit the guest-house gate and walk north on Hebron Road, the muezzins from three minarets call Muslims to midday prayer. We hike up to the steel gate, pass under the eyes of the watchtower and follow an alley along the wall, two rusting gas stations on our right. This used to be the northbound lane of Hebron Road. The southbound lane is on the other side of the wall, beside the tomb.

Palestinians consider it a separation wall: it cuts them off from dignity and self-determination. Israelis consider it a security barrier: it keeps out terrorists. It is the de facto border between Israel and the West Bank, the latter under the former’s military occupation since the Six-Day War, 50 years ago next month.

From the guard tower and gate, the wall zags north, east, north, west, back south, west again and north again, shading houses and shops that used to look across to Rachel’s Tomb. Today, the landscape is the wall, covered in graffiti and posters proclaiming dreams of liberation. The wall itself is a tourist attraction. Past the derelict gas stations is Banksy’s Shop, featuring replicas of the famous English street artist’s graffiti works. Many of his original images grace the 700-kilometre wall and fence enclosing the West Bank.

At one corner, the Wall Steak House uses the grey expanse for advertising. Someone has painted the menu on the wall, and beside it, a large whitewashed square for projecting soccer broadcasts. An old man nursing a glass of liquor at the entrance tells us the parking lot for Rachel’s Tomb is on the other side. He says he used to play soccer there when he was a boy. A short block from the steak house, around a bend, is the Anastas family business — once a thriving garage and now a struggling souvenir shop — hemmed in on three sides.

We slither through a chaotic stretch of taxi stands, food and trinket stalls, and coffee sellers, all at the service of Palestinian workers lucky enough to have permits to cross into Israel for the day. In the shadow of another stretch of wall with a steel gate and watchtower, we ascend a fenced ramp that keeps people in line before they pass through the first turnstile. Our neighbours call it a cattle chute — one of the renovations that followed the Second Intifada, the last major wave of Palestinian violent resistance that began in September 2000 and lasted until February 2005.

We walk through a parking lot, into the terminal, down another dim corridor, through another turnstile, through the security check, through another turnstile and finally up to the passport control kiosk.

A young woman in green fatigues lounges behind glass, her eyes fixed on the sensor pad where Palestinians press their coded IDs. From the dark shadows under her eyes, we imagine she has not slept well, and wonder how she feels about being posted here. Young Israeli women must complete two years of compulsory service in the Israel Defense Forces.

Ahead of us are a middle-aged man and a woman wearing a hijab and carrying a toddler. The bleary-eyed guard keeps the turnstile locked as she asks them in broken Arabic to repeat their ID scan and show their cards. Our neighbours on Hebron Road say the guards sometimes pretend the equipment is malfunctioning just to harass people trying to get through. Not once does the guard look up before she presses the button that unlocks the turnstile. The family also avoids eye contact.

Melita shows her passport through the glass. The guard glances at it, flicks a nonchalant wave and releases the turnstile. I stand for a moment, hoping she will at least look up. She does not, flicks her wrist again, and I continue. “Welcome to Israel,” says a cheery blue sign on a white wall ahead.

Hebron Road runs two more kilometres north before it reaches the Green Line, drawn in 1949. The line began disappearing from Israeli maps following the Six-Day War, which saw Israeli forces overthrow Jordan’s custodianship of the West Bank — including Rachel’s Tomb, which Jordan had declared off-limits to Israelis.

The Jewish neighbourhoods of Gilo and Har Homa, just north of Checkpoint 300, now stand on much of the land expropriated after 1967. Israelis consider these neighbourhoods part of Jerusalem. Our neighbours in Bethlehem consider them settlements — illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention, which regulates the conduct of occupying powers. The United Nations agrees.

We walk south again toward the tomb. A lift gate bars the road. Two more soldiers, barely adults, flank the gate. We ask one if he speaks English or French. He does not, and we do not speak Hebrew. I try my best at hand gestures and speak English anyway. “We want to walk to Rachel’s Tomb.” He shakes his head and points north. “Bus, taxi,” he says.

An old Toyota approaches and stops at the barrier. The soldier saunters over and exchanges a few words with the driver. The back doors open, and the soldier motions us to get in.

Toda,” we tell him. “Thank you.”

If this is a holy place, should it have to be protected with walls and razor wire, armoured vehicles and machine guns? Which side of the wall is a prison?

A 30-ish couple smiles back at us. “Tourists?” the woman says, and we smile and say yes, but do not elaborate. Today we feel more like voyeurs, peeking into the lives of Israelis and Palestinians living and praying on two sides of one wall.

The barrier arm lifts, and we proceed. We can see why walking is forbidden: there is no room for a sidewalk down this winding corridor, flanked by the wall on one side, and, for about 200 metres on the other, a high fence topped with razor wire. For 100 metres or so, the fence becomes another wall — a tunnel open to the sky. The lane opens to a traffic circle. On the right is a bus stop, another grey slab of a steel gate and another watchtower. Our driver steers left into an immense parking lot — the place where the old man from the Wall Steak House played soccer long ago.

Toda — thank you so much,” we tell the couple. “We will take the bus back.”

At the entrance to the lot stands an old house. Inside are washrooms. Outside, a mural covers one wall. It shows Rachel’s Tomb as it used to be: a simple domed mausoleum beside Hebron Road, overlooking terraced hillsides around Bethlehem. We continue south along the wall, the southbound side of Hebron Road. Somewhere on the other side of the wall are the gas stations we saw earlier.

The tomb lies behind a long stone facade abutting the right curb, with men’s and women’s entrances opening to the alley. Melita walks ahead to the women’s entrance, and I pause at a small table outside the men’s. A stack of laminated prayer cards sits beside a donation box, along with a few kippahs (skullcaps) for those who don’t have their own.

I squash a kippah onto my head and proceed down a dimly lit hall lined with wooden cabinets and bookshelves. A few tourists mill around, but mostly the place is packed with Orthodox Jewish men of all ages. Some are emerging from prayers; others are going in. I wiggle through the crowd to the tomb — an oversized sarcophagus with a rounded top, draped all around with velvet under clear plastic. Above me is the underside of the famed dome. Men stand before the tomb, heads down, rocking back and forth, holding prayer books in front of them. Hidden beyond a panel is the women’s section.

I find a spot to stand on the periphery, and observe these venerators of Rachel, a woman of goodness and self-sacrifice, among the Bible’s revered Jewish matriarchs. They pray for blessings, for fertility, for divine protection of their people. They pray for the peace of Zion. They pray for home: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither” (Psalm 137:5).

I lean against the wall, an imposter, lost in a foreign land. Memories of the journey to get here fade as I ponder this place of belonging and longing. These earnest seekers have been scarred by centuries of persecution, sometimes at the hands of my own ancestors. I grieve the Holocaust. Here, in this land and in this nest, they crave refuge for their souls. I would, too.

The Palestinian Authority insists that Rachel’s Tomb is actually a mosque built to venerate Bilal ibn Rabah, a companion of the prophet Muhammad. Rabah is also considered to be Islam’s first muezzin. I lament that Muslims from Bethlehem can no longer pray here, can only dream of starting a mosque in the vicinity. A few days earlier, I saw the Muslim cemetery that abuts another stretch of wall; even now, I imagine Bethlehemites mourning their dead in its shadow.

My thoughts form prayers of dissonance, full of question marks. If this is a holy place, should it have to be protected with walls and razor wire, armoured vehicles and machine guns? Which side of the wall is a prison? Which side is not a prison? What has become of that open-aired, inclusive vision of the prophet Isaiah?

“In days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and . . . all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord’” (Isaiah 2:2-3). Does anyone here say, “Lord, have mercy”?

I deposit my kippah and a couple of shekels on a table outside when a medicinal odour stings my nostrils. Melita emerges and takes my hand. “What’s that smell?” she asks.

“Tear gas.”

“But it’s not Friday.”

We walk toward the parking lot and traffic circle. A green bus from Jerusalem idles beside the steel gate we saw on the way in. Tourists and pilgrims are boarding. Just opposite the bus door, we see the gate is open two feet. A blond soldier in fatigues stands looking out. A popping sound comes from the other side of the wall. A few heads turn, but just for an instant, as if this can be expected in border areas. The chemical aroma wafts through the gate, thanks to an unfavourable breeze.

“The Aida boys are at it again,” Melita says, referring to the Aida refugee camp, 400 metres away.

The soldier catches our eye and jerks his head toward the bus door. We slow down to peer through the gap. There, in the haze, we see the Lajee Youth Centre, part of the Aida camp, which we visited a few days earlier. We can see a few boys milling two blocks away, swinging slingshots. Somewhere around the corner are more soldiers and an armoured vehicle. “Hurry,” the soldier says in English. Beside him, a barrel of new tear gas canisters.

“Excuse me, but we are going to Bethlehem,” I say. “It would be much more convenient if we could just slip through the gate and walk to our guest house. It’s five minutes by foot. May we? We know the way.”

The soldier smiles. “Sorry. You have to go through the checkpoint.” He knows we know how impudent our question is.

“It would save us a lot of time,” Melita says.

“Please get on the bus.”

And so we board and pay full fare for the one-minute trip to Checkpoint 300. We are the only passengers to request a stop.

This story originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of The Observer with the title “Searching for Rachel.”

Byron Rempel-Burkholder is a freelance writer and editor in Winnipeg. In early 2016, he and his spouse, Melita, spent 14 weeks volunteering in Bethlehem, West Bank, through Mennonite Church Canada.


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