Why Can’t We Go to Jerusalem on a Donkey?


George S. Rishmawi is so busy that he nearly forgets to call. “But your email reminded me!” It is five o’clock Bethlehem time and Rishmawi has had a busy Wednesday. “Yes, yes, full days every day. That is the way we want it to be. Full days.” For Rishmawi, this will be an eventful week. On Palm Sunday he plans to ride a donkey into Jerusalem. And if Jesus could do that 2,000 years ago, why can’t he?

The idea for the donkey ride, explains Rishmawi, came from Palestinian children who were fascinated by the story of a Bethlehem man who could just get on a donkey and go to Jerusalem. “Why can’t we ride donkeys to Jerusalem?” Rishmawi shared the story with Pennsylvania peacemaker John Stoner, and the rest will soon be history. While Rishmawi helped to organize children and adults in Bethlehem, Stoner recruited 16 Americans. The Americans arrived last Saturday for a week of preparation. On Palm Sunday everyone will simply go down the road with donkeys.

“Neither children nor adults from Bethlehem are allowed to go to Jerusalem,” explains Rishmawi. “Of course you can apply for a permit to go, but 99.9 percent of the permits are denied.” And even with permits, there is no guarantee you will be allowed to pass. “So we are going to walk from Manger Square at the Church of the Nativity, and we will be trying to get to Jerusalem as Jesus did.”

At some point the donkeys will approach a military checkpoint and, hopefully, all the world will see what happens next. Most likely, cameras will snap images, not of palm fronds being thrown under the donkeys’ feet like 2,000 years ago, but of guns and uniforms blocking the way. “Right now the checkpoint is heavily militarized,” explains Rishmawi. “There is a military base with lots of patrols going back and forth. Rooftops in the area have been camouflaged, and Israeli snipers are all over the place.”

When the soldiers order a stop to the ten donkeys and their human escorts at the northern border of Bethlehem along the Jerusalem-Hebron Road, a few folks will be prepared to break from the procession to engage in some form of nonviolent resistance, perhaps a sit-in. “There have been many positive responses to the plans,” says Rishmawi before hanging up. There are voices at his end of the telephone and he has to go now.

Rishmawi serves as Coordinator of the Travel and Encounter Program for the Holy Land Trust. For a month or two during the summer, pilgrims to Bethlehem can learn Arabic, work with volunteer organizations, and see the sights. And since they are pilgrims, not Palestinians, they can even visit Jerusalem, too.

“I am myself committed to peacebuilding and resisting the occupation through nonviolent means,” Rishmawi has explained earlier in the phone call. He grew up in Beit Sahour, a town East of Bethlehem that he describes as very active. “I was raised up this way.”

“The Western media do not pick it up,” he says, “but a strong nonviolent resistance struggle has been active in Palestine at least from the 1930’s until now.” From 1987 to 1993 for example, the people of Beit Sahour participated in a tax revolt, refusing to pay taxes to the Israeli occupation. “We had a slogan for that movement,” he deadpans: “No taxation without representation.” Growing up, the 33-year-old Rishmawi remembers how his uncle, who had one arm only, was beaten up by soldiers during a downtown protest and taken to the hospital.

Around the issue of walling, Rishmawi remembers going downtown with his mother during a general strike and joining a series of nonviolent demonstrations in protest of the coming fences. And when the Intifada started in 1987, he remembers a December day shortly after the Greek Orthodox Church left town, when he and other young men piled stones in the street to block the advancing Israeli Army. When the teenagers saw the army coming down the street, they ran.

As a peacemaker, however, Rishmawi is not running from plain talk about Palestine. I ask him to respond to impressions that we are getting from American media that the Israeli government is relaxing its grip on Palestinian territories. I’m not used to Rishmawi’s sense of humor, so I don’t quite know how to handle his comeback: “Do you want me to answer in French or English?”

“Well, let me answer in French,” jousts Rishmawi as I stumble, “It’s bullshit. Total crap. They are betraying us. The source of violence here is the Israeli occupation, and we still have 600 checkpoints, and we are still totally restricted. We don’t even come into downtowns anymore. Zone C is what they call the West Bank, and nothing there has been removed, nothing has been changed.”

“Last week, a friend of mine got an injury in his eye. I called the ambulance. But the ambulance could not get through the checkpoints. They said an eye injury is minor and ambulances are not permitted to travel through checkpoints for minor injuries. So we could not go to the Hospital in East Jerusalem. Meanwhile they are building the wall, and for that thousands of acres of land are being taken daily. And America is giving funding to all this.” Rishmawi wastes no time speaking clearly.

“The media have been lying to the American people and betraying them all the time. The American people are being betrayed because they don’t know how many of their tax dollars co-fund the occupation in Palestine.” Rishmawi’s raw expression of Palestinian experience leads me to wonder what makes the refined lie necessary?

Who’s afraid of Americans hearing the blunt truth that Palestinians are simply not free and that American tax dollars are partly to blame? Is it the occupiers themselves? Or is it their American proxies who on Easter Sunday would rather not have their churches full of dressed-up Christians asking questions about where the money for this occupation comes from? In either case, the carefully planned Palm Sunday image of the donkey at the checkpoint will speak with the innocence of a Palestine child who would simply ask the world, especially the Christian world, why can’t we ride to Jerusalem like Jesus anymore?

Greg Moses is editor of Peacefile and author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence.

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