It wasn’t just her first visit to Israel. State Representative Lori Ehrlich also paid her first visit to “Stars & Bucks Café.” No, not Starbucks, the iconic coffee chain, but an aspirational knockoff that is as close as they can come to the real deal in the West Bank city of Ramallah. The store’s name and logo offer some insight into just how cutoff from the rest of the world the Palestinians may be – while the name is slightly different, the lettering is identical to the chain’s, as if to say what goes on in Ramallah isn’t worth a court battle to protect a worldwide trademark, or perhaps it lacks the legal system to stage such a fight. Ehrlich also snapped a picture of the Ramallah department store Blooming Dales.
Despite the familiarity we think we have as a result of media coverage, there’s no way to replicate from photographs and news reports what can be learned from being on the ground, seeing things for yourself and talking to people you encounter on the street. For example, the water tanks Ehrlich saw.
“All of the Palestinian homes have these big black water tanks on their rooftops. Water is obviously in limited supply in the desert, but they get deliveries twice a week and they have to use it sparingly,” Ehrlich observed. “We didn’t see that on the Israeli side – our hotel obviously had running water with no concerns over supply. And that’s an ongoing concern, that they don’t have a reliable water supply in the West Bank.”
To go into Ramallah, the group – which included 12 members of the Massachusetts house, had to leave their Israeli guide and board a different bus. “We had a new guide – Rami Nazzal – because our regular guide was Israeli and wasn’t allowed into Ramallah. Rami is a Palestinian and he has written for the New York Times and Time Magazine, so he’s very familiar with American culture and his English was very good,” explained Ehrlich.
Ehrlich said that Ramallah is a functioning city. “There’s a main circle in Ramallah – it’s bustling, it’s busy, there are stores, there’s commerce taking place.” And the representative for Marblehead and Swampscott said that even the police could be friendly. “We asked a Palestinian policeman to take our picture, and as we were smiling another person in our group was taking his picture because we were surprised by how happy and smiling he was,” she added. “The buildings themselves are rundown. It’s clear that on the Palestinian side that things aren’t maintained as well, and needed investments are not being made.”
In Israel, Ehrlich enjoyed meeting women who are making their way in positions of power. Dr. Dalia Fadila, president of Al-Qasemi College near Haifa, is pushing to have her Palestinian institution welcome a student body that’s 50% women. She’s working on it, but hasn’t gotten there yet. And Ehrlich enjoyed meeting Aliza Lavie, a member of the Israeli parliament known as the Knesset. “I think we share a similar struggle as women in politics,” she said.
“When we were in East Jerusalem,” Ehrlich said, “we had the chance to talk to the person who designed the security wall,” that was built several years ago to cut down on attacks on Israelis. “He took a lot of pride in the wall and he was very positive about its impact.”
There are two sides to the security wall story, and the representative said she heard them both, “how hard it has made the lives of people who once moved freely from one side to the other, how it has separated friends,” as well as “how much violence there used to be and how that violence has been reduced.”
In terms of high-points for the trip, Ehrlich said there were two; “To be in Jerusalem and to see the old city. And to see the synagogue at Masada, where my husband had his bar mitzvah, and the Dead Sea. They’re the definition of historic and it was just thrilling to be there.” Ehrlich texted her husband a photograph of the spot where his bar mitzvah was held 40 years ago.