Pastor Bill’s Reflections from Israel

Reflections, Part 1
Reflections, Part 2
Reflections, Part 3
Reflections, Part 4

Reflections, Part 5

Saturday morning we took a trip to the West Bank to visit Bethlehem. Going through the checkpoint seemed pretty simple. I noticed, though, that cars coming out of Bethlehem were backed up quite a distance. The IDF is much more thorough when it comes to checking Palestinian vehicles going into Israel than anyone going out.

Bethlehem was a hive of activity. Where the streets in Jerusalem were pretty quiet since it was the Sabbath, the traffic in Bethlehem was crazy. But it wasn’t tense. The streets are a tangle of twists and turns, but everyone seems to know how to navigate them. Our tour guide was a man named Johnny. He is a Palestinian Christian. He told us Bethlehem is about 25% Christian (Father Naddaf on Friday had told us the Christian population in Bethlehem had dropped to 2%! It’s hard to know who to believe, but I think someone who actually lives there knows better.) He also told us the mayor of Bethlehem is a Christian by law.

I’ve been told more than once that Palestinian Christians are in danger from Muslims, but everything we’ve heard tells me this isn’t so. The same may not be true in Gaza where Hamas is in control, but in the West Bank things seem safe for Christians.

We walked from the bus garage, where we were descended upon by several persistent vendors, up the street (literally; it was a fairly steep incline) toward the Church of the Nativity. This church claims to be built on the site of the innkeeper’s stable. Originally commissioned in 327 CE by Helena the mother of Constantine, it is now shared by the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic churches.

During our time there it was very crowded, as this is just after Orthodox Christmas and just before Armenian Christmas (who knew so many Christians celebrate Christmas at different times?). It was very ornate and loud and filled with incense. I wasn’t so much awestruck as flabbergasted. As a lifelong Presbyterian, I have trouble appreciating the value of it all.

Following our visit to the church we walked to the offices of the Holy Land Trust where we met Mr. Sami Awad. Sami is a Palestinian Christian who was born in Kansas City. Sami’s father, however, was born and raised in Jerusalem in a mixed neighborhood of Christians, Muslims and Jews. He recalled good relations between the three groups. Often the Muslim and Christian children would be sent to the homes of their orthodox Jewish neighbors on Shabbat to do small tasks for them they were prohibited from doing. That relationship ended in 1948 when Israel won its independence. Sami’s grandfather was killed, a civilian casualty, and his grandmother moved the family to Bethlehem. She lived by the ethic of never seeking revenge but never remaining silent in the face of violence and injustice.

Sami’s uncle was influenced by Gandhi’s teaching of nonviolent resistance and in turn influenced Sami. Eventually Sami’s family returned to Bethlehem. In the mid ‘80’s, during the first Palestinian uprising (intifada), Sami’s uncle was arrested and deported by the Israeli government for his activism. A few years later Sami finished his education in Peace Studies and went to work after the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1995. The peace process broke down in only a couple years and in 1998 Sami founded the Holy Land Trust that is dedicated to facilitating dialogue between Palestinians and Jews.

In the years since there have been many disappointments and glimmers of hope. One particular hope Sami described is the opening of conversation with leaders of the nearby Jewish settlement to learn how their communities can be neighbors to one another and not enemies. Sami is committed to grassroots dialogue in the hopes of transforming hearts and minds and opening up the possibility of peaceful coexistence. He believes Israelis and Palestinians need each other to create a prosperous future together. The obstacles to that future seem immense, even insurmountable, but can only be overcome by a mutual appreciation and respect.

Baraka Presbyterian Church

After our meeting with Sami, our group visited the Baraka Presbyterian Church, a small congregation led by Danny Awad (no relation to Sami) and his father George who is the first ordained Presbyterian Palestinian pastor. We learned about the wonderful ministry of childcare and education they offer to Christian and Muslim families throughout Bethlehem. They’re doing a marvelous work in the service of love and reconciliation. Following this meeting our group was split up among several local families who hosted us for dinner. We had a unique opportunity to visit with them and learn a little about what life is like in the West Bank.

It was an exhausting day. Again we have been introduced to a new narrative that opens a window on understanding this conflict. The nuances are complex but the lives affected are real. My dinner host said she sees no end in sight. How does one live beneath the burden of such hopelessness? How can we be advocates for efforts at reconciliation in a land so riddled with strife? I find some hope in the work of the Holy Land Trust, but when a new uprising occurs will the work they’ve done really hold?

Reflections, Part 4

Friday morning we left Tiberias on our way to Jerusalem. Our tour took us to the town of Nazareth where we stopped to visit with Father Gabriel Naddaf, a Greek Orthodox priest who heads the Christian Empowerment Council. Father Naddaf’s overwhelming concern is the threat to Christians in the Middle East. Currently there are few countries in the region where Christians are safe outside of Israel, although there is still a relatively strong presence of Christians in the Palestinian territories.

I certainly agree that Christians are under threat in countries where ISIS is active, but I’ve found that some people tend to exaggerate the danger among Palestinians. One of Father Naddaf’s solutions is to encourage Israeli Christians to enlist in the Israeli Defense Force. I wasn’t aware that non-Jews are exempt from the mandatory draft in Israel; it seems full citizenship should include that.

But I’m not convinced the answer lies in taking up arms. Father Naddaf seems to be advocating that Christians be willing to resort to violence in defense of their faith. I asked him if doing that risks losing the heart of our faith. His response wasn’t entirely satisfactory to me. He pointed to the example of St. George who defended the weak through force of arms. I left it at that. He was a gracious man and we aren’t here to argue, but to listen. Had I responded, though, I might have pointed out that even Gandhi maintained that using force to protect the weak is the right thing to do, to allow the weak to be harmed or killed is cowardice. But where does one draw the line between protection and vengeance? Christians have a long history of justifying violence in the name of self-preservation. I’m not sure we have the wisdom to control ourselves.

Still, I don’t think I’m in any position to critique Father Naddaf’s view. I’m not living in the middle of it. I hope he’s able to find a path that can incorporate dialogue with Muslims rather than his tendency to demonize them. When someone pointed out that not all Arabs are terrorists, he responded that all terrorists are Arabs. Sadly, that’s not the case; we Christians have them, too.

The rest of our visit in Nazareth was spent at the Church of the Annunciation. A beautiful structure said to be built on the site of Mary’s parents’ home. This was thought to be the case because excavations revealed the words “Ave Maria” on one of the walls of the excavated home. The home itself, however, only dates back to the 2nd or 3rd century. That some pilgrims venerated it doesn’t really provide evidence of authenticity. Still, the church itself is lovely.

More interesting for the purposes of our trip, though, was our walk through the streets of Nazareth. Nazareth is a Christian-Muslim community, there are no Jews living there, and there are some tensions between the two groups. It seems some time ago the Muslims wanted to build a mosque in the town square with a minaret that would be higher than the church’s steeple. The Christians protested and the Muslims have so far been denied the right to build. We were there on Friday when Muslims gather to worship at noon. We heard what sounded like a fiery sermon being delivered at high volume at the square where men were gathered for prayers. As noon approached bells began pealing from the church in what could only have been an attempt to drown out the speaker. It was an apt illustration of the natural result of religious arguments: all noise and no understanding.

on the streets in Nazareth

Finally we arrived in Jerusalem! It’s hard to describe just how inspiring and haunting this city is. We had the pleasure of attending Shabbat service at Kehilat Kol Haneshama. It was a joyful, uplifting service filled with song and prayer. Following the service we returned to the Dan Boutique Hotel Shabbat dinner together.

Following dinner Rabbi Alex and I, along with Kathy Foti-Crawford walked to the Old City. What a joy to see it at night with so few people around! Seeing the Western Wall for the first time was awe-inspiring. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

Reflections, Part 3

On our first night in Israel (it seems like a lifetime ago, but it was only Monday!) we heard a presentation from a man named Rueben ben Shalom, a 25-year veteran of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) Air Force, who gave us an overview and history of the geopolitics of Israel. He told us at one point that Israel is in a “battle of narratives.” This phrase keeps popping up as we visit various people and hear their stories.

On Thursday, January 12, we heard a narrative we had not yet encountered. Ariev ben Yacov is a militant Jew who moved to Israel in 1961 from Cleveland. He joined the IDF and fought in four wars over the years. Now he lives in the kibbutz Misgav Am. Misgav Am is set on a mountain overlooking Lebanon. Currently the part of Lebanon bordering the kibbutz is run by Hezbollah, a Shia paramilitary group financed by Iran. The residents of Misgav Am are the frontline of protection against incursions from Lebanon.

View into Lebanon, near Misgav Am

In 2006 tourists would not have been allowed to visit Misgav Am because of the threat of sniper fire. But that year a ceasefire was negotiated and has held for a decade. Ariev is very vigilant and not interested in conceding one inch of land to people he believes want to destroy him. I only took one picture at Misgav Am, a group shot that includes several of the IDF soldiers stationed there. We were asked not to publish that picture, though, to protect the identities of the soldiers. The people of Misgav Am are very protective of their own.

Misgav Am is a self-sufficient kibbutz, producing poultry and wine. Its residents work the land and also off the kibbutz to help support it. One of the challenges they face is a shortage of young men and women. There are children and older people, but those in the age range of 24 to 35 have left to find work elsewhere. To help fill in the social gap, Misgav Am provides housing for students at a nearby university. This also provides rental income to the kibbutz.

It’s a simple life worth preserving. And I can see why Ariev is so fiercely defensive of it. He’s not interested in politics or negotiations. He only wants to protect what’s his. He believes everyone in Israel, Arab and Jew, has a right to live and be free. But freedom doesn’t mean displacing the Jews or conceding the land. On that I suspect Ariev and Lydia, who we met on Wednesday, would certainly agree. But I doubt they would agree on much else.

I’m coming to understand how naïve it is to pontificate academically about what Israel should or shouldn’t do from the comfort of my home. The options available are not so clear when you see the realities, and the choices to be made are not as easy when you meet the people whose lives they will affect. So far of the people we’ve met I haven’t heard anyone take the position that the government is right in everything it does, “my country right or wrong.” People seem aware of the nuances and moral gray areas. By the same token, most seem fixated on the moment; there’s an immediacy to life here that makes it hard to look forward and imagine the future in any detail. I wonder how long that can really last. As Yeats said in his poem “The Second Coming,” “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.” Something has to give.

As I mentioned before we’re using the poetry of Yehuda Amichai to sort of frame our time here, to give us a deeper perspective. One of his poems comes to mind in light of our visit to Misgav Am. It’s titled “Before:”

Before the gate has been closed,
before the last question is posed,
before I am transposed.
Before the weeds fill the gardens,
before there are no pardons,
before the concrete hardens.
Before all the flute-holes are covered,
before things are locked in the cupboard,
before the rules are discovered.
Before the conclusion is planned,
before God closes his hand,
before we have nowhere to stand.

Reflections, Part 2

The Sea of Galilee is beautiful and tranquil this morning. It’s hard to believe I’m really here. I hadn’t realized how immense it is! The stories about Jesus and his disciples crossing it always gave me the impression it was relatively small. Although it’s not as large as any of the Great Lakes, still it would be a chore to get across in a small fishing boat.

The lake’s tranquility is a sharp contrast to the struggle for peace going on in Israel. We visited two places yesterday where that struggle is being met with particular vigor. Giv’at Haviva is a center for learning where Jews and Arabs are brought together to discover who each other is, what their lives are like, and work toward a shared society. Its director is Lydia Aisenberg who has lived in Israel for fifty years, having immigrated from Britain when she was 21. Lydia raised her children on a kibbutz here where she still lives. And even though her sons served in the Israeli army, she remains a pacifist.

Lydia’s philosophy is summed up rather oddly through a mural found on the wall of the main building. It’s a depiction of two boys, one Israeli, the other Palestinian. They stand arm in arm with their backs to the viewer. Each character is an icon of his respective group. They were created separately: the Israeli figure, named Srulik, by a Hungarian-born Jewish Holocaust survivor named Kariel Gar’Dosh who made Aliyah (became an Israeli citizen) after the war. Srulik is mischievous but lovable, representing the spirit of the Israeli people. The other character is named Handala. He was created by Palestinian dissident Naji al-Ali. Al-Ali was assassinated in London in 1987. In the over 40,000 depictions of Handala, the character is only seen from behind, in a stance of Palestinian defiance.mural

Ordinarily these icons would be understood to be sworn enemies, yet at Gavit Haviva they embrace, both with their backs to the past moving toward an undiscovered future together. Lydia Aisenberg believes that future can be achieved through education, direct dialogue and deep listening by both sides in the conflict in Israel.

A second visit was to the Sir Charles Clore Jewish-Arab Community Center in the town of Akko. This is a unique cooperative center created by Dr. Mohammed Fahili. Akko is a mixed Jewish-Arab community in the Galilee region. Dr. Fahili, a Muslim, grew up in Akko after his family was relocated there from the Syrian border in 1948 after the establishment of the state of Israel. A few years after relocating his father died tragically leaving his mother with 8 children to care for.

When Dr. Fahili was around 14 he began working at a Jewish kibbutz nearby. At the kibbutz he was given a means to help support his family and was welcomed in the social life of the other children. Through that experience of generosity and acceptance, Dr. Fahili learned how important mutual cooperation can be, it can be the difference between life and death. After finishing his education Dr. Fahili wanted to give back in a meaningful way to his community. He found a building in an under-developed neighborhood in Akko and began a program for Arab and Jewish children. Today 600 children, ages 6 to 14, attend after school programs at the Center. The Center is also available for community meetings and events when a safe place where Jews and Arabs can meet is needed.

These efforts at forging understanding and identifying shared concerns seem like the best possibility for achieving peace among Jews and Arabs here. As Dr. Fahili shared, it’s only by letting go of past hurts and moving forward that progress can be made. There is hope in Israel in spite of so many years of conflict. But that hope can only be realized through the commitment of people like Lydia and Dr. Fahili. It reminds me of something Bishop Desmond Tutu once said: “Without God we cannot; without us God will not.” Each morning here as we begin our day’s excursion a poem is read from the works of Israel’s preeminent poet Yehuda Amichai. This is the one I selected today:

My Child Wafts Peace

My child wafts peace,
When I lean over him,
It is not just the smell of soap.

All the people were children wafting peace.
(And in the whole land, not even one
Millstone remained unturned).

Oh, the land torn like clothes
That can’t be mended.
Hard, lonely fathers even in the cave of Makhpela*
Childless silence.

My child wafts peace.
His mother’s womb promised him
What God cannot
Promise us.

* The traditional burial place in Hebron of Abraham and the other Patriarchs and Matriarchs of Israel.

Reflections, Part 1

Today we visited the site of Israel’s Declaration of Independence. In May of 1948, David ben Gurion issued the statement ratifying the UN mandate which established the Jewish state of Israel in the modern world. This took place at the home of the mayor of Tel Aviv. The next day bombings occurred throughout the city and the armies of several neighboring Arab states went on the offensive against the Israeli militias that would eventually become the Israeli Defense Force.

As we travel through Israel a question I find myself asking is: was the bloodshed inevitable? Could Israel have been established in a more organic way through the gradual settlement of Jews from Europe? That might have been a possibility had it not been for the Holocaust which made establishing a place of safety for Jews in the world so urgent. Suddenly a desire for a state was no longer a nostalgic dream but was an absolute necessity if Judaism was to survive.

As a western Christian I cannot escape the reality of my faith’s responsibility for this necessity. Two thousand years of anti-Semitism by the Church has brought the world to this place ofconflict. The bloodshed in this country is undeniably on our heads. The guilt of that weighs heavily upon me as we tour this beautiful, sacred land and I see the struggle this country endures.

Nevertheless, in spite of western Christian blindness, Jews and Arabs in Israel are finding ways to live alongside each other. Not even my faith’s bigotry and intolerance can extinguish hope in this land. Over the next eight days we will see more of where that hope is being kept alive and we’ll hear from people who are working toward it, and from some who have little faith in it. I’ll try to record my thoughts and share them as best I can.

Peace is the birthright of every generation. Those of us who are in a position of influence have a responsibility to let go of ancient hatreds and allow peace to thrive for our children. Perhaps it’s naïve to believe there is the possibility for an end to bloodshed, but without that belief what hope can we give our children?

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