Friday, November 13, 2009

Listening for the voices

We shared lunch with Gosayna Karam in the ancient village of Nazareth, remembered as the town where Jesus grew up, and heard her talk about her worries for her children’s education in a country where there is huge disparity in funding between Jewish and Arab students.

We sat in the living room of Hani Abu Haikal, a Muslim living right next door to hostile Jewish settlers in Hebron, a city where both Muslims and Jews revere a site where they believe their common ancestor Abraham is buried. We heard how Hani is trying to create non-violent responses to the oppression of occupation.

We walked with Shadi through the Dheisheh Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, where 13,000 Palestinians live – the original refugees of the creation of Israel in 1948 and generations of their descendants, people without a country. We watched sewer water draining onto the narrow road we trod through the densely-populated camp.

We listened as Naila Kharroub, the principal of the Dar al-Kalima school in Bethlehem told about the work she does with her 300 Christian and Muslim students from kindergarten through high school to create a sense of understanding of each other’s faith traditions as well as those of the Jewish people who share their land.

And we drank coffee with Ed Rettig as this rabbi who leads the American Jewish Committee in Israel told us how he and his family now feel so much safer because of the high levels of security Israel has put in place – the same security measures that makes life so difficult for the Palestinians.

These are a few of the voices telling of lives today in Israel and Palestine, the tinderbox of global politics, a land holy to three great faith traditions and a land torn by heartache. I was there for two weeks earlier this month with a group of seven friends from the United Church of Christ and Presbyterian churches.
We heard the stories of a wide range of people trying to fashion lives caught in the swirl of so many larger forces.

There are no definitive statements one can make after a short time in such a complex place. But there are vivid images that remain.

At Augusta Victoria Hospital, Mark Brown from Lutheran World Services took us out back to look across a grove of olive trees to the area where his group hopes to build new housing to help keep the dwindling number of Palestinian Christians in Jerusalem.

Farther out, we could see the separation barrier – the 24-foot high concrete wall that the Israelis have put in place snaking through West Bank land. And beyond that, we could see one of the large Jewish settlements housing 35,000 residents on land that is in the West Bank.

Voices. Images. Glimmers of hope breaking through an overriding sense of pessimism. It’s a tough place these days, Israel and Palestine. It’s a place that needs its many voices to be heard.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A swirl of religious sounds

It was noon on Friday in the Old City of Jerusalem. As we walked near the beginning of the Via Dolorosa -- the spots marking Jesus' journey from Pilate's headquarters to the cross -- the Muslim call to prayer rang out across the city.

We were in the Muslim quarter of the Old City and soon every street was filled with Muslims headed toward the various mosques in this area, including the al-Aqsa Mosque near the Dome of the Rock, the third holiest site in Islam. Muslims believe that Mohammed was transported in a night journey from Mecca to this site.

At the same time, bells were ringing from the churches in the Christian sector marking some of the holiest places in Jesus' life -- the hill where he died, the tomb where he was laid and from which he rose.

Inside some of these churches were Russian Orthodox carrying candles down to a spot commemorating the prison cell where Jesus held while awaiting his appearance before Pilate, the Roman governor of this area. In the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, pilgrims knelt quietly to kiss the slab on stone which legend says is the place Jesus' body rested after being removed from the cross.

There were scenes of deep piety like this all across the land that is holy to the three Abrahamic faiths - Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Even when the expressions of piety did not reflect the styles of those of us liberal Protestants traveling across the centuries in these places, we were moved by the depth of feelings that we witnessed.

Occasionally, we had chance to experience the depth of spirituality in these places as well. For me, one such moment was in the village of Capernaum in the Galilee region of northern Israel. There is a banyan tree between the excavations in this village that Jesus used as his headquarters and the seashore where he walked with his followers. I sat there in silence, contemplating the links across the centuries.

Another day, we gathered in a church in Abu Ghosh, nine miles out of Jerusalem, marking one of the traditional places of Emmaus (there are three other possibilities) where Jesus met two followers on the road after his resurrection. Inside the Gothic church, we sang "Let Us Break Together" as our voices echoes off the stone walls covered with aging frescoes.

In the Mea Shearim neighborhood -- just across the line that used to divide Jerusalem from East Jerusalem when it was controlled by Jordan before the 1967 war -- we saw ultra-conservative Haredi Jews gathering for Shabbat services on a Friday evening. These are followers of the most theologically conservative branch of Orthodox Judaism, living in one of the oldest neighborhoods of west Jerusalem. It is a 19th century Eastern European enclave in a modern city, a place suspicious and not particularly welcoming of visitors.
On this night, as we walked past one of the buildings, we could hear the prayer chants of those inside, we could see the men bowing repeatedly in prayer.

We could see how beliefs affected the commercial life in the places we would visit. Muslim shops would be closed on Friday, Jewish shops would be closed on Saturday, Christian shops would be closed on Sunday.

In the early morning in Bethlehem, we would be wakened shortly before 4 a.m. by church bells calling Christians to the pre-dawn time of prayer known as Matins. A few minutes later, the first call to prayer of the day would start emerging from multiple mosques around the city.
Outside August Victoria Hospital on the Mount of Olives, a lone man knelt on his coat outside the entrance to the hospital at noon, fulfilling his obligation as a Muslim to pray five times daily.

On the plateau of Masada, where Jewish rebels in the first century killed themselves rather than surrender to Rome, new Israeli soldiers come to swear a sacred oath. At the Western Wall of the old temple in Jerusalem -- the one destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, Jews from around the world come to place their prayers on slips of paper into the cracks in the wall.
And so it goes in this land.

The wars, the on-going tensions dominate the landscape. But every day, people from many sectors of these three great faiths find places where they can connect to the divine being.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Obama and the settlements: two Israeli views

For Ed Rettig, one of the biggest mistakes Barack Obama has made in foreign policy is demanding that Israel halt all building of settlements in the occupied West Bank.

For Larry Derfner, Obama's mistake was in caving in to Israeli insistence that it continue to work on existing settlements.

Both Rettig and Derfner are savvy observers of the Israeli scene. Rettig is the acting director of the American Jewish Committee's Israel office. He began his professional life as a lawyer, later became a Reformed Rabbi and now is a central figure among Jewish advocacy organizations. Derfner emigrated from the U.S. to Israel in the mid-1970s and is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post. He describes himself as "a left-wing Zionist."

Rettig argued that Obama's mistake in demanding that all settlements stop was that it united the people on the fringes of Israeli politics who are ideological about the settlements with the mainstream. He pointed out that 85 percent of the 300,000 or so Israeli settlers -- those living in cities built by Israelis on Palestinian land in the West Bank -- live in five settlements that are right on the 1967 border between Israel and the West Bank. The more ideological -- in some cases, very aggressive -- settlers are in the other settlements scattered farther across the West Bank.

Obama's demand, Rettig said, "united Israelis instead of breaking off the margins. It drove them into the lap of the settlers."

After Israeli uproar and lobbying following Obama's demand, the U.S. administration has been easy the pressure, which in turn has led the Palestinian leadership to back away from the peace process.

That is the big mistake Obama made, said Derfner. When Benjamin Netanyahu became Israel's prime minister earlier this year, he undid most of the understandings that the previous Israeli government had reached with the Palestinian leadership. Obama's settlement freeze demand was a way to give the Palestinians something to work with in resuming negotiations. But when Israel refused to go along, the prospect for negotiations ran aground.

Derfner said that the settlement lobby is incredibly powerful within Israeli government -- not just the settlers themselves, but real estate interests, commercial interests, religious splinter groups all have much invested in expanding the settlements.

"Israel of its own volition will not and cannot get out of the West Bank," Derfner argued. "The only thing that will do that is a fear of a greater god than the settlers -- and that is America."

While they disagree on the politics of the settlements, Rettig and Derfner did share a common theme in our conversations with them on our last day in Israel. It is a theme of pessimism -- hardly a high note on which to end the trip.

Rettig cited a mood of exasperation among Israelis. "The Israelis have had it," he said. "They are cynical and doubtful of the capacity of anyone to bring peace." He said the Palestinians are in a weird place, with Hamas unable to govern in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority facing uncertainty in the West Bank with Mahmoud Abbas' announcement that he will not seek another term as their leader. And he thinks the Obama administration is inexperienced and naive in foreign policy.

Derfner's criticism of Obama is for not putting enough pressure on Israel, he thinks his adopted country has moved very far to the right politically and that is has let the chance for peace slip away by not dealing seriously with Palestinian leaders like Abbas who have brought some sense of order to the West Bank and who have an openness to dealing with Israel.

One of the most constant realities of this part of the world is that the prospects for war and peace are continually shifting. At the moment, few of those we talked to during our two weeks here were feeling much optimism. But all of them in their own way are trying to create a path to a better life for all those who inhabit this contested country.

A friend's voice of anguish

My friend Amal Othman lives in Madison and is a U.S. citizen, but she was born in Jordan and her parents are Palestinian refugees whose home was near East Jerusalem. At the same time our group was in Israel and Palestine, she was with a group called Interfaith Peace-Builders visiting many of the same places we were. One of the places she went was to her parents' home town. This is her compelling account of that visit.

We walked the streets of the old city in East Jerusalem. The Jewish presence is clear: soldiers with guns, settlers with the Torah, the Star of David on doors, and the Israeli flag on roofs and balconies. Surveillance cameras in every corner ensure the Israeli control and dominance. “Help Us Build Jewish Life in the Old City” says one sign printed on a metal sheet in Hebrew and English mounted in a busy alley for everyone passing by to see.

A Palestinian woman selling vegetables on the street shared her grief with me. “We live a miserable life. We’re threatened everyday and no one cares.” My heart ached for I have felt her broken spirit and had nothing to say to comfort her. Waves of tourists passed her. Some acknowledged her presence and others ignored it, celebrating Israel and the distorted history. Since when an illegal occupation has become a tourist attraction!

Then we went to Jabel Al Mukaber , a small town near Jerusalem where my mother was born. We drove by the 27 foot high wall that separates, in some areas, Palestinian towns from Palestinian towns slicing through the lives of families and friends, farmers and their land, students and their schools. I’ve read about it. I’ve seen pictures of it. And now I have no words to describe it after seeing it with my own eyes. It’s a beast; a devastating reality that prevents any kind of dialogue between the two peoples to achieve a just peace.

The wall on the Israeli side is hidden by trees and cleverly planned landscapes just like some destroyed Palestinian villages are hidden under forests. And the wall on the Palestinian side is just across the street, blocking the air they breathe.

There is nothing holy about the Holy land. It’s divided, broken, and strangled with injustice.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Stories of women crossing boundaries

When Nina Mayorek's sister died a few months ago, the gathering of people for her funeral created a moment when some sharp boundaries were crossed.

Mayorek is a Jewish Israeli virologist, a professor -- and an activist. She is part of Machsom Watch, a group of Israeli women who oppose the occupation of Palestine and who monitor activities at the checkpoints between Israel and the West Bank.

She joined our group for dinner along with her colleague from Machsom Watch, Ivonne Mausbach Kleinfeld, and Dalia Landau, whose story of coming to Israel as a very young child with her family after World War II and her unusual and often strained friendship over 40 years with a Palestinian activist was told in the book The Lemon Tree.

As Nina's colleagues gathered to share in the mourning of the death of her sister, one was a woman who is an Israeli settler, an person of deep religious conviction. She does not dress as a religious Jew, Nina noted, and her work as a virologist provided a common bond, even as they differed on the politics of settlements.

Another visitor was a Palestinian virologist whose appearance also gave no immediate clues to her heritage. She dresses in contemporary, stylish clothes.

So both of these women who are just short of turning 40 began talking amid the other mourners. They talked about their work in virology. And then the Jewish settler learned that her new acquaintance was a Palestinian working at a Palestinian university.
At first, she was surprised to learn that there was a Palestinian university. Then she was surprised to learn that they had laboratories. With microscopes. With two microscopes more powerful than the ones she used in her Israeli lab.

For her friend, Nina said. it was "a real discovery. Those people are not only terrorists. They have microscopes, they have labs.

But the surprises went both ways. The Palestinian woman was also stunned, said Nina, saying, "It cannot be! How can she be such a nice person when she is a religious settler?"
What Nina witnessed she called "a process of discovery - you are a human being."

But there are so few opportunities for such encounters.
Much of Dalia's work has been to bring Palestinian and Israeli children together so they can get to know each other, to shatter the stereotypes that exist.

It is not easy to cross either the physical or psychological boundaries that allow these two peoples who share land and history to get past the deeply held suspicions of each other.
"All the time there are fewer opportunities because of the checkpoints and the travel restrictions," said Ivonne .

And even if they could cross the lines to meet the Palestinians, "the fear among Israelis is unbelievable," Nina added.

She told the story of the same Palestinian colleague who came to Nina's sister's funeral. When the colleague's mother died, her Israeli colleagues told her they would like to visit her, to console here, but they were afraid to come into Palestinian areas. Nina quoted her friend's reaction; "My mom died. I cannot deal with your fears about security."

Dalia noted that the fear is very real nevertheless.
"Why should they not be afraid to go?" she asked. "They've never been there."

So one of the critical questions for Israel and Palestine is how to overcome the fear on both sides that drives so much of the hostility.

For Nina and Ivonne, it is standing by the Palestinians as they deal with the daily indignities of the checkpoints.

For Dalia, it is finding ways to create places where Israelis and Palestinians can get to know one another.

To bring peace, Dalia says, both sides must be willing to make sacrifices. "How can you make a sacrifice if the good will toward the other is not there?" she asks.

A view over East Jerusalem

Mark Brown stood at the top of the hill behind Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem and looked beyond the grove of olive trees to the place where the Lutheran World Federation hopes to build 84 housing units for Palestinian Christian families.

Brown is the regional representative for Lutheran World Federation in Jerusalem. He has been involved in issues of the Middle East most of his adult life. Agusta Victoria Hospital is in a historic building that sits atop the Mount of Olives.
The Mount of Olives Housing Project illustrates the complexity of life in this fractured city.

"We are at a point where in a few years, there may not be a Palestinian Christian community in Jerusalem," Brown said.

He laid out the numbers. In 1946 in Jerusalem, there were 31,000 Christians, 35,000 Muslims and 98,000 Jews. Today, there are only 10,000 Christians compared to 220,000 Muslims and 450,000 Jews in the city.

One of the things that has diminished the Palestinian Christian population here is the difficulty of sustaining family ties. With the intricate and oppressive system that Israelis now have in place of security barriers and check points, travel between East Jerusalem and the West Bank, where Bethlehem sits only a few miles away, is extraordinarily difficult. So Brown says that one big political issue is that of family reunification.

The wall that separates East Jerusalem and the West Bank is very visible from this hill behind the hospital. Later, our driver, George, who grew up in East Jerusalem, took us down tho Jericho Street, where the wall cuts across what used to be the main street in that part of the city.

"You used to be able to go from this point in Jerusalem to Bethany in two minutes," George said. "Now it takes 40 minutes" to go around the wall and through a checkpoint.

The travel restrictions and their impact on family reunification is only one of the complexities facing the housing project. Another is getting the permission of the Israeli government to build it.

One piece of the puzzle is a law that allows Israel to take the equivalent of 40 percent of a property owner's land in exchange for housing. That means land on some other part of the hospital grounds will have to be given to Israel.

But there is a more subtle issue as well. There is a sense among the Arabs living in East Jerusalem that Israel is doing everything it can to push them out. The road restrictions that make travel difficult nudge families to move to the West Bank where they can be together. College students who go away may have their permits to be in Jerusalem torn up on their return. Bulldozers come in and level houses if the government is displeased with something.

The housing demolitions -- we saw one right across the street from the spot where Jesus is said to have begun the Palm Sunday procession into Jerusalem -- create a fear factor, Brown said.: "They create such anxiety that people want to leave."

And then there are the Israeli settlers moving into East Jerusalem, a traditionally Arab part of the city that belonged to Jordan before Israel claimed it in the 1967 war.

Brown said one element in the settlement efforts seems to be a desire by Israel to break up traditional Arab neighborhoods so that if there is ever a peace agreement that includes the status of Jerusalem, Israel will be able to keep the Palestinians from claiming that these are intact Arab neighborhoods.

The housing project is just the latest in a long commitment from the Lutheran church to serving the people of East Jerusalem.

Augusta Victoria Hospital was set up after the creation of Israel in 1948 to serve the population of Arab refugees displaced by the formation of that nation. Over the years, it has developed specialties like cancer treatment (it is the only major cancer center for residents of the West Bank and Gaza), diabetes, geriatrics and others. It treats Muslims as well as Christians.

As in so many areas, the disparities in health care for Jewish residents of Jerusalem and the Palestinians served by August Victoria are stark. Patients at the hospitals in West Jerusalem - the Jewish part of the city --- have an 80 percent chance of surviving cancer, Brown said. But at Augusta Victoria, 80 percent of the patients receive palliative care -- helping that have a less painful death -- because their cancers are too far advanced to successfully overcome.

Brown is struggling to create hope for the future for the Palestinians living in the shadow of the Israeli occupation. In health care, in the vision for new housing, in advocacy on human rights issues, in work with a coalition of church groups lobbying the U.S. government, he is a gentle but strong voice of hope in a place where hope often seems to be in short supply.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Petra, Masada -- two ancient symbols

They both trace their origins back the a time before the birth of Jesus, they both intersected with the power of Rome, they both are fascinating places blending history, archeology and spectacular sites.

Yet there are profound differences as well.

Petra is in Jordan, Masada is in Israel.

Petra was built by the Nabateans, masters of the trade routes across the Middle East, who had an intricate religious system reflected in their buildings. Masada had its origins among the Jewish leaders in the period just before the beginning of the Christian era.

Petra is down deep in a valley, defended by narrow canyons called siqs that provided absolute control over access to the city. Masada is high on a plateau, overlooking the Negev desert, a place that should have been able to repel an any attack -- until the Roman Army came with 8,000 troops in 74 AD, laid seige to the mountain and eventually battered their way in, only to find that virtually all of the 1,000 Jewish rebels who had taken refuge there after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD had killed themselves the night before the final assault, choosing death over defeat, surrender and slavery.

For Jordan, Petra is a place of national pride and tourist income. It is very had to get to -- a couple of hours ride of Aquaba, three hours from Amman. Once there, you hike down a long trail, through the Siq and then into the ancient city.

For Israel, Masada has become a symbol of defiance over anyone who would attack their nation. Every Israeli soldier as part of his or her training goes to Masada to take an oath that those who died their will not have died in vain, that Masada will never be conquered again. It is a major tourist attraction for isiral, just off the main highway about 45 minutes from Jerusalem, with cable cars that shuttle you up to the top of the plateau in three minutes.

For photos from Petra,
click here.
For photos from Masada, click here.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Spirituality in the midst of struggle

Step by step, we worked our way on Sunday towards St. George's Monastery in the Judean desert outside of Jericho.

Our steps did not actually begin until after a fairly challenging van ride up the mountain to where the walking path begins.

"Don't buckle belts," our driver said, using the few English words he knew. No need to. The belts were all broken. Not that we didn't feel a need to, what with dodging Bedouins on donkeys, tractor loaders and steep mountain cliffs that could give us a fast trip into the valley of the shadow of death.

But then the walk began. We had intended it to be a reflective walk along the winding, hilly path overlooking the valley whose image lives on in Psalm 23. We had not counted on the four Bedouins on donkeys who thought we might like to ride up the monastery with them. When it was clear we wanted to walk, they suggested maybe we could pay them to go away. Real life was intruding on our spiritual quest.

Keep in mind the four of us -- Bonnie, Nancy, Petra and me -- were all alone in the wilderness at this point. Our non-English speaking driver was far behind us. There were no other pilgrims on this path. But finally, we shook the "helpful" donkey riders. And then the sight of the valley was ours to behold in peace.

When we reached the monastery perched on the side of one mountain, we found the only monk still living there. When you learn in Christian history about the 'Desert Fathers," this is what it was like for them.

Now the chapels were adorned with ancient icons. One cave above the monastery is said to be the place the Prophet Elijah sought refuge and heard the small, still voice of God. There is a sense of solitude and austerity in this place.
It is a place where one comes to know God in the struggle with the harshness and the beauty of the elements.

I thought back to our visit a few days earlier in Hebron with Hani, the man who faces constant harassment from his neighbors, the Israeli settlers. Yet he is trying to carve out a path of creativity and non-violence for his children and the other children in his neighborhood. (See earlier post.)

For Hani, every day is a struggle. He is in an urban wilderness -- not in solitude, not exposed to the elements of nature, but his spirituality has grown here as well. He is rooted in Islam, not Christianity. He hopes that someday the children of his Jewish neighbors will find their own path to peace.

Spirituality can be shaped in so many different ways. A mountainous desert. An urban cauldron. Yet somewhere in the mix, there is the facing of life's struggles and finding God's presence in the midst of them.

Creating a new reality in Bethlehem

Take your stereotypes of Palestinian society, put them on hold, and visit the Dar Al-Kalima Health and Wellness Center and the Dar Al-Kalima School, both on a hill overlooking Bethlehem.

Bethlehem is in the West Bank, hemmed in by the Israeli security barrier, home to three camps of Palestinian refugees. It is a place that not only is famous for the church honoring the birth of Jesus, but also for sitting in the cauldron of Israeli-Palestinian tension. And while it may be most famous for its Christian sites, it is a majority Muslin city.

Yet here at Dar Al-Kalima, a group of Christians are creating a place that is breaking through many of the boundaries and stereotypes that are so common in the Middle East. (Dar Al-Kalima - the school, health and wellness center and a college, are all projects of Christmas Lutheran Church, the partner church of Memorial United Church of Christ in Fitchburg.)

Consider the pride with which Rami Khader, the manager of the health and wellness center, spoke of the girls' soccer team that is on the verge of competing in national championships. The program for women's sports, he said, "is a good way to advocate for equal rights for women and equal participation for women in sports."

The members of this year's soccer team - ages 16 to 23 -- will become the coaches of the next generation of women soccer players from Bethlehem.

The swimming pool at the health and wellness center has hours for men and hours for women -- something you might expect in a heavily Muslim culture. But it also has family time when men and women and children can all swim together.

"We try not to advocate separation," Rami told us.

The community nurse, Raida Jeries Mansour, talks about bring older women together for mutual support, first from the churches, then from the mosques. More barriers are broken. In the private Christian school, 57 percent of the students are Muslim this year.

Naila Kharroub, the director (what we would call a principal) said the goal is to have an equal number of boys and girls, an equal number of Muslims and Christians.
While the Muslim and Christian students have separate religion classes to learn about their own faiths, they share a common prayer time drawing on verses from both the Bible and the Koran, they learn about the commonalities of each other's faiths in joint classes once a month.

It is no secret that these children live in a place of intense conflict. So Kharroub has made peace studies a high value in the curriculum and in the overall tone of the school. (She was thrilled that we brought a peace banner from the children at Memorial UCC for the school, shown in the picture above).

"We believe peace at first comes from the inside of the person," she said.

The staff works on promoting peace between the children, who come from a wide range of backgrounds.
"You know in our part of the world, we do not have peace," Kharroub told us. "In our community, we have to raise our kids peacefully if they are going to have a good life."

Equality of the sexes. Respect for different religious traditions. A commitment to non-violent techniques to solve disputes. These are values that are helping to create a place within the world that bit by bit, may change the culture around Dar Al-Kalima. And along the way, they are making a huge impact on the lives of the people touched by these institutions.

Sunday, November 1, 2009