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Mosaic of Peace

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April 28 - May 10, 2014

conference blog

MAY 9, 2014: Our Final Day 

And so things end as they began: I am writing the final blog for the Mosaic of Peace Conference in Israel/Palestine again from an airport. Yesterday was a wonderful and very full day, and we come home hearts that are very full indeed.

Yesterday began with a talk with “Abuna” (Father) Elias Chacour, Archbishop Emeritus of the Melkite Church in Israel and president of Mar Elias Educational Institutions. Father Chacour spoke candidly and prophetically, moving at least this listener from laughter to tears in the same sentence! He wove in and out of stories as he talked to us about his identity (and that of his people) and the work he has done and continues to do in pursuit of peace.

Father Chacour described himself as a Palestinian Arab Christian living in Israel – an incredibly complex identity. Of Arab ethnic descent, Father Chacour was displaced by the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 and lives now as a Palestinian in Israel. This means that while he has Israeli citizenship, he is subject to many of the 50+ laws that distinguish between citizens who are Jewish and citizens who are not (see blog from May 5).

Father Chacour joked with us about how many people, upon finding out that he is a Christian Arab, ask when he was converted, assuming that he was formerly a Muslim. In fact, he pointed out, the opposite is usually true – Christianity predates Islam in the Middle East, and many who are now Muslims converted from Christianity. Coming from Galilee and speaking to us in Nazareth, he told us, “Sure, my family was converted, but it happened about 2000 years ago, and the missionary was a man named Jesus of Nazareth!”

Father Chacour then shared with us some stories from his own ministry. He was ordained in 1965 in Nazareth and sent to the struggling parish of Ibillin, where he stayed for 38 years until Pope John Paul II encouraged his selection as Archbishop. Father Chacour told us that when he arrived in Ibillin, the first thing he did was visit every single family in the area and become their friends, starting with the Muslims and only then visiting the Christians. It was through these visits that he learned about the needs of the community that would dictate the substance of his ministry.

For example, he learned during visits that 75% of the population of Ibillin was under the age of 27, including a large majority of youth and children. In light of that, he organized a summer camp to help these children acquire basic literacy skills. Though he only planned to serve around 500 children the first year, over 1,000 showed up – none of whom he turned away – and by 1980, the final year that he offered the summer camp, he had over 5,000 children from more than 30 different villages.

Father Chacour told us such a large number made him both thrilled and worried: how would he feed so many children? He told us he ended up calling on the mothers from these villages to help make sandwiches in what he called a “multiplication of loaves and fishes kind of miracle.” He described what a joy it it was to watch these mothers “make the miracle he could not make,” all the while sipping coffee and joking together. It was, he said, what some might consider the perfect example of Christian community – though interestingly enough, the majority of the mothers who volunteered were Muslims. He told us, “this reminded me that we Christians don’t have a monopoly on doing good and that we don’t exercise control over the Holy Spirit.”

1980 was the year of the last camp because after that, Father Chacour focused his efforts on what he perceived to be a more pressing need: starting a high school. He and his colleagues struggled to obtain a building permit from the Israeli government because as a Palestinian, he was a self-described, “second-class Israeli citizen.” Father Chachour eventually decided the need was too pressing and began building without a permit; in the end, he was summoned to court 37 times over the issue of whether or not this school could be built.

In the meantime, the school was built and opened its doors: it served 82 students the first year and over 4,500 students by the year 2000. He shared a humorous story about how he obtained a building permit for one particular building, which involved a visit to the United States and a shared Bible study with Susan Baker, the wife of then-Secretary-of-State James Baker because, as he reminded us, “I remembered that the shortest way from Nazareth to Jerusalem was through Washington, D.C.!”

Chacour’s school was established and led by Christians. He told us that not in spite of but in fact because of that, they decided they needed to open their doors to their neighbors, the majority of whom are Muslim. Today 60% of the children served by the school are Muslim, and Father Chacour refers to them as “my children,” saying, “We did not want them to join us but to enjoy with us, to be our partners, not our guests.”

The Christian-Muslims interfaith context of the school was important, but Father Chacour said that he soon learned that it would not be enough for the future of peace in his country. Therefore, in 1999, the school opened its doors to its first group of Jewish students. Father Chacour spoke frankly about his initial anxiety about putting Palestinians and Jews in the same school, saying that many of the Palestinians had wounds in their hearts from the Israeli occupation and he worried they would take it out on the Jewish children. However, by the end of their first day together, these children were playing together and holding hands. In one day, he said, the children were able to forget their differences, something our adult corruption makes difficult for us to do.

Father Chacour told us that he tells these stories in part because of who we are. Whether we know it or not, he said, we as American Christians are people with a great deal of power to make change around us. Now that we know the reality, we are called to make that change. He asked two things of us: our friendship and our solidarity. He told us the second would be much harder because it necessitates calling into question all of our convictions and what we’ve heard about Jews, Muslims, Israelis, and Palestinians. He asked us not to become one-sided. He asked us not to believe the stereotypes we hear about Palestinians and Arabs as terrorists, but also not to break off our relationships with our Jewish friends, even our pro-settlement Jewish friends, because being on the “Israeli side” and on the “Palestinian side” do not have to be mutually exclusive. He closed by telling us that what Israelis and Palestinians need is not to be taught how to live together but to have their memories refreshed to better remember how they lived side by side for centuries.

We had a short question-and-answer session with Father Chacour, during which the one-state vs. two-state solution and the BDS movement both came up. In response to the first, Father Chacour laughed and asked if we’d forgotten we were talking to a priest and not a politician. He went on to say that he is not concerned with the final number of states but rather that the enmity between the two peoples comes to an end. That said, he did mention that he didn’t know how viable the two-state solution was any more with the reality of the settlers and the new settlements that continue to be built. In a particularly convicting statement, he said, “I don’t know what else the settlers will do, though, with all the money you [the United States] keep sending them!”

Regarding the BDS Movement, Father Chacour expressed some ambivalence. On one hand he lifted up the hard work and sincere strategy of those who started the movement and those who have supported it thus far, saying we shouldn’t deny the importance of what they have done. On the other hand, he proposed that perhaps a better way to work for justice and peace in Israel/Palestine would be to invest in creative projects in both Israel and Palestine that put Jews and Arabs in conversation with one another and pursue peace.

After our time in Nazareth with Father Chacour, we drove to Ibillin, where his nephew hosted us for lunch at Mar Elias Educational Institution. We worshipped together one last time in a powerful Commissioning and Sending Service in the chapel there. We broke bread together in communion and continued to do so during lunch. Afterwards, we listened to a short talk about the school and an explanation of the beautiful justice and peace mural painted on the wall of the building.

Our afternoon was filled with short visits as we made our way back towards the airport. We went through the city of Haifa, the third largest city in Israel/Palestine, where we stopped by the Stella Maris monastery and an overlook of the Haifa Bay where we could walk through the gardens of a beautiful Bahai Temple.

Finally, we spent some time on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea at Caesarea, where we could enjoy the beach and see the ruins of the Roman Aqueducts – even walk on top of them! We left the sea and shared one last meal together in Jaffa before loading the buses and heading to the airport for our return trip to the US.

And thus concludes a wonderful journey and a powerful conference! I know that we as participants will continue to reflect and process our experience in the days, weeks, and months to come, thinking about how we can faithfully respond to the calls of our speakers and partners to pray alongside them, tell their stories, and take meaningful action back at home toward the things that make for peace in Israel/Palestine.

We thank all of you for faithfully following our journey and again encourage you to reach out to conference participants and ask us to share what we have learned, whether personally or in a presentation to a congregation, presbytery, or other group. As Father Chacour and many other speakers reminded us, now that we know these stories, we have a responsibility to tell them and to be witnesses for justice and peace.

 

MAY 8, 2014: Exploring the land of Jesus' Ministry: Galilee 

Today was an exciting day of visits to various sites around Galilee. Our group split in half so the places we were visiting could better accommodate us and went in shifts to the same sites.

My group began the day with a visit to the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth proper. We’re becoming pretty familiar with how holy sites work at this point: The Church of the Annunciation was built over one of the places where it was believed that Mary might have been when the angel Gabriel appeared to her and announced that she would give birth to the Messiah. On the wall around the church, there are mosaics and other works of art depicting Mary and baby Jesus that have been donated by the Catholic Church in countries around the world. Inside, we waited in a short line to see a cave - which would have served as a house in Jesus’ time - and is thus, according to tradition, the place where Mary was living when the annunciation took place.

Next, our group went to visit the workshop and store of Sindyanna of Galilee in the nearby town of Kufr-Manda. Sindyanna is a fair trade co-op made up of Israeli and Arab women working in partnership for their economic livelihood. Our hosts proudly told us that Sindyanna is the only certified fair trade organization in south Israel and one of the few in the entire countries, as fair trade is not something many people in the country are very familiar with.

Sindyanna was started in 1993-1994 working with farmers to produce and market their olive oil in local markets. In 1996, they decided to go entirely organic. Slowly, the organization, has expanded into the international fair trade market and to other products, including soap, baskets, and other artisan wares. Sindyanna now has several projects in several areas; the one we visited focused specifically on basket weaving. This job is particularly appealing to the women who work in this program because much of the weaving can be done in their homes.

We learned that in the State of Israel, only about 20% of Arab women work, most of them in industries where they are easily exploited or replaced by imported labor. While tradition in Arab households usually keeps women from working, economic necessity has brought more women into the workplace simply because many families need two salaries to support themselves. We watched a video about Sindyanna in Galilee that included women talking honestly about both the positive and negative aspects of their entry into the workplace. On one hand, many women are still expected to complete their domestic duties at home, and several said they received little to no help from their husbands, even after they started working (hence the appeal of work like basket-weaving that can be done from their homes). On the other hand, many women talked about the significant benefit of having more income and of the sense of empowerment that their work with Sindyanna has given them.

What is perhaps the most unique and most inspiring thing about Sindyanna of Galilee is that, as I mentioned above, it brings Jewish Israeli and Palestinian/Arab Israeli women together to work side by side in a culture and political climate that would otherwise keep them separate. One Jewish Israeli woman and two Palestinian Arab Israeli women told us their stories of learning to look past the boundaries and stereotypes about the “other,” and they said that they now call one another friends. This effect is spreading as the women in Sindyanna tell their friends about their work and share their stories of cooperation and mutuality. In the words of one of the video speakers, “This is coexistence – when each side comes closer to the other and we work side by side.” In the words of one of our conference participants, “This is the most inspiring and hopeful thing I have experienced on our trip thus far.”

The women of Sindyanna closed by telling us about a current issue they are working on with one of their projects, the Roha Project in Wadi Ara. About 4 years ago, they planted an organic olive tree grove from which they now harvest olive oil. However, they recently learned that an electric company in the State of Israel is planning on running power lines through the olive grove that will destroy some parts of it and contaminate others. Our hosts told us that they were holding a peaceful protest of this on Friday, May 9, and they encouraged us, if we felt so called, to sign their petition to protect the orchard at their website: www.sindyanna.com. They also encouraged us to follow them on Facebook to find out more about their work.

Next, we traveled on to the Sea of Galilee and took a boat trip across to the other side, where we ate lunch at a kibbutz called Ein Gev near Golan Heights and the border with Syria. The view from the boat on the Sea of Galilee was absolutely beautiful, particularly because we could see from a distance the rainstorms that had been taking place off and on all morning. One rain shower even began while we were on the boat, and there was no shortage of jokes among our group about how this took us just a little closer to the experience of the disciples when they were crossing the Sea of Galilee and Jesus calmed the storm.

After lunch we drove around the Sea of Galilee to the Mount of Beatitudes, one location where Jesus is believed to have preached the Sermon on the Mount, and the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes. There we wandered through the garden, visited the small chapel built on the site, and enjoyed a wonderful overlook over the Sea of Galilee. Next we drove down the hill to the Church of St. Peter’s Primacy and took a few moments to pray in the small chapel built around the rock upon which tradition says that Jesus changed Simon’s name to Peter and called him the rock upon which he would build his church. When we left the chapel, we walked to the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and many of us chose to wade in. Finally, half of our group, instead of visiting the Church of the Annunciation, went to Capernaum and visited the archaeological dig there.

When we returned to the hotel, we gathered for the final time in small groups to pray and reflect on the trip as a whole. Our group focused particularly on three questions: What have we seen or experienced on this trip that continues to leave us discouraged or heavy-laden? What has brought us hope? What do we feel called to do with this experience and knowledge when we return home? In response to this final question, many of us mentioned the desire to share the stories we have heard - as our partners here have repeatedly asked us to do - and to engage in some sort of meaningful, practical action to raise awareness about the situation and support justice, peace, and human rights. Many in my group had already made plans to speak with their congregations and presbyteries upon returning home; others talked about making plans to do so.

As we head into our last day of the trip tomorrow, our hearts and minds are full with all we have learned and experienced during our time in the Holy Land. We are changed and enriched in a way that many of us never could have imagined. And so I encourage you at home who have been praying for us and faithfully following our journey – get in touch with one of us and ask us to give a presentation at your congregation, presbytery, school, or organization. Our Israeli and Palestinian brothers and sisters have told us their stories and charged us with the responsibility of carrying those stories back to the United States. We would love nothing more than to share more of those stories with you so that all of us together can live into this pursuit of justice and peace.

 

MAY 7, 2014: Jericho, the River Jordan and Nazareth 

 Today was an exciting day of travel and transition. We checked out early this morning from our hotel in Bethlehem and traveled to Jericho, where we visited a kindergarten run by the Palestinian YWCA. We met about 100 4-to-6-year old children who are served by that facility, along with some very patient and dedicated teachers. We played with the children for about an hour, and one class performed a dance routine for us.

Members of the YWCA prepared lunch for us that was served at a nearby restaurant. We listened to a short presentation about the history of the YWCA in Palestine and their past and current work. The Palestinian YWCA pre-dates the formation of the State of Israel in 1948, but in 1948, it shifted the majority of its work to serving refugee populations. The YWCA currently has three main branches – in Jericho, Jerusalem, and Ramallah – and their work focuses particularly on women and children living in refugee camps in those three cities. We learned that the kindergarten we had just visited was made up mostly of children living in a camp nearby. We also learned a little bit about a women’s advocacy project called “The Fabric of Our Lives,” in which refugee women sew traditional dresses from their home regions for small wooden dolls. They sell these dolls to raise money for their work and include the stories of the displacement of the women who created them to raise awareness about the situation for refugees. To find out more about this and other projects of the Palestinian YWCA, check out www.ywca-palestine.org.

After lunch in Jericho, we made a brief stop by the Mount of Temptation, the mountain in the wilderness where it is believed that Jesus was tempted by the devil. A few more of us had the opportunity to ride a camel there, which was of course highly entertaining for everyone!

Next, we drove to one of the sites on the Jordan River that is believed to be one of the possible sites of Jesus’ baptism. Walking from the parking lot down to the river, we could see several churches built in the area. A bit more disturbing, we also saw that nearly all of the land off the beaten trail was fenced off and labeled with signs that read, “Danger! Land mines!” We didn’t hear about where the land mines came from or what they were doing there. One of our guides told us that they aren’t usually in the fields directly surrounding those churches, but for me, at least, it was a disconcerting juxtapostion.

When we got down to the Jordan River, we joined a large crowd of pilgrims, many of whom were donning white garments and going to immerse themselves fully in the river. In one are, it even looked like some sort of group baptism might have been taking place. Our group went down to the river, and many of us waded in. We prayed, we laughed, we splashed, and we poured the water over each other’s heads as we remembered our own baptisms. We also gathered briefly in small groups by the river to pray and read the Gospel stories of Jesus’ baptism.

From the Jordan, we kept travelling toward Nazareth, our final destination, and we crossed from Palestinian territory into Israeli territory. In doing so, we had to pass through one of the checkpoints about which we’ve heard so much. One of our presenters yesterday told us that if Mary and Joseph were to make the trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem today, they would have to pass through over 300 checkpoints on the way! We passed through fairly easily – only a few of us had to show our passports, and our guides took care of explaining who we were and what we were doing. Still, it was an interesting experience to have two young men armed with military assault weapons walk down our bus aisle, look us up and down, and wish us well on the rest of our time in Israel/Palestine.

Just before dinner, we arrived and checked into our hotel in our final location for the trip – Nazareth. Former mission co-worker Doug Dicks explained to is that Nazareth is an Arab Israeli town – a place in which both Arabic and Hebrew are spoken and both Jewish and Arab people live as Israeli citizens, though still segregated by neighborhood.

We remain well as we head into these last few days of our trip and so appreciate the prayers and interest of all of you following us back home!

 

MAY 6, 2014: Occupied Reality and Refugees

Today was another incredibly rich and full day. We began by listening to a panel discussion on “Transforming Culture of Violence into Communities of Peace,” featuring Jessica Montell from the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem and Sam Bahour, an American-Palestinian businessman/entrepreneur in Ramallah.

Jessica Montell told us some of her personal story as an American. Jew who first visited Israel as a teenager. At the time, she experienced it as an idyllic paradise, but when she came back at the beginning of the first intifada, she encountered the reality of the occupation and realized there was much more going on than she initially perceived. She works now with B’tselem, an Israeli organization that works and advocates for human rights in the occupied territories. Montell told us that many Israelis find the term “occupation” offensive consider it a value judgment. Much of her work is to open her people’s eyes to see that this is not a value judgment but rather the framework that international law gives us to describe what is happening in Israel/Palestine. She said that many Israelis are able to ignore the reality of the occupation and quiet their consciences either by turning the other way into their comfortable lifestyles - much, she pointed out, like Americans do with clothing made in sweatshops - or by naming the occupation as temporary. Montell agreed that while occupation as a political term is temporary, the Israeli occupation of Palestine has been going on for almost 47 years! At what point, she asked, can we agree this has gone on too long?

Montell gave us her understanding of the structures in place that allow for the continued occupation, pointing to factors like the exploitation of natural resources, the 2 different systems of law in place (civilian law for Israelis, military law for Palestinians), the military court system in which Palestinians are tried, the subdivision and isolation of Palestinian territories, and even the creation of the Palestinian authority. On that last point, she said that while the Palestinian Authority taking care of civil duties in some ways helps Palestinians (otherwise it would be the Israeli military carrying out these duties), it does help mask the occupation even from Palestinians themselves. To counter this, Montell and B’tselem work to raise awareness about the occupation. She described an incredibly successful project in which Palestinian women in Hebron were given video cameras to film the atrocities of their daily realities. As pat of this project, a 16-year-old girl caught a settler attack on film. When the footage was shared, she said, suddenly the U.S. Secretary of State at the time Condoleeza Rice was on the phone with Israeli asking what was going on.

Sam Bahour opened his presentation with a discussion of the things that make for cultures of violence: violent ideologies (his examples: the KKK, Nazi Germany, and Zionism), suppliers of violence (companies and countries giving arms to Israel and the post-9/11 security industry), and leadership by fear. Next, he outlined what he understood to be communities of peace: families, communities of faith, and even local neighborhoods, places where we seek support and collaboration rather than violence.

So what can transform violence into peace? Bahour again pointed to three things: a focus on justice (peace without justice is empty and disfigured), moving beyond the academic to the practical, and a firm commitment to nonviolence on all sides. He said he has adopted BDS because it is a nonviolent tool through which Palestinians and the international community can exercise pressure on Israel. He closed by telling the story of a conversation he had with his daughter about her generation’s understanding of the occupation and the future of Israel/Palestine. He told us he was deeply impressed by his daughter as she gave him her perspective on the different periods in the Palestinian struggle, even as he was surprised by her take on the present. He said that his daughter told him it was “time for Palestinians to look Israel in the eyes and say, ‘Ok, you win, you get all the land – but you get us too!’” – essentially, a call for a democratic, one-state solution. In his opinion, Palestine is at a crossroads, and he believes that his people will soon move from advocating for a 2-state solution to advocating for their civil rights within a one-state solution.

Next, we heard briefly from Alex Awad, the Dean of Students at Bethlehem Bible College, about his experience as a Palestinian Christian and the difficulties he had returning to his home after leaving the country to study in the U.S. and to be able to stay in this country. He told us that his experience both in Israel/Palestine and the U.S. has shown him the need to articulates an alternative theology to Christian Zionism – of which he said there are plenty in the pages of the Bible. In his teaching, he focuses on the way that the concept of God’s people and the location of God’s presence universalizes from a particular people and place in the Old Testament to all people and places in the New Testament.

This afternoon, we made three different visits. First, we went to Dar Al Kalima College of Arts and Culture, a Christian college focused on teaching career skills and avenues of positive self-expression for Palestinian people. Courses of study at Dar Al Kalima include civic engagement, culture, tourism, and various visual and performance arts, including dance, theater, music, jewelry making, and others. They also have special programs for youth, children, and seniors (what they call the “golden age”).

We stopped next at the Dheisheh Refugee Camp for what I think I can safely say was a difficult but powerful experience for us all. We learned that 1/3 of the population of Bethlehem lives in one of three refugee camps, Dheisheh being the largest. Our guides explained to us that the camps were first built in 1948, when the State of Israel was formed and Palestinians were forced off their land. They are administered and run by the UN (see first blog) to be temporary residences, made up of tents, as one might normally picture a refugee camp. However, the camp that we walked through, which has existed for over half a century, included concrete buildings and infrastructure like a sewer system, though our guides were quick to point out that these systems are not very well set up and are prone to break.

As we wandered through the narrow streets of the camp, we learned that it is currently home to over 13,000 residents, 47% of whom are children or youth under the age of 18. When the camp was originally established, each family was given an area of only 9 square meters in which to live, and bathrooms were shared among 200 people. While conditions have improved slightly (families now get something between 15 and 20 square meters), the camp was still a destitute place. We learned that there is only 1 doctor in the entire camp, supplied by the UN, who has to do about 300 appointments a day. Unemployment is extremely high, privacy is nearly impossible, and resources are extremely scarce. Our guide told us that just today the residents had received a new shipment of water for the first time since early April. To be honest, my words can’t do justice to the experience of walking through the devastating poverty in which the 13,000 residents of this refugee camp live. My only hope is that the pictures that accompany this blog can begin to reveal a bit of the reality.

At the end, our guide shared with us that a Palestinian territory according to 1967 borders (the most common 2-state solution) would not help them without the right of return. They live in this camp because they are from land that now belongs to Israel and has been officially Israeli since 1948. Their plight began even before 1967, when what is internationally understood as “occupation” began.

After visiting the refugee camp, we stopped for a few minutes at the separation wall to see it, touch it, and read some of the graffiti and artwork there. A few of us met a woman who lives in a house right by the wall, who described the experience of her family when the wall was built. She said that the part around her house was constructed in the course of a day; when her daughters left for school in the morning, everything was, normal, but by the time the returned, their home was enclosed on three sides.

We ended our evening with the privilege of seeing the Al-Harah Theatre ensemble perform the play Shakespeare’s Sisters. The play focused on the oppression that Palestinian women suffer – sometimes at the hands of their own people - and yet also on the solidarity and hope that rises even in the midst of that suffering. After the play, the ensemble told us that the director, an Italian man, had done the majority of his direction for the play over Skype because the Israeli authorizes denied him entrance to the country. They worked over Skype for 6 weeks and met for a few days in person in Jordan before opening night. It was a beautifully articulated, moving show – a wonderful way to close an emotionally charged day!

 

MAY 5, 2014: Political, Economic and Environmental Realities: Bethlehem and Hebron 

On Monday we were informed and challenged by 4 different speakers, and I will say up front that there is no way for this blog to capture everything they shared with us. Fortunately, most if not all of our speakers provided us with websites where we can find more information, and I will do my best to share those websites with all of you as well.

First, Dr. Jad Isaac the director of the Applied Research Center of Jerusalem, gave a presentation on the economic, environmental, and political realities in Israel/Palestine and how they affect the reality on the ground. He took us through the geopolitics of the region and general and the history of the peace talks – especially the recent peace talks with John Kerry – and why they have not yet succeeded. He showed us maps of increasing Israeli settlement action and shrinking Palestinian territory, reminding us that many of the settlers are actually Americans who have migrated to Israel.

Isaac spoke particularly about the issues of Palestinian access to water and how the Israeli control of water keeps Palestinians in a constant state of dependence. He gave the example of the sea around Gaza. According to signed agreements, Palestinians should have access to 20 nautical miles off the cost of Gaza for fishing, but in reality, they have access to less than 3 nautical miles. He said they have to import fish from Egypt because fishing is no longer viable in Gaza. He also told us that Israel controls 85% of Palestinian water, something that has not yet been addressed in any peace negotiations. Israel sells that water back to Palestinians, but at an incredibly high price, and he told us that the price looks only to increase in the future.

Isaac told us that his mission and that of his organization is very simple: They want a sustainable Palestine.

Next, Mazin Qumsiyeh, a professor at Bethlehem University, gave a presentation on nonviolent popular resistance among Palestinians. He shared some more of the history of Israel/Palestine and the Zionist movement. Between 1947 and 1949, he said, 530 Palestinian villages and towns were “ethnically cleansed,” creating the largest refugee population since World War II. He showed us photos from this period of ethnic cleansing, some with Palestinians being pushed into the sea, others with people being marched out of the village in marches he compared to the “Trail of Tears” of Native Americans that we are more familiar with in the U.S. In fact, he told us that he and his father were inspired to create the much-used series of maps of shrinking Palestinian territory from 1900 to the present after he saw a similar map of shrinking Native American Territory in the U.S.

Qumsiyeh pointed to over 50 discriminatory laws that apply only to non-Jews living inside Green-Line Israel (he said there were many more in the West Bank). One example he gave us was that right after the 1967 occupation, a military order was issued prohibiting Palestinians from owning milking cows. He then told us the somewhat humorous story of how he and his colleagues participated in non-violent civil disobedience – what he calls popular resistance – by acquiring several milking cows and keeping them hidden.

Qumsiyeh told several stories and shared some pictures about nonviolent popular resistance. He mentioned big moments of popular resistance, like the 1929 Palestinian Women Delegation in Protest of British occupation, the Balfour Declaration, and the Zionist project in Palestine, but also discussed how Palestinians simply living in the land – eating, drinking, going to school, and having a good time – is a form of resistance. He closed by lifting up the international solidarity movement of foreign nationals accompanying and acting in solidarity with occupied Palestine, in Palestine and at home. More from Qumsiyeh and information about his books can be found at http://qumsiyeh.org.

We then heard from Omar Barghouti, the founder of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) Movement in Israel/Palestine. He started the presentation by telling us that we would hear things from him that would move us outside of our comfort zone. He talked to us about the rationale behind the BDS movement and where it is today. He described BDS as a nonviolent, global movement – a form of resistance other than armed struggle in which Palestinians and the international community can participate. He told us that BDS focuses on 3 main issues: (1) Ending the Israeli occupation (which began in 1967), (2) ending the system of racial discrimination in Israel/Palestine (which began in 1948), and (3) recognizing the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

He spent some time discussing what is involved in of each of these actions – boycott, sanctions, and divestment – and naming the companies on their list and major parties that are boycotting or divesting from them. Barghouti said that the BDS Movement takes no official position on one or two states: its main focus really is on the three rights mentioned above. He also told us, as US citizens that we needed to concern ourselves not so much with which solution is right, as it’s not ours to decide, but to focus on human rights and let the rest work itself out.

We took an afternoon trip to the city of Hebron, a place where Israeli settlers and Palestinians are living side by side. On our way there we saw more of the separation wall, checkpoints, settlements, and bypass roads around Bethlehem to allow settlers in Hebron to access Jerusalem without going through Palestinian territory. We saw roads in the Palestinian areas with big red signs telling Israelis that it is illegal for them to travel those roads because it is dangerous.

While in Hebron, we visited the Ibrahimi Mosque, home of the Cave of the Patriarchs, where tradition says that Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Leah are buried. This is a tense and disputed area as both Muslims and Jews have a special connection to this holy site. As we approached the mosque, workers were preparing for the Independence Day celebration in a nearby park. Israeli flags were everywhere, even hanging from the outside of the mosque.

Our day ended with a presentation by Yehunda Shaul, one of the founding members of the organizing Breaking the Silence. Breaking the Silence is an organization of Israeli veterans who have served in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) and seek now, through sharing their testimonies, to raise awareness about life as an Israeli soldier working in the West Bank. His stories highlight the daily realities of what goes on in the occupied territories. You can find out more about their work at http://www.breakingthesilence.org.il/.

Shaul shared his own personal story of growing up an Israeli orthodox Jew, identified with the political right wing of Israel, and with family living in the settlements. He served in the IDF from 2001-2004 and spent much of that time in Hebron. He told us that during that time, while he was serving as a soldier or even when he advanced to be a commander he didn’t ask questions, but when he left the IDF re-entered civilian society he began to really struggle with a lot of what he did during his service. He talked with his comrades and realized they felt the same, but they also realized that people back in Israel knew little to nothing about these realities. They embarked on a mission to “bring Hebron to Tel Aviv” through photo exhibits, documentaries, lectures, and testimonies of their experiences as soldiers. While he said he hoped for peace, Shaul told us that much of his goal in telling his story is to communicate that the Israeli military should be doing the work of defense, not the work of oppression and occupation.

During the question and answer session, a member of our group asked Shaula question that we’ve asked all of our Jewish speakers so far: “Are you a Zionist, and what does that mean to you?” Shaul told us he is a Zionist because Zionism, for him, is the belief that Jews have a right to self-determination. He told us the occupation is anti-Zionist because Israel was founded on the principles of equal rights and democratic governance. The very existence of the occupation, he said, undermined these values.  

It was definitely a thought provoking and challenging day. Of course we’re left with many questions about the implications of all this knowledge – how it relates to our current social witness and mission as a church, and what it means for our continued actions, witness, and ministry.

 

MAY 4, 2014: The worshiping community under occupation

This morning was our first Sunday in the Holy Land. Several members started the morning listening to a presentation by Nathan Stock, husband of PC(USA) mission co-worker Kate Tabur, who works here with the Cater Center. He gave a brief overview of the history of the conflict in Israel/Palestine from a US perspective, particularly focusing on the role the US has played in the peace process and what options seem viable for the future. Many members of our group mentioned that this was a helpful way of framing the conversation and seeing what role we as individuals can play in the public sphere when we return home.

We worshiped this morning at the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas. It was a wonderful experience for our group to worship side by side with Palestinian Christians. The service was conducted in Arabic, the local language, but the staff printed bulletins for us in English so that we were able to participate. Singing the same hymn or praying the same prayer of confession together in two different languages was an incredibly meaningful experience that moved many of us to tears. Particularly powerful was partaking together in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper – letting the physical sign and seal of our communion in Christ bind us together across the barriers of language and nationality.

The sermon was based on John 10:11-16, Jesus’ description of himself as the Good Shepherd, and while it was preached in Arabic, we received a short English summary afterwards. The preacher talked about how the word for shepherd in this context could also be used to describe a political leader. He explained how such a reading of Jesus’ words about the Good Shepherd versus the hired hand who abandons the sheep makes John 10 a controversial political critique that sets Jesus firmly on the path to the cross.

He also talked about a connotation of the word “shepherd” that was more familiar to many of us – the shepherd as the pastor of a church. He talked about the difficult decisions facing pastors in conflict zones, like Syria and Gaza, as to whether or not to abandon their flocks. Addressing us as U.S. Christians, he said, “We are here because we don’t want the Holy Land to become like a Christian theme park, a place where pilgrims come to visit, but there is no real Christian community. I assure you, we at Evangelical Christmas Lutheran Church are here to stay.”

After lunch, our group split into three groups to tour different sites. Some of us went to the Palestinian city of Battir, some to tour the Herodian, where Herod’s Palace was believed to have stood and others, self included, to Mar Saba, an active Orthodox Christian monastery hidden in the western hills of Palestine. The rule of the community only allowed for men to enter the monastery itself, so the women in the group (self included) went on a separate tour around the hills, where we could see the caves where the desert fathers of ancient Christianity used to live in solitude.

The two groups that went to Mar Saba and the Herodian also had the opportunity to visit Shepherds Field, the area where tradition says that the angels appeared to the shepherds on Christmas night when the angel appeared to them. At the suggestion of former mission co-worker Doug Dicks, our group gathered in the small chapel built on the site and sang a few Christmas hymns together. Some combination of our voices, the chapel acoustics, and the significance of the location gave me goose-bumps as we gently sang choruses of Silent Night and Angels We Have Heard On High.

Our evening ended with a panel discussion on the Kairos Palestine Document. Our panel consisted of Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, who we met yesterday and Rev. Dr. Yohanna Katanacho, Academic Dean of Bethlehem Bible College. The document, which I mentioned in my first blog post, is an ecumenical call from Palestinian Christians first to their own people and then to Christians worldwide to work in solidarity and not to stand silently by in the face of suffering and oppression.

Both panelists introduced their work with the Kairos Document by telling a bit of their personal stories as Palestinian Christians. Rev. Katanachodescribed his struggles growing up with a theology that said God loved the Jews, but had nothing to say Palestinian Christians like himself. He struggled to understand how God could be a just God, particularly with Jesus’ call to love one’s enemies in the Sermon on the Mount. He had to learn to understand love as an action rather than an emotion in order to love the people who were oppressing him on a daily basis. Over time, he told us that he learned, “Love is not an excuse to abandon justice, it is an opportunity to pursue justice.”

This has been a guiding principle every since. He said that in many ways, the story of Palestinian Christians under Israeli occupation reminds him of the story of Hagar in Genesis 16 & 21. As he tells it, Abraham and Sarah were the holy family that were supposed to bless the whole world, but they couldn’t even bless Hagar, who lived in their own house. And yet, when Hagar runs away, she is the first person in the whole Bible to whom the angel of the Lord appears. Hagar becomes a messenger of the God who sees and who heals, Rev. Katanacho told us, and he seeks to become the same.

Rev. Dr. Raheb told us how he grew up in Palestine and then moved to Germany to get his Ph.D. in theology. He came home to Palestine with an attitude that he had to unlearn; while he had been taught in Germany that there was “real” theology and “contextual” theology, back in Palestine, he re-learned that all theology is contextually conditioned. In his work with the Kairos Document, he sought to help articulate just such a contextual theology for Palestinian Christians.

The structure in which they presented mirrored the structure of the Kairos Document itself: beginning with the story on the ground and moving into the theological implications. Theology for Palestinian Christians, they said, must address the reality of people who live under occupation and go through checkpoints every day. Rev. Raheb compared the Palestinian Christian context to that of the Prophet Jeremiah, who refused to join the chorus of his people crying, “‘Peace, peace’ when there is no peace.” (Sound familiar? Even before Patrick Henry’s famous speech calling for the American Revolution, those words came from Jeremiah 6:14 and 8:11!). Kairos Palestine names occupation as a sin from which both Israelis and Palestinians must be liberated. The document is then divided into three sections according to the three cardinal virtues from I Corinthians 13: faith, hope, and love.

In the section on faith, Rev. Raheb told us that the document addresses the need to repent of and rethink Christian theology of the last 50 years in relation to Israel/Palestine. He said that, while the international community - including the U.S. - provides what he called the “hardware” of the occupations (weapons and settlement materials), the Church has provided what he called the “software” of the occupation: A Christian pop-theology that fails to distinguish between Biblical Israel and contemporary Israel and therefore paints all Palestinians as enemies to God’s chosen people.

The second section of Kairos addresses hope and seeks to speak hope to a situation that seems hopeless. It points, Rev. Raheb told us, to the distinction between optimism – what we see in reality – and hope – what we do to change that reality. To those Palestinians who see one political figure or another as the key to peace in the Holy Land, Rev. Raheb says, “As a Christian, our messiah was born 2000 years ago – why wait for another? He said what needed to be said and did what needed to be done – the ball is in our court now!” “The situation here is hopeless,” he said, “which means we have work to do!”

The final section of Kairos Palestine discusses love and how it relates to resistance. Rev. Raheb told us that Kairos calls for creative resistance, which is even more than nonviolent resistance. He said that truly loving our enemies means keeping them from harming themselves and others, giving the example of how truly “loving” a friend driving drunk is stopping that friend, not letting him or her keep up the dangerous behavior. It is in this section, he said, that Kairos brings up the Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment Movement (BDS) as one form of creative resistance. He said that this is the part of the document over which the authors have been most strongly criticized.

Our group then had some time for questions and answers with the two panelists. As the PC(USA) General Assembly will again face the question of whether or not to divest from 3 companies that MRTI (Mission Responsibility Through Investment) has reported are operating in non-peaceful ways in the West Bank – Caterpillar, Motorolla, and Hewlett-Packard, many of our questions understandably had to do with this question of BDS. This was not the first time BDS has been addressed by our speakers this trip: one American Jewish speaker and one Israeli Jewish speaker both spoke briefly about it in their presentations.

The American Jewish speaker argued against BDS because she said that the right of return involved in the official BDS movement would make a majority Jewish Israel impossible. Rabbi Naamah Kelman at Hebrew Union College spoke against the BDS movement because she saw it as an extreme voice, and her argument was not to listen to extremists on either side. She did mention, however, that there are plenty of Jews living in Israel who themselves abstain from purchasing products made by settlers in the West Bank as a matter of conscience.

When our Kairos Palestine panelists were asked to speak more about BDS, they spoke of it as one form of creative resistance. Rev. Katanacho emphasized that the point of BDS is not revenge but rather bringing justice. He also pointed out that BDS is not the entirety of Kairos theology, as some have argued, but is rather one tool it invokes, one means of creative resistance to achieve justice. He posed the question to us, “You’ve visited our land and seen our situation – what would you do?”

Rev. Raheb, who has attended many Presbyterian General Assemblies, brought up the point that our current divestment question is ultimately less about what Palestinian Christians stand for and more about PC(USA) values and what we as American Presbyterians stand for. He said that, according to our own policy, the PC(USA) works not to invest in anything that harms people, giving the examples of our categorical divestment from alcohol, tobacco products, and military contractors. He told us we must ask ourselves: Does the occupation harm people? (His answer: of course!) If so, we should not be invested in it.

He also brought up the idea of positive creative investment, something the 220th General Assembly called for and which the president of the Presbyterian Foundation addressed yesterday. Rev. Raheb spoke in favor of this positive investment, but said positive investment and divestment should not be seen as an either/or question but as two sides of the same coin – both/and.

Finally, Rev. Raheb reminded us of something that he said at the very beginning of the presentation: Kairos Palestine is addressed first and foremost not to the PC(USA) and the international community, but to the Palestinian Christians themselves. He said that much of the intention of BDS in Kairos Palestine is to ask Palestinian Christians to think before they buy when they go to the local store. A recent study, he said, found that only 15% of the goods Palestinians themselves consume are Palestinian-made, the other 85% being imported, mostly from Israel. He said that if that if they could increase that 15% to 25%, it would create 300,000 new job opportunities in Palestine, where Israeli occupation has brought high unemployment levels and an incredibly slow economy.

However, in the same breath, he reminded us Kairos calls for Christians worldwide to live and act in solidarity with Palestinian Christians. I think I speak for many in the group when I say we found ourselves wrestling with the question – what does this then mean for us and our faithful discipleship?

We know our social witness policy thus far: to promote a just peace in the Middle East, to act in solidarity with Palestinian Christian mission partners, to work to end the Israeli occupation, and to advocate for the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians to live in peace and security. Where do the ideas of Kairos Palestine, BDS, positive investment, and other acts of creative resistance fit into this picture?

 

May 3, 2014: Palestinian Perspectives – Jerusalem and Bethlehem

While no day has been a monolith, it does seem like distinct themes that have emerged from each day. Thursday we heard from Jews in Jerusalem, Friday from Christians, and today, Saturday, we heard the voices of Palestinians.

I say Palestinians, not Muslims, because many of the Palestinian voices we heard from today were Christians. Come to think of it, some of the voices were Jewish as well – but all of it pointed toward the reality of what it looks like for ordinary people to live in Palestine under Israeli occupation.

Our morning began with a tour of the Silwan Valley in East Jerusalem, a Palestinian neighborhood where a few Israeli settlements have been built and where archaeologists are digging, hoping to uncover the remains of King David’s fortress on Mount Zion. The area has been repurposed by the state of Israel as something of a National Park, called the “City of David.”

Our tour guides, two Israeli Jews, showed us some large stone structures underground and explained a bit of the archaeological history: archaeologists have been hard at work in the area since the 1830s and have found many layers of civilization, including layers from the thirteenth century BCE and the eighth century BCE. However, they haven’t been able to find what they’re looking for: a layer of civilization dating to the 10th century BCE when, according to Biblical chronology, David and Solomon ruled over Jerusalem.

In a somewhat humorous way, our guides explained to us that while these archaeologists are committed to their scientific discipline, they are also committed to their funders – in this case, conservative Israeli organizations who have a stake in finding evidence that King David was present in this city, as the Bible says. After all, they explained, a literal interpretation of Biblical history is at the heart of the Zionist Movement and the idea that a Jewish homeland must be established in Zion itself - and not Argentina, Ethiopia, or any of the other places initially suggested when Theodore Herzl established the term.

Meanwhile, these archaeologists are digging in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan, one of the poorest and densest neighborhoods in Jerusalem. Since the Six Day War in 1967, the State of Israel has occupied this Palestinian territory. Palestinians residents are not allowed to build any new homes or buildings, even much-needed new schools to accommodate the overflow of thousands of children. Our guides explained how through a complicated process involving exploitation of absentee property law and somewhat underhanded financial transactions between the State of Israel and the Jewish National Fund, some of the land has been bought right out from under these Palestinians in order to construct “settlements,” where Jews from any nation are invited to move and “settle” in the homeland. The Palestinians currently inhabiting this land are often forcibly evicted and their homes destroyed. As our guides put it, the people of Silwan often say that their land has been occupied twice: once in 1967 when the State of Israel came in, and once in 1991, when the authorities of the “City of David” historical site officially took over the area.

After touring the area, we went to a local community center and heard stories about life under occupation from Palestinian Muslim leaders in the community. They began by reminding us that King David is an important religious figure and a prophet in Islam – their issue, he said, is not with the attempt to uncover the City of David itself but in the way his people are being treated in their own neighborhood. They shared heartbreaking stories of neighbors being forcibly evicted from their homes in the name of archaeological excavation and of violence they’d experienced at the hands of settlers. Their Palestinian Cultural Center was demolished by Israeli forces in 2012 with the explanation from those demolishing it that it was “garbage.” One of our groups heard stories of children as young as twelve put in prison because they were throwing stones. Another group heard a father tell the story of how he was shot twice defending his children from settlers who were beating his children.

The fact of the matter, the community leaders told us, is that the kids are throwing stones, but this is in large part because of the culture of violence in which they’re being raised and the fact that so many of the are denied the opportunity to go to school. The Madaa Silwan Community Center (www.madaasilwan.og, or look for Madaasilwan on Facebook) works to redirect that energy into creative outlets like music, art, and theater, using them as therapy for children and youth. The Center also has a social worker on duty and makes a point to follow up on all child arrests, advocating for the children’s rights in the midst of arrest, interrogation, and imprisonment. It is also home to the only library in East Jerusalem where these children can borrow books. This tour was a deeply emotional one for many in our group, moving several of us to tears.

We stopped for lunch at Tantur Ecumenical Institute, an ecumenical Christian center founded during Vatican II. From the rooftop plaza of the building, we could see Israeli settlements, the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, and, for the first time, the dividing wall with checkpoints between Israel and Palestine. Our mission co-workers explained to us that the wall does not exactly follow the “Green Line” – the name for the line between Israeli and Palestinian territory – and where we were standing, there is almost a kilometer of official Palestinian territory that is inaccessible from the West Bank (including Bethlehem) without passing through a checkpoint in the wall. Looking over from that rooftop plaza, we could easily see part of the problem; the wall separates the city of Bethlehem from olive orchards that belong to the residents of the city. We learned that they can only come and work in their orchards, their source of income, if they have the right permit, which is difficult to obtain, and if someone at the checkpoint is willing to let them through.

After lunch we checked in at our hotel in Bethlehem and visited the Church of the Nativity, the cathedral built over the site where Jesus is believed to have been born. After that tour, we walked to the International Center of Bethlehem, home of the Diyar Consortium, a cultural center in Bethlehem that focuses particularly on providing programs and avenues of cultural expression for children, youth, women, and the elderly. Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church and president of the IBC, welcomed us warmly and told us that this center focused on culture because, in his words, Israel/Palestine has too much politics, too much religion (though, he commented, not enough faith), but not enough culture, which he called the soul of society. He thanked us for the PC(USA)’s involvement with and support of the center for over 20 years. Tom Taylor, President of the Presbyterian Foundation, also addressed us at the IBC and talked about how it was one of the three organizations in which the Foundation was planning to begin the 220th General Assembly’s mandate for positive investment in Palestine.

We received greetings from Tony Marcos, the General Director of the Municipality of Bethlehem, on behalf of the mayor and told us a little about the demographics, history, and current situation of the city. A particularly interesting fact: while Bethlehem is 60% Muslim and 40% Christian – therefore a majority Muslim city – it always has a Christian mayor and deputy mayor by decree of past Muslim presidents in order to maintain the Christian character of the historically Christian city. He told us about the struggles of the economy in the city, especially since the wall went up, as Bethlehem’s largest industry is tourism, which has been restricted. He said it is no secret that the biggest obstacle to peace in Israel/Palestine is the Israeli occupation, and he asked us to urge our government, as the largest investor in the peace talks to do all it can to end that occupation.

We ate dinner at the ICB. Many of us went out on the balcony after dinner to overlook the city and had the fascinating interreligious experience of hearing the Muslim call to prayer from the mosque next door and the church bells from Christmas Lutheran Church at the same time.

After dinner, we had the incredible privilege of seeing the Diyar Consortium Dance Theatre preform “Out of Place.” The performance was a deeply moving mixed media production that included dance, acting, poetry, music, and the creative use of a handheld camera to tell the story of those suffering under occupation. It told the same story that we heard in our tour of Silwan Valley, but through different creative media. In many ways, it seems, our day ended in much the same way as it began.

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May 2, 2014: The Christian Presence in Jerusalem

priestYesterday, we spent most of our time listening to Jewish voices; today, we met with and listened to Christians. First we visited the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, the highest Roman Catholic priest in the area. He expressed great gratitude for our presence there because it shows him that the Christian community in the Holy Land is not abandoned. He mentioned a statistic that one of our speakers had mentioned before – how the Christian presence in Israel/Palestine had decreased from around 30% to closer to 3% (I’ve heard some even say 1%).

He spoke of the multiple dimensions in which the Church in Israel/Palestine exists – the interreligious dimension of constant interaction with Jews and Muslims, the world dimension of being in a location that receives pilgrims from all over the world, and the ecumenical dimension of trying to work together in Christian unity even in the face of different historical and denominational traditions. Already part of a small religious minority in Jerusalem, he said that Christians cannot afford to be more divided among ourselves.

As an example of the interreligious context, he described the Catholic Church’s education ministry. The Church operates over 118 schools that serve over 75,000 students in Israel/Palestine; some schools are religious and some secular. What came as a surprise to me was that the majority of the students in the secular Catholic-run schools are Muslims – and the patriarch saw this not as a problem or conversion potential, but as an opportunity for peace-building and dialogue. In his words, “When students play football together, study together, and eat together, that is the best kind of dialogue we can have!”

His request of us as U.S. Presbyterians was to continue to empower Christians in the Holy Land and to never stop praying and educating ourselves about the political, social, and economic situation of the occupation and the plight of his people. He asked us to go home and tell the stories we’ve heard – the good ones and the bad ones – because the greatest gift we can offer is advocacy.

Our second visit was with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, who gave us a rich description of the history of the Church – the Greek Church in particular – in the Holy Land. Much of what he said overlapped with the Latin Patriarch; he, too, mentioned the Christian-Muslim relations being built among children in Church-sponsored schools and the importance of the Church working together with ecumenical unity. One of the points about which he was the most convicted was the importance of his patriarchate in keeping an established Christian presence in the Holy Land. He named the same statistics about the decline in Christianity in Israel/Palestine and the possibility of a Christian presence being eliminated altogether. This is a serious concern to the Greek Patriarch because, he says, Christians need access to our holy sites and a continued witness in the land of our roots.

The Greek Patriarch emphasized the religious dimension of the conflict in Israel/Palestine and said that anyone who fails to see the religious and instead reduces the issues to purely political ones will fail to find a solution. However, he did not see this religious, or more appropriately interreligious, dimension as problematic for the future of Israel/Palestine. He spoke proudly of former Patriarch of Jerusalem St. Sophronius and the covenant he established with Muslim Caliph Umar I, a covenant that he told us is renewed with each new Patriarch that fills his seat. The Patriarch told us he doesn’t like to talk about tolerance in Jerusalem because tolerance falls short of the call to love one’s neighbor. He would prefer to talk about inclusiveness, or even better, perhaps, “embraciveness,” openly welcoming people of all faiths in the love of Christ.

churchAfter lunch we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a church built at the location where, according to tradition, Christ was crucified, buried, and resurrected. The experience of wandering through this enormous and densely crowded holy site is difficult to put into words. In many ways, members of our group found it meaningful to see and touch these objects that tradition has deemed holy – the place where Jesus’ cross was placed, the stone upon which he was embalmed, the tomb from which he rose, etc.

However, many of us also expressed feelings ranging from confusion to discomfort with such devoted veneration of stones, places, and relics. Many also struggled with the nearly suffocating crowd of other pilgrims with us, even as we were moved both by their sheer number and by the devotion many of them showed to these holy relics. I personally came away from the Church grateful for the experience but acutely aware of the Reformed Protestant lens through which I interpret my own religious tradition and experience.

We then walked down part of the Via Dolorosa (Christ’s path to Calvary) to go to the Western Wall, or the Wailing Wall. This is a Jewish holy site at the center of the city - the one remaining wall of the Temple after it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. Jews and people of other faiths still come to the wall today to make prayers and supplications. Because the area is arranged according to Orthodox Jewish tradition, the men and women on our trip had to pray in separate areas, where we touched the wall, lay down slips of paper with our prayers, prayed silently, and observed the sincere and heartfelt religious expression of those around us.

We came back to the hotel for dinner and turned in preparation for a big day tomorrow (Saturday), when we will leave Jerusalem and travel to Bethlehem, the next stop on our trip. We ask prayers for traveling mercies and thank you all for following us as we seek to understand the mosaic we are encountering here in the Holy Land.

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May 1, 2014: Hearing Jewish Voices from Jerusalem

If yesterday was a slow day of settling in, today was action packed! We had a full day in Jerusalem visiting holy sites and getting an in-depth look at the situation of the Jewish people in the Holy Land.

Our day began with a visit to the Mount of Olives, where we could overlook the city, take group pictures, and even ride a camel, if we felt so inclined! Next, we descended to the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed before his arrest, a holy and meaningful experience for many. Our final visit was to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Israel, where we walked solemnly through memories of the abuse, human rights violations, and genocide against the Jews of Europe during the 1930s and 40s through discrimination, ghettos, concentration camps, and systematic torture and murder.

group and templeAppropriately in the wake of that visit, our speakers today represented for the most part the Jewish Israeli perspective. First, we heard from Rabbi Donniel Hartman who, like other Jews we’ve heard from so far, supports the two-state solution and identifies as a Zionist. In his words, “As a Zionist, I believe that the Jewish people have the right to sovereignty and land. And, as a Zionist, I couldn’t not believe in the same thing for the Palestinian people.”

Donniel explored 3 different traditions of peace in the Jewish tradition. The first he called utopian or messianic peace – the peaceable world described in Isaiah 11, where the wolf lies down with the lamb, or Isaiah 2, where swords are beaten into plowshares. He said this peace serves as a vision – something toward which we can aspire and for which we can pray – but is far from the daily reality of Israel/Palestinian and can ultimately be a vision of peace that erodes our hope or encourages us to wait in complicity with the status quo.

The second type of peace is the peace of domination, which he took from the first few verses of Deuteronomy, or the conquest narratives from Joshua. He said this kind of peace that goes with the rhetoric of “chosenness” and claims “God loves me/my people more.” It is not true peace but is rather the idolatry to which all 3 Abrahamic monotheistic faiths are most tempted; it limits who God is and who God can/can’t love and replaces God with one’s own religious community as the object of worship.

Finally, Donniel described a third kind of peace, the peace of justice – his vision for the ultimate resolution in the Holy Land. He traced this type of peace to Deuteronomy 2:26-29, where Moses leads the Hebrews through the territory of King Sihon and promises to cross through the land, not straying to the right or left and not taking anything that isn’t his. Donniel pointed also to a passage in the Jewish Mishnah that says if two people come across a garment in the road and it cannot be decided who found it first, it should be divided between them. For Rabbi Donniel, this type of peace embodies justice, yet he pointed out that in Jewish Scripture and tradition, this type of peace that only exists outside of the Promised Land. He told us it is his wish to teach his people to engage in this sort of peace within the Promised Land and to remember that God’s love is bigger than one people alone.

The second Jewish speaker we heard from today was Rabbi Naamah Kelman of Hebrew Union College, a Reformed Jewish rabbi and the first woman rabbi ordained in the State of Israel. Rabbi Donniel and Rabbi Naamah both shared a belief in and hope for the two-state solution, and they both shared the statistic with us that 80% of the Israeli people are in favor of the two-state solution. As Rabbi Naamah told us her hopes for the Holy land and for Judaism in general, she shared her shame and sadness over much of what is understood and Judaism and Zionism. She identifies as both a Jew and a Zionist but said, particularly of the ultra-orthodox movement in Israel, “That is not my Judaism and not my Zionism!”

museumShe told us the one thing she hoped we would take away from our time together is that religious extremists on all sides of the conflict don’t speak for her or for the majority of the people living in Israel/Palestine. She spoke of injustices like the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the wall, the diversion of water from Palestine, etc., as grave injustices against human rights. She talked about how much of their focus recently and their plan for the years to come at Hebrew Union College has to do with interfaith dialogue and cooperation. When a member of our group asked her what we as U.S. Christians could do to constructively engage with Israel/Palestine in the midst of the conflict, she asked us to support a two-state solution, to support initiatives for peace and reconciliation, to identify with the pain of both peoples, and to be a witness to both peoples, holding up a mirror in which both sides could see themselves in their behavior. What it might look like to be such a witness, such a mirror, was a topic of conversation among members of our group later.

Our final speaker today was Albert Agazarian, an Armenian Christian living in Jerusalem. He talked to us about the city of Jerusalem as itself a mosaic of different faiths and nationalities. He described the pain of the occupation for his people and for those living as refugees, calling the occupation an attempt to “despoil the mosaic that is Jerusalem.” He mentioned the archaeology of the city and expressed a belief that each layer of that archaeology, each group of people who had lived in Jerusalem over time, belonged to the city. The problem comes, he said, when people try to choose one layer over another. He warned us, in words eerily similar to our other speakers today, that the most dangerous sentence in the world is: “We alone are God’s chosen people.”

We closed the evening in small groups, reflecting on what from today gave us hope and what we found discouraging. Among my group of 10 people, a common thread of hope that emerged was the statistic that 80% of Jewish Israelis support a two-state solution – many of us heard a more hopeful and more palatable understanding of Israel and of Zionism than what we often hear in the U.S. However, a common point of discouragement was that so few people – in the Holy Land and outside of it – seem to be acting on that belief or seem to have hope that the situation will improve anytime soon.

Another concern that emerged was our inability to really reflect on the situation because we haven’t heard that many Palestinian voices so far. As we hear rabbis talk of the two-state solution along 1967 borders, the solution supported by our PC(USA) social witness policy, many of us found ourselves wondering: Is this solution – where the land becomes 78% Israeli and 22% Palestinian - acceptable and just in the eyes of Palestinians? I remember that our speaker in the U.S. supported it as a necessary concession, but what about Palestinians here?

Fortunately, the trip has only begun, and we will have the opportunity to hear many more voices – both Palestinian and Israeli, before it ends. Our Friday schedule includes meetings with at least 3 Palestinian Christian leaders in Jerusalem. We look forward to continuing the conversation and hearing their witness as to how we can be faithful interfaith brothers and sisters, accompanying them in their struggles.

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April 30, 2014: Arrival in Jerusalem

I’m happy to report that today our group arrived safely in Jerusalem! It’s been quite a day of transitions; in fact, with the time change and overnight flights, I’m not quite sure when to say that “today” began. I think for most of us, it was somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, in the middle of one of many in-flight movies. I’ve been surveying the group, and it looks like participants watched everything from Dallas Buyers Club to The Delivery Man to Frozen.

We arrived in Tel Aviv in several shifts today and spent the afternoon settling into our hotels in Jerusalem. Doug Dicks, a former PC(USA) mission co-worker in the region, met us at the airport and helped us to our tour buses that took us from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

It was a beautiful day for us to get our first sight of a city considered holy by three faiths. On Thursday and Friday, we’ll visit holy sites and meet with religious leaders, but for today, we got to drive through the outskirts of the city, see the city walls, and explore a little on our own in the area immediately surrounding our hotel. We shared a delicious dinner tonight at the hotel before going our separate ways for an individual time of devotion and some much-needed rest!

A couple of us, myself included, are staying in a hotel a short walk away from the main hotel. As we walked home tonight, we heard what sounded like a celebration of some sort and decided to go investigate. We turned the corner to find that the commotion was coming from a group of teenagers singing, dancing, and playing drums in the streets. I couldn’t tell if they were singing in Hebrew or Arabic, but suffice it to say we couldn’t understand them. I was at the same time intrigued and a bit nervous; like many of you, probably, I have heard stories of extremists from all sides of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict rallying in Jerusalem. Not being able to understand the words, I wondered if what we perceived as a joyous celebration might not be considered hate speech by others.

I decided to ask a friendly-looking man sitting near us in the street what they were singing about. He told me that what they were doing was part of the Easter celebration. Our language barrier (read: my lack of ability to speak Hebrew or Arabic) kept me from ascertaining more, but I shared what I’d learned with the others, and we reflected on how different this sort of Easter celebration sounded from what we’d recently heard in our own churches!

I continued to ponder this experience as we walked back to the hotel. What I had feared and almost assumed to be words of hate turned out to be words of praise to God – the exact opposite, one might argue! And yet, just yesterday, our group heard stories from the Jewish American and Palestinian Christian women who spoke to us in which praise-words and hate-words can and did overlap. So I leave us today with this question: Living as we do in a religiously pluralistic society, in what contexts (not just in the Holy Land but also at home) do our words of praise tread harmfully on our neighbors of other faith traditions? In what contexts do our words of praise join together with those of other traditions to create something beautiful, a mosaic, if you will? How can we, personally, make the difference?

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April 29, 2014: Setting the Stage

Greetings from the Mosaic of Peace Conference! I am Ginna Bairby, and I’ll be blogging throughout this trip so that those of you who can’t be with us in body can follow along and be with us in prayer and spirit.

I’m writing from the Newark airport as we wait to board our flight to Tel Aviv, Israel. Our whole group of 107 gathered for the first time Monday night to begin our orientation with a time of prayer and fellowship. Orientation continued Tuesday morning, with presentations from Presbyterian Mission Agency staff and two invited guests.

First, Amgad Beblawi, the World Mission Regional Coordinator for the Middle East,  gave us an overview of Presbyterian mission involvement in the Middle East, which began in 1823. Early mission efforts established schools and hospitals, including the first university for women in the Middle East, and along with standard evangelism. It was a Presbyterian missionary, Cornelius Van Dyke, who produced what is today the most widely used Arabic translation of the Bible. Amgad recounted how these missionaries expressed widespread opposition when the 1948 partition plan of Israel/Palestine was introduced, as they were concerned about how it would affect the current population of Palestine – Jewish, Christian, and Muslim.

Since those first missionaries to the Middle East, the Presbyterian Church has changed its mission model to one of partnership with Christian communities in host countries. Amgad stressed how important listening to our partner churches in the region has been for our involvement in the Middle East. As an example of what our partners are saying, he introduced us to the Kairos Palestine document (2009): a call from Palestinian Christians to Christians worldwide to stand with them, in their words, “for justice and against injustice, occupation, and apartheid.” In general, Amgad told us that the opinions of our partners in the region express deep grief for the suffering that both Arabs and Jews have experienced and a desire for self-determination on both sides.

Next, Mark Koenig, Director of the Presbyterian Ministry at the UN, and Chris Iosso, Coordinator of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, briefed us on current PC(USA) General Assembly policy regarding Israel/Palestine and reviewed the process through which that policy is created and the principles upon which it is founded. In short, the PC(USA) calls for a peaceful, two-state solution according to 1967 borders, including a freeze on settlements and an end to the occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza. Our church supports equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians to live in peace within these secure and recognized boundaries.

Finally, we heard from both a Jewish American and a Palestinian American Christian. Both of these women shared stories of their personal experiences in the Holy Land and how those experiences have shaped their perspectives on the conflict.

On some issues, their perspectives were similar. Both women spoke in favor of a two-state solution and against the Israeli occupation of Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. Our Jewish speaker talked about how a two-state solution allows for a Jewish homeland, something very important to her, but also allows for peace and self-determination for Palestinians. Our Palestinian speaker spoke of the two-state solution as a difficult compromise, in which Palestine must concede 78% of land that was theirs before 1948, but one that Palestinian leaders came to see as necessary for the sake of peace and agreed to in the 1993 Oslo Accords.

Regarding the occupied territories, the Jewish American woman named the need for American Jews to be thoughtfully critical of Israel’s actions even as many of them continue to espouse Zionism – by her definition, the position that the Jewish people have the right to a homeland of their own. The Palestinian American also spoke against the Israeli occupation, with particular concern for how it violates international law, UN resolutions, and international agreements like the Geneva Convention and the Oslo Accords.

Obviously there were many points upon which these two speakers disagreed, but most interesting were their differing positions on the right of return for Palestinian refugees. During Mark Koenig’s presentation about Presbyterian policy and his work with the UN, he observed that the principles that guide the work of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, maintain that returning home is the first option for refugees all over the world. While our Palestinian speaker named the right of return for Palestinian refugees as a necessary and inalienable right in any solution to the conflict, our Jewish American spoke against a universal right of return because such a population shift would mean that Israel would no longer be a majority Jewish state. From her perspective, this would undermine the two-state solution. In response, our Palestinian American speaker raised the question of why it was permissible for a Jewish person who had lived his/her whole life in the US to settle in Israel/Palestine but not for those who had been forced from their land years ago to return.

The questions both women raised were difficult ones and ones our group will continue to wrestle with as we travel to Israel/Palestine and engage with our brothers and sisters there. For now, we ask you to wrestle with these questions alongside us as we all seek to respond to the call for peace and wholeness in a land called ‘holy.’

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