Two months ago I was in the midst of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with thirty others from the Episcopal Church in Connecticut. It has taken me that long to articulate in writing my reactions and feelings about the political climate regarding Israel and Palestine. I have already posted numerous reflections on the sites we visited, both spiritually and historically. But I have skirted around writing about the reality of the Palestinian people that I experienced; it was just below the surface in all my postings about Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Samaria, and Galilee.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, Israel is called to be a light to the nations. As a people chosen by God (technically, Abraham received this promise for all his descendants/offspring) to show the way back to right relationship to God, today’s Israel has fallen short of this covenant. Power and rule have a tendency to let leaders forget their responsibilities, which ultimately leads to division and corruption. As in Old Testament times, history continues to repeat itself. Recall the role of the prophets who kept calling God’s people back.
This past Sunday’s readings (10th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 15) spoke to me (with help from a great sermon which I will link here when it is posted) from Isaiah 5:1-7 and Luke 12:49-56. Israel continues to this day to grow (be) the wild (sour) grapes, while God gave all of us a beautiful vineyard to live in to grow sweet grapes – if we would only cease our divisions and love God as well as love our neighbor. God is angry. Jesus weeps. Yesterday and today.
The U.S. and Israel have a complicated relationship, which was exacerbated this past week with the on-again, off-again visits of two U.S. congress women desiring to visit family in the West Bank. You can read about it here (from NPR) as well as many other news sources. These two women know what it is like for the Palestinians (Muslim and Christian) to live in the occupied territories. I don’t believe most Americans really understand what is really happening in Israel, or how the U.S. government is upsetting the precarious balance. You have to see it to really understand.
For those who are not familiar with the history of Israel in modern times, here is a short video that gives a good overview with a summary of modern-day events that continue to impact the region today:
I knew the political situation was complicated with Israeli control in disputed territories. I had heard about Palestinians throwing rocks at Israeli forces, walls being built, and settlements springing up. The settlements look like Co-op City if you’ve ever been to New York City – very permanent. And they are huge “suburbs”, located at the top of hills surrounding Palestinian villages below with access to highways that the villages do not have. It’s not hard to imagine their purpose – despite U.N. resolutions – to surround (and in the future be connected to one another?) small Palestinian towns. Meeting local people and experiencing the conditions in the West Bank, as well as traveling in and out of the State of Israel through check-points, changed me more than any of the biblical sites we visited. In sharing my pilgrimage stories with others, I came to realize that our ECCT pilgrimage was different from many other church-sponsored trips; we went beyond the holy sites and met the people: Jews, Christians, and Muslims – Arabs of the three Abrahamic faiths who call (and claim) Israel their home.
Security and Safety
It depends on who you might meet or talk to that makes you feel safe or secure in an occupied land. I should have realized things were not going to be “normal” on my Delta flight from JFK to Tel Aviv. We had to go through extra security at the gate before boarding the plane in New York: carry-on and backpacks through X-ray, water bottles (even just purchased) discarded, and personal scans (pat-downs for some in another room). As we approached Israeli airspace, we were told that all must remain seated for the duration of the flight (between 30-45 minutes). What other country demands this? Upon arrival, several fellow pilgrims were detained for three hours at Ben Gurion Airport. Welcome to Israel! (And they don’t make it easy for you to leave, either. That story’s even worse.) For many, being a “foreigner” in Israel means intimidation and humiliation. An August 17, 2019 op-ed from the Wall Street Journal describes this reality, which I also experienced when entering Israel from the United States as well as when we re-entered after visiting Petra (in Jordan) for a few days. And we didn’t have a deck of cards to idle away our hours of waiting.
Here’s what you don’t see or hear on the news. These occurrences aren’t in remote areas or terrorist neighborhoods. On one of our first mornings walking to the Old City we were held up on a sidewalk for a brief time, only to hear an explosion and learn that a “suspicious” package was blown up on the sidewalk ahead of us. Our Arab Palestinian Christian guide: “Not to worry. This happens all the time.”
Traveling by bus within Jerusalem and areas to and from the West Bank, Samaria, Galilee, and Jordan one can’t help but see the barbed wire, walls, fences, security check-points, and the proliferation of police/army (they looked the same) carrying automatic, assault rifles (the ones you see carried by those who commit mass-shootings in the U.S.). Our bus was boarded at check points several times by armed security with mirrors looking under the bus carriage while the luggage compartments were opened and examined. There is nothing as unsettling as watching a 20-something walk down the aisle of your bus to look at your passport while holding an AK-47. Armed Israelis escorting Jews (despite Israeli signage that Jews should not enter) around the Temple Mount (Al-Haram ash-Sharif) where the Dome of the Rock mosque is located. Israeli security is “in your face” at every turn.
Bethlehem is surrounded by 25-feet walls of concrete with armed guards in towers (reminiscent of high security prisons in the U.S). Pilgrims go to visit the place of Jesus’ birth. Do they visit the surrounding neighborhood? Pictures tell it all.
Identity, Water, and Human Rights
On three evenings, different speakers came to share their perspectives with us and answer our questions. A Muslim professor from Hebrew University. Two Muslim young adults who are graduates of “Jerusalem Peacebuilders” (see more about this organization below). An Israeli professor (who was from the U.S. and had lived in a town next to mine it turns out). Our guides were Christians, living in Jerusalem with special status to travel freely. (License plates are color coded to determine who can leave any of the occupied territories. All of them spoke of their identity. “I am an Arab Palestinian Muslim.“ “I am an Arab Palestinian Christian.” I am an Israeli.” The similarities: most were Arabs who cared for their homeland; all were articulate; ethnicity and nationality came first when describing themselves. Differences: Israelis are free and have choices. Palestinians cannot have passports (with some exceptions); if they leave (for an education) outside Israel they give up the right to return if they are gone more than six years; they pay taxes but have no right to vote; they have no citizenship and are “without a country”; they must go through different check-points to travel and (for example) can only get mail at a post-office (which is not close to where they live and often beyond the check-points). The exceptions and hardships go on and on.
But the one that stands out is water: you can tell where Palestinians live by the rooftops – they have water collectors to save what little rainwater there is; the Israeli government rations their water. Trash is everywhere – there is no waste collection, let alone recycling. Lands (and settlements) of Israelis are green in this desert land; Palestinian lands have difficulty growing crops. Remember that vineyard from the reading above in Isaiah? There is a reason why vineyards and grapes are important in the biblical stories. Wine was essential in this land in ancient times because the water was not safe to drink. In some ways, wine was life. Just as like today – water equals life. Without water, no matter where you are in the world, humans will not survive.
When visiting an Arab Palestinian Christian brewery, one of the owners (an American-educated woman) shared that sometimes she doesn’t take a shower for two weeks in order to save water for the business. How does one make beer or wine without water? Read more about Taybeh Brewery for their remarkable story and resilience.
The village of Taybeh (tie-bay), the only remaining Christian village in Israel, is 19 miles northeast of Jerusalem and 7.5 miles northeast of Ramallah. From its elevated site between biblical Samaria and Judea, it overlooks the desert wilderness, the Jordan Valley, Jericho and the Dead Sea. Living amidst Muslim villages, Israeli settlements, and military roadblocks, Taybeh’s inhabitants (numbering 1,300 in 2010) are intensely proud of their Christian heritage. While in the area we stopped for lunch where the Christian proprietor sold peace lamps.
As one who has travelled to the Holy Land, I believe it’s my responsibility to share my view, as I don’t believe we hear the real story, especially with the current administration’s lopsided stand toward Israel. I commend to you this article from Sojourners that speaks to the truth so many Holy Land pilgrims never experience. I am thankful that Qumri Pilgrimages allowed us to visit (by our request) more than just the holy sites.
With his permission, I share my husband John’s reflection that he wrote for the ECCT pilgrimage:
As we drive through the West Bank, viewing the litter and junked cars, I hear a constant buzz of conversation about things that could be done: a recycling program for all the single use plastic, sheet metal recovery, etc. Based on what I have seen, if I were a Palestinian I wouldn’t give any material effort to make things appear better. They are essentially prisoners in their own land. Israelis are taking over all the prime property in the occupied territories under the premise that God said that this was their place in the world. As I think about this I am reminded of lyrics from a song sung by Jackson Browne:
Walls and Doors
Ever since the world existed
There is one thing that is certain
There are those that build walls
And those who open doors.
That’s how it’s always been
And I know you know it
There can be freedom only
When nobody owns it.
I feel that the risk of other countries being perceived as anti-Semitic is being used very cleverly by the State of Israel. If we speak out against the injustices being done to Palestinians by Israel’s government, we would be against the Jewish faith and people. Can it be that the Holocaust suffering is being indirectly used as a political tool? I hope not…
Despite the despair felt in seeing the effects of the Israeli occupation, there were also glimpses of hope. The Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem supports numerous programs, hospitals, and schools for Jews, Muslims, and Christians throughout Israel in the occupied territories. We visited the Jerusalem Princess Basma Centre in the West Bank and saw the ministry at work, serving children with disabilities in Palestine and training their parents to continue their education and training at home. A charitable, non-governmental, non-profit institution entrusted under the Anglican Episcopal church, their work is guided by the fundamental values expressed in the UN Conventions on the Rights of the Child and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. While there we also visited a small handicrafts workshop known as “The Sheltered Workshop” that serves people suffering from physical, mental, and cognitive disabilities from Jerusalem and its surroundings
As mentioned above, one evening we met with two young adults who are alumni of Jerusalem Peacebuilders (JPB) Along with Executive Director and founder Nicholas Porter (an Episcopal priest from Vermont (formerly Connecticut), we heard about the work and mission of this organization. From their website description, “JPB is an interfaith, non-profit organization with a mission to create a better future for humanity across religions, cultures, and nationalities. Integral to that mission is the belief that the future of Jerusalem is the future of the world. To that end, JPB promotes transformational, person-to-person encounters among the peoples of Jerusalem, the United States, and the Holy Land.” In addition to programs offered in Jerusalem, there are active summer institutes in Connecticut, Vermont, and Texas.
Each of these organizations are living out the promise given to Abraham and his descendants and the mandate given by Jesus. They are in relationship with their neighbor – Jew, Muslim, Christian – and in relationship with God, each following their own faith tradition. It is possible to share one land and be a light to the world. It is possible to plant and harvest good grapes. But it takes a village to do so that welcomes all. No walls. No barbed wire. No check-points. Free flowing water and roads open to all.
Hope and peace will prevail in the Holy Land if we bring all faiths together to learn that we are all humans who worship the same God. We do have differences that run deep and are polarizing, but we have so much more in common. The future of our world may depend on it. A third intifada is just around the corner if all sides don’t begin to come to the table with an open mind. Hopefully, graduates of Jerusalem Peacebuilders will be among those called to new leadership in the governments of Israel as well as the Palestinian Authority and families who are raising special needs children recognized that all are God’s children.
Read more reflections from the Episcopal Church in Connecticut pilgrims in Part 1 and Part 2. Learn about the work of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem and American Friends of of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem.