Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Israel/Palestine, the Church, Beauty, and Belief

This is the second installment in a blog series about a 2014 trip I took with my church to Israel/Palestine. The first is here: Israel/Palestine and Japanese/Jewish/ChristianAmerican Identity.

I was asked to stay off the radar about the trip, because my agency was implicated in upcoming General Assembly business regarding Israel/Palestine. When you’re national staff, you can’t have any opinions on or comment about business before the assembly. Additionally, since the church was going to discuss divesting from three companies doing business with military implications in Israel, the whole thing was a tinderbox.

I made arrangements with my spouse that I would send brief apolitical updates and photos by email, which my spouse would post on a private document for only invited friends and family to see.

It was smart to lay low. Any time anyone on our trip made a misstep and posted something about “Israel” without saying “Palestine,” we were reminded on social media to please say “Israel/Palestine” so as to not render Palestinians invisible. Any time anyone on the trip mentioned on social media the name of a Palestinian speaker, we were implored on social media to not just listen to “one side of the story.” The planning team for the trip had been accused of being too biased in one direction, so I assumed we were being watched by Christians from our own church at home, as well as by other interested parties. For those who doubt the public witness of the PC(USA), be assured that being the laser focus of those who demand U.S. military and churches support Israel and Palestinian human rights advocates made me believe all over again in 2014 that not only does the PC(USA) matter, people are watching us to see what we do. (Not on everything, though. We have reams of excellent social policy that no one cares about.)

I’m not an expert on the region (and trust me, there are legions of people in the church who are not Palestinian or Jewish who consider themselves expert on the region). But I know some things. I know a quarter of the foreign aid distributed by my government goes to the state of Israel. I know that Israel is in violation of international law with its settlement policies. I also know that many Jews (and others) believe Israel is rightfully the home of Jews, and therefore a comparison between the U.S. and Israel as colonialist states is unfair, and I know from my own family's experience and ongoing incidents particularly in Europe and the U.S. that Jewish people face very real violence and discrimination around the world. I know it can be exhausting to be considered “other” for generations, the easiest scapegoat, with traditions that are seen as either quaint and foreign, or heretical and a threat to society. I know, also, that Israel is a very international country, with people who came looking for home from all over the world, and a lot of transnational residents who spend some time in other home countries and some time in Israel throughout the year.

I also know Israel/Palestine is home to Christians. A lot of different kinds of Christians. Fewer Christians than before; I also know that since the Second Intifada  (“Intifada” means “shaking,” like “shaking off” the occupation of Israel from Palestine), increasing settlements and ongoing harassment of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, including making it very difficult for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza to find and keep work, the Christian population has dropped due to migration to other countries. This is because Christians tend to be more global. They have more connections with other Christians in countries like the U.S. where they can move, so Christians used to be a healthy percentage of Palestine and are down in the single digits. I can’t imagine being separated from one’s livelihood due to a wall and checkpoints and blockades. Maybe I would leave, too.

A side note: I knew, going into this trip, that while life is very hard for Palestinians, they are also a highly educated population (not across the board, but certain segments). So every time we would meet with someone in the West Bank, and they would casually say they were a dentist or a professor or something, I just laughed. People hold such terrible, bigoted, racist stereotypes about Arabs, and about Palestinians, but honestly, if we in our highly-educated-ness were occupied by another country, what would we do?

I know that Israel/Palestine is significant to the story of my own faith in that some of what happened in the Bible happened in that small mass of land. I am not really one for pilgrimage, because as a Christian, I believe my faith is alive everywhere. But I had been curious to see it for myself. Others who had visited areas where THE BIBLE ACTUALLY HAPPENED, like Syria or Jordan or Israel/Palestine or Turkey or Greece made it sound really interesting. Having visited Egypt with the church, I wanted to see more, to give context to what I read and study and preach.

The group of over 100 Presbyterians prepared for this trip. Small group leaders met with small groups by conference call for the months leading up to the trip, where we read through and discussed two downloadable studies (Understanding Palestine and Understanding Israel, from The Thoughtful Christian) to help us get some perspective on where we were going. We shared other resources with one another. And we prayed. One of my small group members was local to my area, so I had coffee with her before we left. She, like the other group members, was what I would call “bad-a**.” Well-read, interesting, with lots of experience and perspective to add. By the time we met face-to-face with the entire group for the orientation in the U.S. prior to departure, we already knew each other.

The trip was a mix of sight-seeing, conversation with Jewish Israelis and Christian and Muslim Palestinians, visits with local religious leaders, worship, prayer, and a lot of great food. I could have eaten there forever (as long is it was supplemented by the Korean instant food some of us stashed in our bags and ate together in our hotel rooms). I also stayed an extra day to hang out with friends from Atlanta who now live and work in Israel/Palestine. (You guys, they took me out for a traditional Palestinian brunch on a local farm, and then we visited the only microbrewery in the Middle East, with a Palestinian woman brewmaster who went to college in Boston. YOU GUYS. IT WAS AWESOME.)

Here is a photo of my Arya Stark action figure inside the microbrewery. (Arya Stark figures prominently in this trip, but I'll keep her photos to a minimum.)

The land is beautiful. Some of it is desert, like in and around Jericho. The terrain between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem looks a little like Northern California. Dry fields, irrigated fields, hills, a few colorful flowers. The Sea of Galilee was in a very green, lush area, right next to Syria. The guide casually pointed to a hill as we left and said, “That used to be Syria. After the war, the border moved a few miles that way.”

Here are is a photo from our hotel in Jerusalem. 

Even I, who pays attention to maps and such, had forgotten that Israel/Palestine isn’t large, and is right up against all these countries that, given better diplomatic relations, one could drive to. Staring right across the Jordan River at Jordan, seeing the Israeli Defense Forces sitting on one side, and the Jordanian military sitting on the other (laughing into his phone), both with automatic rifles slung over their shoulders, while a bunch of mostly white Christians from around the world got into the river and had spiritual experiences, was genuinely weird. (Also, the surrounding fields had unexploded mines in them. War is bad for living things.) For the record, I did not touch the river water, because I’m squeamish, and I know that really isn’t the same water in which Jesus was baptized, because, science. This is why I’m no fun.

Along the Jordan River. On the Jordanian side, you can see several churches.

Between Mt. Ararat, the Mount of Olives, Yad Vashem (the Holocaust museum of Israel), the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Via Dolorosa, the Western Wall, Jericho, Tantur Ecumenical Centre, Battir (a traditional Palestinian village now protected, more or less, from Israeli settlements due to its recent designation as a UNESCO cultural heritage site), Hebron and the Cave of the Patriarchs, the Baha’i Temple in Haifa, it was a lot to see.

At Yad Vashem. One of my great-uncles thought perhaps our family name came from Kovno originally, but we don't know for sure. It was, of course, wiped out in the Holocaust. 

The Church of the Nativity.

Battir has a very old aqueduct system that still provides water to the village. 

Below, within site of Battir, there is a road and a railroad that the IDF use.

We were visiting very crowded places. I realized how very middle class North American I am. I wanted some quiet time to contemplate what it meant to be physically in the same place that Jesus walked and prayed and ministered. Not a fat chance in hell. We came in peak season before the bombing exchange between Israeli Defense Forces and Hamas in Gaza, so it was like being part of a herd of cattle, hustled along to our destination.

The lines at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre were insane. I totally waited to crawl under a table with other devout people to touch the rock where he was nailed to the cross. Or something like that. One of the participants asked me if I believed this really was the place where it happened. I said it didn't matter. There is a difference between truth and fact, and the truth was that for thousands of years, Christians had been treating this place with immense devotion and reverence, so now this place holds that meaning across time and culture and nationality.

As for the “lines,” I had to laugh... You know the Honey Badger? Who doesn’t give a ****? Well, in that place, Honey Badger. Because who cares about lines and order and personal space? What a privileged American thing to worry about. What about the exasperating beauty of being with people who believe so deeply that they cut lines and shove in front of other people?

A photo of lines.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, we were herded around the garden and then through the church, which is also beautiful. A group from maybe China was gathered up at the altar and a priest was celebrating the mass, while thousands of us walked through. I kept getting caught up with a bunch of Italians.

Then it occurred to me: Jesus was constantly surrounded by international crowds, too. This area was a trade hub. And Jerusalem during Passover would swell from 25,000 to 200,000. So maybe I felt a little closer to Jesus after all.

The Garden of Gethsemane.

As for the food, this was some of the best food of my life. Tons of fresh vegetables and fruits, pickled and roasted vegetables, hummus (like, mind-blowingly creamy and good), pita, and meat for the meat-eaters (I didn't pay attention to that, but my meat-eating friends said the meat was amazing). I had a peach that was different from our peaches, and SO GOOD. Also, desserts. And the coffee, of which I would drink several cups at a time.

Food photos.

Eating fish at the Ein Gev Kibbutz on the Sea of Galilee

The cognac and chocolate we received while visiting the Orthodox Patriarchate.


Thanks for reading. More soon.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Israel/Palestine and Japanese/Jewish/Christian American Identity

This blog series has been almost a year in the making, precipitated by my visit to Israel/Palestine in May 2014 as a small group leader on the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program's Mosaic of Peace trip.

For years, I have been wrestling with the implications of my identity, my nationality, and my religion when it comes to the region.

My identity: My father’s family is white Jewish, originally from Eastern Europe, specifically Poland, Lithuania, and the Ukraine, perhaps even Russia. Some fled pogroms and other persecution, and maybe others just wanted a new life. Each family member has her or his own unique story. Under the U.S. definition of race and ethnicity, I am considered ethnically Ashkenazi Jewish of the American persuasion just as much as I am considered ethnically Japanese American. Both ethnic groups have very diverse ways of living out those identities, and while I’m not a unicorn, I might be a more extreme example of that diversity of ethnic identity. I’m aware that I’m not considered Jewish by people who make and enforce the rules (also known as the halakhah… and that would make for another blog post). Suffice it to say that my mother is not Jewish, I was not raised Jewish, and I did not convert, so I’m not considered technically Jewish, despite its shaping power in the U.S. context. Then enter general confusion of people who believe “Jewish” is a religious identity the way “Christian” is a religious identity. (FYI: it’s not equivalent.)

My nationality: I’m a U.S. citizen. My national identity in relation to Israel/Palestine is wrapped up in a number of challenging facts. The U.S., along with other western nations, refused to allow entry to Jewish refugees en masse during the rise of Hitler and the Nazi regime. The U.S., along with other western nations, took part in the United Nations of creating the state of Israel and its boundaries, which included partitioning of Palestine and displacement of Palestinians. The U.S. gives huge amounts of foreign aid to Israel, and has special diplomatic relations with Israel (such as disproportionately using its veto power on the UN Security Council in favor of Israel), for any number of reasons, including Israel’s geopolitical location. Much of this foreign aid goes to stuff I just don’t like, such as Israel’s military-industrial complex. To be fair, I don’t like that my money goes to the U.S. military-industrial complex. I’m equal opportunity when it comes to my beliefs around the war machine.

My religion: Christianity is a relatively new religion in my family. I’m a third-generation Presbyterian on my mother’s side, and my dad converted to Christianity. Without a lot of things happening, like migration, persecution, exposure, ideological shifts, and deeply personal experiences, the people in my family wouldn’t be Christian. The religions of my family (many of whom did not convert) include Judaism and Buddhism. I am aware that my being a Christian is a wonderful and powerful thing for me, but it also connects me to some very horrible religious histories of religious persecution, torture on religious grounds, Christian imperialism and colonization, forced migration, forced conversion, exploitation justified by religion, and a persistent theological legacy that sees Christianity as the improvement upon Judaism, or the replacement religion. My church, and most mainline/liberal churches do not believe in this theology (in fact, my church has entire papers and statements against it), but it is pervasive among American Christians, and I have heard my share of Christians say anti-Semitic and theologically offensive things about Judaism and Jewish people. Christianity has not always been the friend of Judaism, so I find myself a little embarrassed sometimes to explain that while my father’s family is Jewish, I am a Christian minister. I’m not ashamed of being a Christian, but it can be awkward in the context of relationships.

I didn’t want to go to Israel/Palestine, for years. I knew it would be uncomfortable. For a couple of years in seminary, I was part of an organization of people in the Chicago area, mostly Jewish, who advocated for the end of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Whatever my family meant to impart to me, I as a Jewish and Japanese person ended up with the sense that as historically marginalized people, it was more important to have a civil society that protected all minority rights, than a society that looked just like me, or worshiped like me. It is that “gaman” in me, the part of me that tells me to endure, and that part of me that knows it is my obligation to disagree with the power structures when necessary. Power structures are sometimes wrong, so it is my duty to speak up for the rights of others wherever I can.

I went to Israel/Palestine knowing I would not understand either Palestinians or Jewish Israelis, because I do not understand the deep longing for a homeland. Home is wherever I am, wherever my family is, because as a biracial person I expect I will not fit in anywhere. As an American from the west, whose ancestors were immigrants and not indigenous, I do not have roots deeper than the early 1900s. That is not to say I lack empathy; I can identify with longing. I just know I am incapable of fully understanding displacement from land held by generations. I am incapable of fully grasping what it means to be a refugee descended from refugees, like the camps of Palestinian families who have been living with refugee status since 1948. Having never been a religious minority, I am incapable of understanding what a relief it must be to be a Jew in a Jewish state, to go from a persecuted religious minority to being in a country shaped around that religion.

To know I couldn’t understand any of these things, and to know that as a U.S. citizen, I am responsible for the actions of my country, has been horribly frustrating.

I also know discussion of Israel/Palestine can be virtually impossible. I haven’t even really tried to have the discussion with most family and friends, because I have seen them end badly within my own church family. The arguments about how we as a church should speak on Israel/Palestine, or how we should relate, have caused enormous discord and conflict. It is important, but it rarely goes well. In its worst moments, it becomes a perfect storm of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism, bad Christian theology, classism, and white supremacy. But more on that another time.

For your enjoyment, here are some pretty pictures. Because even in horribly complicated and death-dealing situations, sometimes there is beauty.

Below, some of the grounds of the Baha'i Temple and Gardens in Haifa.

Food. Because I love food.

The Sea of Galilee.