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.

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