Today we headed into the town of Bethlehem to interact with students from Bethlehem University. The school overlooks the town with a panoramic view of the Jewish Settlements that are standing proudly on the hills around their walled in city. My hope was to ask the students about how the presence of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict affects their vision of a future there. I found the students more than willing to speak with me although they were studying for their final examinations.
One group of nursing students welcomed me into their circle. One of these men who was from Hebron when I asked him about what his plans were for the future asked me what I thought of life in Hebron. I had to say the conflict there was very apparent and I would choose to get away from it if I could. His plan was exactly that to get out of the country if he could find a job in another place. He spoke of possibly working in the U.S. or in Europe somewhere. He also spoke of how that is the reason for getting an education is to open up the possibility of escaping the occupation.
Another student we spoke with named Majdi was a social work major. He grew up and still lived in the Diacha refugee camp that we had visited early in our trip. He has a brother in the camp, and a sister and brother living abroad in Canada. His hope is to go and live with his sister and brother in Canada and get citizenship there. He had traveled all over the region with a traditional Palestinian dancing group with the purpose of raising awareness of issues effecting life in Palestine. He thought it ironic that he could travel the world, but not be able to freely move around Israel and Palestine. Majdi shared stories of life in his refugee camp and how soldiers use excessive force when conflicts break out. He spoke of two people he knew who had been killed by Israeli soldiers for what seemed to be no apparent reason. Majdi’s home sits on the corner of the camp and often people throw stones from that corner. For this reason his home is often the center of conflicts that break out in the camp.
It is sad to hear how many of these student do not have a vision for a life in their current community but instead see hope in another world. These students are some of the brightest these communities have and their being pulled away due to the constraint of life here. This drains the community of their best resource of hope the young idealist who can imagine a different world and have the energy and training to cultivate it.
— Jason Wagner
Today we went to the Hebrew University to see if we could have conversation with students and young adults. It was a really familiar environment in many ways. It felt like a normal college campus, with lots of students bustling around or studying. I had several conversations with various students. I learned that there are around 20,000 students, about 70% Jewish, 25% Muslim, and less than 5% Christian.
One of the first conversations I had was with a Palestinian advocacy group. They were really gracious and shared about their experiences as Arab-Israelis. They gave me a T-shirt and spent a good amount of time with me. It was really humbling to receive that small gift, and they wouldn’t let me pay for it. They were basically wanting remembrance and acknowledgement of their history, both reminding other Palestinians of their history and demonstrating that there are many students at the University for whom this is still unsettled and painful. They shared how Arab-Israelis are regularly discriminated against and victims of racism, even in this university setting.
I chatted with a Jewish landscaper for awhile, and he introduced me to the website “7for70.org,” the “official Beni Noah site.” This is an outline of 7 laws for all humanity, they believe all Christians, Muslims, and Jews should adhere to, and perhaps even all humanity, as they are the pre-Abrahamic laws. The first of these laws is the establishment of (religious) courts, wherein all the following 6 laws (mostly pertaining to morality) are upheld and judged in instances of violation.
We engaged with an older French-Jewish man on the street, and he shared very energetically for about 15 minutes. He made reference to an impending World War 3, between Muslims and Christians. He said that all over the world there are places where these faith groups are starting to really segregate and clash, perhaps most violently in Africa with N. Africa becoming Islamic, and S. Africa becoming Christian. In some ways I suppose there is a grain of truth, but calling it World War 3 seems a bit dramatic!
Another interaction happened at a bus-stop on the way home, where we engaged a young Jewish student from Hebrew University. She was probably a somewhat typical Israeli Jew in some ways, but was obviously gifted. She was an officer in the Air Force for 3 ½ years gathering intelligence. She was studying Psychology and in an honors program. She had been on two “JCC” delegations to the US, which if I remember right stands for the Jewish Community Connection. She was really upholding the Israeli-Zionist narrative, but was very willing to talk, even if she was somewhat defensive with regard to the Palestinian struggles.
I also got to visit the campus Synagogue, library, botanical gardens, and the World Center of Jewish Studies. It was a good day of observing and learning. Tomorrow I will spend some time at the Bethlehem University, which is a Palestinian university.
Today was a long day for me that consisted of two church services (one at a Greek Orthodoox Church outside of Bethlehem, and one at a protestant church called Christ Church in the Old City), I observed the city of Jerusalem at night from a rooftop over conversation with a young Muslim girl, and I witnessed the chaos of Jerusalem Day. In the 2–3 weeks we have been here, we have seen how quickly news happens. Since landing, the Pope cannonized two Palestinian female saints, and courts decided that Israelie Jews can march through the Muslim quarter of the Old City on Jerusalem Day. Jerusalem day is celebrated as the reunification of Jerusalem and the reestablishment of Israeli control over the Old City. It is somewhat of an Independence day. Since there is ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine, I knew that as Israiles march through the Muslim quarter, there will be outbreaks of conflict. As a curious young male who grew up going to demonstrations in DC, I wanted to see what Jerusalem Day looked like in person
I heard a lot of chanting coming from that Damascus Gate and wondered what was going on. There were lots of barricades around the roads, and the roads were in the process of being closed. While down there, I saw people around the entrance and at the top of the steps above the gate shouting and chanting and demonstrating. There were Arabs, and there were Israelis. The plan is for a parade of people to come across town, and to travel down the road and into Damascus Gate, and then to the Western Wall (which is close to center of the Old City). The parade will last five or six hours since thousands of people will be marching. After seeing some minor disputes break out, I found some members of EAPPI who were observing. I made conversation and asked to observe them for a little while with them. They were warm to the idea of me observing. They informed me they were about to go up to a park to join an Israeli demonstration against the march. I decided to join them. It is interesting to me that Israelis are gathering to protest other Israelis who are marching on Jerusalem Day. The group of people I met with were Peaceful people, and mostly middle left on the spectrum of politics. When I asked about the safety of being with this counter protest of Israelies who were demonstrating against the march through the Old City, the response was, “These people do not carry weapons, and they will not fight with other people because they long for peace that includes everyone. Peace includes even the people that do not agree with each other.” They were here is a group of Israelis who are protesting the march. I learned that you cannot place Israelies in a box. Not every Israeli believes it is appropriate to march through that part of the city because it will only provoke disputes and fights, and it will infuriate those who have experiences personal loss. One man I spoke with who is a Jewish Israeli citizen explained to me, “not all Israeli citizens agree with the politics of the country, just like not all Americans agree with the politics of their country.” For example, this man was anti house demolition, anti wall, and pro Palestinian work rights, however he was a Jewish zionist. The labels of the people here have been redefined and almost mean nothing to me anymore.
I saw many many soldiers and Israeli police patroling. I decided to start some conversation with two young Israeli female soldiers. On the corner of the Old City looking across the street of the counter demonstration watching their chants and hearing their drums, and there were Israelis were in circles singing and dancing together in front of the counter protest I was marching with earlier. I asked the soldiers if they knew why there is a counter protests. They said they had no idea. They said they were confused why they did not want Israel to celebrate and march because those people are Israelis too. They said that the protest was a group of mad people because they do not like the state of Israel. I asked what their signs say (they were written in Hebrew), and they said, “Their signs say that they do not think we should celebrate.” I asked, “Why?” They said, “I don’t know (giggle). They think we [Israelis] are bad to Palestinians. They do not like Israel. I don’t know why because they are Israelies too.” This was not my understanding of the counter protest after talking to several people in the group. I believed it to be Israelis who wanted to encourage their country to be more respectable, regardless of who has power. I got the sense that the counter protesters saw a vision for Israel and Palestinians to live peacefully, instead of one over the other. They had respect for the other, unlike the thousands who marched. The soldiers are 21 and 20 years old. I asked about the process of being in the army. One girl corrected me that she is not a soldier, she is a fighter. She said that she decided to be in the army for three years instead of two. She said, “After this I am going to start my life and get a job, and travel.” I asked, “You are going to start your life after your done being a fighter?” She said, “yes.” I asked, “You are not living now?” She said, “No.”
If I have not said it before, I will say it again now: Things here are very complicated. The best thing I can do as a Christian visitor to Israel/Palestine is to pray for relationships to grow between the people who live here, for reconciliation to happen, and for the wisdom of the peace of Christ to reach everybody. I hope you will join me in these much needed prayers.
Well, as I told the group at Evening Prayers this evening, I think we have just had an amazingly “Palestinian” day, one not quite the way we had planned it, but incredibly typical of the lives of people here . . . .
My own day started with some challenges with the (perhaps trusty, but somewhat unfamiliar) Zanussi wash machine in my apartment, an Italian brand with inscrutable settings, whose name and mysterious characteristics I recognize and remember from my time living in Cairo many years ago. Poor Issa, the manager of the house, who was also doing receptionist duty this morning, ended up coming down to my apartment not once but several times to try to assist me in the operation of this inscrutable little machine. Long story short, I finally got my clothes washed and (more or less) rinsed, but never spun. So I ended up taking them out of the washer, wringing them out by hand, and hanging them up to dry on my drying rack in the wonderful fresh, dry air of Jerusalem/Bethlehem. (I love this desert climate here. It is so incredibly refreshing, surely mornings and evenings, even if it gets hot during the day.)
But the major event of the day was our trek down into Bethlehem this afternoon to have lunch with Majdi, my/our shopkeeper friend near the Paradise Hotel. He had invited us to come to his place for lunch some day. And today turned out to be the day. So we set out at 1:15 from Tantur and hiked down the back path, through the back gate, and down the back lane to Hebron Road and the Israeli “terminal” (read “checkpoint”) into Bethlehem. And from there we hiked on down the street to Majdi’s shop, where we were going to meet him before going to his home for a 2:00 PM lunch . . . .
But not so fast! “Palestinian” days don’t always go exactly as planned or intended. When we got there, we discovered that we would have to wait for 45 minutes, while his son arrived home from wherever he was and finished cooking the lunch. (Majdi’s wife is, sadly, in Hebron receiving medical treatment at the moment.) So we cooled our heels for a while, some of the group going to do a money transaction while several of us took it easy at Majdi’s shop. And then after a while a large crowd of young adults (students from Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma) came into the shop to do some real shopping (a major boon for Majdi, who has few such days). So there was quite a bit of energy in the shop for the next while.
And we sat around or stood around and waited, while the 2:00 PM lunch time came and went . . . . Finally, when it seemed that the young adults were getting ready to leave, I heard Majdi offer that they could take some items they were considering and try them on at their hotel (next door) before they decided. And he wondered if they could do it in five minutes! My heart sank at the thought of another (surely 25 minute!) delay. So when Majdi left the shop momentarily, I said to them that they might have to come back later, since we were still waiting to go to lunch at his house (at 3:10 or so!). This was no major problem for them, since they were right next door. And we had had lots of conversation with this group over the past half hour or 45 minutes.
So at 3:15 or so Majdi finally closed and locked the door of his shop and we set off for his house, not far away. The lunch was delicious, chicken and rice, with yogurt to serve as a sauce, and at the end of the meal some stiff, black, Arabic coffee! And the conversation was great as well. Palestinian hospitality is phenomenal, even when it has to be delayed for unexpected reasons!! And then we headed back up the street, once again through the checkpoint, back up the hill to Tantur . . . .
A classic “Palestinian” day . . . . (Eat your hearts out,folks! The food truly is “worth writing home about”! And the hospitality is without question second to none!)
Blessings to you all!
Dorothy Jean (for the Jerusalem/Bethlehem Seminar group)
Today we went to the Holocaust museum Yod Vashem. The museum was packed with visitors who zigzagged through the heart wrenching exhibits of the not so distant past. We could have spent seven hours taking in this immense collection, but instead passed through in 2 hours. The museum is full of recovered items from holocaust victims items like: shoes, partially burnt photos, jewelry, and clothes. These recovered items brought home the stark reality that these were normal people with hopes and dreams. One exhibit we entered was to commemorate the 1,500,000 children killed in the Holocaust. The exhibit was underground in a dark room with candles in the center; there were mirrors setup all around the room to reflect the candle light. This gave the illusion of being surrounded by thousands of candles burning. As you passed through this dimly lit space a recording announced the name and age of each child who had died in the Holocaust. Having two children of my own ages 3 and 1 I was deeply affected when I heard children my sons’ ages announced.
I will not soon forget the images captured from the concentration camps. I watched a video of the mass graves being filled with thousands of bodies which were just skin and bone. As I watched in disbelief the girl next to me began to cry intensely. One of the final rooms was a collection of all 6,000,000 names of those who were killed in the Holocaust. The room was filled with book shelves with what appeared to be folders with each person’s name on them.
After passing through the dim grey environment of the museum the exit doors open up onto a porch where you can see the beautiful lush Judean countryside. I heard one guide saying that this is to represent the stepping out of the Jewish past and into the present and future of Jewish life.
— Jason Wagner
Today, we visited a group called Sabeel, which focus on liberation theology in order to work for peace in the land. The theology has a lot of good intentions including the realization that Jesus himself lived in a time under occupation, and worked hard to help those struggling under Roman control. In this way, we are motivated to live in unity and love as people who struggle and who are living under human control.
During our visit with Sabeel, we were engaged in a service of worship and discussion in the office space. One part of the discussion that drew me into reflection with everything I have been hearing in the last two weeks is the definition of ‘justice’. We all long for justice, but we may have different ideas of what justice means. Some view justice as revenge for example, the Israelis will have to pay for taking land, and persecuting Palestinians. One other side of this revenge justice is that Israel has suffered in history, and the land was promised to them by God, therefore the land belongs to them to take and justice is served. These are not the only views I have heard on my trip, but they speak to some of the complexities on the ground here. I believe in a different type of justice should be sought after where God is the judge, and compassion plays into the conversation. This may be my privileges and point of view speaking, but I believe in a justice where the work being done is building up all the people who are involved.
We also had a presentation from Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) – Palestine, who partners and supports organizations on the ground here, including Sabeel. MCC is an organization that has been here since 1948, and is one of the longest running organizations of its kind in Israel/Palestine. Currently, MCC is helping over a dozen groups with their outreach including groups who run summer camps, career training for youth (trade school), sustainable gardening and building, etc. I have only been here for two weeks and I am already worn out and drained from the complexities of this conflict. I can’t imagine being here for several years. Nick asked an appropriate question at dinner with MCC tonight: “What sustains your group and gives you fuel or hope to keep doing the ministry you are doing?” The answer was one of relief and hope indeed! The answer to Nicks question was that the work done does not require immediate results to be faithful work, rather there is eschatological hope. There is joy in knowing that the work being done is the work Jesus would be doing, and that is great ministry! Amen!
I would go as far in my reflections of the day to say that Justice to me means to follow the lifestyle of Jesus, and being connected with God to carry us through it. Hope for justice should not only be earthly hope. Ultimately, we can trust God that our work is not done in vein because this is the work Jesus did in scripture, and continues to do through us.
— Gabe Dodd
We started our day meeting a settler named Bob Lang from Eir Fraut a settlement near Bethlehem. Bob was from New York and had been a settler in the West Bank for 40 years. He gave us a Zionist view on the Israeli and Palestinian relationship. Bob used the biblical narrative to justify the ceasing of Palestinian land and justified what is being called the Israeli occupation as a necessary security measure. The community he is from is successful in bringing up their children to enter the Israeli military 90 percent of which enter military service. The distance between the triumphant Zionist view and the desperation of the Palestinian refugees calling for right of return leaves dissidence in the air. As a student trying to hear the different sides of the story I feel stretched and challenged to see a solution between these two dominant narratives.
The second half of our day was spent at the Tent of Nations. This is a Palestinian owned farm which is being crowded out by Jewish settlements. Daoud Nassar the main speaker spoke of the struggles his family experienced living on the land there. Daoud’s family farm is rare because they have the deed to their land from the Ottoman Empire which allows them to dispute the attempts of Israel to grab their land. Our group spent the afternoon helping clean-up some overgrown areas of the farm. We used some primitive tools to hack away at weeds. I used their brand new string trimmer to hack down weeds growing around some grape vines that were newly planted. I found it therapeutic to join in their work in a small way giving something tangible towards a project that is resisting hopelessness.
Today was quite a day, starting off with a tour of another refugee camp. Dheisheh refugee camp was formed in 1948, in the wake of the Arab-Israeli war. It sheltered Palestinians from villages around Jerusalem who were driven out of their homes by Israeli soldiers or fled after reports of massacres in other areas. This area was administered by the Jordanians and the UN until Israel took the region in the 1967 war. The camp is massive, stories stacked atop one another, the foundations tiny nine meter by nine meter boxes that formed the first housing units. We were told that the unemployment rate is 50%, and that many young families are forced to move out of the camp due to the lack of space for housing. There were a lot of cottage industries. We visited an olive wood carving shop and saw several sewing rooms where embroidery was done for tourism sales.
As an American raised in a rural location, it was almost unimaginable that people could live with such little space, stacked on top of one another. The wiring and sewer systems were haphazard, and the water only came once every two weeks and then was stored in roof-top tanks. It’s hard to imagine this is the third and fourth generation, in many cases, being raised here in this camp. But, while we were standing in front of the UN school, a class released and a group of refugee girls approached us. They were full of life, like any young people, and laughed and chatted with us, practicing their English that is part of the curriculum there. There was a lot of hope there. They’ll need it. I really have lost faith in a two-state solution being even remotely equitable. It often seems very hard to imagine a future for these children. I find myself praying ardently for them, because the hopelessness around us is a terrible thing and I have no other answers.
After that, we found some hope. Dr. Weaver had arranged a late night meeting with a woman named Ronnie from Macsomwatch, which is an organization of Israeli women who assist and advocate for Palestinian women at check-points. She was a ray of light to me, a women of immense compassion and intense vision, who confronted angry soldiers by telling them that they should be proud that Israel is a free society so that women like her come and stand at check points voluntarily, out of a love of that freedom. She told us very candidly that she is worried for her children, who are products of the Israeli educational system and have served as officers in the military. She said they seem programmed to her to think that this is the only way for Israel to survive, that security has to come first, an assertion she flatly rejects.
Having witnessed apartheid in South Africa, she was determined to bring to light the actions of Israel in the occupied territories, and hold Israeli society accountable to the high standard the founding documents of the nation promote. She had lived under communism in Czechoslovakia, and knew firsthand the importance of a truly free society. She had no easy answers, but genuinely believed in a future for both peoples, Israeli and Palestinian, and her hope was infectious. It was wonderful to hear, after all that we have seen, that some have realized the situation and are working to remedy the mire that has been created in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. With people like that working for solutions, there is indeed enduring hope here.
We have been on the ground in Israel/Palestine for 8 full days now. Since today was a day to rest, I thought it was a great opportunity to reflect a little on things I have seen and heard since we landed. One continuous theme that keeps popping up is the theme of power and control. I want to share some experiences that help open conversation about power and control in the conversation around Israel/Palestine.
The first five days of our trip consisted of touring Bethlehem, Jerusalem Old City, and Nazareth/Galilee. The recurring theme we kept hearing throughout Jerusalem is how many times the city has been taken over, and built upon. The power dynamics of the city has changed so many times throughout history, and if history repeats itself (which it seems to do), power will eventually change again.
Aladdin is a shop owner near downtown Bethlehem that has been very friendly and open to our group. On two occasions he has invited us into his shop to share coffee and tea with us and to talk about the occupation of the town of Bethlehem. He is a Palestinian who works about 15 hours a day, which leaves only 9 hours for travel and sleeping. Aladdin shared with us the type of life he has had, while living in a city that is literally closed to the rest of the world. He is not allowed to leave his town, even if his destination is another Palestinian town. Aladdin is being controlled by the powers of the Israeli state. He said that he felt the Israeli government is forcing Palestinians to be violent because of the living conditions that are forced upon them. I asked Aladdin what peace looks like to him, and he said, “Peace is living together and sharing together”…
Yesterday we traveled to Hebron where we met with Christian Peacemaker Teams. Although they shared very sad stories of the daily trauma people are exposed to by Israeli soldiers, the most meaningful part of our experience were the things we saw and experienced in Hebron. Trash covered the roads, rotten food was piled on the sidewalks, roads were blocked with walls, doors were welded closed, and stores were boarded up. I saw a ghost town. A family invited us into their home for tea and coffee to tell us about the struggles for Palestinians, and to practice their English! They were very kind people, but they explained how they are powerless in their city from the Israeli officers who enter into homes by kicking down doors in the middle of the night, trashing homes, and searching for weapons that may be used against the officers. Although they do not find weapons, they cause this chaos to keep control over Palestinians who live there. This family shared that the officers continuously have these raids to remind people who has the power, and that those with power have no boundaries. We heard many more stories from this family, too much to describe over this blog, but before I left, I asked, “What does peace look like to you?”. Alaa said, “Peace looks like living together; two countries, one place”…
On a lighter note, today was our free day in which we decided to walk into Bethlehem and explore a little. I am glad we did. Throughout the day we took different routs than normal, we went into some churches we have not explored before, and visited Aladdin (who had coffee and tea for us again). As we were walking around, we found three falafel places, with similar signs. All three signs were yellow and had the same font with different names of the shops. Another distinction was that the middle shop had a sign on the outside that said it was rated highly on Trip Advisor. This sparked my curiosity and sparked my attention to conduct a taste test between the three. Matt and I bought two falafels from each vendor, and we all tasted the falafels to determine which one we liked the best. The one we ended up enjoying the most was the one with the Trip Advisor rating. It had more spice, and almost tasted as if it had fresher ingredients in it. The power of Advertising and consumer ratings has a lot to do with the success of the business, and I assume they bring more customers than the other two vendors. I am willing to suggest that if it had slightly less quality food, it would still bring more money than the others because American visitors would be attracted by the perceived appearance of a restaurant of peer reviewed food over unreviewed food…
I wonder how the power of advertising and access to information is influencing Americans about Israel/Palestine? I know for sure that the news I see in America about the conflicts in Israel/Palestine tend to focus on the dangers of the Palestinian people, and do not show the treatment they receive from Israeli soldiers. I have heard stories of Palestinians feeling pressured into acting out, and I have heard stories of Palestinians who have decided to get rid of weapons in order to work for peace, and yet they are still being harassed, arrested, traumatized, and attacked. Is America getting the full story, or is America getting fed an advertisement for the State of Israel because that is who the government supports monetarily and politically? Power is a tactic to scare and control people, and I want everyone to be aware of the powers people may be having over us. Although it may seem that I have set my opinions of the issue completely, I do not want to leave this trip without having fair conversations with Jews, Israelis, and zionists to try t understand their sides of the issues as much as I can. It is only fair.
As we met with Mitri Raheb today, pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church and author of “Faith in the Face of Empire,” he said, “Christians can envision Jerusalem as a shared city whereas other religions might have an exclusive theology.” This, in my opinion, is a great place for anyone who is reading this to start considering. Being controlled by humankind is not going to make us fully flourish. Answering to militant powers is not what God created us for. What if the power that we follow by is the Lord? What if we all realized that the Lord is the almighty power that takes away our sin? What if we realize that life with Christ makes us fully human? Things might look a little different…