May 9

Posted in Holy Land 2015
May 12th, 2015

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.

IMG_0606-1Aladdin 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”…

IMG_1046-1Yesterday 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”…

IMG_0599On 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…


May 11

Posted in Holy Land 2015
May 11th, 2015

Well, life surely isn’t getting less complicated as we go along . . . . We listened to two alternative narratives today, one from Zoughbi Zoughbi, the Founder/Director of Wi’am Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center in Bethlehem, and the other from Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann from Rabbis for Human Rights.

Early this morning we hiked down to and through the Wall into Bethlehem and on down to Wi’am, directly below the section of the Wall that surrounds Rachel’s Tomb, a Jewish “holy site” on the north edge of Bethlehem. The Wi’am property looks directly onto a segment of the Wall, one well-covered with graffiti expressing sentiments against the Occupation. One statement (from Polish Jew in the 1930’s) reads, “A nation is not only what it does. It is also what it tolerates.” This statement has been “copped,” as it were, from Yad VaShem, the Israeli Holocaust Museum, where it obviously refers to a very different nation . . . .

We shared our visit there with a large group of tourists/pilgrims from Canadian Mennonite University (CMU). And I was delighted to see the leaders of this group, Gerald Gerbrandt and Sheila Klassen-Wiebe, both friends of mine. There at Wi’am we heard from Zoughbi about the vision and the activities of this
“Conflict Resolution Center.” Most of their staff have attended the Summer Peacebuilding Institute at EMU at one time or another. And their work is multi-faceted. They carry out mediations for people in dispute, run summer camps for kids, hold training sessions in nonviolent approaches, and other such things. They are attempting to meet the people of Bethlehem and beyond at their profound places of need due to the stress and anxieties of life under Occupation. And they do so on a budget that begs for much greater resources than they currently have . . . . Following our presentation and the view from the roof (Aida Refugee Camp next door, the Wall and an Israeli guard tower right across the courtyard, and an Israeli settlement on the horizon), we then walked through the Aida Refugee Camp and saw a bit of everyday life going on there. We had a “grassroots lunch” of pitas, hummus, falafel, and fresh plums from a tree right there in the Wi’am courtyard. And then we headed on . . . .

Our second visit for the day was at the offices of Rabbis for Human Rights, an organization of some 150 Jewish rabbis who do not necessarily share the same political visions of what “peace” should look like here in Israel/Palestine, but who share an equal passion for seeing that human rights are attended to not only for low-income Israeli citizens, but also and just as prominently, for the Palestinians of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. These are rabbis with significant personal courage, folks who have put their bodies “on the line” at the sites of Palestinian home demolitions, demonstrations at sites where the Wall is being resisted by Palestinians, and locations where Palestinians are harvesting olives or such, to ensure, if they can, that these harvesting operations will proceed without undue violence from local Israeli settlers. Yehiel spoke to us about these activities. And while he did so, another prominent member of RHR came through the office, Arik Aschermann, who has been beaten up and arrested on multiple occasions (who knows how many) at just such operations.

But at the same time Yehiel also spoke to us of the Zionist narrative, which views the circumstances here in this land from the standpoint of the Israeli search for security. And he was robustly supportive of that narrative, as he himself acknowledged in our discussion. And when I asked, near the end of our conversation, what he thought the Palestinians should be doing, he simply said, “I don’t know!” and acknowledged that he was glad he was an Israeli and not a Palestinian. I told him that we would be meeting with a spokesperson at the Dheisheh Refugee Camp tomorrow and wondered out loud what he, Yehiel, would say if he were talking with Raji . . . .

Life is complicated. And the stories we are hearing reflect that complexity. Keep us in prayer as we listen and reflect and seek to understand widely differing narratives and hold widely differing people in our hearts at the same time . . . .


Dorothy Jean (for the Jerusalem/Bethlehem Seminar Group)

May 10

Posted in Holy Land 2015
May 11th, 2015

SAM_1481We had some wonderful experiences today. We went to the Melkite Church, which is a Greek Catholic church. It was in Arabic and some Greek, and a tiny bit of English to accommodate us. Afterwards he chatted with us for awhile, then took us up to the roof, and allowed us to climb the ladder up another 50’ tower. We were at one of the very highest points in all of Jerusalem (I don’t think anyone was tempted to hurl themselves off!). Afterwards we wandered through the Armenian Quarter to St. James Armenian Church, where there was another worship service. There were about 30 seminarians in robes that made up the choir. It was beautiful.

SAM_1499After lunch, we wandered through the Jewish Quarters, and enjoyed the lyrics of a street musician. We asked if we could buy him coffee, and he said he would be glad to after he was done. We went around the city, and then wandered back. While we were waiting for him to finish, A Jewish man named Elli about my age initiated a conversation with me. We chatted awhile, and I sort of detected some of his deeply held pro-Israeli sentiments. I inquired further, and he began going into it with some examples. He said things like “Arabs come to our part of the city all the time and we don’t harm them, but if I were to go in their part of town they would kill me.” I told him that surprised me, because I had been walking all over Bethlehem and Hebron and didn’t really feel unsafe. I asked him—hypothetically—if he was dressed like me, a non-Jew, if he would feel safe walking around Bethlehem. He said “I would never do it, but that’s just me.” I pulled out the picture of the Red Sign warning Israelis that it was a threat to their lives to enter Palestine area A, and said I sort of thought it wasn’t a serious thing. He said it was serious, and that they are the enemy. So I asked if he thought the wall was necessary, and he said that Israel needs to do whatever necessary to take care of the problem, that they need to go away. He wasn’t vicious, but very matter of fact. I wasn’t surprised, because I have encountered this way of thinking, though mostly only in documentaries. The anti-palestinian sentiment was a deeply engrained part of his way of thinking.

SAM_1473Gabe and I had a nice chance to have a conversation with the street musician, Evan, we had arranged earlier, which was really great, although he made it clear that my conversation with Elli was not an anomaly. Evan expressed similar sentiments, but with a much deeper passion and even blind hatred towards the Palestinians. For example, he said that Israel sends them aid, and in return they fire rockets into Israel, forcing the Iron Dome to shoot them down out of the air at a cost $60,000 each, which is his explanation for why their taxes are so high. He expressed similar mistrust, fear, hatred, and contempt for the Palestinians. He shared about when Israel conquered this land, they gave back so much land to the Palestinians, which is unheard of and completely generous and kind of Israel. In return, he said they are ungrateful and hate Israel. And all over the world there are 20 or 30 Islamic states at the UN, and only 1 Jewish state, and Israel needs to fend for itself and the rest of the world also needs to support them. Evan was intense. He was uninterested in doing anything to help the Palestinans. He said these are people who use children as a human shield and other things, and Israel doesn’t kill civilians, because they are good and decent people.

It wasn’t going to be super useful to try to advocate for Palestine, but I did share about my stance with the peace church about the sanctity about all of human life. We ended up having a pleasant chat about what to see around Israel and other niceties, and he walked us to the bus stop after we paid for the tea. It was helpful to listen to their narratives and compare that with the Palestinian narratives. As Gabe and I discussed on the bus, which side is telling the true story? We continue to see the complexities and challenges of life here.

–Nick Meyer

May 8

Posted in Holy Land 2015
May 11th, 2015

tea time with our friends

tea time with our friends

One of the more special moments in our entire week came this afternoon. We were walking from a Synagogue to catch a ride back to Bethlehem. As we were walking, we were asked by a couple guys about our age “what country are you from?” We stopped and chatted a bit, then one asked “what do you think of Palestine?” To respond, I reached into my pocket and pulled out my latest souvenir, a magnet with the image of “Handalah,” which according to google is “the refugee child who is a potent symbol of the struggle of the Palestinian people for justice and self-determination.”

 the Handala magnet

the Handala magnet

Our interaction with these guys changed immediately. Instead of being Americans whose goverment supports the Israeli military occupation of their land, we were seen as friends and sympathizers to their plight. One of them invited us for tea in their home. The whole group of us went upstairs for tea, where we sat in a circle and talked for over an hour. It was a lovely exchange, though some of their experiences and stories of life in Hebron were difficult. For example, the middle brother, about 18 years old at the time, saw an Israeli soldier violently shaking a little boy, with his mother standing by crying out for help, pleading with the soldier to stop. He tried to intervene, but then was butted with a rifle and arrested and sentenced to 6 months in prison. Upon his release, he immediately signed up for service in the Palestinian military, and is currently trained as a sniper. It doesn’t take a lot to connect the dots in what led him to make this decision.

image of ways Handala appears in art/graffiti.

image of ways Handala appears in art/graffiti.

We got a photo together with two of the guys before we left, and they found their way on facebook. I had to smile when I saw their comments: “It’s our pleasure to meet with American people like you with this mentality, who believe in peace and in the justice of our issue. Welcome to our country.” Another said “may God protect them.” Another commented “the Best Guys I swear.” It was a gift to receive their hospitality. I pray they were blessed by this encounter as much as we were.

— Nick Meyer


May 9

Posted in Holy Land 2015
May 11th, 2015

SAM_1009Our day in the Galilee was quite an experience, and at this point, my favorite day of the trip. We set off from the Lutheran Hostel in Nazareth, after climbing the hill the city is built on to watch the sunrise and partaking of a delicious traditional Palestinian breakfast. The ride was pleasant in our rented touring van, and soon enough we arrived at the Church of the Beatitudes. There was a sprawling garden, with plaques set out containing the Beatitudes in both English and Latin. It was a lovely little church, but the real joy was the route we took around behind the grounds, out through an abandoned banana plantation and down through the winding Galilean hills, to the shore of the sea itself. We arrived on foot at the Church of the Multiplication, the site where Jesus, according to tradition, multiplied the loaves and bread.

The church had a fascinating layout, with an outer courtyard containing a fountain, brimming with enormous koi fish, and featuring a massive olive tree with spreading branches full of birds. It was reconstructed on the sight of a Byzantine church that was destroyed by one of the periodic earthquakes that rock the region every 90 years or so, according to our guide. When it had been excavated, all the pillars had been lying the same direction, so they know it wasn’t done by the Persians in the 600’s. The mosaic floor was mostly intact, and features a famous motif you see on a lot of tourist ware around the Holy Land. There are two fish, one on both sides, and a basket with four loaves, directly under the altar. In the story, of course, there are five loafs. The fifth loaf is the Eucharist on the altar. Pretty cool. There were also wading birds and fish, and many other beautiful images. It was a peaceful place, with an attached Franciscan monastery on one side and the Sea of Galilee in the background.

SAM_1135We then traveled down the coast a bit, to the site of ancient Capernaum, where Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law and preached in the synagogue. We saw a 4th century “white synagogue” used by Christian worshipers, and a church commonly called “the space ship,” as it is a hexagon suspended over the house of Peter, which is itself a hexagon. Fascinatingly, inscriptions found in the walls and local tradition make it clear that this is probably ACTUALLY the house of Peter. It was awesome to see the ancient city laid out and exposed, you could see the streets and clusters of housing, the synagogue towering over it all. It really came alive, thanks to Samir’s narration and the design of the site.

The Church of the Primacy of Peter, our next stop, was the favorite of the day. It was set on the spot where Peter was said to have been given instructions by the risen Lord to “care for my sheep,” and was built on the site of an ancient pier that ran out into the sea. We were able to wade down the beach, out into the Sea of Galilee, and enjoy the cool waters and darting shoals of fish. It was a bright and sunny day, and the scene was perfect, by the lake shore. I could imagine the setting now so clearly. Amusingly, there was also a sign there indicating no swimming or fishing, two activities Peter had engaged in the account. Oops. It was just wonderful though to stand there and take it all in. I really enjoyed the Galilee, the limestone hills reminded me so much of home, and the plain of Jezreel, awash with farms, reminded me so much of the Shenandoah Valley.

SAM_1242But there was one amazing experience remaining. We set out by van again for the Jordan, which flows from the Sea of Galilee into the Dead Sea. We stopped at the famous site where John the Baptist was said to have baptized Jesus, and waded out into the river. Again, the water was cool and fresh, and full of ducks, catfish, and water birds. Glorious. Personally, I feel God most intimately in natural settings, and this was a day full of them. While I can appreciate the majesty of cathedrals and the artful design of sacred space, it was nice to get out in the countryside and do a bit of walking through fields of grass and wild flowers, and to wade into the Sea of Galilee, around which Jesus did so much of his ministry.

— Matt Nyce

May 6

Posted in Holy Land 2015
May 7th, 2015

It is 6:23 AM, the sky is bright and clear, and I am sitting at the “reception” at St. Margaret’s Anglican Guest House in Nazareth, a beautiful, old facility from the late 19th century, with wide halls and tall ceilings (even in the guest rooms) with arches. Some swallows have just swooped past the building with their clearly identifiable bird cries, as they regularly do here at St. Margaret’s. It’s a beautiful new day! And we are about to set out on the journey that will take us to the Sea of Galilee and the sites where Jesus lived, taught, and healed . . . .

Yesterday, however, was the day for Nazareth, the town where Jesus grew up. We left Jerusalem early yesterday morning and headed north by the coastal road to Nazareth in the Lower Galilee. When we arrived here at Nazareth, we hiked down through town, starting at a site (church and well) known as Mary’s Well, the place where local tradition has it that the angel appeared to Mary.

Then we walked down through the Nazareth souk (the public market) to a church known as the Synagogue Church, at the site and built on the foundations of the ancient synagogue in Nazareth, the one to which Jesus came and proclaimed the anointing of God for his ministry of healing and restoration to the people (Lk 4:14-30). Here we stopped and listened to the story of Jesus’ visit to Nazareth, that amazing story which “turns on a dime” when the people of Nazareth discover that Jesus’ ministry is not just for them, the good Jews of the land, but also and even for outsiders (the widow of Zarephath in Sidon–modern day Lebanon) and, even worse for their enemies (Naaman the Syrian military commander!).

Then it was on to the Basilica of the Annunciation, a huge modern basilica built over the foundations of previous churches and, most importantly, over what is believed to be the cave that was the “house of Mary” in ancient Nazareth. One of the most significant features of this basilica, besides the grotto that is the “house of Mary,” is the collection of artistic representations of Mary and the annunciation that line the walls of the courtyard and of the church itself, artworks provided by many different nations. Just outside the church are some visible stone ruins of what would have been ancient Nazareth. And just a short distance across the courtyard is the Church of St. Joseph, a church that contains an ancient Christian baptistry in the form of a Jewish “mikveh” (ritual bath),

From the Basilica of the Annunciation and St. Joseph’s Church, we took our bus to a spot that I have never before visited, in all of my times in Nazareth, namely a hilltop known as the Mount of Precipice, where local tradition has it that the people of Nazareth took Jesus to throw him off the cliff (but from which he simply “walked through their midst and went away,” according to the account in Luke 4). The view from there out over the Jezreel Valley was astounding and beautiful. This region is the breadbasket of the State of Israel. So we looked at agricultural fields spread out to the horizon.

And then it was time for Nazareth Village, one of the most significant sites of all here in the Holy Land, so far as imagining what a small village would have looked like in Jesus’ time. This is an amazing site, for any of you who have not seen it or heard of it (try googling Nazareth Village and you’ll get there). It is a recreation of what ancient Nazareth would have looked like, a small village built on the actual and ancient ruins of a 1st-century farm that Jesus certainly would have known and visited. Here we were toured around “out on the land” (as the folks who work there refer to it). We saw a sheep pen filled with sheep and goats (and one perky little rooster, who seems to hang out with the sheep for whatever reason), a “1st-century” tomb with a rolling stone, a (genuinely ancient!) wine press dug into the bedrock, a watch tower, an olive press with its massive stone that would have been pulled around and around by a donkey, a “1st-century” synagogue, a carpenter’s shop complete with a carpenter plying his tools, a “1st-century” kitchen where a small boy was tending a very smoky fire, and a weaver’s house complete with a weaver spinning wool. And then we headed on to the dining room for our “1st-century” meal, a delicious meal of flat bread with a dip of olive oil and spices, olives, lentil soup, chicken, a green salad, and apple slices for dipping into a date paste. It was a delicious feast that I’m sure would only have been prepared in the first century (at least with the meat included) on special occasions or for special celebrations. Not quite the “fatted calf.” But it was surely a delicious “fatted chicken” :)!

Then we headed up the hill to St. Margaret’s Guest House for our overnight. Here we were served another bountiful feast, a delicious one, by Salim, one of the staff here and a long-time friend. And now it is breakfast time. Shortly we will head out for our day at the Sea of Galilee.

Blessings to you all!

Dorothy Jean (for the Jerusalem/Bethlehem Seminar travelers)

May 5

Posted in Holy Land 2015
May 5th, 2015

Our first destination this morning was the Temple Mount. We passed through security numerous times before we got to the wooden bridge that leads to the mount. Nearing the top of the entry ramp there was a stash of riot shields waiting to be used if an incident occurs. We came into the courtyard and settled under the shade of a cypress tree with our guide Samir who began to tell us the history of what we were seeing. Our attention was soon drawn away by commotion at the entry ramp. A group of Muslim women began chanting God is Great in Arabic as a group of Jewish settlers came into the courtyard. The settlers were accompanied by Israeli soldiers who have a mandate to protect all Jewish citizens no matter where they are. Samir told us this happens multiple times a day.

This invasion of space occurring in front of our eyes is a window into the story of this city. As we stood and watched this event, beneath us layers of former invasions silently proclaim the endless cycle being enacted. Thousands of years of history around us and beneath us kingdom after kingdom stamped in different religions laying claim to this space at different times.

Jesus when pointed toward the beauty of the temple in the Gospel of Mark tells the disciples “not a stone will be left on stone” speaking of the destruction of the temple. As we know this came to fruition in 70 CE. Although we could say Jesus’ words have replayed themselves dozens of times throughout the history of this mount. Even today you can see the signs of empires throwing down the stones of former tenants and setting up their own. The retaining wall around the Temple Mount has scattered within it reused stones that were once pushed down and then repurposed by another regime.

Seeing all this raises the question of what is the way of peace for these highly contested spaces. It certainly cannot be the flexing of military might and the oppressing of another. Jesus coming down the Mount of Olives wept over Jerusalem saying if only they knew what made for peace. I am sure if he were to come down the Mount of Olives today his tears would continue to flow seeing a land still in the cycle of occupation.

— Jason Wagner

May 4

Posted in Holy Land 2015
May 4th, 2015

SAM_0485Today, while walking through the inner walls of Old City Jerusalem, I asked our professor Dr. Dorothy Jean Weaver what her favorite part of Jerusalem was. Her response was one that continued until our evening worship and reflection time because she kept thinking of the many things she loved about the city. I felt that way as well about the things I have seen in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. If I were asked what my favorite part was, I am not sure if it would be the garden of Gethsemane, the Pool of Bethesda, the interactions with children on the streets, or meeting shop owners.

With that being said, there have been many powerful moments on our trip. Some of the places we visit have controversy, and some are very obvious and powerful. One of these obvious powerful places we visited is the Mount of Olives. The journey down the hill while looking at a city surrounded by a huge wall is moving because Jesus had a similar view. The city that Jesus was looking at was a religious city and had a huge temple in it, but the temple was being overlooked by an occupying government. The city I was looking at did not seem to be a different type of city. For a few moments, I felt like I was looking at the same city Jesus was looking at when he wept. I almost began to weep.

SAM_0089During our end of the day reflection time, someone pointed out that Jerusalem has a history of a built wall around it in order to protect the insides of it. The city was to be protected from those attacking it on the outside. When we look at Bethlehem on the other hand, we see a huge wall surrounding the city to keep people in! I found this reflection to have a huge significance in the powers that exist over people all around the world. What powers do we have over one another? Is this power leading us to build walls to keep others oppressed or to defend yourself? Does Jesus want us to build walls in our lives, or to love one another (even our enemies and sinners)?

As we sit in these questions, I ask for your prayers for all the other things we will see in the next three weeks, and the things we will be reflecting on in the meantime. Amen.
— Gabe Dodd

May 3

Posted in Holy Land 2015
May 4th, 2015

Today was another set of wonderful experiences in Bethlehem. We worshiped at Christmas Lutheran Church, and celebrated communion with people representing at least 6 nations. The sermon and songs were in Arabic. We enjoyed sharing coffee afterwards and visiting with people from all over the world who happened to be present.

IMG_20150503_145408069We had lunch just outside of Manger Square. We sat around a table on the street, and a vendor from the store next to us came and chatted with us a bit. His name was Aladdin, and he is 29 and has three children. After awhile he remarked how every year business is worse than the year before. He has lived in Bethlehem all his life, and other than two visits to Jerusalem, he has been confined within the city limits. I asked what it is like living inside the walls. He said it makes people hate each other. He said how important it was that people have each other into their homes and share meals, but they can’t because of the wall. People from Jerusalem used to come to Bethlehem to eat on the Sabbath, but not anymore. In Aladdin’s perspective, they are fearful and suspicious of each other because they don’t know each other. It was a powerful encounter. We all felt compelled to purchase something from him in gratitude for his sharing.

After a wonderful lunch of “schwarma,” (stuffed pitas) we made our way home via a different route than yesterday. We encountered a young man who was selling prints of some of the graffiti along the walls for much cheaper (he assured us!) than in other stores. The price was right, and included the chance to leave our mark on the wall. He gave us cans of spray paint, and we added our own two cents. Jason painted “maranatha” (Come Lord Jesus). I painted “Shema’” (a Hebrew word referencing a daily Hebrew prayer: “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one.” This was my critical question to Israel. The words that follow this prayer from Deuteronomy 6 demand that Israel does not forget the Lord, who delivered them from slavery in Egypt. How does this centrally defining prayer, which demands faithful observance of the covenant, permit those who pray this prayer to fence in the Palestinians? How can they pray this prayer while building settlements on stolen land? How do they justify the bullying and brutality and dehumanization of their vulnerable neighbors? Maybe I will be more sympathetic towards the Israelis as I encounter their experiences and perspectives. But writing this was my own small demonstration against the wall and against everything it represents, calling Israel to be mindful of their own painful history of being oppressed, challenging them to examine the ways they have become oppressors.

SAM_0157The art (my graffiti doesn’t qualify as art!) made such an impression on me these past two days, and as I was taking a picture of one of the images, I suddenly realized what was stirring within me: these images of resistance reminded me of the tattoos I saw in prison last summer during CPE. The images on the wall and some of the tattoos I saw hold much in common: they are full of deeper meaning and tell stories; they are full of pain but undeniably hopeful; they are an expression of agency and dignity among people who have been robbed of both; they are critiques of their oppressors through poetry and art—both of which are more powerful than words alone, and both tending towards nonviolence (though we definitely saw violent images). It seems like the prisoners I knew and the Palestinian artists have overlapping experiences that are finding expression in similar ways.

— Nick Meyer

Day 2: Bethlehem

Posted in Holy Land 2015
May 4th, 2015

Today we set out from Tantur for the first time, passing through the massive gate and winding our way through the sprawling

On the back lane behind Tantur: Back row (l to r): Matt Nyce, Gabe Dodd; Front row (l to r): Jason Wagner, Nick Meyer.

On the back lane behind Tantur: Back row (l to r): Matt Nyce, Gabe Dodd; Front row (l to r): Jason Wagner, Nick Meyer.

olive trees to a corridor between fields that led into Bethlehem. There we encountered our first checkpoint, where bored soldiers glanced at our blue passes and waved on. The wall loomed over us, massive and imposing, topped with looped concertina wire and the occasional guard post. The outside wall was a stark gray, but on the inside, the wall had been marked with spray paint, dozens of compelling images of occupation and suffering painted onto it, making it come to life with the pain of the people who live inside its boundaries. All of us felt a little bad, watching the other people struggle to get past, some of whom were turned around by the guards. We, and our magic blue Israeli passes, were never questioned.

The city was an impossible mix of ancient and modern, with LG air conditioners hanging from the sides of several hundred year

Jason adding "Maranatha" (Aramaic for "Our Lord, Come!") on the Bethlehem wall

Jason adding “Maranatha” (Aramaic for “Our Lord, Come!”) on the Bethlehem wall

old stone houses, and taxis and cars zipping along the cramped, pedestrian-filled streets. Immediately, as we had been warned, we were engulfed in taxi drivers, calling out to us and offering rates that seemed to decrease as we went on. One particular gentleman in a fez followed us for at least two blocks, and another taxi driver, in his taxi, pulled up alongside us and kept calling out rates in sheckles. We learned to say “thank you” in Arabic pretty quickly, and to keep saying it, not that that deterred them. Only distance put an end to the calls of “50 sheckles, I take you!” and “Where you want go?”

We visited a shopkeeper who was a good friend of Doctor Weaver, Mashdi, and were plied with coffee seasoned with cardamom. It was served, piping hot, in tiny cups. After that our intrepid group headed up, and I do me up, to the Christmas Evangelical Lutheran Church, and were there looking over the grounds in time to hear the church bells chime noon with tremendous volume. It was interesting to look down on the marketplace from on top of the Lutheran church, as the streets were filled with shoppers, the shouts of the sellers ringing out again and again, most notably in the form of a boy of maybe eight determinedly hawking ice cream from a cart to any and all comers.

Lunch was had at a falafel restaurant on Manger Square, in a basement dug deep into the hillside and framed with ancient rock and mortar. It was amazing, I’ve never had falafel that good, served hot from the fryer on a pita, with sauce, cucumbers, and tomatoes. After finishing our lunch we managed to get in to the church of the Nativity, founded by the mother, Helen, of the Emperor Constantine. Most of it was covered up for vital renovations, as some of the pillars and wooden supporting beams were badly in need of replacement. But it was still a fascinating sight, the whole church packed with people. While we were there two groups of Japanese tourists came in and swamped the place, which was very interesting to me, you were hearing at least four languages most of the time. The church was beautiful, what of it we were able to see.

Afterwards Dr. Weaver took us shopping, which involved filing down the crowded street, dodged other pedestrians and the occasional massive gap in the pavement. Tea and coffee sellers were everywhere, crowds were thronging the markets, and occasionally cars would press their way down the overflowing streets, lightly tapping their horns the whole time. Occasionally a shop keeper would be racing down the sidewalk with a shopping cart, with a little plastic device clipped to it that made loud sounds to warn people to get out of the way. The stores were cramped and filled with people, the aisles seldom wide enough to dodge around someone if you were headed opposite directions. After tomorrow’s lunch was negotiated, it was time for Mashdi to take us to the olive wood factory.

Jason playing guitar at Christmas Lutheran

Jason playing (a borrowed!) guitar after church at Christmas Lutheran Sunday morning

The factory was amazing, we were shown piles of olive wood, waiting to be carved, then a kiln for drying wood and the workshops, which were empty, as the workers had the weekend off. There were apparently 20 regular employees, who carved the olive wood into figures of saints, biblical figures, and Christian icons that were sold around the world. Including, fascinatingly, TJ Maxx. We then had an opportunity to buy olive wood directly from the factory at a nice discount. The olive wood is beautiful, the way the grains merge and flow, dark and light together like day and night entrapped and entwined. We all got at least one item.

It was amazing to see so many people operating in so small a space. Buildings were crammed wherever they would fit, three or four stories high, grated windows filled with children’s faces or hanging laundry. Shops were pressed tight together, the tiny alleys packed with trash, huge crowds thronging the shopping districts by the Lutheran church and around Manger Square. It was beautiful and very ancient, but also jarringly modern and reeking of diesel fumes. Bethlehem was a study in seeming opposites, like the light and dark grains in the olive wood that somehow share the same existence.

— Matt Nyce