Wednesday, January 12, 2011

In the footstepts of my father

We toured around Nazareth in the morning. I'm looking forward to spending more time in this beautiful little town. My father mentioned at one point that during his travels he visited here and schemed to climb Mt. Taber. On his way up he realized that he didn't have enough daylight to finish his trip and was invited into hospitality by a random resident of one of the nearby villages. I'm hoping that when I come back up here, I can have my own attempt at the mountain... though light fades quickly in this winter season.

From Nazareth we traveled west to Haifa. Haifa could be California... in fact, most of the western coast of Israel resembles northern California. The water is blue, the air is warm even in January and everything is so green! We say the Baha'i gardens and walked around the old city. It was really interesting to see all the falling down old houses that were abandoned by Arabs during the 1967 war. We met visited briefly with the Mossawa foundation and heard a bit about what they are doing in the area to advocate for Arab Israeli rights.

From Haifa we went up into the mountains to have lunch at a restaurant high in the hills. About a month ago fires had swept through this land and we saw evidence of such. The restaurant was in a village called Ein Sud which had gone unrecognized by the Israeli government until about five years ago. There are over 100 forgotten Arab villages that the Israeli government refuses to acknowledge which means these villages are refused access to water, sewage, electricity and education. The people of these villages were displaced in 1967 and then barred from returning to their homes. So they set up new villages in the mountains but since have not be recognized.

The restaurant showed us a documentary film on the villages which was beautiful. These are Israeli citizens completely forgotten by their government and treated like second class citizens when they try to advocate for their rights. On our way out we visited a Arab town that had been demolished by the Israeli's and then turned in to a national park. Apparently its the custom to plant treas and shrubs around the destroyed houses to hid the destruction from the view of the landscape.... Ahhh!

From there we finished our tour by visiting Cesarea. I'm not sure if its the exact place my father visited when he was around my age, but he told me a story of sleeping out on the beach and he also told me about the beauty of Cesarea. Though all those years ago, you didn't have to pay to see the Roman ruins, the shore is still breathtaking. I could have hung out and played by those waters for hours. My brother would have loved the spot too. There were tide-pools and all sorts of birds. It was a beautiful end to our tour of the north.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


So much happened today. I'll start chronologically but I will leave much out. We woke up early so that we could stop by the Freedom Theatre in Janin. Its a beautiful place with an amazing story. Janin is where most of the suicide bombers came from and the Theatre works with youth and young adults to offer a creative and critical outlet for their experiences. The people who work there are amazing and the work that they are doing is really transformative. Janin is still in a tough spot and the pressure that its getting from the Israeli miliary becuase of its involvement in Palestinian violence is planting more hatred and trauma into the minds and hearts of young children.

Next we worked our way through the most extensive checkpoint of our journey yet. On our way up to the check point this sign helped us know who was responsible for the 1hour wait, complete vehicle search, scanned baggage and rude military reception: good old US Aid... who apparently was trying to help commerce in the area. Help commerce? You have to be kidding. The sign reads "This Jeleveh vehicle crossing enhancement was funded by the American people through the US Agency for International Development to foster greater trade and economic development of this area."

Once we made it through the check point it was time to head up to Galilee. The Sea of Galilee is beautiful. We got to see many of the religious sites and even take a boat ride. If the boat hadn't raised the American flag and played the American National Anthem in our honor (everyone on board was American) and if the boat hadn't played cheezy praise music by Elvis... the ride would have been perfect. Afterwards we went out to eat and had fish that still had its head on it! Everything was beautiful.

I can really understand why people choose to live here all those years ago. Unfortunately its also been a place great violence. The Golan Heights, which were always in our view, are a main place of conflict with Syria... and water rights surrounding the source of water coming into the Sea of Galilee and the River Jordan in general is causing huge conflict... pollution and mismanagement of these beautiful natural resources may see to their demise. I feel really lucky to see Galilee today and pray and hope that my children may be able to also find peace by these shores.

The (Good) Samaritan Exists.

We traveled up to the mountain where Abraham was saved from sacrificing Issac. Living near by is a Palestinian Jewish community of around 750 who are decedents of the Samaritans. Jews, who have always seen the mountain as scared instead of the temple in Jerusalem, live in this small community and practice sacrificial rituals unknown to the rest of the world. I found it amazing to find a group of people who preserved not only rituals but also an ancient language.

The Samaritans see themselves not as part of the Palestinian people and not part of the Israeli people. They see themselves in line with their history of being the Good Samaritan, the peaceful generous solution. They find that they can live as Palestinians and as Jews but in light of the present conflict they do not want to be part of either side.

After our meeting with one of the Samaritan priests we traveled to Nablus, a beautiful city nestled between the hills. The Samaritans used to live there but during one of the conflicts, either the 1967 war or the intifada, the Samaritans moved away up to their holy mountain. We spent time at the Yafa community center which is trying to help the dire poverty of the refugee camp in Nablus. This organization tells a bitter story of oppression and violence which now, is resulting in hopelessness and abuse. The children we walked the narrow streets with were beautiful, they took pieces of my heart.

The old city of Nablus was beautiful too. Mohammed our guide walked us around the streets where we got to see a candy factory. We got to eat taffy and halava right off the assembly line; warm and soft and tasty! We walked into a spice story and saw them roasting coffee. We also got to have this cinnamon tea at a Turkish bath where we got a tour of the steam rooms. It was beautiful to see Palestinian people just living their lives. It was a good day.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Desert stole my heart

After attending meeting for worship at the lovely Ramallah Friends Meeting, where I met Jean Zaru and saw an old friend of mine who is studying Arabic nearby, my little caravan of seminary students traveled east.

The road we took was narrow and most of it did not have sidebars to stop vehicles from tumbling to the crevasse below. At some points the road was not wide enough to allow two vehicles; most of time the curves were blind. This road, as of August 2011, will be the only road that Palestinians are allowed to drive on from Ramallah to Jericho. The route takes about an hour and is very dangerous. The original road, a route that takes less than 20 minutes, connects a series of Israeli settlement throughout the West Bank and will be closed for exclusive Israeli travel. In addition, all Bedouin communities camped within 1/2 mile of the Israeli road will be force to move by August.

The landscape to Jericho was beautiful and as we descended down into the Jordan valley, the air became warmer and sweeter. Jericho, 10,000 years old, is a beautiful city on the banks of the Dead Sea. The ground here is fertile and although it is very close to the Judean Desert, the Jordan Valley is lush and green. We road a cable car up to the mountain that hosts a Greek Orthodox Monastery and Herald Palace. The world felt so open and alive!

For a moment it is easy to forget about the occupation, the restriction of movement and the humiliation of the Palestinians. The barracks of the Jordanian army and abandoned hotels (because of the receding shores of the Dead Sea) are the few reminders of the past. Yet underneath the beauty and calm are signs explaining road closures, 17 year old Israelis with semi-automatics stopping cars for random searches, and settler outposts annexing more and more Palestinian land. There once was water here, flowing down canals from high up on the mountains. The settlements have interrupted the flow of these springs and have dramatically altered the landscape.

After our tour of Jericho we drove up into the desert. My favorite place of this entire trip was listening to the sounds of the desert high above the St. George Monastery. A spring makes the site liveable and you can hear the sounds of the water rushing down the mountain, down into the crevasse, and down pass the monastery. But that's not all... As the sun was setting, I sat in silence and in that silence I could hear the wind passing by my solitary figure, the voices of the world were brought by my ear, the soul of the world was close at hand. In these moments I fell in love with the desert.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Shining City on a Hill

In the movie Kingdom of Heaven, Balian speaks to the people of Jerusalem:

"It has fallen to us to defend Jerusalem, and we have made our preparations as well as they can be made. None of us took this city from Muslims. No Muslim of the great army now coming against us was born when this city was lost. We fight over an offence we did not give against those who were not alive to be offended. What is Jerusalem? Your holy places lie over the Jewish temple that the Romans pulled down. The Muslims places of worship lie over yours. Which is holy? The Wall? The Mosque? The Sepulcher? Who has claim? No one has claim.

Then he raised his voice and said, “All have claim” The patriarch of Jerusalem who was standing by said “That is blasphemy!” Balian of Ibelin continued, “we defend this city, not to protect theses stones, but the people living within these walls.”" (as dictated by Naim Ateek)

Today we walked around the old city of Jerusalem. We saw all the typical sites: the wailing wall, the mosque, the holy Sepulcher and we even walked the Via Dolorosa- the path that Jesus walked up to his Crucifixation. We toured the Garden of Gesemene and the Garden Tomb. We saw it all... well minus three of the seven gates, but we got to walk through four of them! It was a tourist day for sure.

Yet as I reflect on the day, it was not the sights that most interested me. Nor the stones in unto themselves. It was the faces that I saw; the people who live there in Jerusalem and all the people whom these stones have witnessed over the years. I found myself imagining what the city was like during the time of the crusaders and I was tickled to find the above quote in my theology book on a Christian Palestinians perspective on the Middle East conflict. Who has claim to these houses? to this land? all of us? none of us?

The conflict that I am witnessing is a present one but as the years 1948, 1967, 2000, 2001 etc begin to fade, what are we fighting over? I say we because as an American I am wrapped up in this mess too. Are we fighting for security? Are we fighting for land? Are we fighting for rights? Can we stop fighting, stop committing grave injustices and start living in a way that in one, two, three generations, we can have peace? Must we continue to fight for the past of which we have not lived? If only it were that simple.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Kamana might save the world

Israeli setter: this land was empty when we got here.
Palestinian: we lived here first
Applied Research Institute of Palestine: Settlers are building on springs, wells, and watersheds
Israeli Department of Foreign Affairs: all the water that Settlers are using comes from Israel
Palestinian Negotiations Unit: the water the Settlers are using comes from the Palestinian watershed which is mainly in occupied 1967 land.

When I was sixteen, my cousin gave me a book which was a step by step guide to nature awareness. The Kamana curriculum required in depth research of one's habitat. As a student of the nature awareness program, developed by John Young, you would have to research the history of the land, where the natural resources were, how natural migrations of wildlife interacted with the land... you would have to know deeply the soul of the land

land... land.. land.. land..........

Its what everyone is talking about. Borders, resources, buildings... the conversations go on and on. Yet everyone has a different opinion, everyone has different "facts", everyone sees the land as something different.

So today, while standing on a hill watching a non-violent demonstration against the Israeli occupation of Palestine and drinking in the foul smell of raw sewage and tear gas that was being sprayed on the demonstrators... I had a small silly thought... what if inter-religious and inter-national groups studied the land of Israel/Palestine using the Kamana program. Would such a project help dispel these myths? Its doesn't have to include who has the right to the land... just what is this land that we keep talking about? just a thought.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Never Again?

Well, we got a new tour guide, Mohammad Barakat who will be with us for the rest of our time here. He brought us over to Manger Square this morning after our host families dropped us off. We got to see the Greek Orthodox Patriarch parade up through the square into the Church of the Nativity for Christmas Eve services. There are many politics surrounding the Patriarch and his visit, but I’ll save those for another time.

After the parade, we drove through the main checkpoint from Bethlehem to Jerusalem and met up with two men from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Our conversations were challenging but informative and it was a great opportunity to get the Jewish political opinion of the conflict.

After our lunch meeting we took a small hike up to the Church of the Visitation and then headed over to the Holocaust Museum. The Museum was not unlike the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. but seeing its contents in context with what we are studying suggested many parallels that I do not feel comfortable articulating in this medium. This day left me emotionally exhausted and concerned for the future of these people and this land.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Meet the Children, Shove a Camel

Hebron is a special place. The situation is so incredibly heart breaking, the people so incredibly beautiful, the poverty so incredibly devastating, and the hope so incredibly alive!

People had been telling me that Hebron was going to really open my eyes to what was going on here in the Middle East; Hebron was going to be where I saw the violence of this place first hand. Can’t say I saw a great deal of violence, but I did explore a situation that amazed me. We first met with the Hebron Rehabilitation Center, who is this amazing grassroots group that is rebuilding Palestinian homes in Hebron. Hebron used to be a vibrant area of commerce and tourism but because of many issues, including the establishment of several small Israeli settlements throughout the city, large portions of Hebron (including its main street) have been shut down to Palestinians. Many shops were forced by the Israeli military to close and many other shops closed down because of the first set of closures. HRC is working to keep hope alive by training and employing people to build up the city and make it into a place where people want to come to visit and to live (in spite of the military presence!)!Today about 76% of the shops that were once open in Hebron have folded.

And we talk about an economic crisis!

In addition to all this, in the middle of Hebron is the Abraham Mosque/Synagogue. This is where the tombs of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca are situatated. On one side, Jews can enter and on the other side Muslims can enter. The two sides do not connect and there is bullet proff glass protecting any shared window space. Because of this religious site and the Jewish settlements, there are many checkpoints throughout Hebron. One in particular is where the Christian Peacemaker Team members hang out every school day morning and help children move through the process. Often the Israeli soldiers harass or detain children and the CPT members call in the police when necessary and overall lend their international presence to keep the process peaceful.

We had the pleasure of meeting with the CPT members who are present in Hebron, seeing their space and hearing a bit about their experiences. Being in Hebron was a powerful experience for me. I was able to see the plague in the CPT office that honor’s Tom. I hope someday I can return and spend time with the children of Hebron… just like he did, many years ago.

To end on a humorous note, while we were walking around the old city of Hebron, we found ourselves in what is left of the city souk (or market). We were bombarded with children trying to sell us small gadgets while listening to our guide explain the netting over our heads that caught the trash that settlers threw down on the Palestinians… ok that’s not very funny… but what is… is that we saw a grew of Hebronites (or southerners) trying to put a live camel into the back of a small mini-van. An entire camel into a car! The camel was screaming and halting… what a sight!! There was no possible way this camel was going to fit inside this car! Our guide, who had been telling jokes about Hebronites all day, just pointed and explained… see what I mean? What did I tell you about people from Hebron?

Two Sides of a Lost Coin (Cause?)

Today we met with our first Israeli settler. Hailing from the city of Chicago, Ardi Geldman grew up in a non-religious Jewish household, but after the unexpected death of his father he began to study his faith. He came to Israel for the first time in 1977 to study in a Yeshiva, met his wife, and then moved back to US to start their family. In 1982, Mr. Geldman and his family emigrated to Israel and have been there ever since.

Speaking with Mr. Geldman was challenging. He had sterotypes of us, outsiders wanting to listen to his story, and we had stereotypes of him, a settler within the Palestinian borders. We asked him why he had chosen to live here in the settlement and not in another place in Israel. He and his family moved to that particular area (outside of Bethlehem) because it was affordable, close to family, and they had the opportunity to design their own house. He considered all of the West Bank part of Israel and said that legally, all the land is “up for grabs” and the “borders are artificial.”

We were challenged by our own history of expelling the Native Americans; asked why we did not give back the land to them and move away. Mr. Geldman posed that a peace settlement would not result in peace between people in this part of the world; he held little hope for a peace solution of any kind.

At the end of our day we met with Khaled Ammayreh, an Islamic Journalist. Mr. Ammayreh is an American educated writer who is living in Durah, outside of Hebron. He is well known for his articles and writes often for several news agencies including Al Jezeera and the Christian Science Monitor.

Speaking with Mr. Ammayreh was also very challenging. He spoke in very strong language against the actions of Israel. He said that it was too late for either a peaceful solution or a two state solution; he predicted that the situation would break down into violence at some point. On this, Mr. Geldman and Mr. Ammayreh agreed.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

O Little Town of Bethlehem!

Tour guides who talk non-stop drive me crazy. Unfortunately, today our guide was just that… annoying!! We escaped his banter a bit while we visited the Bethlehem Bible College, where Tim taught for a semester. BBC is the only ecumenical undergraduate/graduate religious school in Israel or Palestine. It hosts about 171 students from most of the 13 recognized indigenous Christian communities and many missionary groups. The new building out back is beautiful!

Our next stop was Bethlehem University where we had a fantastic tour from their public affairs director, Demetri Awwad. He told us that 70% of BU was Muslim, 30% Christian, and 73% of BU was women. While the university is run by Roman Catholics, it teaches classes and hosts conferences on inter-religious issues. We spent a long time talking with Father Jamal Khader who teaches the Christian pieces of these classes and learned from him a good deal about how the political situation is affecting his students.

We had lunch in Manger Square and got to visit parts of the Church of the Nativity. There were many people there (it’s getting close to Orthodox Christmas) so we weren’t able to see everything. Still, the church is beautiful and it was nice to see where Jerome and Paula worked. We also got to visit the Shepherd’s fields later in the afternoon where supposedly the shepherd’s say the angel and the star that led them to where Jesus was born. The area is preserved as a green space and is made up of many caves. It’s a beautiful place—if only our tour guide would have shut up for a moment!

After lunch we sat through a presentation by the Applied Research Institute of Palestine who tracks the land usage of Palestine and changes in the development of Israeli settlements. Their figures concerning the land usage of the segregation wall and Israeli controlled natural resources were frightening. While ARIP appears to be doing some great environmental and community work, their statistics predict an impending environmental and population catastrophe.

In the evening we met with two groups. The first group, the WI’AM Center teaches conflict resolution to Palestinians. They also offer mediation services and host cultural exchanges. The second group was the YM/WCA. Nidal Abu Zuluf had been introduced to me by a friend prior to this meeting so it was nice to meet him in person. Both groups appeared to work on education Palestinians in various peace-building skills, cultural exchanges that brought international participation and awareness of Palestine, and youth programs of sorts. Both organizations were very impressive in their service and in their hope for a peaceful Palestine.

After all this we headed out to host families. Sara and I ended up in a home with five daughters, the oldest of whom lived next door with her family. Although they spoke little English, the family was wonderful to spend time with; I really enjoyed having children laughing and running underfoot.