Birthday – Part I

September 16, 2013Palestine_September 15, 2013-51 - Copy

As Advent and this Holy Land series draw to a close and the long awaited day of celebrating the birth of a most extraordinary baby draw near, I thought it timely to share the story of my own birthday, September 16, the final week of our travels.  The realization of celebrating my birthday on this trip started off with anticipation, followed by a bit of disappointment, and then renewed anticipation, much like the mixed sentiments around Jesus’ birth.

My initial anticipation was ignited by my first glances at the itinerary.  When I received it I immediately scanned the document to see what was planned on my birthday.  I was astounded.  I mean, it was enough that I was going to be traveling in the Holy Land on the 28th anniversary of my life, but it was even more euphoric to discover we were set to be in the holiest place in this land, doing some of the holiest of things!  We were going to be in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

Jerusalem_September 12, 2013-48 - CopyThe schedule had us beginning the day on the Mount of Olives and commencing from there down the traditional Palm Sunday route.  That is, the way in which Jesus traveled into the heart of Jerusalem, the week before his crucifixion.  (For more all Palm Sunday read Luke 19:28-44).  Along the way down the mountain (glorified hill, really) we would stop in the Garden of Gethsemene.  The prospect of this stop was actually the most exciting of all for me that day because it is the one place during my first visit in 2011 where I felt like I finally connected to the Biblical story.  Until the garden I felt overwhelmed by and numb toward everything I was seeing in Jerusalem.  I thought, what a special gift it is that God would bring me back here on my birthday!  Following the Garden of Gethsemene we would head to Mount Zion, and then Solomon’s Pools the Jerusalem water source for thousands of years.  We would then complete the day in Beit Sahour (the Shepherd’s Fields) and Bethlehem!  I could not believe it!  I was going to get to see my dear Palestinian friend, Ashraf and see the site of Jesus’ birth on my birthday!  I could hardly contain my joy.

Then, the itinerary changed.  My heart sank and I thought, why, God?  Why get me all excited and then change it all?

Our itinerary had to be changed because of Yom Kippur.  Our ability to travel through the city by any other mode than foot would be impossible on the 15th so in order to see all we needed and wanted to see we had to flip our dates in Galilee and Jerusalem.

So, I did not get to wander Jerusalem on my birthday, but I still got to wake up there and I still got to spend time in Palestine.  In fact, as the day unfolded, with its numerous surprise, and I love surprises (well, except for surprise changes in itineraries), I was astounded by how wonderfully the day turned out!

As we left Jerusalem that morning, we passed the sprawling ancient wall of the old city and all the historical treasures held within.  We made our way north to Galilee.  Our first stop was in the region of Samaria in the Palestinian city of Shechem (or Sychar, now Nablus).  Here, God told Abram some of the most powerful words in history, “To your descendants I give this land (Gen. 12.6-8).”  Here, Jacob’s well resides–the location where generations of people gathered water for themselves and their flocks.  People including Jesus.  In fact, it is one of the few sites archeologists have been able to confirm is the actual well referred to in John 4 when Jesus had that infamous talk with the Samaritan woman.  She said to him, ‘”I know the Messiah is coming (who is called Christ).  “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us (John 4:25).”‘  Here, to the Samaritan woman, God (Jesus) responded with one of the most powerful statements in all of history: “I am he, the one who is speaking to you, (John 4:26)”–the Messiah, the one who saves.  What extraordinary events.  What an extraordinary place…  And, I realize as I write now this, how appropriate it is to remember this story at this time, as we are six days away from celebrating Jesus coming into the world to save us all.

Like most monuments in Holy Land, this, too, had a church build over/around it.  Jacob’s Well church was absolutely gorgeous.  We entered through its white, street level archway into an open courtyard draped in green vines and bright flowers.  We descended down white steps to the courtyard floor decorated with a massive mosaic of the well.  I took my time drinking in the beauty.  It struck me as one of the most lovely, welcoming places we had visited so far.

Time seemed to stop here.  Something jostled me back to reality and I realized this was not the case.  I looked around and noticed my group had gone inside ahead of me and I was left alone, again.  I caught the eye of a man in the doorway who appeared to be the groundskeeper and thought perhaps he was suggesting I needed to return to my group.  So, I quickly finished my photos and rushed in.  He noticed my hurried movement and said in a kind voice something to the effect of, “It’s okay, take your time.”  He followed with, “Come see me when you are finished I have a present for you.”  This was curious indeed, but I was too curious to pass it up.

Palestine_September 15, 2013-56 - Copy

In the mean time I cast my eyes upon the elegant Orthodox church.  It truly was not gaudy like many others.  It was elaborate and ornate with a three-tiered circular gold candelabra and a gold coffin-like piece of furniture on the right with candles. It was also very light inside (perhaps that’s why I liked it so much).  The interior wasn’t cream or darkened stone, like so many churches we had visited, but it was painted bright white, mostly.  There were also were also magnificent heaven-height, brilliant colored paintings adorning the walls.

Jacob's well - CopyWe walked down some stairs near altar in the transept of the church into a small underground “cell”, of sorts.  Here stood the well.  No photos were allowed (hence the sketch).  The square well still functioned so, naturally, we gave it a try.  Andre, our guide, gave the challenge a go and began to turn the handle on the wheel holding the rope to let down the bucket.  The wheel creaked with a high-pitched screech at each turn as the rope-dangling bucket descended down the millennia-old shaft to the water below.  But, we were all willing to endure the sound for a site and, more importantly, a taste of the ancient source’s treasure.  I was amazed the water still existed and moreover was still drinkable!  After a bit of time, it was a 40 meter-deep well, and a bit of a work out, the bucket reemerged from the depths.  We admired the clear liquid for a moment then each dipped our cupped hands in.  It was cold, clean, and had a hint of sweetness.  It was refreshing to my tongue and on my forehead as I placed the sign of the cross upon it with my finger.

When we returned to the sanctuary above I scanned the space for the sweet-faced groundskeeper.  I found him and made my way over to him.  When he saw me he beckoned me follow him to the little display of tourist trinkets and grabbed something from behind the counter.  It was a small wooden piece, perhaps 2 in. x 2 in.  with two little vials on either side of a drawing of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well.  On the bottom was scrolled “Jacob’s Well”.  He explained, pointing first to the vial on the left, this is myrrh and this,” pointing to the right, “is water [from the well].”  I received it with such joy and hugged him expressing my immense thanks.  I felt like I had encountered an angel.  This man had no idea it was my birthday, had no reason to single me out or show me kindness, but he did.  I walked out held in awe and joy.

I still look back on that day with amazement.  Isn’t that so like God?  To let us conceive of a picture of who God is or what God does and then change it up on us only to gift us with something even more marvelous than we could have dreamed?  And, in the smallest and greatest of ways.  From the little details of how I, one of seven billion others of God’s people, would spend my birthday, to the greatest of world-changing events when God would choose to become like us, be born into the world like us, and change the course of history.
And this is just the beginning.

Some Surprising Facts About Jerusalem

Jerusalem_September 12, 2013-26 - CopyNote: “Palestinian” can describe both an Arab who lives in the West Bank and an Arab who lives in Israel.  Therefore, a Palestinian isn’t necessarily an Arab Israeli, however an Arab Israeli is a Palestinian.

  • Jerusalem is actually the second poorest city in Israel.  This is due to the fact that almost 1/3 of the city is Orthodox Jewish, 75% of which one might call “ultra Orthodox” (known as “Haredim”) meaning they adhere to a traditional form of Jewish law and reject modern secular culture, and many do not work for pay.  Rather, they attend Yeshiva, a school where they study ancient texts, primarily the Talmud and Torah, as a full time occupation.  They also are exempt from the army, which is a bit of a scandal because they are reaping the benefits of the socialist country’s resources without putting back into it in a quantitatively measurable way, including the payment of taxes.  This is one of the major current conflicts between the Orthodox Jews and secular Jews.
  • The Arab Israelis and Jews pay the same 25% tax in Jerusalem, however, the Arab Israelis, who make up about 30% of the city’s population, receive only 10% of the taxes benefits.  In practical terms this means, for example, in East Jerusalem, where most of the Arab Israelis live, it is quite run-down and trash-ridden because the trash is picked up only once a week, if that often, while it is collected multiple times a week in Jewish areas.
  • Everyone living in Israel or an Israeli occupied territory (Palestine) is required by law to carry an identity card (“Teudat Zehut”).  The cards vary based on an individual or family’s “status”, ethnicity, and history.  Those who live in Israel hold blue identity cards.  A blue identity card allows a person to pass between Israel and the West Bank without having to stop at the check point, generally.
  • Now, there are two primary kinds of blue cards for Arab Israelis.  If a person or family received a blue identity card following the First Arab-Israeli War of 1948 (known as the War of Independence by Israeli Jews), then they have access to all the social benefits offered by the Israeli government as well as the right to vote in all elections.  A person who received a blue identity card after 1967 (when Israel took control of the West Bank from Jordan) does not have access to any social provisions from the state and is only allowed to vote in municipal elections.
  • As explained in the previous post, “Some Facts About The West Bank”, those who live in Palestine (the West Bank and Gaza Strip) hold green identity cards.  These indicate residency rather than citizenship.  If a person holds a green ID card this means that person is only allowed to cross through the big checkpoints going into Jerusalem.  These have machines which detects the type of access into Israel the Palestinian has.  Primarily, what time of day and for how long the person can be in Jerusalem.  For example, 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. to 7 or 8 p.m. There are some exceptions, like for clergy.  As one of my friends living in Beit Sahour, a primarily Christian city in the West Bank near Bethlehem, explained, “Mine and some of the clergies have 00:00 – 00:00 (24 hours) but this does not mean that we are allowed to sleep in Israel or drive a car and so on….”
  • The Arab Israelis for the most part are poorer, commonly, because they tend to have the lowest jobs, both in status and pay, due to discrimination.  While they technically have equal access to education there aren’t many schools in their neighborhoods and the quality varies.
  • Arab Christians across the country have  somewhat better conditions than Arab Muslims.  Our guide’s take on it was, ‘They are the minority so they push themselves more.  They are known to be the leaders across the Middle East.’  He added, ‘They pass exams first,’ too.  This he attributes this to the missionary schools and the value of education found there.
  • Housing suburbs for Jerusalem have been built across the 1967 border between Israel and Palestine (the West Bank) since the end of The Six Day War, making them “settlements”, or, housing built by the occupier on the occupied land.  Such an act is illegal under international law, however, despite efforts by the U.N., Israel continues to build these settlements.  A handful of American activist groups have tried to bring this issue to light to get the U.S. to stop its ally, Israel, from continuing to build, but have not yet been successful.  Former President Jimmy Carter is one of the consistent voices in calling out the illegal behavior of Israel, as exhibited this September in an op ed piece in Haaretz, Israel’s oldest daily newspaper. (http://www.haaretz.com/mobile/.premium-1.547086)
  • About 99% of the settlement residents are Jewish.  There is no law against Arab Israelis/Palestinians living there, but, while settlements are cheaper to live in than other areas of Jerusalem, have good infrastructure and have easy access to the city via public transit, it is hard to imagine Palestinians wanting to move into them.  They never feel quite accepted, I was told.  The few Arab Israelis who do live in settlements are primarily business people coming to the city for work.

 

Some Facts About The West Bank

Palestine_September 12, 2013-35 - Copy - CopySome Facts About the West Bank:

  • CITIZENSHIP: Palestinians in the West Bank are not citizens of any country.  Technically.  By most they are considered an occupied territory, and occasionally recognized as a full-fledged state.  However, since the Palestinian Authority is not recognized as a government, at least according to U.S. State Department[1], then the land cannot be recognized as a state nor the people dwelling there as citizens.
  • PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY PASSPORTS: Most Palestinians have a Palestinian Authority Passport.  To many Palestinians, this indicates nationality as well as travel capabilities.  Though, the travel capabilities are limited due to the ambiguity of the region’s classification.  Restrictions are placed on Palestinians by Israel, it’s occupying force.  Additionally, most other countries require Palestinians to obtain a visa to travel there.  Jordan, Palestine’s former ruling force, is the single exception.
  • JORDANIAN PASSPORTS: Some Palestinians also hold Jordanian passports.  These serve solely as travel documents, not an indication of citizenship for those who live in the West Bank.
  • IDENTITY CARDS: Palestinians also hold Israeli identity cards.  Arab Israelis who live in Jerusalem hold blue identity cards.  Those who live in the West Bank hold green identity cards.  These indicate, as one might presume, residency rather than citizenship.  Basically, these communities of people become residents in the land where they were once citizens… without even moving.
  • GREEN IDENTITY CARDS: If a person holds a green ID card this means that person is only allowed to cross through the big checkpoints going into Jerusalem.  These have machines which detects the type of access into Israel the Palestinian has.  Primarily, what time of day and for how long the person can be in Jerusalem.  For example, 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. to 7 or 8 p.m. There are some exceptions, like for clergy.  As one of my friends living in Beit Sahour, a primarily Christian city in the West Bank near Bethlehem, explained, “Mine and some of the clergies have 00:00 – 00:00 (24 hours) but this does not mean that we are allowed to sleep in Israel or drive a car and so on….”
  • MARRIAGE: Up until two years ago a Israeli citizen could marry a non-Israeli citizen and one’s partner would receive Israeli citizenship.  However, as of two years ago the law was changed so residents of the West Bank were exempt.  Therefore, if an Israeli wants to marry someone residing in the West Bank they must give up their Israeli citizenship and move to the West Bank or move to another country.
  • ZONES: The West Bank is divided into three zones: A, B, and C.  According to decisions made in the Oslo II Accord.
  • Zone A is under Palestinian civil and security control with their headquarters in Ramallah (the Tel Aviv of Palestine).
  • Zone B is under Palestinian civil control and Israeli security control.  The problem is, some Israeli settlements have now been built in Zone B, violating the Oslo II Accord.
  • Zone C is under Israeli civil and security control.  Palestinians have access to only 1% of this land saturated in the majority of the region’s natural resources and open spaces.  “Israeli policies in the area have undermined the Palestinian presence there, with a deterioration in basic services such as water supplies, education and shelter. Nearly 70% of the Palestinian villages are not connected to the water network that serves settlers, which accounts for the fact that Palestinians in the zone use only a quarter to a third of the per capita consumption of settlers,” according to a 2013 EU report.  Additionally, The World Bank has stated, granting the Palestinians access to the use of the land would “half their budget deficit and lead to an expansion of their economy by a third.”  Zone C also houses all the (illegal) Israeli settlements, which continue to be built in violation of the Oslo Accords, “which specified in article 31 that neither side would take any step that would change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip pending the outcome of the permanent status negotiations. However, Israeli settlement expansion has continued unabated.”

For citations and more information visit:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Bank_Areas_in_the_Oslo_II_Accord

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Israeli_settlement

Aseel and Al-Quds

September 12, 2013

Beit Sahour, Palestine, West Bank??????????????

I sit down with Aseel Bannoura.  Her face is cheerful, her eyes are bright, her words are astoundingly articulate.  Her eloquent English allows her to be perfectly frank with me as I start to ask her questions.  Her frankness alone takes me by surprise, but even more striking is the lack of bitterness or anger in her tone.  She just tells it to me straight.  Even with a whiff of humor now and then.

She is a student at Al-Quds University, a Palestinian University with campuses in Abu Dis, al-Bireh, and in Jerusalem, where Aseel attends.  Her English fluency is in part because she is part of a dual-degree program with Bard College at Al-Quds.

The situation is a bit complicated.  On many levels.  For one, she explains, ‘[It's an] unidentified college by Israelis.  They want us to leave the college… It’s the only institute named after Jerusalem, but not identified by Israel Al-Quds.’  I interpret this to mean: it exists, but it is not officially accepted as one of Israel’s Universities by Israel.

The situation is complicated on a basic, ground level, as well.  “We have gas bombs there,” she plainly states.

What?  My jaw drops, I’m stunned.  Okay, call me naïve, I guess I should not be too surprised knowing the conflict.  But, when reality jumps off the newspaper page and right into my face I am shocked by it. Aseel goes on to tell me one went off just this week!  The students were crying, everyone was upset, parents were horrified, she recounts.  I cannot even imagine.

In addition to terrorism and violence, Aseel and other Palestinian students have to engage the daily challenge, frustration, and humiliation of crossing the border through the check point between the West Bank and Jerusalem.  “Even the American students know about this, know why we’re late to class.”  It’s the same story as with every other Palestinian: potential hold-ups, interrogation, intimidation.  I try to conceive what this is like.  It’s beyond my imagination.  I’ve had experiences being discriminated against and harassed for being a woman.  It’s horrible–sickening.  It’s one of those experiences where you don’t realize how strongly it’s going to affect you until you’re in it.  To face similar and worse oppression twice a day, everyday is unfathomable to me.  But, she, and hundreds, maybe thousands, of others do it.  Everyday.  They keep living.  They must.  It’s the only way they will survive.

She would like to see that Palestinians get the 1948 lands back.  One third to one half of the Palestinians have emigrated, she explains.  Despite the diaspora, she says, “Nobody ever gives up their history.  [We all have the] right to return.”maps of Palestinian TerritoriesFast forward to today:

As I was preparing to post this interview I came across the news there was a recent uproar at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem.  Bard was not the only college in partnership with Al-Quds, Brandeis and Syracuse were, as well.  That is, up until mid November.  As explained by Algemeiner, “Brandeis University and Syracuse University formally ended their ties with Al- Quds, after a rally held by Islamic Jihad on the Al-Quds campus, which its president, Sari Nusseibeh, did not initially condemn.”

I found Aseel’s words on the occupation all the more poignant in light of this recent tragedy.  “I think we’re all able to live together.  We’re all humans.”  One can only hope.

For more on the alliance between Bard College and Al-Quds University and the University’s recent severing of relationship between Brandeis and Syracuse due to a rally last month read:

http://www.algemeiner.com/2013/11/25/new-yorks-bard-college-will-stay-with-al-quds-alliance/

I Wish

Garden Tomb May 31 (2) - CopyI wish I’d had more experiences, well, any experiences, talking with Jewish Israelis about the occupation while visiting the Holy Land these two times.  My goal this recent visit was to learn more about the occupation overall.  I wanted to hear personal stories from Israelis and Palestinians: Christians, Muslims and Jews.

Yes, my interest has been largely in the Palestinians because I was exposed to the depth of the injustices encountered in daily life in Palestine when I became close friends with a Palestinian while studying together in Bossey, Switzerland at the Ecumenical Institute for the World Council of Churches.  I also have focused on the Palestinians because their stories are vastly unknown and/or misunderstood among Americans since most people here seem to be pro-Israel.  More specifically, many American Christians are pro-Israel (Jewish Israel).  For the most part, this is because they assume all Palestinians are Muslim and since Christianity is of Jewish heritage many Christians align with Jews over Muslims.  However, they do this without realizing a number of Palestinians are Christian.  Additionally, a large number of Christians interpret the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises of God to the nation of a people called Israel in what they see as the country of Israel today.  Nevermind the whys and hows the land was acquired and allotted. What seems to matter to great number of people is the existence of this particular plot of land for this particular group of chosen people—Jewish people—the land called Israel.

However, in the Bible, Israel is not described as a place, it’s a people.  I am sure Jewish people are aware Israel denotes a people not a place.  Yet, the impression I got during my visit is many Jewish Israelis believe it is their right and God’s will to establish an exclusive nation of Jewish people called Israel on a plot of land called Israel…which just so happens to bleed into the land of the Palestinians.  I find hope and comfort in knowing there are Jewish people who acknowledge the oppression of the Palestinians as atrocious and inhumane, and occupation of their land as horribly wrong.  I know such Jewish people exist because I have heard and met with some who have given lectures in Atlanta.  Though, it’s not the same as talking to an Israeli in Israel.  I imagine our conversations would have made all the difference.  Perhaps on my next trip, God willing.

Yet, these anti-occupation, pro-Palestinian-compassion Jewish Israeli voices are hard to hear over the dominant voices and actions of the government, Zionists and many Orthodox Jews vying for racial exclusivity.  Such exclusivity is not to be the character of Israel, however.  At least according to the Bible. Israel is to be a nation open to all people.  A chosen people dwelling in a place where all nations will gather together and worship God.  Israel is a “chosen people”, yes, but to be chosen does not mean to bask under a crown of exceptionalism.  To be chosen is a responsibility, a great responsibility where a people is called to be a reflection of the extraordinary experience of life found only when in relationship with the God of all nations.  To be chosen is a blessing, but to be a blessing to others.  To be chosen means to be an expression of the hesed (loving-kindness, goodness, mercy) received from God to the world.  To be chosen means to be a moral compass and to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with one’s God.

God’s plan is not exclusivity, injustice, oppression, abuse, or imprisonment.  God is about freedom, life, peace, compassion, and love.  God is also about reconciliation and unity.  My understanding is then God is not pro-Israel or pro-Palestine, God is for all of God’s people, all of God’s creation, and calls us to live in a way that moves in the same direction.

These are my observation from conversations with Arab Israelis and Palestinians, experiences at border-crossings and checkpoints, the Jewish documentary “The Law In These Parts”, writings and documentaries by Christians, a lecture and tour from an Orthodox Jew at the Temple Mount Museum in Jerusalem and a smattering of other lectures, readings and research.  I am well aware my sources are limited and weightier on the Arab side.  I wish I had more conversations with Jewish people while in Israel.  I wish I were better read at this point.  But, I’m not.  I offer you what I’ve seen and the observations I’ve drawn thus far.  My thoughts are still in process and I anticipate my perspectives to evolve the more I learn.

I invite your reflections and insights and hope together we can move toward thinking, living and loving with openness and justice.

Interview With Bisan

September 12, 2013

Beit Sahour, Palestine, West BankPalestine_Bisan_September 12, 2013-7 - Copy

The young woman walks into Ashraf’s office with a kind, confident, but slightly shy smile on her face.  Her hair dark and wavy, her skin tan and sun-kissed.  She could blend in with any of the thousands of high school-age girls from my hometown in southern California.  Her one clear difference: the white uniform shirt she dons; with its black pleather shoulder pads and small, but distinct, Palestinian flag stitched over the front right pocket.  She is a scout and today is a ceremony for those moving up in rank.Palestine_September 12, 2013-39 - Copy

Bisan is named after an area near Tiberias.  It’s now occupied.  “I’m a refugee from Jaffa,” she explains.

“What’s it like to live under occupation?” I ask.

“[There's] no freedom.  [You] can’t go anywhere without Israeli permission.  …I can’t treat them normally.  I feel they make borders and I can’t build a friendship with them.”

She goes on to tell me she played basketball with some Israelis at a center using sports to promote peace between Palestinians and Israelis.  This jogs my memory to recall a program in Northern Ireland one of my friends worked with called “Peace Players” which promotes reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants there.  Unfortunately, it sounds like the program here is not so well received.  At least by Bisan.

“They are promoting life as if settlements and the occupation are normal.  Beit Sahour is very strong in patriotism because they are against the occupation.  Other cities live as if its normal.”

I explain I am asking all these questions because I perceive it is one of the few things I can do as a Westerner who has little ability to really understand the conflict and occupation.  I yearn to understand and help, though, even if feebly.  I figured I can listen, learn and share the stories of those who I meet, like her.  I ask her what else she recommends I can do.

“Don’t buy Israeli products.”

I can manage that, I think to myself.

I move on.  “What would you like to see happen?”

“[I would like to see] one Palestinian state.  I think Israelis don’t have the right to take any one cent of our land.  Israelis are Zionists and created this conflict. …It’s our land and we can’t live freely on it.”

“Where would Israelis live?” I inquire.

“They would live with us under Palestinian rule.  We have the right to return and rule.”Palestine_September 11, 2013 - Copy

Alternative Tourism Group

September 12, 2013

Beit Sahour

Illegal Israeli settlements spread across the hillside behind Palestinian homes

Illegal Israeli settlements spread across the hillside behind Palestinian homes

In a short time we arrive at the gates of the church/school campus.  There we are greeted by youths in uniform.  I am a little confused.  I learn they were scouts.  More on that in a post to come.

We drop my belongings in Ashraf’s office and head down the street to another office.  As we enter, my eye catches a long map of Israel and Palestine stretching about 1/3 the length of the wall.  I’ve seen many of these maps before, but there is something unique about this one.  It is covered in multi-colored speckles.  As I lean in for a closer look at the key I discover the polka dots are actually markers denoting the dozens of checkpoints.  I also realize among the dots are magenta squares identifying road blocks, while splotches of blue signify Israeli outposts, more commonly known as settlements, which are illegal.

Palestine Map

Here I meet Rami Kassis.  Rami is in charge of ATG, Alternative Tourism Group.  ATG emerged in response to the reality that many tourists visiting the Holy Land come with a pro-Israeli perspective and know little about Palestinians, except for what the media negatively projects.  The hope of this Lutheran NGO is to use tourism as a mode for Palestinian advocacy.  By inviting tourists to come and stay in Palestinian homes they receive the opportunity to develop their own perspectives, which, ATG hopes, are a more accurate view of the Arab community.

Kassis explains, through this model of sight-seeing, “[The tourists] would be a support instead of a threat to the community.” He further articulates, “If tourists come without knowledge of the situation they are only causing harm.” For example, “Our churches just become museums.”

At this last comment, I now understand.  It’s true.  Even I, a Christian, walk into churches while traveling and fall prey to merely adoring the art and paying little attention to its meaning. If this does happen, it’s usually when I’m tired and have just visited five other churches in the last 48 hours.  However, I imagine, if someone had been there to draw my attention to specific stories painted on the walls or pieced into the windows I likely would have been more engaged…and reverent.  Likewise, if someone had been there to tell me about the history of the church and for how many dozens of centuries Christians had been worshipping in that very space, I believe I would treat it less like a museum and more like the sacred place it is.  Hopefully, at least.

I also know it is especially easy to miss the meaning and holiness of a place when I know less about the religion of those who worship there.  A large number of the tourists who visit the Holy Land are not Christians or adherents to any faith, for that matter, and they certainly could benefit from a little enlightenment on the meaning of what they are gazing at.  Knowledge enhances and deepens all of our experiences, not matter what we are encountering.

Rami then hands me a book, then another, and then another, until I have quite a heavy stack weighing on my lap.  With just a glance at this material I gather ATG has already gone to some lengths to educate its visitors on Palestine, its people, the occupation and what it means to be a tourist here.  I am amazed and impressed.  The documents are thorough and readable.  One booklet explains life under occupation; another is a Guide for Christian Pilgrims; a pamphlet offers a Code of Conduct for Tourism in the Holy Land; while a thick book details the history, culture, politics, and religions sharing the land.  I find myself already wanting to return through an ATG  tour.

At the end of my visit I asked Rami about his thoughts regarding the occupation and conflict.

It’s “all political,” he stated.

When I asked what he would like to see happen he responded, “[We just want to live] in dignity, freedom, in our own state and in human conditions… No one can remain under occupation.”  Yet, “[Nothing will change] until there is pressure from other countries.”

“We advocate for justice and peace.”

“Put pressure on your government to pressure Israel,” he concluded.

Below you will find the contact information to learn more about ATG and perhaps even to consider how to go on your own tailor-made program.

http://www.atg.ps/

Email: info@atg.ps

Crossing the Threshold

Beit Sahour and Bethlehem

September 12Palestine_Fight the Evil_Beit Sahour_September 12, 2013While in the West Bank I had the incredible opportunity to connect with one of my dear friends who I first met while studying at The Ecumenical Institute for the World Council of Churches at Bossey in Switzerland.  Ashraf Tannous is now a Lutheran pastor and headmaster, of sorts, at the Evangelical Lutheran Church and School established in 1901 in Beit Sahor (“Shepherd’s Fields”).

Palestine_Ashraf Lecturing_September 12, 2013-90He met up with our group for lunch at Ruth Restaurant located across from the shepherds’ field and owned by some very kind, hospitable Christians, not to mention fantastic chefs.  Ashraf was able to rearrange his busy schedule so he could also join us after our meal in the shepherd’s “field” (park) and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Church in the Shepherds' Field Cave, Beit

Church in the Shepherds’ Field Cave, Beit Sahour

Thanks to Ashraf’s friendships with the Orthodox priests at the Church of the Nativity, I joined him on a special, but tragic tour through the crypt holding the reputed remains of the baby boys whom King Herod had slain (ref. Matthew 2:7-8; 16-18).

Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

Palestine_September 12, 2013-97Palestine_September 12, 2013-99Following that visit, he and I departed from my group, were picked up by one of his friends and headed to his church back in nearby Beit Sahour.  It was my first time during the entire trip to be in a local’s car.  It was like crossing this threshold between tourist and guest.  I was now a guest—moreover, a friend.  From here, everything changed.Palestine_Drive Home_September 12, 2013-37

At The Place of Your Birth

Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, Palestine

September 12, 2013Bethlehem church of the Nativity_FinalI can’t connect here.  The “site” of your birth is just a shrine to me.  It’s hard for me to come and give thanks to you here.  I find I just come to consume, to get my picture and go.  It makes me feel terrible.

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????So, I watch the others — those to whom all this seems to mean something.  And, wondrously, through them I am able to connect.  Through them I can feel something.  I guess that’s what it means to be a community, why we are called to be a community — a covenant people.

The Western Wall

September 12, 2013Western Wall_Jerusalem_September 11, 2013-4 - CopyToday is a unique day in Jerusalem, especially around the Western Wall.  It’s a Thursday, and, as Andre our guide explains to us, on Monday’s and Thursday’s bar mitzvahs are celebrated.  As we walk to the wall we witness parade after parade heading in the same direction. Families and friends stroll with a slight skip in their step, almost dancing, under four-poster tents called chuppahs, while hired musicians walk backwards in front of them joyously paving each step of their way. Western Wall_Jerusalem_September 12, 2013 _smallWhen we arrive at the massive, towering wall on the western side of the former temple mount I see teems of people, men gathered on the left two-thirds and women on the right third.  I quickly notice something quite odd: women standing on white plastic chairs with cameras snapping away at a scene over the wooden barrier dividing the men and women.  Others throw—launch, rather, showers of colorful petals over the 8 foot divider while little girls peek between the slats.  This is how they make do with the gender division…  Western Wall_Jerusalem_September 11, 2013-3 - CopyI realize what’s happening, there’s a bar mitzvoh happening on the other side!  I walk closer to the scene and hold my camera up over my head and start shooting away hoping to get some sense of what’s taking place.  From my monitor I see a group of men surrounding a 13-year-old reading the Torah, reciting words spoken for generations as the powerful rite of passage ritualizing the transition of this boy’s life into the beginning of manhood is conducted.  It’s a joyous yet also strange scene to observe. Western Wall_Jerusalem_September 11, 2013 - CopyI decide it’s time to have my own, personal western wall experience.  So, I turn over my right shoulder and head toward the wall.  I wade through the sea of prayers, past the girls in the light blue uniforms and the older women from far and near, some sitting, some standing, and many rocking.  I stand behind the one in the blue rosebud hat and the young girl with a dried flower behind her ear.  Together our prayers melt into the wall.  Together our hearts cry to our God.

I fold my paper and tuck it under a dozen others wedged between the rough rocks.  The ancient stones hold our prayers—God holds them—our rock and our refuge.

Western Wall_Jerusalem_September 11, 2013-2 - Copy

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