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.