Day 5: Hebron and Sderot

Yesterday, Sunday, we visited Hebron. There we were able to walk through both H1 and H2 but our guides could each not go into the other section – access is restricted. Now I would previously have thought “oh, so there are two separate commercial centres and suburbs interspersed / close to each other” but this is not the case at all. It is necessary for life for people to pass into another’s areas and yet it is dangerous to do so. So much so that the checkpoints have international monitors and there are groups (both international and Israeli) who volunteer to walk school children to and from school.  We met a World Council of Churches monitor. We visited a museum in Hebron and spoke with a settler about the 1929 massacre and Jewish history and current re-settling of Hebron.

Then we visited the Abraham Mosque and Synagogue at the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs – quite something! And more on all that to follow in specific posts.

We visited with a Muslim Palestinian family in Hebron who own a shop there selling many locally made items. They were incredibly hospitable and we had a delicious lunch in their home behind the shop.

On the way out of Hebron we had a long stop at the checkpoint. They asked us to pull over to the side for additional investigation. They spoke with our leaders outside the bus, invited the driver into a little building for additional questioning / checking and then did the same with our Palestinian guide. Because of that, our Israeli guide insisted she also be checked. The officers did a walk through of the bus checking all our passports. Our driver and one guide are Palestinian and so it is likely because of this (and perhaps also the person caught with numerous bombs that same day at a checkpoint near Jenin). In some way I was pleased for this experience because it gave us a view of what life is like.

After that, we drove to Sderot and spoke with Nomika, a Jewish woman who lives in an urban kibbutz. It has been three weeks since the last missile fell there but our talk still started with our host telling us what we should do in the event of a siren (and she mentioned that we wouldn’t possibly all make it to her basement shelter in time).  This visit was incredibly moving. Nomika shared very candidly and deeply about her experience. I will blog more about her because she started an organization called Other Voice and published a ground-breaking article bringing another voice to the Israeli narrative.

But I have to run – it’s morning and we’re off to visit settlements and volunteer someplace. Tonight we will pack for tomorrow night’s overnight home stay. We will be staying the night with Christian and Muslim families in Bethlehem and another refugee camp. So I may not be able to post for a few days again but will catch up soon after.

View from the bus as we drove in through Palestinian zone.

Shop keeper or two holding out in Souk that is otherwise deserted, The man pictured in his store opened his home to us for lunch.

View of a cenotaph of one of the Patriarchs/Matriarchs in Abraham Synagogue.

Cart being pushed through Souk in Hebron.

Thoughts Inbetween

I’ve really appreciated my altered relationship with my cellphone. A welcome break from my super-connected life in Boston.

I’ve been seeing lots of stray cats and dogs. Like other areas of the world, they have a different place in society and sensibilities around pets is different. I see these animals as the canary in the coal mine in many ways – a sign of the starved soul of a nation torn and not living into its full humanity.

I am getting on really well with my two roommates, Caitlin and Samantha. They are both warm, humorous, good-hearted women and I am doubly appreciative since this makes a trip like this much more pleasant.

Our bath in the hotel is really odd. Firstly, it is normal width but so small it is square. Secondly, the back section is a raised step. So I’ve been sit-showering – another new  and unexpected experience!

Our guides took us out “partying” in Tel Aviv. Those of you in the know will know what was in store: we left at 10pm (got there just after 11pm) and stayed until 3pm, so we got to sleep at 4:30am. The nightlife in Tel Aviv is quite something! We had a fun time dancing, perhaps more people watching!

Our tour guides, Aziz and Shira.

One of the many strays, this one in Silwan.

The combined BU-ANTS group, with our guides, in Lifta.

Day 4: Lifta & Silwan

On Saturday we had a day that proved really difficult for me. In the afternoon, as I left a community centre in a Palestinian neighborhood just outside the Old City Walls in Jerusalem called Silwan, I could have sat on the curb and wept. I felt I had walked into a version of apartheid-era South Africa. My heart was torn to realize how much past pain could not change even if, by some miracle, the present and future were to change right then and there. The lives of youth, routinely interrogated, shaped by violence and turning to violence. The emasculation of men threatened in every possible way. The fabric of an age-old society systematically eroded by a state that doesn’t afford them the rights due citizens and humans.

The day had begun with a visit to Lifta, one of the few Palestinian towns (where the inhabitants were forcibly deported in the Nakba) – actually I think the only – where the ruins haven’t yet been covered up. It was hauntingly beautiful. Then we went to the Mt of Olives and had a talk, ate a picnic lunch overlooking the Kidron Valley, the Temple Mt and Jerusalem. Interestingly, the Mount was not what I expected at all – it looked different (perhaps I imagine it through the lens of Scripture forgetting that that was 2,000 years ago!)

That said, Lifta and the Mount were my most spiritual experiences thus far… by far. Can’t wait to share my photos with you!

Then, after visiting Silwan, we drove to Bethlehem to visit a refugee camp there. It is one of three that are now within the city limits. Each cannot expand space-wise and people are assigned to it. Originally residents were told it would be temporary yet this one, which started with 8,000 now has 30,000 (if I remember correctly). This means that in order to cope they have had to build new buildings between others. It is very cramped, smells bad, and has trash everywhere (little to no municipal services). We happened to run into the man there, a resident, who was part of last month’s prisoner exchange. He had been a political prisoner for 6 years during which time he’d had his right hand cut off. It was moving to hear him talk and see him with his sons.

The day’s programs ended with a visit to a Christian Palestinian shop in Bethlehem. It is a cooperative of families who, for hundreds of years, have engaged in crafts like Olive wood carving.  The family, who were actually off celebrating Orthodox Christmas, were kind enough to come and open the shop. Judging by our groups enthusiasm, it seemed to be retail therapy – of the best kind!

View from the Mount of Olives.

Me standing on the Mount of Olives with Dome of the Rock in rear, Kidron Valley between.

The ANTS group.

Spring that still gives living waters in Lifta (there is an eeriness to the beauty of nature amidst the ruins).

Day 3: Yad Vashem, Zionism, and 1967

On Friday we visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial. The experience was very moving adding more depth and detail to my prior knowledge. The building was, our Memorial guide told us, designed very carefully – it is dramatic and very stark and looks like a scar on the landscape just as the Holocaust is a scar on the people’s psyche.

Then  we visited Givat Hatahmoshet (Ammunition Hill) and learned about the 1967 war from a very Israeli point of view. We watched a video and had a tour from their guide. It is mind boggling to begin to consider the dual (often multiple, actually) narratives and to hear the power of social location on perspective and simple things like language choice and connotations.

While still at Ammunition Hill, we met with an Israeli soldier. Not one on duty but one who was willing to come and speak to us about his time serving (he is now in the reserve). In the evening, we met with Dalia Landau whose family settled in Ramle soon after 1948 in an Arab house. The book The Lemon Tree is based on her life and her experience coming to know the family who had lived in the home prior to 1948. Together, in their common home, they founded Open House, a Jewish Arab co-existence centre. I’ll finish by sharing a thought Dalia shared. She asked rhetorically why the first book of the Hebrew Bible is all about siblings and filled with such rivalry, jealousy and acts of violence? She noted that the book ends with the story of Jacob who was transformed and, at the end of his life, not blessing one or the other son, he instead crosses his hands at the last moment as he reaches toward them and blesses both. She spoke of a transformation from scarcity to a realization of abundant and equal blessing.

Day 2: Jerusalem’s Old City

On Thursday we went to the Old City via the Dung gate (there are 7 gates each with numerous, interesting names). And there we visited the Western Wall, the closest place that Jews can come (with theological safety for very observant Jews) to the Temple. It was very moving and was the first time I really realized where I was, looking at it and Haram esh-Sharif (the Temple Mount). Then we walked through part of the Old City to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where the Orthodox, Coptic, and Catholic traditions believe Jesus was crucified and buried (Protestants believe it was in a garden called the Garden of the Tomb). We walked to the church along the Via Delrosa with its stations of the cross (the last 4 stations are inside the Church). All along the way there’s a traditional Souk (market).

The thing that struck me most today and yesterday (Day 1), as the tour focused on the Palestinian narrative, were the analogies that our speakers made (independently of one another) with South Africa. Specifically with apartheid and bantustans. This strikes me on a number of levels. I think it seems to help the Palestinians give shape to their experience. A shape that they can communicate to others by the use of a commonly understood phrase. And, in the process of giving an experience a name, I suspect they may feel they’re able to take that first measure of power over their lived experience, something an oppressed person so desperately needs in the process of self-advocacy and change.

Later in the day we met with Imam Yusuf Abu Sneineh (head of the Al Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mt) and afterwards with a Christian Palestinian refugee, Ceder Duaybis, who is a founding member of an organization in East Jerusalem called Sabeel. I was struck by how little I know of the Palestinian narrative and I am increasingly aware of how little I grasped of the complexity of all sides of the situation. For example, I didn’t anticipate how close everything is and how jumbled together all the different factions of people are.

In closing I wanted to apologize for not blogging for a few days – our days are absolutely packed morning to night. And since they are so full, I’ve felt overwhelmed by the idea of trying to fit them into one blog a day. So I plan to keep posting about my whole day but afterwards I will go back over the trip and post reflections about specific experiences, visits, speakers, etc. So please keep checking back even after I return to Boston. Finally finally 😉 I have limited ability on my iPad to work with my photos and so will add those stateside.

The Western Wall

The intrepid traveler and blogger at the Western Wall.

Day 1: Up Against the Wall

Our plane got in just before 9am local time this morning after a long but uneventful flight. Actually, I shouldn’t say that – our flight from Boston to Newark felt a little more like a salt shaker than an aircraft!

Needless to say, I was grateful to have my feet back on solid ground in Tel Aviv and I cleared customs easily, another relief. Our group met our guides, Aziz (a Palestinian Muslim) and Shira (an Israeli Jew) and headed off for a full day of activities.

We learned about the three zones of Palestinian territories (West Bank) and entered Zone A which is where Bethlehem is. Zone A is officially Palestinian controlled and run. No Jews may enter at will (unless they are settlers with permits) so Shira “joined the tour” (on her American passport) as we entered.

Interestingly, Bethlehem is home to many Palestinian Christians whose lineage dates back to the earliest Christians. As in the rest of the world, these Christians are also divided and so most holy sites are shared and not always peaceably, by Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian-Syrian Orthodox priests and communities.

We visited the Church of the Nativity – the place that Jesus is reputed to have been born – with its stark but beautiful limestone walls. It had beautiful icons, ancient tile frescos, and deeply worn stairs from thousands of feet passing. This church is one of the oldest surviving in Jerusalem – it was not destroyed by the invading Persians because, upon entering, they saw a fresco of the three wise men and concluded that the site honored their culture.

After lunch we saw a different kind of wall. We met with the leader of Wi’am, the Palestinian Conflict Resolution Centre, which is located in the shadow of the wall that Israel erected to separate the West Bank. Our speaker, a Palestinian Christian, expressed his distress at this saying: “Shame on us [the world] for seeing, as the Berlin Wall came down, another built here.”

Our tour guides noted afterwards that this is what our trip exposes – the complexity of dual narratives in which a structure can be an “apartheid wall” to some, while a “security fence” to others.


Off to Israel/Palestine

I’ll be up bright and early in the morning and off on a trip with my school, Andover Newton Theological School, and Boston University. I am full of expectation!

Our class and this trip focus on the dual narratives of Israel and Palestine by introducing us to the people and their stories. Here’s a bit from the organization directing our tour, MEJDI:

Led by Israeli and Palestinian peacebuilders, the dual narrative tour is an innovative approach for learning about the Middle East that highlights the different narratives of Israelis and Palestinians from a variety of cultural, political, and religious backgrounds.

The tour is based on our founders’ experience in peacebuilding, and allows groups to learn about new perspectives in a safe environment that respects all peoples and faiths.

The conflict that rages in this part of our world seems like either a lynchpin or lightening rod of the rest of the world’s politics that I am eager – both personally and as a pastor – to understand its human side. And to learn about those who are working for peace.

I expect to return changed! Thank you for joining me on the voyage, I plan to share often and richly and look forward to your questions and our conversations afterwards.

Advent Devotional

This autumn I lifted Elephant Ear bulbs for the first time. Gardening, like all earthy and outdoor activities, has always been a spiritual practice for me – something that connects me to the greater and grounded source: God.

I am amazed at how mundane bulbs look. They’re quite out of proportion, in size and appearance, to the plants and flowers they yield – a marvel really! Advent is, I believe, similarly deceptive. Our focus is on the highlight – Christmas. Indeed, almost everything about our anticipation of the holiday focuses only on the holiday itself and on its celebratory and joyous nature. This is to our detriment, I think. I believe there’s great value in seeing Advent as the nondescript and unimpressive bulb, covered in clumps of wet dirt. I think there’s value in marking the unadorned times, the times when we can hold and contemplate life, clumps of dirt and all.

I now have a deeper appreciation for Advent as the beginning of our liturgical year. I believe it says something about our faith tradition – its recognition that the high holy days, our most joyous and transcendent celebrations, cannot be fully entered into without an abiding appreciation for the earthiness of our lived experience in times when things are not all prettied-up.

God, you are the very ground of my being and yet also transcend everything I know and am. Help me to appreciate the relationship between these two in the upcoming seasons, in my life, my faith, and our world. Amen.