Trip to Israel / Palestine

I began this blog as a way to record my experiences and allow others to travel with me when I visited Israel and Palestine in January 2012 with Andover Newton Theological School and Boston University. As part of a Border Crossing class, the trip focused on the dual narratives of Israel and Palestine by introducing us to the people and their stories.

I hope you’ll read these earlier posts about that trip and enjoy. I found it a life-changing experience so would welcome your comments and conversation.


Banksy street art

Day 10: Haifa & Tel Aviv

On Friday, we drove to Haifa and visited the Bahá’í Gardens on the slopes of Mount Carmel. The gardens surround the Shrine of the Báb, which is the resting place of the Prophet-Herald of the Bahá’í faith. Our guide described the intent of the gardens – a place to give peace and connection, as well as a celebration of the eighteen founding members (a tier for each) – and gave us an outline of the faith and its tradition. It was a fascinating visit. I’ll do a specific blog post to cover it in more depth.

Then we visited House of Grace which is an absolutely amazing place. We were welcomed by Agnes Shehade who, together with her late husband, Kamil, worked tirelessly to convince the bishop to allow them to attempt to renovate a disused church where they had a vision of creating a half-way house for released prisoners in Israel. House of Grace also works with the most disenfranchised and marginalized members of Haifa: Christians, Jews and Muslims who are in need of counseling, guidance, and material aid. We heard from a social worker who has been with the organization since it’s inception in 1982 and heard the testimony of a gentleman who used to be a resident and comes back to volunteer. It was another powerful sign of hope.

Our day ended in Tel Aviv at the Comme il Faut Café in the port area. It was very bohemian and another in the line of contradictions we experienced each day in setting, climate, altitude, rights, wealth, etc. Before a delicious dinner at the café, we heard from three journalists from, Noam, Mairav, and Ami. They were all Israeli and very socially and politically conscious – of the Occupy generation. They offered some salient insights into what might turn the tide of the conflict.

Again, I’m going to blog more about particular experiences and will keep adding photos – I have 3,000+ so it’s taking me a little time to sort through them! So I hope you’ll visit again and leave comments and/or questions. Thanks for reading along so far.

My trip home was uneventful – passing security on the Israeli side was a little stressful but was without incident. When our plane was 20km from Tel Aviv we were hit by lightening. The pilot later told one of our party that he’d never experienced it being so “big” – there was a loud bang, the steward making an announcement at the time shrieked (as did many passengers), and everything lit up for a second outside. But the pilot soon reported that all the instruments were fine and we proceeded without further hassles. All to say – I’m pleased to be home safely now!

Day 9: More Water & Mountains

On Thursday we drove from Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee (210m/689ft below sea level) to a few surrounding towns. On our drive, the day before, from the Dead Sea north along the Jordan River to Tiberias, we learned about the region and the, specifically, the ecological impact of Israel diverting most of the Jordan River for drinking water. Our guide, Liel, had studied ecology and so was able to point things out to us. He also tied the conversation into Zionism and its ideology about the land and land use. Unfortunately there are many crops grown in this fertile valley that require a lot of water.

It is also interesting to learn about water rights in light of the Palestinian problem and to examine who controls water and how territory was divided and has been occupied. Along our drive we also learned about the Bedouin. Their villages are very rudimentary and they have no access to the roads Israel builds – literally a highway will pass a village without exit or entrance points.

On Thursday morning, we drove to Nazareth and visited the sites where Mary is thought to have seen the angel at the well, the Church of the Annunciation where the angel appeared to her later and to St Joseph Church where Joseph is said to have had his workshop and where it is likely Jesus grew up.

Then we drove to Beit Jan, high up in the mountains – it was quite something to see our intrepid bus driver, Majied, manage the twists and turns of the mountain pass. We were going to visit a Druze village. Druze are a Shi’ite offshoot and consider themselves Muslim but are not accepted by the Suni tradition. As another minority group within the region’s history, the Druze began to live as high up as they could to avoid persecution. To cope they align themselves to whoever is in power in the region in which they live. Like Bedouin, they can volunteer for the Israeli army and gain citizenship. This means that in some conflicts Druze will fight Druze aligned with the “enemy.” Also like the Bedouin, Druze are somewhat secretive and only marry within their community. There are approximately 20,000 Druze living in Galilee, Haifa, and the Golan Heights. We met at a restaurant in the village and a couple, Kamal and Salma, spoke with us. There story was heartbreaking and hope-giving. They lost two sons to the conflict. And since then the couple have worked with an organization that encourages dialogue between bereaved Israeli and Palestinian parents. It was very moving testimony and a beautiful look at another effort for peace and reconciliation.


Day 8: A Matter of Water

This morning, Wednesday, after leaving our host families after breakfast, we drove to Masada in the Negev region which I knew nothing about so it was fascinating. We drove along the base of the valley, along the shoreline of the Dead Sea to get there – was amazing to enter the Jordan Dessert and drop out of the mountains AND to pass below sea level! The Dead Sea shore is 423m/1388ft below sea level.

We had to go back up into the mountains though to reach Masada. I took a cable car up the mountain (some in the group hiked up, a couple up & down, and some down), we toured around the ruins, and then I hiked down. It’s a very clear path although very rocky and the drop is quite extreme so the handrail means a great deal!

After that we drove to Qumran for lunch. Sounds crazy! Of course, this is where they found the Dead Sea Scrolls and we just popped by for lunch! All along the drive you can look up into the  mountains and see many of the caves like those the Scrolls were found in. After lunch, we went down to the beach and floated in the Dead Sea. Our guide, Husem, was great and told us what our ritual might be – 15 minutes floating (not getting any water in your eyes or mouth) and then you get out and in the shallow water you find mud and rub it all over your skin. Then you wait about 15 minutes for it to dry in the breeze, and rinse by floating again. Our whole group looked like crazy nuts running around with mud and covering ourselves and each others backs. It was hijinks and great fun! After we’d showered and changed, we got back on the road.

We visited Jericho, the oldest city in the world and saw the Sycamore tree of the bible story (the tax collector who climbs up to see Jesus). We also stopped at a lovely fruit seller overlooking the Mount of Temptation where Jesus was tempted and where there was a view of an old monastery up in the mountain – literally rock clinging to cliff. There are many monasteries in this region. Then we drove up to Capernaum where we saw the ruins of the ancient town with its synagogue and Peter’s home, the site of the first Christian house church. Jennifer Knust, New Testament professor at BU, offered some fascinating insights at the site about the relationship between Judaism and Christianity at this time.

Finally we headed back towards Tiberias but were briefed that we should not tell the checkpoint guards that we had gone via Jericho because it is a Palestinian town located in the West Bank and would likely result in our disembarking and everyone on the bus being questioned and scanned while the bus was thoroughly examined.

We’re staying for the next two nights at the Eden Hotel in Tiberias. It’s a kosher hotel so there was no milk for coffee or tea and no butter for the bread served with dinner! Tiberias used to be majority Palestinian town but now, as a result of the Occupation, it is 90% Israeli. I think tomorrow will be an interesting day!

Part of the fortifications at Masada with Dead Sea in background.

Spa treatment at the Dead Sea - try and spot me!

Day 7: Oasis of Peace

In the morning, we met with Mossi Raz, an Israeli Jew, who runs Radio All for Peace. He is also a former Knesset (Parliament) member. It was fascinating to hear all about the media here and what this radio station is working for and up against. He pointed out that we speak of 1 conflict but in actuality – based on the fact that people in East and West Jerusalem have entirely different media – there are two conflicts with disproportionate power. As a prior Knesset member, Mossi shared information about the state of the Israeli democracy. He point out how just that morning the Knesset had passed two new laws. The first allows all illegal immigrants to be sent to prison for up to 3 years without trial. The second forbids media to publish the name of arrestees for 48 hours after their arrest. These and many other laws, some blatant and some subtle, are threatening democracy here. At the close he was asked about solutions to the situation. He said that he no longer believes in negotiation – that this has only led further from a solution in the past 20 years. He believes that the American President should approach both parties and propose being their arbitrator. I thought this was a very interesting proposal.

We had a big chunk of free time after that since it was our last day in Jerusalem and most of us walked into the Old City stopping for lunch at a fantastic falafel shop just inside the Damascus Gate. After a bit of shopping in the souk, those who wanted to met at the bus. Our new guide, Liel (replacing Shira who had to go to her college classes), took us to the garden of Gethsemane. The Olive trees there probably do date back to Jesus’ time – they are huge! In their shade we stopped to read the account of the night before Jesus is betrayed. There is now an absolutely beautiful church on the rock Jesus prayed on. It’s Byzantine in design. Across the street there is a much older church (Liel thought it one of the oldest in the area) where tradition believes Mary was buried. The church is build over caves and so you enter down a very long flight of stairs.

In the afternoon, our other guide, Aziz, spoke with us about public narrative because he knows that many of us will give talks on our trip when we return to Boston. Then we drove 20 minutes west of Jerusalem to a village that is totally different – the residents are all Israeli citizens but they are intentionally 50% Jewish & 50% Palestinian. It’s call Neve Shalom – Wahat al Salaam (Oasis of Peace). There we had a talk from Elad Vazana, a Jewish man who shared his story with us (I’ll do a separate post about his story in the coming weeks). They had this little shop in the village with a large patio. In the corner there was a whole section arranged for cats – it was really sweet. Lots of semi-feral cats running about and waiting for dinner.

Then we drove to Bethlehem and to our host families for a home stay. I stayed in Dheheisheh with 5 others. We stayed with Mazin, who works with MEJDI and who is a refugee from Bethlehem. It was wonderful to spend time with him and his wife, May, and their daughters his wife May, and their two daughters, Zuhar (5 yrs) and Salma (3 yrs). They have created a very beautiful home despite their surroundings and their hospitality was as heartwarming as their stories were moving.

Olive trees at Garden of Gethsemane. These trees are old enough to have been here when Jesus was.

Jerusalem's Old City souk on Al-Wad St.

Day 6: A Matter of Land

On Monday we experienced dual narratives in a very real way. In the morning we visited a Palestinian farm. The landowner, David, who is a Palestinian Christian, shared the story of his family’s history with us and how they came to the land. He explained the struggle he is facing to keep the land and his vision for turning it into the Tent of Nations. The slogan that he uses is: “We refuse to be enemies.” We spent a couple of hours helping him work the land.

After this we visited Kfar Etzion, a settlement between Bethlehem and Hebron. There we met with Myron & Jonki, two Jewish settlers. It was fascinating to hear their narratives, the reasons they both joined the community and their vision of the future. They had very different political and theological orientations and I appreciated seeing a bit more of the complexity within a discourse that from the outside can be assumed to be far more homogenous. It was also really poignant to see the struggle they are both having with the situation.

In the evening we met with the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights, Rabbi Arik Ascherman, back in Jerusalem. This added another layer to the Israeli and Jewish narrative. I gained a real-time perspective, during this day, on the varied ways in which Israelis are working for justice. It gave me great hope.

This day drew my attention to the different perspectives on land – different ideas of ownership, use, rights, etc. And control of land as a tool for political control or power.

The day finished (for me) with a lovely dinner at a re staurant near our hotel. The majority of the group joined a group of students from George Mason University to hear two speakers – the leaders of the youth movements within the two dominant parties in Israeli politics – Peace Now and Likud. I skipped this in favor of sleep but learned later that it gave insights into the rhetoric and spin of politics and revealed how “right” (for want of a better term – I don’t like that this term has a connotation for Americans) both the leading parties are.

Group after working at Tent of the Nations.

Talking with Myron and Janki at Kfar Etzion.

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.