Friday, November 28, 2008

Week 11 of 13 in Israel/Palestine

Over the weekend I came down with a cold. I took several naps during the day and tried to drink plenty of liquids. I knew I had to travel on Monday and speak in a church on Tuesday evening, so I wanted to be as strong and well as I could.
Monday afternoon Pierre, a Palestinian residing in Haifa, Israel and a teacher at the college, took me with him back to Haifa. It was a pleasant drive on major highways and freeways. Nothing like the roads I've been used to traveling in the West Bank. Even when we went through a checkpoint we barely had to slow down. We stopped at a gas station and Pierre bought us cups of coffee. I didn't expect it to be good, since I never like coffee in the States from anywhere but a gourmet coffee shop. This coffee was actually good.
As anyone knows who has ridden with me in a car, I love to talk one-on-one with people. I'm very quiet in groups, but you can't shut me up when I have someone captive in a car. I had a great time talking with Pierre. We have much in common. His father is a pastor, for instance, so we're both PKs. Pierre went to Korea for his seminary training. I was impressed with his knowledge of contemporary issues in New Testament studies. As a matter of fact, Pierre's father and brother all amazed me with their knowledge of the Bible. It made me feel like I need to start again to read the Bible every day.
Pierre, his brother Elias, and sister live with their parents in a very nice apartment in Haifa. Elias is a pharmacist, sings in the church choir, and is an avid reader of books about the Bible. Their parents are a warm, kind, and hospitable couple. I loved to watch their father listen intently to a translation of what I had said and then see his face crinkle into a big smile. I'm not surprised he is a pastor of an Assemblies of God church. His spirit is so visible when he talks with people and seems to get such pleasure from speaking about and to God.
 After a wonderful dinner and some great conversation, Pierre took me to the guesthouse where I was to stay. I believe the name is Beit Yedidia Guest House connected with Kehilat HaCarmel (Carmel Assembly). I was only there to sleep and didn't get any chance to talk with people. It was quite comfortable and enjoyable. I was able to open large windows and look out over treetops. What made it rather special was its location next to a zoo. I only heard a few animals, nothing that was startling. I did manage to hold my camera out the window and take a picture of the tiger walking in his pen.
On Tuesday Pierre picked me up in the morning and we first had breakfast. To most Americans it would not be the usual fare for breakfast. We don't usually eat this healthy. Pierre ordered us each a plate of hummus, drenched in olive oil, and topped with spices, chick peas, and pine nuts. We ate this with our pita bread along with pickles, olives, tomatoes, and onions.
After a brief trip and long conversation we arrived in Akko (Acre). It was such a treat for me to be able to see the Mediterranean Sea. So much of my life has been devoted to the study of the texts from cultures that border on the Mediterranean. It indeed is a beautiful body of water. Blue is my favorite color and the blues of the sea and the sky were spectacular.
 We walked around parts of the old city and saw where the Knights Templar had created a tunnel leading from their fortress to the shore. We visited a courtyard where a movie was filmed about Jesus. The synthesis of cultures was evident from a clock tower: the clock face had Hebrew characters, above it were Islamic symbols, and an Israeli was flying from the top.
From this vantage point we could look to the south and see the land jutting out into the Mediterranean where Haifa is located.
 We returned to Haifa and went to several different sites to look out over the city. The mountain range runs parallel with the coast. This gives a tremendous view of the city of Haifa and of its shoreline.
 One of the special places is the Baha'i Center and the shrine to one of its founders. When driving through the city we would come up a street whose view ahead was the stairs leading up to the shrine and then beyond. We went up and looked back down at the beautiful gardens. Nearby was another set of unique buildings belonging to the Baha'i's. To the north is the port and the city surrounding it.
Back at Pierre's home we enjoyed another delicious meal in the afternoon. His mother is a wonderful cook and hostess. I returned to the guesthouse so I could rest a bit before the meeting at the church. They have been studying the Bible by having a survey of the Old and New Testaments and then devoting a meeting each week to an overview of each book of the New Testament. I was asked to present my study of the book of Hebrews. I created a Powerpoint presentation to summarize the introductory points about the book and then a series of slides on the structure and content of Hebrews. Rather than rest in my room, I reread the book of Hebrews and went through my slides.
In the evening Pierre brought me to the church. You wouldn't recognize it as a church building, but inside was a nice auditorium with all the furnishings for a contemporary, evangelical church service.
 For the first twenty minutes or so the choir led us in Arabic gospel songs with words shown on the screen through the video projector and laptop. The keyboard has music tracks for the right beat and the woman playing the music did a great job with the music. I did clap with some of the simpler tunes and followed the Arabic the best I could.
I had an interpreter for my presentation who did a great job working with me. I explained to the audience that I had written my doctoral dissertation on the book of Hebrews. And recently I had published a book in which I condensed my research into a three-hundred page book. I was also challenged by summarizing my work on Hebrews during the semester to students at Bethlehem Bible College. The presentation I was going to give to them on Hebrews within less than an hour was my greatest feat so far. I also joked about my sore throat. I said that they would have to forgive me for having a sore throat. "I don't usually sound like this," I said, "I usually sound more intelligent." I was very glad to finish going through Hebrews in about an hour. They were a great group and I was honored to talk with them about Hebrews.
On Wednesday morning Pierre drove me to the bus station. Even there I had to have my backpack and carrying case inspected. Because I have sleep apnea I travel with a CPAP machine. It looks rather suspicious, but most people who inspect luggage know what it is.
The bus was very nice. I enjoyed eating the two small pizzas Pierre had bought for me for breakfast. These pizzas are a very common type of snack from Arab markets.
Arab buses in the West Bank are not usually very new or clean. This bus was quite new and modern. On an Arab bus people are always talking with each other. On this bus people hardly noticed each other. Most sat alone and took up both seats, many by stretching out and sleeping. Several young women were in Israeli military uniforms.
It was a long ride back to Jerusalem. Only two hours, but long in terms of what I've been accustomed to. I watched the scenery, read the Hebrew and Arabic of signs along the road. We traveled through so many open spaces outside of Jerusalem. I couldn't help wondering why Israel doesn't settle people there instead of the cramped spaces of the western and southern borders of the West Bank.
At the bus station in Jerusalem I got a taxi to take me to the Arab bus station near the Damascus Gate. A large bus was about ready to leave for Beit Jalla and Bethlehem. I made my way to the back to observe the Palestinian culture one more time – maybe for the last time on a bus ride like this. Once again the bus traveled out of Jerusalem, through the checkpoint, stopped to let people off to catch Palestinian taxis, turned around, went up the hill and down through Beit Jalla, and turn up Hebron Rd. to let people off on the side of the road. By the time I walked back the few blocks to the college it was just 1:00 pm and time for lunch.
Thanksgiving Day in Bethlehem was like every other day. I waited all day for the opportunity to see my family by video through Skype. It was about 8:00 pm for me when my daughters contacted me on Skype. I had my video set up and so did they. I could see the dining room table with my wife and five daughters seated all around. They asked me to say grace. Just thinking about it chokes me up all over again. To me this is why technology is such a blessing. From thousands of miles away I could pray with my family and celebrate Thanksgiving together. After they were finished Emily and Tabitha got out their violin and cello. First they played some traditional Thanksgiving hymns. Then they began playing some Christmas pieces. I can't describe how I felt to hear my talented daughters play "O Little Town of Bethlehem" for me while I am in Bethlehem. They played "Hark the Herald Angel Sings," and I said, "That's just down the hill from here in Beit Sahour. What a wonderful time that was. Only 16 more days and I will be home with my family.
I had a great class time today. I used my Powerpoint presentation on Hebrews to finish going through Hebrews. Next Friday we will spend the class period focusing on two passages with more in-depth study and discussion.
Tomorrow, on Saturday, we are having a Thanksgiving Dinner at the college. I heard a guy from the UK say it was going to be his first Thanksgiving Dinner.
Although I said Thursday was like every other day here, implying that they did not have Thanksgiving, what I also mean is that every day here is a day of giving thanks to God for family, for friendship, for faith, and for the land that gives the food to sustain life.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Week 10 of 13 in Israel/Palestine

Saturday (11/15)

Saturday morning our bus was late for taking us from the Grand New Hotel to the Golden Crown Hotel for the morning session. I did get to hear most of Naim Ateek's lecture on "The Nakba and Theology." He has a new book out called A Palestinian Christian Cry for Reconciliation published by Orbis. I enjoyed hearing him very much. I did not purchase his book yet. I did buy Jean Zaru's new book, Occupied with Nonviolence: A Palestinian Woman Speaks. This is an edited compilation of articles Jean has written over the years. Jean is Clerk of Ramallah Friends Meeting and director of the International Friends Center in Ramallah. I was happy to be able to have her sign her book for me.
The afternoon was a time for workshops. For some reason I missed the first session. In the second period I attended a workshop with a presentation by a Jewish organization Gush Shalom (The Peace Bloc), which works toward peace between Jewish Israeli's and Palestinians.
In the last workshop we were supposed to see the film Sons of Eilaboun about a Palestinian village 30 km northeast of Nazareth. The residents of Eilaboun surrendered to the Israeli soldiers in 1948. Even then people were killed, everyone driven out to Lebanon, and the village was looted. The residents later appealed to return and were the only Palestinian village to have been able to return. I know this from a Sabeel booklet not from the film. Somehow the film was not available. Instead we watched a segment of the movie The Iron Wall. This was a very powerful documentary. Watching scenes of Israeli settlers beating up Palestinians or olive trees being uprooted to make way for the Israeli wall makes you feel anger against the injustice and like you've been kicked in the stomach.
I read a poll was taken in the US and only 6% of American citizens believe Israel should back Palestinians in peace talks and only 19% think peace between Israel and Palestinians should be one of President-elect Obama's top foreign policy priorities.
One of the highlights of the conference for me was a chance to hear Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies and Director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University. His talk "The Nakba and Palestinian National Identity" was compelling and challenging. He had insightful comments and critique not only of the US and Israel, but also of the Palestinian leadership – or lack thereof.

Sunday (11/16)

 On Sunday the conference attendees chose which church they would like to visit. I chose Greek Orthodox just because I've never attended one before and I have a great deal of interest in Eastern Orthodox theology. So I attended Cana Greek Orthodox Church with three women from the conference. I was rather lost in the liturgy. I realized later that I was lost in a more literal sense: I followed the women in and sat with them in the women's section. I admired the Byzantine style art. I had no idea what the priest was doing behind the curtain. He stood in front of the altar, walked around the altar ringing bells and swinging the incense, and then he would sort of pop out once in awhile. I'm sure it's all very meaningful to the members who know the liturgy, light candles, stand up, sit down, and cross themselves.
I didn't have anything to drink or eat during the worship service, but we were welcomed afterwards and given a little cup of wine and some Arabic coffee. They give each of us a package with two bottles of "blessed wine" from Cana. I asked the priest if he turned the water into wine. He replied, "No, only Jesus."
 We went to a Palestinian Christian home for lunch. They were wonderful hosts. I enjoyed talking with them and listening to them speak Arabic with each other. Once in awhile I would get some English translation so I could keep up with the topic of conversation. We had a traditional Arab meal, all very delicious.
In the afternoon we boarded buses and made the trek back to Jerusalem. That evening we worshipped at St. George's Cathedral. One of the British Quakers I met said this was the first time he had gone to church twice in one day – not only that, in Nazareth in the morning and Jerusalem at night!
I was among the group booked into the Gloria Hotel. There's a narrow walkway that winds through the old city from the New Gate and comes by the Gloria Hotel. My room was very nice and the meals were good. I got a little tired of scrambled eggs and wienies for breakfast. For people who like fruits and veggies for breakfast there was a large selection.

Monday (11/17)

 In the morning we began with seeing part two of the movie "The Land Speaks Arabic." I was very sleepy during this. I'm sure I fell asleep at different times. I just hope I didn't snore through it. It reminded me of the Seinfeld episode in which Jerry failed to pay attention during Schindler's List. Same principle, different culture.
The topic for our morning panel was "The Humanitarian Crisis in the Occupied Territories." We first heard from Ms. Allegra Pacheco, Chief of the Information and Advocacy Unit for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in the occupied Palestinian territories. She packed a few hours of information into her 20 minute presentation. We also heard from Sami Mshasha, the Arabic spokesperson for UNRWA's Commissioner-General Office.
 During the afternoon we had an incredible experience taking tours through the refugee camps in and around Bethlehem (Dheishe, Aida, Azza, and Aroub). I was with the group that went to Aida. We learned about the people who lived there, which villages they came from when they were displaced from the homes in Palestinian villages and how they came to live in this place. The land belonged to a woman named Aida and she allowed them to set up tents and live there. According to UN Resolution they expected to return to their homes when Israel pulled out of their occupation of Palestinian land. It didn't happen and still hasn't happened. The UN helped them build crude houses to replace their tents. Then they began to build less temporary housing. Because Israel has now built a barrier wall right up against Palestinian residences in Bethlehem, Palestinians have no room to expand, so they build up instead of building out.
 We met and talked with various families. They all talk about their family members who are political prisoners. They relate how the Israeli army decided to make incursions into the neighborhoods by breaking through the walls of people's homes instead of walking through the alleyways where they might get something dropped on them. In one case a woman heard them beginning to break a hole in her wall.  So she went to the door to invite them to come in instead of damaging her home. Perhaps her intentions were misunderstood, but in any case she was shot and killed.    These are people who are not only passionate people, people bound together by their faith and their love of family, but they are also people with right on their side. The only just thing is for them to be returned to their homes. There can't be any argument about that. But it's all a waiting game. Meanwhile the generation of people who were displaced are dying off, the wage earners are held in Israeli prisons, the Israeli government is pushing out into Palestinian territory, and Israeli settlers are gradually taking more and more land from within the West Bank. Time is not something Palestinians have, especially as the people of Gaza continue to have the life squeezed from them.
 Not only were we shown hospitality here, they also showed us their generosity by giving each of us a t-shirt representing their struggle. In turn, our group was able to give to them a banner containing art designed by school children in northern Europe (can't remember exactly where), which contained encouraging messages about peace and justice.
Later that day we all gathered at the Dheishe camp for presentations from four or five people regarding refugee rights and the church's response to the occupation. We had dinner together and then were treated to a performance by the Ibda'a Dance Troupe. They did a great job and it was fun to watch.

Tuesday (11/18)

 In the morning we broke into groups and were guided to sites around West Jerusalem. One of the places we visited was the Muslim cemetery where the Supreme Court has now ruled to allow the Wiesenthal Center to build a peace center on the land. It's one of these great ironies to disturb the peace and practice injustice so you can construct a building that claims you are interested in creating peace and justice. The peace they want to create is not between Israeli Jews and Israeli Palestinians but between Ashkenazi Jews and Sephardic Jews.
 Our guide then brought us to visit the house that had belonged to her father. He had been forced out and the home then sold or rented to an Israeli Jewish family. Imagine about twenty or thirty people gathered on the sidewalk and street in front of someone's home listening to a Palestinian woman tell us about the injustice. By all rights, she should be living there. While we talked, some young Jewish men came from a building down the street and investigated what was happening. In the past the police have been called, so we didn't hang around too long.
In the afternoon we got to hear Jeff Halper, the American-born, Israeli Jew who is the director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD). His recent book is An Israeli in Palestine: Resisting Dispossession, Redeeming Israel. He had much to tell us about current issues such as the grave crisis (there aren't enough adjectives to describe how bad the situation is) in Gaza and the unbelievable action of a Palestinian family removed from their house in West Jerusalem. [Now they have even taken away this woman's tent she was living in on the property.]
After lunch the groups were split up again and taken by bus to various locations around Jerusalem. We participated in Sabeel's Contemporary Way of the Cross. For example, we went to the Bethlehem checkpoint, gathered off to the side, and followed some simple readings, prayers, and songs. Our next stop was to drive through the Har Homa settlement and then park the bus at the entrance and worship together there. At the Palestinian village of Wallaje, we stood by the road looking across the valley toward Israeli settlements and heard about the village's successful attempt to stop encroachment on their village.
You have to keep in mind that Palestinians see busload after busload of westerners drive by their villages and homes on the way to holy sites only to return back to Jerusalem. I'm sure Israeli Jews and Palestinians were both surprised to see Sabeel's people not go to the typical places but locate themselves among the Palestinians.
We had some more panel sessions in the late afternoon discussing the history, the legal aspects, the civil rights of Palestinians in Jerusalem, and the issue of residency and its restrictions for Palestinians within Israel. Our closing dinner was held at the Ambassador Hotel. Appropriately enough we heard the Ambassador of Palestine to the UK, Manuel Hassassian, a professor of International Politics and Relations and Executive Vice President of Bethlehem University.

Wednesday (11/19)

 If you remember, I was given two bottles of "blessed wine." Someone had given me her bottles too, but I had wisely given them to someone else. I didn't really want to carry these bottles around with me and especially didn't want to haul them in my luggage back to the US. So I drank them. I was thirsty. They were there. After all, this was "blessed wine" from Cana. I had some just before going to bed. The next morning I noticed some pink blotch on my pillow. I looked closer trying to figure out what kind of emblem was printed on the hotel's linens. What I saw was a round, pink shape. In the center was a near perfectly shaped heart. It was a miracle! Blessed wine from Cana forms a sacred heart of Jesus in Jerusalem! That sounds better than saying I drooled like a drunken sod in the night.
Our last session for the conference was a marathon of highly capable and qualified speakers. We began with the former Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Andreas van Agt. Next we heard an inspiring and very practical message from Dr. Bernard Lafayette, a leader in the civil rights movement in the US. Then we heard from Mairead Maguire, a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976 along with Betty Williams, for their work in Northern Ireland. Finally, we heard a personal message from Lily Habash, who is currently the advisor to the Bureau Chief/Cabinet Secretary General at the Office of the Prime Minister Dr. Salam Fayaad in the Palestinian National Authority.
The moderator for this session was Jonathan Kuttab. He is a powerful speaker himself and someone who, like many of those we heard in the conference, speaks not only from an academic and political position, but also from the life of faith and religious practice.
The last event in the conference was closing worship at the Church of the Redeemer. This was to be a celebration of the Eucharist, something that ecumenical conference planners think all Christians have in common. As a Quaker I wasn't really interested in the pageantry and liturgy, especially in the procession of the professional clergy.
 I returned to the Gloria Hotel and then set off for an exciting afternoon walking around on my own in the old city. It started off well enough. Just a few doors down from the Gloria Hotel I discovered the restaurant I was taken to on my first visit to Jerusalem. This is right near the road leading to the Jaffa Gate. As soon as I came to that road I began to be assailed by guys wanting to be my tour guide or wanting me to come into their stores and buy souvenir crap (yes, that's strong language but I'm really tired of seeing the same souvenir crap: enough ceramics, enough olive wood, enough rugs. leave me alone). After that I don't know what happened. Standing in front of the tomb of Jesus in the Church of the Holy SepulcherSome nice man started talking to me. At first it seemed like he was just going to show me the way to something. He brought me to a place where I could see the temple mount, the Dome of the Rock, the Al Aqsa Mosque, and the churches across the valley on the Mt. of Olives. He was going to just bring me to have some coffee together. Before I knew it we were sitting on a couch in a shop. After 15 minutes or so of polite conversation, the sales pitch began. It felt to me like I was paying ransom for my release by buying some rugs. Sure, I had wanted to buy some rugs. I didn't really buy exactly what I was looking for and I was not able to investigate the quality. But I purchased my release. But my guide, or should I say captor, wasn't done with me. Wasing my hands from a well before going to visit the tomb of King DavidHe brought me through the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, through the Upper Room, and then to the Tomb of King David. I wasn't really asked if I wanted to wash my hands in water from a well, have a hat put on my head, or a red string tied around my wrist. I was pushed into paying about 60 shekels as a donation. I really just wanted to get away from this guy, but I didn't know how. I don't have it in me just to walk away and offend someone. Anytime I said something about what we were doing, he would act offended. Finally he led me around to the side of the wall of the old city and pointed to where I would go to get back to the Jaffa Gate. I had been thinking this guy just gets a cut from the store owner. I stupidly offered him a little money for his time. He then told me how much money he wanted. I was embarrassed by being asked for payment for something I had already received. So I paid and finally got free. I was so angry, angry at people who take advantage of others, angry with myself for not being smarter. I just wanted to leave. I couldn't help thinking of the words of Jesus about Jerusalem, "'My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations.' But you have made it a den of robbers."

Thursday (11/20)

I made arrangements for people from the college to pick me up at the Notre Dame center when they came to get mail and do other errands. I was able to access wireless internet at the conference center in the lobby. While there I came across Retha McCutcheon, the former General Secretary of Friends United Meeting. We were able to spend some time reflecting on our experiences of Palestine, specifically about Ramallah and the Friends School there. I was able to tell her how I was first introduced to the Palestinian situation at an FUM Triennial session when Father Elias Chacour had spoken about his work. He had attended one of the Sabeel sessions. It was one of those experiences when everything comes around full circle.
Before returning to Bethlehem, we had to stop in the Gilo settlement to use their post office. I waited outside in the courtyard. I watched as a security guard used a wand on all of the men entering the post office. She also looked in people's bags and purses. It was a different experience being in this mainly Jewish context.
I was invited to the college's faculty meeting. I think they were being courteous. They didn't realize that meetings are one of the things I've come all the way across the world to get away from. It is always fascinating to watch Palestinians talk together in Arabic. There is so much more to communication than the language itself. It's the pitch, tone, and cadence with which things are said. Then there's the facial gestures and the moving of the head. Most of all it's the gesticulation. One man in particular is like a symphony conductor. He motions and gestures with his hand continuously. Some of these gestures seem to be typical, such as the shaking of the index finger back and forth to indicate a negative idea or the wiping of the hands to represent being done with something. Then there's the quick shake of the head with the opening of the eyes to mean, "What, are you talking to me? I don't understand." I did get translated about half of what people said and I only understand half of the interpretation. I got the gist and that was about all I needed to know. The best thing? They served kanafe.

Friday (11/21)

My class went as usual. I try to cover a lot of ground and the students want me to focus on details. What they need is really the best work for us to do in class, rather than me just plowing through material.
This evening the couple across the hall invite us short-term volunteers to join them for dinner. We had a splendid time. I'm about the only American (US) volunteering at the college. The others are from  England, South Africa, and New Zealand. Rather than going back home speaking Arabic, I'm afraid I'll return home speaking a British accent. Cheers!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Week 9 of 13 in Israel/Palestine

 On Monday I was told that we were having a pizza party that evening at 6pm at Mundo's. I was clear that I was invited, but I didn't know what the occasion was. Since I knew where the pizza place was, I decided to walk rather than take up room in someone's vehicle. Silly me, I showed up at exactly 6 pm. Others came after 15 – 20 minutes. That just seems to be the Arab way. The view from the back room of Mundo's is fantastic. You overlook the valley and at night the lights form the shapes of residential areas, highways, and settlements. The pizza was very good. We sort of chipped in together to get pizzas and some people got sandwiches.
The people who were invited to this pizza party were guests at Bethlehem Bible College: The president of BBC, Bishara Awad and his wife Salwa; Jonathan Kuttab, the chair of the board of BBC; several who deal with fundraising in the UK and US; international volunteers helping out at the college; and a few others and me. We had a great time. After we finished eating and were sitting around chatting, Jonathan Kuttab came over and sat next to me. I enjoyed getting a chance to talk with him about his views on Palestine and Israel – and Obama and the US.
Since I was going to be away on my class day, I decided to give a mid-term exam. I had to write it early in the week, then have the academic secretary translate it for me into Arabic. I have access to the Arabic Bible through BibleWorks and a great software program called Arab Bible. So I tried to include the Arabic terms rather than rely on Amira to figure out which word I was referring to by my English.
 On Wednesday (Nov. 12) I managed to arrange a ride into Jerusalem, where I was to be picked up at Notre Dame along with other Sabeel Conference attendees and taken to Nazareth for the first part of the conference. I was accompanying a couple who volunteer in the gift shop at BBC and were taking a load of merchandise to be included in a Christmas sale at the American embassy. When we came to the checkpoint, the soldier at first waved us on, but then he must have caught sight of all of the boxes in the back of the van and yelled out to us. He then began questioning us and had us pull off to the side. Another soldier was brought over. He began questioning us about all of the merchandise. He said there was a problem, that this was against the law, and taxes should be paid, etc. This went on for 10 minutes. We had the entire list of everything being brought and the document for the American embassy. The soldier either got exasperated or someone else told him to let us through. But we were allowed to go merrily on our way.
I was delighted that the driver managed to take me directly to where I needed to go, even though I didn't know exactly where I needed to go. After an hour or two wait along with the growing number of people getting dropped off, we loaded up the bus and set off for Nazareth. It was a familiar journey traveling east from Jerusalem. We passed the rugged terrain of the hills of Judea and dropped down to enter into the Jordan valley, passing Jericho along the way. But then we turned north, heading toward the Galilee.
We had an anxious few minutes at the Israeli checkpoint. We were flagged off to the side. The driver had to open the baggage compartment and go inside with his papers. They brought a German shepherd to sniff our luggage. Apparently the dog didn't find anything offensive, and we were allowed to continue.
It was a long drive to Nazareth. We stopped once for a bathroom break. The camel penned at the side of the building shared some of his flies with us. We took a few dozen to Nazareth along with us in the bus. After figuring out all of the logistics for getting people and their luggage to their various hotels, we finally joined together at the Basilica of Annunciation for a worship service. The basilica was very beautiful. I especially enjoyed seeing Greek orthodox iconography with Arabic script. Bishop Boulos (Paul) Marcuzzo gave the homily. After the service we gathered for a time of refreshment and fellowship.
 I decided to stay, not at the Golden Crown hotel, but at the less expensive Grand New Hotel. The accommodations are quite suitable. I have been having interesting and informative conversations with people attending the conference. Many of them are from the UK, but also a good representation of attendees from North America. There are also people from other European countries, as well as Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, and some other places I'm sure I'm overlooking. People come from many Christian denominations both catholic and protestant. There is a good contingent of British Friends with whom I've become acquainted.  Best of all are all of the Palestinian Christian brothers and sisters who are attending the conference.
The first day of sessions on Thursday was a marathon of panels about the situation of Palestinians living within Israel. Some panelists described the situation as apartheid. Palestinian Israeli's are discriminated against by law. It affects every aspect of their life within Israel. The afternoon ended with a panel including Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights, who is a progressive Israeli but a defender of Israel's identity as a Jewish state. He described himself as a "cultural Zionist." For him Israel's claim to the land is not more legitimate than the Palestinians but also not less legitimate.
 On Friday we were divided into three or four different groups and taken to different areas of northern Israel where Palestinian villages had been depopulated and demolished as a result of the formation of the state of Israel in 1948. To introduce the theme, we were delighted to hear of the work of Eitan Bronstein, an Israeli and founder of Zochrot. His organization advocates for Palestinians among Israelis by supporting the right of return for Palestinians and spreading awareness of the Palestinian life and culture which existed prior to 1948. He showed us some pictures of their work. He told the story of one Arab woman who came to visit Israel from the US. She inquired about the village where her parents had originally lived before leaving in 1948. Zochrot helped her locate the village and took her there. She was on the cell phone with her parents getting directions so that she could walk through the overgrown rubble and actually find the spot where her parents' home had been. It still moves me nearly to tears now as it did when I saw the picture of this young woman sitting on the stones which had once been her family's home before being forcibly evicted, not only from home but from the land of their ancestors.
 We first visited a site near Nazareth where about the only evidence of the village is the Muslim cemetery. We had to walk through a field, pass through a fence gate, and pick our way between simple burial plots. In this instance, we learned that one way to tell where a Palestinian village had been located is to look for olive trees and cactus. Cactus was grown as a fence around property and olive trees were a basic part of Palestinian diet. On the converse, you can also detect sites of demolished Palestinian villages by pine trees. Apparently pine trees are not indigenous to the region. But these trees make excellent cover to hide the ruins beneath them. They also have the ability to grow roots into the ground which break apart the stone structures still existing below ground. We could see in the distance a hill side covered with pine trees, all of which had been a Palestinian village before the inhabitants were forced to leave.
 We were told of various ways in which the Palestinians were evacuated and displaced. In one village soldiers went to different areas of the village and killed groups of young men as a warning for everyone to flee. In other cases they were given little time to gather belongings and leave, sometimes walking great distances with nothing more than a blanket. In yet another instance, soldiers pinned down the inhabitants whenever anyone tried to leave their home to get water from the village well. Eventually they had to leave or die in their homes.
This was the experience at Ma'lul. We trekked up the winding road that leads to the top of the hill where this village had once thrived. Besides the rubble that lays at the feet of hundreds of pine trees, there is only the mosque, the Melkite church, and the Greek orthodox church still standing. There is a sign placed by the Israelis at the top of the hill indicating that there had once been a Christian/Muslim village on the site but that the inhabitants had abandoned it. What was rather amazing was for us to come across several Israeli families from a nearby kibbutz having a picnic next to the ruins of the Melkite church. It is a peaceful spot and quite beautiful, but it is the beauty and serenity of the death of a people with stones laying everywhere as though they were grave markers noting the location of a way of life destroyed by violence and cruelty.
After boarding the bus again, we went on to some other sites. One area we drove by. Here again you can see the remains of the village scattered throughout the pine trees. We went to one area that is now completely built up. We visited a Greek Orthodox church and then a Russian Orthodox church. These Palestinian Christians know that beneath all of the modern Israeli homes and businesses lay the foundations of their village and their way of life. Now they are a small minority. It is interesting that some 30,000 Russians who came to Israel were allowed to emigrate because they had Jewish ancestors. What the Israelis didn't bother to check was whether these Russians were still practicing Jews. In fact they were all Russian orthodox. Surprise, surprise.
There is much more to learn and experience both here in Nazareth and next week as the conference continues in Jerusalem. I feel very fortunate to be here.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Week 8 of 13 in Israel/Palestine

On Sunday I decided to attend the East Jerusalem Baptist Church again. Like last time we loaded up in a van leaving from Bethlehem. We went to the same checkpoint as last time. This time the young Israeli soldier told us we couldn't go through this way from Bethlehem. She said we would have to turn around and go the other way into Jerusalem. It took us much longer to get there and the roads were not as good. We arrived at church a few minutes late and missed a few of the worship songs at the beginning.
It was a special treat to gather together after church for a little picnic in the yard under the olive trees. Everyone is always so generous at meals, making sure every has enough, and sharing food with others. Even though Americans eat together individually at the same table, they don't eat together as a group in the same way as Arabs do.
 I've been spending time studying Arabic and reading books about Palestine, including learning some more about Islam. It's fun to see who might show up at tea time or lunch during the week. Christians from around the world stop by to visit the college. One group was with the organization Sat7 , a ministry of broadcasting Arabic Christian programming to the Middle East. Another group was Jerusalem Gateway Partnership . Another couple represents a ministry of giving low-interest loans for start-up businesses aiming at economic and community development.
 I decided to return to Ramallah on Wednesday. I walked down to the bus stop. A number 21 bus was sitting there. It wasn't a large bus like I had traveled on last time. After waiting awhile for the bus to fill up (and the driver, since he was eating a sandwich from the outdoor falafel stand about three feet from his door), we set off for Jerusalem. After winding our way through Beit Jala, we came to the checkpoint. We sat for a long time just waiting for a bus ahead of us to be cleared. Once it was our turn, the process was quick and everyone loaded back in. When we arrived in Jerusalem, I knew this time exactly where to go to catch the 18 bus to Ramallah. I tried to watch the signs on buildings to see when their location would change from saying Jerusalem (Al Quds) to Ramallah. I did finally notice El Bireh, the sister city of Ramallah. Before I knew it, we were there. A block or so away from where the bus drops people along the street is the center of Ramallah. I walked down there to try to figure out which street to take to get to the Friends School. I knew the name of the street and had drawn myself a map in my notebook. I tried to ask someone about which street was Al Nadha. I decided to go ahead and have an early lunch at Stars & Bucks cafe. I had read that it was upstairs in the building. It wasn't readily apparent where to go to get upstairs. I found an entrance along the side of the building on the right. There were some elevators, so I decided to get in the elevator and ask people how to get to Stars & Bucks . No one knew, but one guy tried to help me. He would ask everyone, but no one seemed to know. I rode the elevator up with people and then back down again. My elevator friend got off at a lower level, looked down the stairs, and then pointed to it. So I found where I was going.
 Stars & Bucks is a very nice cafe. They imitate the Starbucks look. It's sort of a satirical homage to Starbucks. I was hoping to get a good cup of coffee. On the menu was black coffee and a double black coffee. I ordered the double black coffee and ended up with a nice mug of rich, black coffee. I think I ordered a Shawerma sandwich, but I'm not sure what I ended up with. I expected something with a lot of turkey. It was good anyway. I also ordered the Turkish Salad. That was very tasty.
I had an excellent view out the window. I was able to ask a waiter which street as Al Nadha. He didn't know either. Then I said I was going to the Friends School . That he knew. He pointed to the street I had just been on. After eating my lunch, I made my way back to the right street. A few blocks down I came to the Friends School. The director, Joyce Ajlouny, made some time for me in her busy schedule. I had tried to arrange a time to visit on Wednesday but was only told to give myself a couple of hours and the school closes at 3pm. I tried to call the school once I arrived in Ramallah, but I can't figure out how to dial phone numbers on my cell phone. Dialing all of the numbers didn't work and dialing any subset of the numbers didn't work. I still don't know what I'm doing wrong.
Finally we were able to find someone who could spare a little time to walk me around the campus of the upper school, what was originally the boys school.
 Library at Ramallah Friends School, the Upper SchoolIt is certainly a highly respected elementary and high school. The buildings and grounds are very nice and are continuing to expand and improve. The students were welcoming, kind, and helpful. The Friends United Meeting, which is located in my hometown of Richmond, Indiana, oversees – if that's the right word – the work of the school. A new book published by Friends United Press, Enduring Hope: The Impact of the Ramallah Friends Schools ,  by Patricia Edwards-Konic, tells more about the school.
I originally planned to attend a public lecture at the Friends Meetinghouse at 6 pm. By the time I finished at the Friends School, I was tired. I had gotten up early to watch the news about the election. Traveling by bus, being a stranger in the midst of masses of people, going through Israeli checkpoints, is all very taxing. I knew if I left Ramallah I would arrive back in Bethlehem just before dark, which happens by about 6pm. I had thought about visiting Birzeit University . There were other things I would like to have seen, but I decided to find my way to the bus station and head back to Bethlehem.
When I got on the 18 bus, I was trying to give the driver the right change. I think what I thought was a 5 shekel coin was actually a 1/2 shekel coin. He was exasperated with me and took what he needed from my hand. I just couldn't figure out what was wrong. It was dark in the lower level of the garage and I couldn't see what was written on the coin.
What a mess it was at the checkpoint. Vehicles were parked every which way trying to nose into line. We had to go up the curb and onto the center of the little plaza of the round-about. These little mini-buses were backing up and moving forward with just inches to spare between each other. But no one was getting angry or cutting in front of anyone else. They all seemed to work together to get everyone through as quickly as possible. Of course, while I was sitting on the bus with the elderly and mothers with children, everyone else had to walk into the building and go through security. The Israeli soldier just came on the bus and glanced around at our passports and papers. After driving through the checkpoint, we went into the parking lot and picked up our passengers. I'm not even sure whether it was the same passengers or not. This time I took the same bus, the 21, back into Bethlehem. I didn't want to go to the Bethlehem checkpoint, walk through, and then walk the half mile or so into Bethlehem.
 My class on Friday went about as well as can be expected. Since I will be at the Sabeel Conference next Friday, I decided to give a mid-term exam on that day. I spent at least a half an hour talking about the exam and then spent another half hour talking about the main narrative of the book of Hebrews. After the tea break, I spent the remaining hour finishing chapter six of Hebrews.
Next week I will be attending the first part of the Sabeel Conference in Nazareth. I'm looking forward to this. It will be a great time of listening to speakers and touring sites that are a witness to the Palestinian catastrophe in which many of them were forced to leave their homes and land, many of whom are stilling living in refugee ghettos.