January 18, 2015
Before leaving Manger Square and Bethlehem this morning, we visited the Separation Wall that runs through Bethlehem separating it from Israel.
The wall was assembled as several narrow sections, each thirty feet high. The surface of the wall facing Palestine is smooth concrete, which makes the perfect surface for spray painting graffiti. Many sections of the wall include intentional displays and commentaries by individuals and groups in Palestine that talk about the experience of being “imprisoned,” of despair, hopelessness, anger, challenges for justice and simple pleas. Some of the graffiti is very beautiful or poignant artwork. Many languages are represented on the wall from locals and from visitors who have journeyed here from around the world. All of it is a letter to Israel.
After our visit to the wall, we crossed the armed check point into Israel and made our way to Jerusalem. Our first stop was St. George’s College, an Episcopal university and the site of the Anglican cathedral in Jerusalem. The local parish here is composed of Israeli Arab Christians, and the Eucharistic service we attended was bilingual, Arabic/English. We sang hymns in each language and heard the sermon twice, Arabic followed by English.
The service was led by Archbishop Sulheil Dawani, the head of the Anglican Episcopal Church in Jerusalem. The four bishops traveling in our group were robed and participated in the service as concelebrants. It was a great service, even though the tiny space heaters in the cathedral were no match for the cold temperatures of the morning. We were freezing, and everyone in the congregation had their coats, gloves and hats on! It was one of those times I was glad to have both a natural fur coat and a sweater.
After the service, we went out into the courtyard of St. Georges and into another section of the complex for cups of hot coffee spiced with cardamom and other spices – the perfect antidote to a cold morning. Then our group was ushered into a private drawing room to meet with Bishop Sulheil. He shared with us something of the reality of the Christian community in Israel and Palestine. Namely, the percentage of Christians in Jerusalem, for example, has dropped to less than 1% of the population here. There are many reasons for this, but the biggest concern about this decline is that it has been the Christian leaders in Jerusalem that have served as a bridge for peace between Israel and Palestine in the local incidents that occur. Without those who strive for peace, the alternative looks pretty grim. That said, there are many dedicated Muslims and Jews who are also dedicated to peace in Jerusalem.
After our session with the archbishop, we went into a lecture hall on campus to hear a presentation by 31 year old Ruth Edmonds. Ruth is the local coordinator in Jerusalem for a group called the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), a human rights organization dedicated to ending Israeli occupation over the Palestinians.
Ruth is a smart and passionate person, whose mother is an Israeli Jew and whose father is a British non-Jew. She shared amazing information with us about the social and governing forces that contribute to the oppression of Palestinians and demolition of Palestinian homes in the West Bank. Homes can be destroyed and home or business building permits denied to the effect of preventing any reasonable life at all for Palestinian families. The policies of forced relocation have effectively made Palestinian towns into prisons. And yet, Ruth offered a hopeful perspective in the end – that resistance to violent solutions is stronger than ever before all across the world.
After eating lunch at St. George’s, we went to Yad Vashem , the Holocaust Memorial. Located on the western slope of Mt. Herzl on the Mount of Remembrance, the memorial consists of a series of indoor exhibits as well as outdoor memorials and a research center. The exhibit halls follow the historical events and circumstances leading up to the events of the holocaust, including quite an indictment of the role of European Christianity in casting Jews as the theological villains of Christ’s death. This perspective of the time contributed to social conditions that helped to enable racism and persecution.
While our group toured the memorial, it did seem ironic to many of us that a company of young Israeli soldiers were also touring the memorial. Somehow, it seems that rather than instilling a sense of empathy out of their historical experience, there is a fueled victimhood that wants revenge for grievous wrongs that serves to perpetuate violence and victimization of others – namely, the Palestinians.
After our tour at the memorial, we visited Ein Karem, which means “spring of the vineyard.” According to early Christian tradition, John the Baptist was born in Ein Karem. It contains a site called Mary’s Spring. Tradition has it that Mary visited Elizabeth here and where the Magnifcat was sung by her for the first time. There is a spring that is said to be where Mary met Elizabeth.
The Church of John the Baptist in Ein Karem is built on the remnants of Byzantine and Crusader churches, a good indication of being an authentic site. Inside the church are the remnants of Byzantine mosaics and the cave home in which John was born. The church has been in the care of the Franciscans since the 1600’s, and we met one of the monks who live there now.
After Ein Karem, we went to our hotel, The Gloria, located in the Christian Quarter of the Old City, near the Jaffa Gate. The first two floors of the hotel were built in the 1850’s, and Rachel and I are on the second floor (which is really the first floor, since the entry level is called floor “zero.” The hotel has a great atmosphere, with vaulted arched ceilings and cushions on every possible surface one can sit on.
We walked to dinner at another hotel called the Notre Dame, so that after dinner we could hear a presentation by two very special men who are members of an organization called The Parent’s Circle. The group is composed of both Israeli and Palestinians whose children have been killed in conflicts. The group transcends issues of politics and religion to focus on the common cause of the cessation of violence and the building of peace. They actively promote reconciliation between individuals and nations.
Rami Elhanan is a seventh generation Jerusalemite Israeli Jew. His daughter, Smadar, was fourteen years old when she was out shopping for books for the new school year and was killed (along with two of her friends and two others) by two Palestinian suicide bombers. Bassam is a Palestinian Muslim who became involved in the Palestinian struggle as a boy growing up in the ancient city of Hebron. At 17, he was caught planning an attack on Israeli troops, and spent seven years in prison. However, In 2005, he co-founded Combatants for Peace, an organisation of former Israeli and Palestinian combatants leading a non-violent struggle against the occupation. Since then, Bassam has not once picked up a weapon – not even when, two years later, his ten-year-old daughter, Abir, was shot in the back and killed by an Israeli sniper at a checkpoint.
Rami and Bassam shared powerfully of their personal stories and struggles and how they now lecture together for peace. At the end of the presentation, Rami said, “You in America must all strive for peace with us. In the holocaust horrible things were happening and no one said anything. Horrible things are happening now. You cannot be silent. It is not anti-Semitic to work for peace.” To read more about these two extraordinary men and their friendship, go to http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/aug/03/men-kill-children-middle-east-israel-palestine
I think I may need to stop barking at squirrels…