The Bus Ride to Sheol

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Efrat 2

[January 26, 2015 – Middle East Monitor]. The Israeli government has approved the expansion of Efrat settlement near Bethlehem, a report in Israeli newspaper Haaretz today revealed. PM Netanyahu had previously shelved a plan to build on ‘Eitam Hill’ after international outcry following an announcement in November 2013. However, last October, the Housing and Construction Ministry allocated 850,000 shekels for the purposes of planning construction on a slope located east of Efrat and close to the southern edge of Bethlehem. The paper described the area as “a strategic target of settlers for the past decade.” Last week, Israeli forces destroyed a Palestinian wheat field at the site, which they described as ‘state land’.

Our Israeli Arab Christian bus driver, Nael, slowly navigated the winding road up into the hill country of Jewish settlements on the West Bank. Bruce, a late middle-aged American Jew who had immigrated to Israel, spoke in terms of justification with a plaintive tone as he narrated over the bus’ sound system. We had headed south, between Hebron and Bethlehem, to the Jewish settlements of Tekoa (338 acres, and 1808 people, established in 1977) and Efrat (568 acres, 7454 settlers, established in 1980). Bruce was at the microphone.

“The media, with their agenda of spin, calls these ‘settlements,’” he shared, “but what they are is neighborhoods, just like any you’d see in the states, and they don’t call THOSE settlements – they’re neighborhoods! They’re suburbs! “

As we came to the check point entrance of what Bruce referred to as his “gated community,” armed Israeli guards asked Bruce a few questions in Hebrew. At certain locations on the West Bank (such as the Gush Etzion Bloc where we were), a particular Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) regulation applies.  Namely,  an armed guard must accompany Palestinian workers who enter the area, who live in the West Bank. Many of the workers who came to work in what Bruce called “Jewish Tekoa,” for example, lived in nearby “Arab Tekoa.” Bruce told us that he stopped into the small grocery store in Arab Tekoa from time to time – “They have good food, and the people are as nice as you’d expect to find anywhere, really.”

Though the IDF regulation did not apply in the case of our tour bus, Bruce was armed.  As an Israeli citizen qualified as a security guard,  he referred to  himself as one of the many “Jews with guns” in his Jewish neighborhood whom Palestinian workers would call from the security gate to ask for armed escort into the area to work, in compliance with the IDF regulation.

As our bus pulled away from the checkpoint and continued its journey, Bruce assured us how wearing a gun was essential in order to provide West Bank Palestinians  with work opportunities in his town – building Jewish homes, keeping their gardens and lawns, and cleaning their homes. “We love Arabs,” Bruce gleamed, “The majority of them are really fine people. Every group has people in it that want to do harm, though. So, it’s also a security issue.”

One of our pilgrims respectfully challenged the idea that all groups have those who intend to do harm, that we were a bus load of Episcopalians and a group ourselves (and wasn’t he being a little paranoid?). Bruce responded, “Thank you for reminding me that I’d better carry a gun whenever I’m with a group of Episcopalians.”

As my gut churned, I tried to focus on the landscape of the hill country passing along outside my bus window. Semi-nomadic Bedouins had once roamed the area freely, finding pasture for herds of goats and sheep, but (we learned from an earlier presentation) they were now relegated to a category of land that the Israeli army uses as firing ranges. Palestinian families, for whom the area had been home to ancestral olive groves, grape arbors and grain crops have experienced their trees chopped down and crops burned, as recently as last fall (2014) and last week (January 2015).

As I contemplated these things, trying to tune out Bruce’s ongoing narrative, the words he was currently speaking arced into my consciousness and pierced my heart, “We only build where there isn’t anything. It’s just wilderness here.”

My mind began to reel in that instant, as I recalled exactly this sentiment expressed in numerous journals and legal documents of those who colonized North America. “It’s just wilderness here – no one lives here. There was no civilization here before we came. It is God’s will that we occupy this land. These people will behave in a civilized fashion, or they will die.”

I realized that what I was hearing from Bruce was exactly the same ideological narrative that my great-grandparents encountered in the European invasion of interior British Columbia – when their people, the Shackan, had their land and resources stripped from them because all the settlers saw was “wilderness.” And Natives were a part of that wilderness, just another resource to either exploit or destroy as being in the way of real progress.

Suddenly, in my mind, I was no longer on the bus. I was reviewing once again the emotional legacy of the First Nation’s part of my family, a heritage mostly of loss. The precious bits of it, through stories and rare items, are preserved in my identity as surely as mayflies in amber. In my blood and bones, I knew how Bruce’s story would end and the role that he would play in that story for the Palestinian people of the West Bank.

I felt nauseous, sick in body and spirit. Grief overwhelmed me to such an extent that I was embarrassed by my tears and hid them from my bus mates by staring fiercely out my window. I thought of my mother and grandmother and on how they taught me that pain ought to be born in silence, without attention to the self. I could no longer hear what Bruce was saying, I was so occupied in gaining control of my feelings. However, I’ve never been especially good at maintaining that particular cultural value, especially (ironically) with regard to my Native identity and heritage.

I was surprised when the bus finally came to a stop in front of the house we had come to visit. However, because its owner, our host, had been out on a nature walk with her children, she was not home when we initially arrived, so Bruce guided our bus to the home of his ex-wife so that we could see the wind turbine roof he had designed there.

He praised the greening initiatives of his community and told us how the construction of 277 homes on a third hill in Efrat had been approved by the Israeli government as a reaction to the UNESCO’s accepting Palestine as a full member. Bruce blamed President Obama for making the Arabs work harder by having to complete the homes faster, after the US had asked for a moratorium on Israeli building in the West Bank.

When our host was finally back at her home, we returned so that we could hear more about the Israeli settler perspective. However, Bruce had told us earlier, “I don’t like the term ‘settler.’ It sounds like the American Old West idea of cowboys and Indians, as though we are somehow the cowboys invading the land and the Palestinians are the Indians. Nothing could be further from the truth! We are the Indians! We are the Indians! This is our land, and others are trying to take it from us!”

I didn’t want to get off the bus.

Mostly, I didn’t want to get off the bus, because I didn’t really want to be bawling my eyes out in front of our Jewish hosts – I didn’t want to explain myself or talk about it, nor did I think I could take on any additional interaction that would add to my emotional load. So, I asked one of group, Jesse Junior, to please go get my bishop, The Rt. Rev. Greg Rickel, who had already disembarked.

I don’t know what I wanted of him other than to explain or excuse my absence…or maybe, simply to grab on to someone and scream, “This is horse shit!” Maybe I just wanted someone to hear my tree falling in the woods.

Moments were passing, and I was the last one on the bus. I felt ridiculous and ashamed…and alone. Except there was Nael, the bus driver, who I felt even worse for than my own self, Nael having to hear and silently bear all that Bruce was saying, but having it all directed at Nael’s race.

I shook my head of tears like a sheep dog of rain water and determinedly pulled myself together. I put my face into what I hoped was a neutral setting and got off the bus. Once across the street, however, I met Bishop Greg coming out of the house towards me. I turned away from the house front, and he put an arm around my shoulders. My hastily gathered reserve gave way with equal haste.

“I’m not sure I can do this,” I confessed, “This is so horrible. It’s exactly the same. It’s exactly the same…” That’s all I could get out.

“You don’t have to do this, you know. I can…or maybe I can’t imagine…what you must be going through. You can get back on the bus, if you need to. It’s okay,” He assured me.

As I looked up hopefully, the bus drove away.

There seemed no escape, then, and I suppose the spiritually inclined part of my brain decided that God must have put me in this “opportunity” for a reason. So, then, in the next instant, I suppose that I resolved to enter into the experience fully (though I had been resisting it with every fiber of my being).

I wiped my face, set my jaw, and we went into the house. I stayed unmoving, like a wooden Indian, just inside the front door.

Our group had crowded into our hostess’ living room. Her two teenage children stood in the kitchen. She said that her husband was in their home office working on a computer problem. He never did come out while we were there. We were offered water, and Bishop Greg got some for me.

Our hostess, like the other adults we had seen in Bruce’s community, was packing heat. The handle of a handgun bulged beneath the waistline of her blowsy shirt.

She talked about her time living in California and the call she felt to immigrate to Israel and live in a settlement on the West Bank. “I like being here and wanted to raise my children here. I think anyone should be able to live wherever they want to live,” she said. By that point in our tour, I was pretty sure that she didn’t really mean anyone.

Like Bruce had before her, she spoke of the land she was on as her ancestral home, the “home of her fathers,” the place that both God and the European community (in 1948 and 1967) had promised would be the Jewish homeland.

In the household in which I had been raised, the term “Zionist” was considered impolite, and I was taught that one did not use it to apply to Jewish people. My parents considered the term to be pejorative, I think, and thereby contributing to negative and racist stereotypes. Imagine my shock, then, to hear our hosts self-describe as Zionists; to hear members of our pilgrim group apply the term openly and freely to both certain types of Jews and certain types of Christians.

Wikipedia describes Zionism as, “A nationalist and political movement of Jews and Jewish culture that supports the reestablishment of a Jewish homeland in the territory defined as the historic Land of Israel (also referred to as Palestine, Canaan or the Holy Land).” Certain evangelical Christian groups also see the return of Jews to Palestine as signaling the End Times and the return of the Messiah, so they encourage the occupation as well.

And that’s what it really is; It’s not a movement of religion, but unlawful occupation by a state, the State of Israel – an emerging nation engaging in the genocide of peoples, the destruction of homes and the appropriation of land and resources in order to create a civilization where some seem to believe none had previously existed. In such instances, religion is just a useful justification of racist crimes against humanity within a theological cosmology that judges who is among the elect and who is disposable. In short, it is colonialism.

After our time in Efrat, we went on to visit with an American Jewish lawyer.  He came onto the bus, as the engine idled outside of his home, and talked about his work in land claims. At various times in his career, he represented both Israeli and Palestinian land claims.  He did not see any way that the current situation could improve. His own desire was that all Palestinians should be removed to Iraq or Iran, “Where they can be with their own people – Muslims and Arabs.”

One of our group asked how he could reconcile representing both Israelis and Arabs in land claims, when it was clear that he believed that Palestinians have no legitimate claim.  The lawyer raised his voice indignantly, “Lawyers represent criminals all the time. It’s our job.”

What I learned from our pilgrimage visit to the Jewish settlements and from listening to both Israelis and Palestinians who are struggling against occupation and for a solution of peace and justice is that: 1) my concerns around Israeli claims of indigeneity have been in discussion among activists and legal/political circles for decades and 2) our government is complicit in supporting exactly what’s taking place – we are in great part funding the Separation Wall that has turned the West Bank into a very large prison, and we are funding the arms of the soldiers who guard it. Meanwhile, our aid agencies are funding some of the food and medicine which gets into the West Bank.

A powerful Jewish lobby interest in the United States, known as America’s Pro-Israel Lobby (AIPAC), is funding the election campaigns of many of our congressional representatives. To go against AIPAC is to risk much, including being labeled as anti-Semitic.

However, as Rami Elhanan (one of our Israeli Jewish pilgrimage speakers) said, “Go home and tell your people that being pro-Palestine is not being anti-Semitic.”

Or, as Hanan Ashwari (a member of the Palestinian National Council and an Anglican Christian) said in our meeting with her, “The critique is not of a religion but of the actions of a state.”

The political landscape of Israel is like traveling a winding bus route through time and history. We see the impact on the land and people of the colonial powers of Britain, modern Europe and the United States. Ashwari looks to the global community for restraint of Israel and support of Palestine. She gazes intently at the land of her people through a window of war and a veil of tears. She still hopes that her colonizers will come to her aid, even as I called out for my bishop to support me. For, make no mistake, he represents the faith of a colonizing power. Yet, I think her hope – and mine – is not misplaced.

Ultimately, we are – all of us – on the bus.

Where we go from here is truly up to us.

Henry Goes to the Holy Land – Day 9

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January 21, 2015

Today was an early start so that our group could get up to the Temple Mount. While the Western Wall (or “Wailing Wall”) is in the jurisdiction of Israel, the Temple Mount is under Palestinian control. This means that pilgrims going up to the mount must walk through an Israeli check point much like an airport security screening. No weapons or Christian (or Jewish) prayer books or bibles are permitted on the Temple Mount. No Christian symbols, such as crosses, should be visible.

Our Pilgrim group in front of the Dome of the Rock, Temple Mount

Our Pilgrim group in front of the Dome of the Rock, Temple Mount

After crossing through the check point, we stopped under a tree for an orientation presentation by Ghustan. The Temple Mount is one of the most important religious sites in Old Jerusalem. It is venerated by Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Jewish cosmology says this is the place from which all the rest of the earth was expanded or made by God – it is, quite literally, the center of their universe. Jewish tradition and Scripture identify it as the place (Mt. Mariah) where Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac. Among Muslims, it is considered the third most holy site in Islam and is revered as the Holy Sanctuary where Mohammed mystically journeyed to Jerusalem on a winged horse of lightening before ascending into heaven. Christians know it as the location of the first and second temples, the latter being the temple Jesus knew in his lifetime – where he was presented as a child, where he turned over the tables of money changers just prior to his death.

Looking towards the crusader stable, Temple Mount

Looking towards the ancient archway, Temple Mount

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More cats

The First Temple Period is associated with King Solomon, who is said to have built the Temple at this location in 957BC and subsequently destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC. The Second Temple was constructed between 538-516 BC, expanded by Herod the Great in 19 BC. The Second Temple was an economic center as well as a religious one. The construction of the al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock occurred after the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem in 637 CE. Completed in 693 CE, The Dome is one of the oldest Muslim structures in the world. Its sanctuary covers a large exposed expanse of rock, beneath which is a cave known as the Well of Souls. However, no non-Muslims are currently permitted to enter the mosques here.

Temple precinct

Temple precinct

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Entrance to the mosque

Entrance to the mosque

The al-Aqsa Mosque is located on the far southern side of the Mount and faces Mecca. The Dome of the Rock is in the center of the 36 acre complex. The Mount also includes a basilica, the Royal Stoa, constructed by Herod to provide a focus for commercial and legal transactions. There is also a small dome known as the Dome of the Chain, a location believed to be where a chain once rose to heaven. There is a ritual fountain for purification, used before entering the sanctuaries. There is also a rectangular building known as King Solomon’s Stables, which was built by Herod but used by the Crusaders during the period when they controlled the Mount.

It's believed that the Holy of Holies may have been located at the spot where the structure on the left currently is.

It’s believed that the Holy of Holies may have been located at the spot where the structure on the left currently is.

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Towards the end of our tour of the Temple Mount, we could hear the sounds of a group of people yelling. Apparently, there was a protest taking place which included some fifty Muslims near the Muslim school located on the Mount who were upset by the presence of Jewish men who had come up to the Mount (this is unusual for Jews to do, since the more conservative sects do not want to risk walking on the location of the Holy of Holies, the exact historical site of which is unknown). The protesters were trying to get the Muslim police who patrol the Mount to come over and intervene. With some concern that the situation could escalate, Ghustan hurried us off the Temple Mount area and into the suk.

After a few moments of walking, we arrived at the Western Wall. Also known as the Wailing Wall, this section is all that remains of the Jewish temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. The Jewish people believe that third temple will be built here. As you can imagine, there is quite a lot of historic and current tension between the Jews and Muslims about the custody of the Temple Mount.

Graphiti in the suk

Graphiti in the suk

At the Western Wall

At the Western Wall

The women’s section

The women’s section

The Western Wall is a site that is very important to the Jewish people. As a worshipping area, the wall is divided into sections for men and women, with a partition between the two areas. The men’s section takes up the lion’s share of the wall, nearly ¾ of the available wall, and the men have an enclosed heated section as well. The women cram themselves into a smaller section (no heated space). It is popular to hold bar mitzvahs in the men’s section. Mothers who want to view their son’s ceremony must stand on the plastic chairs of the women’s section to peer over the partition at the proceedings. It’s common for the women to throw candy into the event as a symbol of blessing.

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The lowest and biggest stones in the wall are from the second temple period, often referred to as Herodian stones.

Even though there’s a partition between the men and women, I snuck into the women’s section in Rachel’s interior coat pocket and was able to put my forepaws on the wall as she placed her hands on the wall for prayer. The sounds of women weeping were close all around us in the press of the crowd. After prayers at the wall are complete, it is a practice for many to back up away from the wall so that one does not turn a back to it. When you’re up close to the wall or touching it, you can see small bits of paper on which prayers have been written that visitors have poked into the cracks between the stones.

“Red Signs” warning travellers not to enter the West Bank are posted at every check point.

Ramallah

Ramallah

After our time at the Wailing Wall, we boarded our bus once more and headed out to Ramallah, the political center of the State of Palestinian located in the central West Bank approximately six miles north of Jerusalem. Of course, to get there meant crossing through several check points before arriving at the city center. Known as a Christian city, the relationship and cooperation between Christian and Muslim Palestinians is very good. The name Ramallah is Arabic for “Hill of God.”

Lion statues in the center of downtown Ramallah

Lion statues in the center of downtown Ramallah

After some time of driving through the busy city center, we arrived at our first destination – a meeting with Iyad Rafidi at the Arab Evangelical Episcopal School in Ramallah. Iyad is the director of the school. As a Christian private school, the school has much to offer to the whole community and is largely considered one of the best schools in the area. The school believes that fulfilling its Christian mission comes through serving the Palestinian community in all its diversity, regardless of religion, race, gender, abilities and socioeconomic status of the person. The school also seeks to educate Palestinian generations to become active citizens who participate in developing a humanistic and democratic society, enhancing religious and national heritage in Palestine, and promoting mutual understanding and tolerance among religions and cultures.

Iyad Rafidi and me

Iyad Rafidi and me

Currently around 150 students study in the new building, in good conditions. However, around 535 students study in two 38 year old buildings, in poor conditions, with leaking windows, old furniture, an inefficient heating system and a worn out electrical system, etc. The school hoped for years to follow up with partial maintenance, yet problems persisted, due to the age of the buildings and its facilities. Engineers recommended undertaking a comprehensive maintenance, which involves changing the whole water and drainage system, electricity and heating networks. The school is currently seeking funds for this major project.

The school

The school

Recess time for the grade school

Recess time for the grade school

The preschool

The preschool

Making friends at the preschool

Making friends at the preschool

The very best coffee and cookie we had were served in hospitality to us during our visit here. The children were friendly, and we were able to see something of the preschool as well as the grade school areas. However, we didn’t have as much time as we would have liked, because we needed to be on time for an important meeting at the offices of the Palestinian National Authority.

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The PNA (or PA) was the interim self-governing body established to govern Areas A and B of the West Bank and Gaza Strip as a consequence of the 1993 Oslo Accords. Following elections in 2006 and the subsequent Gaza conflict between the Fatah and Hamas parties, its authority had extended only as far as the West Bank. Since January 2013, the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority began to refer to the areas of it’s jurisdiction as the State of Palestine in official documents, after the United Nations voted to recognize Palestine as a non-member UN observer state.

In the meeting room

In the meeting room

Coffee and snacks before the meeting

Coffee and snacks before the meeting

The politics of the Palestinian Authority take place within the framework of a semi-presidential multi-party republic, with the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), an executive President, and a Prime Minister leading a Cabinet. The current structure of the PA is based on three separate branches of power: executive, legislative, and judiciary. The PA was created by, is ultimately accountable to, and has historically been associated with, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), with whom Israel negotiated the Oslo Accords. The PLC is an elected body of 132 representatives, which must confirm the Prime Minister upon nomination by the President, and which must approve all government cabinet positions proposed by the Prime Minister.

I’m giving you this background so that you understand why, in order to meet with a representative of the PLC, our group was hosted for a meeting at the PLO headquarters in Ramallah. Due to the efforts of Bishop Greg, our group had the privilege of meeting with an amazing woman — Dr. Hanan Ashrawi.

Dr. Hanan Ashrawi and Bishop Greg

Dr. Hanan Ashrawi and Bishop Greg

Dr. Ashrawi is a Palestinian legislator, activist, and scholar. She was an important leader during the First Intifada, serving as the official spokesperson for the Palestinian Delegation to the Middle East peace process, and has been elected numerous times to the Palestinian Legislative Council. Dr. Ashrawi is a member of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s Third Way party and is the first woman elected to the Palestinian National Council. At this time, she serves on the Advisory Board of several international and local organizations including the World Bank Middle East and North Africa (MENA), United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) and the International Human Rights Council.

Dr. Ashrawi signed Sarah's book!

Dr. Ashrawi signed Sarah’s book!

Dr. Hanan Ashrawi is also an Anglican Christian, though not actively participating in church per se. However, she is a passionate advocate of many human rights and gender issues and is the recipient of numerous international peace, human rights and democracy awards.

A woman described as

A woman described as “very smart” even by Palestinian men.

In our meeting, she was very articulate about the current situation in Palestine and relationship with Israel, and she took several of our questions. Rachel had the opportunity to ask her what legislative efforts might be in play currently in support of Palestinian autonomy. Dr. Ashrawi was quick to point out that due to restrictions and issues within their domestic governance, their help and hope is in the international community’s support.

After our meeting concluded, Rev. Sarah Monroe had Dr. Ashrawi sign a copy of Ashrawi’s book that Sarah had brought with her. Meanwhile, Rachel asked an aid to Dr. Ashrawi for some business cards to distribute to our group. The aid invited Rachel to follow her up to Dr. Ashrawi’s offices, where Rachel was able to get a stack of business cards to distribute. However, ongoing to the elevator to take it back down to the ground floor (to re-board our group bus), who should happen to step into the elevator but Dr. Ashrawi herself – off to another meeting.

Getting on the elevator with Hanan Ashrawi - OMG!

Getting on the elevator with Hanan Ashrawi – OMG!

Our next stop was lunch, but oh! What a lunch! After our group settled into our seats, an international interfaith assembly of religious leaders came into our restaurant for their own luncheon. This prestigious group was led by none other than the Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church. It’s a good thing that only the salads had arrived at our table, because our meal came to a total stop as we stood to applaud the arriving dignitaries and greet them individually as they made their way into their banquet room (which happened to be near the end of the table where Rachel and I were seated).

Our lunch table in Ramallah

Our lunch table in Ramallah

Look who came to lunch - the Rt. Rev.  Katharine Jefferts Schori

Look who came to lunch – the Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori

I'm not sure who these ecumenical representatives are, but they said to Rachel,

I’m not sure who these ecumenical representatives are, but they said to Rachel, “This is what a Jew and Muslim friendship committed to peace looks like!”

The interfaith delegation

The interfaith delegation

Bus vs. Busy market street in Ramallah

Bus vs. Busy market street in Ramallah

Saying goodbye to a wonderful city!

Saying goodbye to a wonderful city!

On our groups last full day in Jerusalem, the Presiding Bishop and her group were moving into St. George’s College for their stay. So, some of us ran into them all again when we walked back to the college during free time.

Our bus driver, Nihal, did a hero’s job of navigating the bus through the market district of Ramallah as we made our way out of the city, through the check points, and back to Jerusalem.

Refugee camp in Ramallah

Refugee camp in Ramallah

This day was such a joyful contrast to the day before that our group was is high spirits for our afternoon tour of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. We toured the huge model of the first century city of Jerusalem before viewing the exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Shrine of the Book) and archaeological and art wings of the museum.

Scroll

Shrine of the Book

There were some things in the archaeological exhibits halls that Rachel had only every studied in books – to see them in person was a remarkable experience, including relics from ancient Levant, Akkadia, Sumer, Assyrian, Persian, Egyptian, Babylonian, NImrodian, Canaanite and Herodian cultures. The collection also included two ossuaries of some import – an ossuary associated with the High Priest Caiaphas and an ossuary engraved with the name “Jesus, son of Joseph,” which caused great public interest and scholarly debate when they were each discovered.

Archaeological and art wings

Archaeological and art wings

Model of second temple

Model of second temple

If any of the museum security had been watching Rachel on their monitor screens, they would have laughed at the way she exclaimed and clapped her hands to her face as she passed from exhibit to exhibit with rising astonishment at the amazing and rare antiquities they have in their collections. The experience made her want to go back into anthropological research, but I reminded her that she’s a priest now and has other obligations to date.

At the end of a superb and astonishing day, Rachel and I boarded the bus one last time for the day and headed back to the hotel for dinner and sleep. It was our last night in Jerusalem, and we felt both full and fulfilled in many ways.

Byzantine mosaic of Jerusalem

Byzantine mosaic of Jerusalem

Here’s to celebrating the history, freedom and creativity of squirrels!

Henry

Henry Goes to the Holy Land – Day 4

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January 16, 2015

This morning, we said a very fond fairwell to the Pilgerhaus (Pilgrim House) in Tagbha. It was a wonderful place to stay, and I highly recommend it to pilgrims traveling to the area of northern Galilee.

I finally found the sheep that I knew were out there!

I finally found the sheep that I knew were out there!

After making sure that all our luggage made it back onto the bus, we headed south along the western shore of the Sea of Galilee.  Traveling through Tiberius, we had glimpses of the old Roman fortifications of that town. Established in 20 CE, the town was named after the Emperor Tiberius. It was the capital of the realm of Herod Antipas.

The town of Tiberius soon became so well known, that the inland sea was called the Sea of Tiberius by the Romans.  However, the Hebrews continued to call it by it’s traditional name, Yam Ha-Kinerett (later just “Kinerett” and still later, “Genessaret”, and then”The Sea of Galilee”).

Date trees

Date trees

After winding along narrow roads for about an hour, we left Israel and crossed the boarder into the West Bank.  Soon we arrived at our first destination, the modern town of Jericho, located near the Jordan River on the West Bank. Jericho is 849 feet below sea level, situated in an oasis of the Wadi Qelt in the Jordan Valley.

Jericho Sycamore Fig Tree

Jericho Sycamore Fig Tree

It's a very big tree and deserves two pictures...

It’s a very big tree and deserves two pictures…

Stopping first near a large, old sycamore fig tree which locals like to say was the very fig tree that Zacchaeus climbed when he wanted to see Jesus through the crowds at during one of Jesus’s visits to Jericho (Luke 1-12). Whether this is THE tree is pretty doubtful, but is a very old tree, and is an example of the type of tree mentioned in the Scripture story.  I’m sure you’ll be glad to know that I refrained from peeing on it.  😉

Fortress ruins in Jerico archaeological site.

Fortress ruins in Jerico archaeological site.

After visiting the fig tree, we went to some ancient ruins of a fortress of some antiquity that had been refortified by Herod Antipas who had also built a winter palace at Jericho.  Also, the Gospel story of the Good Samaritan is set in the area – a Hebrew man is traveling through the mountain valley pass from Jericho to Jerusalem when he is set upon by thieves.

The ruins are interesting but in need of better conservation.

The ruins are interesting but in need of better conservation.

Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of more than 20 successive settlements in Jericho, the first of which dates back 11,000 years (9000 BCE). It was an early religious center for the Canaanite people, and the name “Jericho” is a Hebrew word derived from the Canaanite word for “moon.”

The destruction of the city (“when the walls came tumbling down”) actually occurred quite sometime before the Israelites migrated to the area, but it’s likely that they discovered the ruins and developed a story to explain them that also underscored their rise to dominance in the area during the Hasmonean Empire (a Hebrew dynasty descending from the Tribe of Levi, c. 110 BC).

With new friend Emily on the cable car going up to Mt. Temptation.

With new friend Emily on the cable car going up to Mt. Temptation.

After exploring the fortress ruins, our group drove over to a cable car station that takes people up to the top of a low mountain known as The Mount of Temptation.  Christian tradition attributes this mountain as the location of Jesus’ time of discernment in the wilderness. Their are many caves set into the sheer sides of the mountain, many of which are still used to this day by monks, hermits and shepherds.

Freshly squeezed pomegranate juice made from some of the  largest pomegranates I've ever seen!

Freshly squeezed pomegranate juice made from some of the largest pomegranates I’ve ever seen!

Before boarding the cable cars, many of us stopped to grab a quick cup of freshly pressed pomegranate juice.  YUM!!

Mt. Temptation

Mt. Temptation

Traveling in the cable car up to the “Temptation Restaurant” at the top was a lot of fun, with pauses in the ascent now and then for others to be loaded into cars either above or below us.

Marti didn't like it when the car paused or went over the tower juntions.

Marti didn’t like it when the car paused or went over the tower juntions, but she’s smiling nonetheless.

The view from the top gives a sense of Jericho today.

The view of Jericho from the top of Mt. Temptation.

The view of Jericho from the top of Mt. Temptation.

Rachel and I at the top.

Rachel and I at the top.

We didn’t eat at the restaurant (as “tempting” as that was!) but took the cable cars back down to eat in a pilgrim restaurant below.  Outside where we ate, I met a flock of very nice peacocks.

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Outside our restaurant.

Outside our restaurant.

After lunch, we did an amazing thing.  We drove to a site along the Jordan River that hasn’t been open to the public in a long time, due to conflicts between the countries of Israel and Jordan.   The Jordan River is the boarder between Israel and Jordan, so it is a place of much tension.

Armed guards on both sides of the river keep careful watch over those who come to visit the waters. We could see them as we waded into the river and gathered water to bring home with us.

This picture is taken from the Israel side of the Jordan. The open structure on the other side is in Jordan.  Inside it are armed Jordanian soldiers who are keeping a close eye on us.

This picture is taken from the Israel side of the Jordan. The open structure on the other side is in Jordan. Inside it are armed Jordanian soldiers who are keeping a close eye on us.

During our drive into the river area, we passed through the gates of a “No Man’s Land” swatch of territory that is actually a mine field with fencing on both sides of the swatch.

Going through no man's land to Israel's border with Jordan.

Traveling through no man’s land to Israel’s border with Jordan.

However, even in the midst of all of these signs of tension, we found a moment of real peace as Bishop Greg led us through a renewal of our Baptismal promises and then anointed each of us by name.

Bishop Greg anointing Dean Steve Thomason of St. Mark's Cathedral.

Bishop Greg anointing Dean Steve Thomason of St. Mark’s Cathedral.

The water of the Jordan River is very silty in this place, and the mud fine and squishy – much to our remark as we waded along the wooded steps set under water at its bank.

Pilgrims from the diocese of Olympia hanging out in the very cold waters of the Jordan River.

Pilgrims from the diocese of Olympia hanging out in the very cold waters of the Jordan River.

Me and Marti Rickel collecting river water to bring home.  The river is very silty here because it flows quickly and stirs up the thick, soft mud in its banks. It settles out quickly in a still bottle.

Me and Marti Rickel collecting river water to bring home. The river is very silty here because it flows quickly and stirs up the thick, soft mud in its banks. It settles out quickly in a still bottle.

I love this picture!

I love this picture!

Once our time was done, we drove back through the mine field, out through the Wadi Qelt and up through a pass to Bethany.  Gaining lots of altitude very quickly, we passed several modern Bedouin encampments.  These encampments are a mix of old and new – children herd goats and sheep, families build huts of corrugated metal; the port water into their camps and many have generators and televisions.  The Bedouins are a people on the move, moving their camps according to season and location of good grazing for their goats, sheep and camels.

The small shacks are a Bedouin settlement.

The small shacks are a Bedouin settlement.

Bethany is a Palestinian town that has been separated from the nearby city of Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives by the Israeli Separation Wall. Thirty feet high and 430 miles long, the Separation Wall was built by Israel as a security barrier separating Israel from the West Bank.  However, often the wall makes deviations into Palestinian territory.  The wall has a very negative impact on the Palestinian economy and makes travel very challenging.

The Separation Wall blocks the road.

The Separation Wall blocks the road.

At Bethany, we stopped in a church dedicated to the memory of the raising of Lazaras, who (along with Mary and Martha) were very close friends to Jesus.  He seems to have visited them frequently when in the area of Jerusalem.

Inside the Church of Lazaras,  Bethany.

Inside the Church of Lazaras, Bethany.

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The church has some antiquity at least going back to the Byzantine era, and it has beautiful acoustics.  The song during our brief prayer service there was very moving to us Anglicans, who love a well-sung hymn!  David Spring would have liked this very much.

Dome interior.

Dome interior.

Remnant floor mosaics from Byzantine era.

Remnant floor mosaics from Byzantine era of the church.

Once again aboard our bus, we had to drive around the Separation Wall blocking the direct route to Jerusalem.  We stopped in Jerusalem just long enough to drop off our guide to retrieve his own car before continuing our caravan to Bethlehem.

saca souvenir

This portion of the Separation Wall runs through Bethlehem.

The bishops decided to take us to shop at Christian cooperative gift shop that supports about 70 families of Palestinian Christians still living in Bethlehem.  As with Bethany, the economy of Bethlehem is highly impacted by the Separation Wall that excludes it from easy access to Israel.

We were glad to do “exert our economic power” as Dominic put it and support the Christian community by basically shopping our brains out at the cooperative.

My room at the Casa Nova.

My room at the Casa Nova.

Finally, we made the last few minutes of our Journey to our hotel..which is amazingly located on Manger Square, only feet away from the entrance of the Church of the Nativity.

After supper at the hotel and prayer in the nearby Franciscan Chapel in the church complex, it was off to bed after a very full day.  So many thoughts and emotions are running through my head, that all the reflection is exhausting but important.

Here’s to Barking at Squirrels!

Henry

Manger Square in Bethlehem is still decorated for Christmas, and the Armenian tradition celebrates Christmas Eve tomorrow. Jerry Christmas!