Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Posts tagged “Israel

Walled In

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today my friend and colleague took me on a tour of the wall around Bethlehem. The Israelis I spoke with on the interfaith listening trip said often only five percent of the wall—they prefer security fence or barrier—is a wall; the rest is a fence. In Bethlehem they say one hundred percent of the barrier around the city is a wall.

I had a much more emotional response to what I saw and the narrative I heard here in Bethlehem. I am not a disinterested reporter. The plight of the Palestinian people living under occupation touches me deeply. Here I resist saying what in the Israeli narrative touches me. There is no competition. There is no binary. There is no parity. And I believe the impulse, and often demand, to treat each side the same in discourse disregards the hierarchical nature of the relationship and engagement between the two peoples. 

There is a kinship between black people and Palestinian peoples that stems from our origins on the same continent and similar experiences of occupation and justice struggles from apartheid to the Black Lives Matter movement. It is a common understanding that (former) Prime Minister Sharon went to South Africa to study apartheid and imported the bantustan system to Palestine.

The wall represents a craven land grab to the Palestinian people. One that is continuing. The wall is being rebuilt, moved, to take more of Palestinian land. By some accounts, eighty six percent of Bethehemite (mostly Christian land) has been walled off on the Israeli side. The wall is often right against people’s houses, cutting them off completely from their land, or immediately adjacent to the road with not even a sidewalk. Even though they are still the owners of some of that land on paper, they are not allowed access to it and when their olive trees fail and the land lies fallow it is often seized. The Bethlehemite lands become available for the Israeli settlements that are growing right up to their newly imposed borders. 

 

The pastor I spoke with lamented that this generation of children don’t know the green Bethlehem of his youth. Every square (remaining) inch is built on and build up into multi-story buildings because they can’t expand sideways. There is real concern about the impact of walling so many people in with increasing population, static or reducing space, and increasingly limited employment opportunities. These mechanisms of the occupation are systemically violent and often neglected when physical mechanical violence by individual Palestinians is condemned. Violence takes many forms here. Even so, my colleague calls for creative and non-violent resistance, not violent resistance. He sees no victory in using the sword of the empire and enriching arms dealers.

We talked about what the future might bring. There is little belief in a two or even one state system anymore. He raised the possibility of a three or four state eventuality. Israel, Gaza, the West Bank and, perhaps a settler state in the middle of the West Bank. According to Human Rights Watch [map], there are some 500,000 settlers in 237 settlements in the West Bank. They are connected by private bypass roads that bypass Palestinian towns and villages, living them a singular footprint.

Our talk and tour did not leave me with a lot of hope for the future. Survival and endurance are the order of the day. And in the midst, finding beauty and joy, living as fully as possible, and resisting the occupation and proclaiming its evil to everyone who will listen.

That doesn’t feel like enough to me.

I have my loved my time here in Bethlehem’s Old City where I can’t see the wall and there is an underground water tank so we don’t suffer water shortages from the rationing. 

Today at the Church of the Nativity, some young Palestinians asked me if would record a statement supporting freedom of movement for Palestinian people. I did. Freedom of movement. The ability to leave one’s home town to marry, work, go to school, shop, or travel the world. That people should have to ask for this basic human dignity angers me. I bear witness to these stories and think of the passes my enslaved and free ancestors needed to move about, the ghettos into which Jews were walled in during World War II (with a special irony), native peoples herded on to reservations in the US, and apartheid. 

In the US now many of us are saying don’t normalize that which is not normal, that which is not decent, that which is not humane. Palestinian occupation has become normalized and that degrades the humanity of everyone involved. 

And now, we are talking about building our own wall…

 


Beginning in Bethlehem

I got the number of a cab company and crossed smoothly in to Bethlehem. In all honesty the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) is more concerned with who comes out of the Palestinian Territories into to Israel than who goes in. 

I arrived at the Diyar Consortium, a (Lutheran) church based organization that serves the people of the region without regard to religion, providing education in the arts, leadership and civic engagement, education and enrichment for children and youth, elder services, and a robust publishing arm focusing on Palestinian history. The Consortium is affiliated with Dar al-Kalima University which specializes in fine arts.

Unlike my trip to Israel, I have neither formal program nor fellow travelers. My informal plan is to immerse myself in this Palestinian community and shadow my friend and colleague, the Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, prolific author, speaker and pastor.

Tonight there was a concert with a second generation Palestinian American who retuned home. Her own songs mixed with Cold Play, Sam Smith, Amy Winehouse and Elvis. Then there was conversation and bible talk with a Catholic youth group comprised of visitors from Spain and Palestinian youth. It was a masterclass in accessible Palestinian hermeneutics. (Some quotes, some paraphrase and some expansions follow.)

– The bible is a Palestinian document and should be stamped “Made in Palestine.”
– The bible (as a collection) begins in and is written under occupation.
– The bible is anti-imperial literature.
– The interdiction of the sages by Herod was an act of empire flexing its will to interrogate travelers at the checkpoint because of who they were and who they were going to see, as happens now at the crossings between the Palestinian Authority and Israel.
– Joseph and Mary went to be registered because it was the requirement of the empire to manage and profit off of the subjugated population.
– Proof of registration in the text is like the magnetic card that Palestinians need to cross into Israel.
– There is hope that empires can be redeemed, see Jonah and the lion and the lamb in Isaiah.
– Jonah runs away from his call to preach repentance to the empire because he known it may well repent and he carries so much anger, hurt, and trauma that he is not ready to move forward into another paradigm.
– The lion who lies down with the lamb represents the empire. In order for the two to lie down in safety the lion will have to be completely transformed, its essential nature re-created.

I am so grateful to be here, to live—sleep and wake and sleep and wake again and again. I look forward to the next iteration my introduction to the Hebrew Bible course and perhaps a course on Palestinian hermeneutics.


Zionist, Settler, Israeli Stories

“Zionist” is regarded as a slur in many of the spaces in which I find myself. Settlers are regarded as (nearly) single-handedly destroying the peace process in those same spaces—inhabited by Jews as well as Muslins, Christians and non-religious folk. So it was a visceral shock to hear several of our speakers describe themselves as Zionist settlers, even though I knew the word has a variety of implications including normative Israeli patriotism.

I am here in Israel to hear stories from Israeli and Palestinian voices as a way to promote coexistence and peace-making. So I listened to hear and understand. But I am not a blank slate so I hear in concert with my own internal voices and try to hold the two streams in respectful conversation.

It was helpful for me to hear settlers talk about how they understood settling, as occupation=habitation, not colonialism as do the Palestinians and many in the West and some in Israel. They spoke of the importance of Hebron (in the West Bank) as the home of Abraham and the other locations of so much of the Hebrew Bible’s narratives drawing them home to fulfill a mission to inhabit the land. They also acknowledged that their religious narrative was not the only narrative and that they were—at different paces—listening to the narratives of Palestinians. 

I also got a feel for the/a Israeli pioneering narrative, occupying/settling the land to cultivate it border to contested border to fulfill a calling to (re)build a nation. What was missing was the early (1943-1945) understanding of how the people in the land could be expected to respond to mass immigration and nation-building in their midst. Someone mentioned the slogan, “A people with no land and a land with no people.” (I could not help but think of similarities between the Afrikaner mythos and that of Israel here as with the roads that bypass the Palestinians.) 

The settlers talked about how isolated the two communities are, particularly since the erection of the security barrier. I was surprised to learn how isolated they truly are. The settlers didn’t know that there were Palestinian villages one and six miles from them. There was no way to drive to or by those villages; the Israeli roads go from settlement to settlement to Jerusalem bypassing Arab villages. They have no casual interactions with the exception of labor. As the Israeli journalist who accompanied us to the West Bank today said, “Palestinians built Israel.” They are a significant portion of the workers in hotel and restaurants and construction. Yet there are virtually no places (but one market and one intentional program) to be in the same place on the same footing.

I also gained an understanding of the layers of trauma with which many Israelis live as a part of their national story: The enduring horror of the Holocaust, particularly poignant in the missing elders and all that was lost with them, the sense of the miraculous after the 6 Day war dashed by the losses in the 72 war, the pervasive terror unleashed by the bombings in the Second Intifada from 2000-2005, and the accompanying and continuing rocket, mortar and sniper attacks—all on civilian communities, sometimes deliberately targeting children. The man who designed and implemented the security border—wall and high tech fencing—oriented us to it and communicated the desperation, trauma and terror that led to its implementation. These things helped me to hear and understand the Israeli story from Israeli perspectives even as I critique some of what I heard and hold it in tension with what our Palestinian conversation partners shared. It helped me to hear them that they acknowledged the reality of the occupation with that word.

There is not surprisingly a lot of anger towards the Palestinians, particularly their leadership for not putting an end to the continuing attacks on communities near the Gaza border and for rejecting the Clinton-Olmert plan. They blame the Palestinians for walking away from a viable peace deal.

They spoke of 500,000 settlers and how difficult, nearly or completely impossible it will be to dislodge them. For one that meant the two-state solution was dead, and a one-state solution was on the table but with no easy answers about how to remain culturally and demographically Jewish while granting full rights to the occupied. The other held out hope for a two-state solution against the evidence. Conversations invoked the peaceful transition in South Africa and more difficult one in Ireland, and the evacuation of 100,000 Fresh colonists in Algeria.

They seem to want to write an end for their story that will result in peace and dignity for all but each question/chapter is still unresolved and there are some sacrifices they will not make. Nationalist zionism, a particular Jewish/Israeli hermeneutic, lingering trauma, anger, and fear are the lenses through which I hear the Israeli story. It is as are all stories, more complicated than any one presentation.

[I am on my way to Bethlehem to immerse myself in the Palestinian story since this trip was far more one-sided than I was led to believe and the Palestinian story was mediated more than once through Israeli voices, and when in a Palestinian voice sometimes rebutted. Stay tuned for that reflection.] 


Pilgrimage of Prayer

In between conversations and presentations I am going to the most sacred places in my faith, not as a scholar or priest, but as a pilgrim. My companions are my Anglican rosary gifted to me by a sister from my home church, the African Episcopal Church of Saint Thomas, and a silver medal with the Ten Commandments in Hebrew. They are holy totems, made more precious through the sanctification of the pilgrimage. I have followed the ancient practice of placing them on the most holy touchstones.

The stone in Gethsemane

Golgotha

The stone on which Jesus was laid after his death

The place from which he rose

It does not matter to me if some or any of the traditions around these places is unfounded or even quite wrong. Those places have been bathed in the prayers of the faithful the believed in them or even just hoped there was something to the stories. And God meets her people in those prayers in those places. So they have become sacred.

 


Holocausts and Memorials

The Angel who watches over the Field of Angels at the Whitney Plantation

The sheer scope of the evil manifested in the holocaust is nearly unimaginable. Today’s visit to Yad VaShem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem held the inhumanity of those who planned in meticulous detail to annihilate the Jews of Europe and began carrying out their unfathomable horror in the sharpest contrast with the fragile yet resilient humanity of the Jews who lived in an died in and escaped from and survived the work camps and death camps and marches. The incomprehensible rabidity of the hatred of Jews stupefies me.

The numbers are dizzying: A million and a half children murdered. Zero—because Estonia was declared “Jew free.” An entire population murdered. 500,000 people crammed into the Warsaw Ghetto that held 50,000 the day before. 90% of Poland’s Jews murdered. 

Images I will carry with me: Baby pictures. The pages of testimony—accounts of the live of those stolen. A catalogue of the number of Jews in Europe to facilitate their extinction. Four million names known of those taken from this life. Wall of binders ceiling to floor each with the profoundly spare details of 800 souls.

The pages of testimony of those lost/stolen/murdered had strong resonances for me with my visit to the children’s memorial  at the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana. All of those name plates. And in both cases, no bodies to bury because of the unimaginable cruelty of human beings.

Questions I will take with me: Why did the Poles and Russians turn on their own Jewish citizens with such frenzy? Why did so many of their citizens volunteer to help exterminate the Jews? Why were the North African Jews largely overlooked in the holocaust? Was it because as Africans they were not an affront to the pseudo-Aryan notion of whiteness?

Words I will take with me: “The Nazis were the first holocaust deniers.” The audacity—and not holy womanist audacity—the unmitigated gall to deny the evil work of their guilty hands.

An important conversation and presentation helped me ask who is telling the story, how and why? For example how is the Israeli holocaust museum different from the one in DC? What does the change in perspective mean? E.g. Americans as liberators telling the story versus Israelis as survivors or as those speaking for the dead.

An unexpected response to the anguished question-Why? One of our companions in this conversation drew out the ways some Jews blamed themselves as a people for the Holocaust. From the Satmar Rebbe saying it was punishment for the sins of the people, specifically for Zionism (!) to the early Zionists who said they were not Zionist enough…

How we tell the stories of our sorrows and how we remember our dead reveals who and where we are as much as it says anything about what and who we invoke. Listening to stories about the denigration of the Jews and refusal to recognize them as human, I could not help but think of the many contexts and conflicts in which basic human dignity is denied. We cannot just keep saying “Never again.” 

Lingering thoughts: There was a terrible irony for me in the video of the building of the wall around the Warsaw Ghetto. I cannot not but think of the wall around Bethlehem. With all of the differences in circumstances, there is still something very much similar about them.

Lastly, how to pray in the face of the witness to such great evil, such great suffering, so much sorrow? Walking through the children’s memorial, all I could do was pray each name I heard on a bead of my rosary, remembering the opening words of Exodus, “These are the names…”


Tangled Threads

I am on what I call a deep listening tour in Israel and Palestine with Interfaith Partners for Peace. They have selected threads to weave together in conversation, each of which is connected to other threads, tangled, torn, frayed, yet still revealing shadows and shapes larger and more complex than the frames we have.

Today the threads were:

Conversation with my seat mate on the flight over, a seventy something woman (I guess) who was terrified of flying because of a plane crash that left her widowed with a 10 month-old daughter. Later she explained what happened as “Arafat put a bomb in a suitcase on the plane and blew it up.” Her sorrow and fear are a tight wound still bleeding thread in the tapestry of this place and these peoples.

Riding from the airport in Lod/Tev Aviv-Yafo hearing the geography narrated when our guide points out the valley of Ajalon. I ask him to point out Upper and Lower Beth Horon. I don’t know that I have seen them on previous trips, even form a distance. I am thrilled to have touched such an ancient thread from such a powerful woman in my spiritual ancestry. Those cities are two the the three the scriptures say was built by a woman, Sheerah.

Pilgrimage to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher/Anastasis. It is a place of particularly holy prayer for me. I took my rosary, given by a saint at the African Episcopal Church of Saint Thomas and hallowed it on the touchstones of my faith.

Conversations and presentations wrestling with the future of Israel and Palestine, Jewish settler Zionist voices and one secular Palestinian voice all affirming two indigenous peoples in one land, wrestling with what a political—geographical—just future looks like.

Living with the threads in tension. 


Deep Listening

A Jerusalem rose, Wil Gafney, January 2010

I am returning to a place I love, a place that breaks my heart: Jerusalem.

It’s a complicated place with conflicting and contradictory stories. I am going to listen to some of those stories, as deeply as I can. I will bring my question, hopes, prayers, and beliefs with me. I will try to keep them in my pocket, like the beads of my rosary, to touch for strength and guidance.

Yet is there is any reason in the world to hope, to believe that which cannot be seen or does not adhere to the rules of logic it is Jerusalem where Holiness touched earth.

I am traveling with Interfaith Partners for Peace. Among their commitments these are the ones that carry with me:

We recognize with profound pain the suffering that continues on both sides in the land.  We have precious bonds with Israelis and Palestinians and we hear their voices.  Each and every human being is created in the divine image.  When one person suffers, we all suffer.  

 We recognize that there are multiple narratives in the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  We commit to hear narratives that are not our own, and to engage in and encourage deep listening so that we may challenge our assumptions.


Weeping With Jerusalem

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Just stop it! This rash of stabbings and vehicle assaults must end. So too must the occupation and explosion of settlements which fuels some of this rage. There must be a just peace in Jerusalem, Israel and Palestine in whatever configuration. That means the cessation of all violence in all of its forms: terroristic actions by persons, policies, governments and their agents, legal fictions and economic violence. Violence on all sides must cease. There is no other way. Just peace.


Why Pray for Peace?

We pray not because we believe it is magic, not because we are certain that God will do what we ask, but because we can and we must. The world’s burdens are too great and too many for any of us to bear, its problems impossible in our strength, knowledge and capacity. We pray knowing there is a God who hears, loves, aches and moves. We pray knowing our ancestors prayed for freedom until they died, not receiving it in their lifetimes, passing the mantle of prayer down through the generations. We don the ancestral mantle of prayer because it is our time. And we pray knowing that we may die before we see peace in the world. But we pray because we know the world will see peace whether we, our children or our children’s children live to see it. We take up the garments of prayer passed down through the centuries until the time comes to exchange it for a burial shroud and pass it on to the next generation.


My Advent Practice

This year I am tweeting President Obama (@BarackObama) every day during Advent, Hanukah and the 12 Days of Christmas urging him to push for a just peace between Israel and Palestine. Join me (@WilGafney)! Huffington Post Religion features my practice here.