Sunday, February 28, 2010

Ordinary Kindnesses

In the midst of so many high profile issues that absorb our attention in this troubled land, it is easy to overlook acts of ordinary kindness that occur in the course of everyday life. I think of my young Jewish seatmate on the flight to Tel Aviv who, when I looked bewildered, stopped what he was doing to show me where to plug in my ear phones; of the Israeli man at Ben Gurion who stopped to explain to my companion how her cell phone worked; of the airport bus driver from who phoned an anxious passenger’s companion in Jerusalem to tell her where to meet her friend. None of these extraordinary, but they are the kinds of civility that constitute a viable society. The tragedy for both Israelis and Palestinians is that they are now so isolated from each other by walls, curfews, bypass roads and Jewish Israeli-only neighborhoods that they have little or no contact. And that which they do have is almost always accompanied by weapons and enormous power differentials.

This morning’s adventure was to make my way from Jerusalem to Ramallah and the Quaker Meeting for Worship by way of the #18 bus. When I arrived in Ramallah a fellow passenger observed my opened map and asked if he could help. By the time he had walked several blocks with me, I had learned of his years in New York and Chicago and been invited to his shop for coffee. Despite this kind man’s help, I lost my way and approached a Palestinian policeman. Big smile, no English, but eager to help. Lost again, I entered an office building, found a lovely young woman who escorted me to the president’s office who did his very best in Arabic and many gestures from his large window. Recalling that the Meeting was across the street from the best ice cream store in Ramallah, I hailed a taxi who took me there in minutes for only 10 shekels. Many ordinary kindnesses made my morning an adventure rather than an ordeal.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Signs of Hope ... and otherwise

Jerusalem is raining like there is no tomorrow (including some hail) and is matched by chilly temperatures ... hard on the driving and those without winter jackets, but good for the land and its produce. Sun and more warmth promised for next week.

As always when I visit Is/Pal, I encounter remarkably encouraging signs for the future together with unmistakable indicators of a worsening conflict. In the former category is a British pediatrician I met at breakfast Friday who just spent a week in Gaza and a week in Ramallah creating teaching modules for young physicians. Asked what gave her hope she said, "It's the relationships with these young doctors; they're bright, committed and, given the conditions under which they work, most creative." At breakfast this morning I talked with an Australian woman with CARE who is helping link markets in Ramallah and Nablus to women in Jenin who are producing excellent cheeses and other dairy products. Travel is difficult for the women in Jenin, so instead of having them take their produce south, she is working to bring the market to them.

After breakfast yesterday we joined Estephan and Laurie Salameh and three month old Luca ... who is a sign of hope all by himself. We drove to Jifna for lunch with Estephan's family whose generous hospitality is so characteristic of the Palestinian people. Part of my mission with my friend, Kathy Matsushima, is to look in on the Seraj Library Project's children's library in the Christian village of Jifna and the space now furnished and ready for books in the Muslim village of Al-Itihhad. Estephan, Kathy and I will meet with a resource person in Ramallah today whom we hope may become a resource for more children's books and consultant services to the women the villages provide to manage the libraries. A hopeful sign for the civil society Palestinians are building is the dramatic increase in reading among young Palestinians.

At the same time it appears that every policy of the Israeli government is directed toward appropriating as much of the West Bank as possible and encouraging as many Palestinians as possible to emigrate. In Beit Hanin, an Arab section of greater Jerusalem where Estephan lives, city services are noticeably absent. No sidewalks, streets badly in need of repair, no postoffice; and yet these people pay the same taxes as other Jerusalemites. The contrast with West Jerusalem neighborhoods could not be more dramatic. On our way to Al-Itihhad we passed a new Jewish settlement on Palestinian land. They begin as a group of trailers suddenly positioned and occupied by settlers. Although declared illegal by the Israeli government, they are defended by the IDF and supplied with electricity and water by the government. The positioning of trailers is followed by the construction of permanent homes ... and suddenly another "fact on the ground". This particular group of trailers lies on land in Area C (60% of the West Bank) as specified in the Oslo Accords over which Israel has both civil and military authority. Permission for Palestinians to build in Area C must be obtained from the appropriate Israeli authority and is in practice nearly impossible to obtain. The list of ways Israeli words desiring a negotiated peace do not match their actions is endless. The eviction of Palestinians in the Sheik Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem just a few blocks from St. George's where I am staying is testimony to the Israeli intent to take over all of Jerusalem and, so far as possible, push out Palestinians. A new policy which denies work visas for internationals employed by NGO's in Jerusalem will effectively push these organizations out of Jerusalem into Ramallah. Netanyahu's recent declaration including the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel's tomb in Bethlehem as national heritage sites is, as the US stated, a provocation and another insult to the Palestinian people. Yet US administrations have been and remain unwilling to take any stronger action to stop a movement which has continued uninterrupted by every Israeli government, both liberal and conservative.

The signs of hope are sometimes small and few compared to seemingly unrelenting signs to the contrary. But so it has always been. Particularly during this season, it is the fidelity, courage and perseverance of the few that is the content of our hope.

Monday, February 22, 2010

A Fourth Trip

I leave Wednesday on my fourth trip to Israel/Palestine ... with considerable excitement and lots of expectations. My itinerary this time is entirely my own, but good friends and kind people on both sides have welcomed me for visits. My goals for this trip are several. One is to ask the same question of many people ... "What contributes to your hopefulness for a just peace and what lessens it?" To the best of our ability, we obviously need to contribute to the former and cut back on the latter!

Another goal is to visit and talk with people and groups contributing to justice, reconciliation and peace. Among those are our two good friends, Estephan and Laurie Salameh (and now baby Luca as well!) who are founders of the Seraj Library Project. With E & L I will visit Seraj's two children's libraries in Jifna and Al-Itihhad and shoot enough stills and videos to make a short DVD for Seraj when I get home. On behalf of the American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem (AFEDJ), I'll visit and learn more about a couple diocesan institutions in Jerusalem and Ramallah. And for sheer fun, I'll get up to Jenin where the Palestinian Fair Trade Association recently built a modern olive oil press, the source of the wonderful olive oil we sell in Chicago. I go on this trip armed with a Nikon D90, a very compact little camcorder and a voice recorder for times when videos aren't welcome. I'm currently on a crash course to master enough of the technology to be able, when I return, to create useful tools for sharing what I've learned.

Putting all of this in theological terms, I'm looking for "signs of the resurrection", an appropriate Lenten discipline, I think. My theology of resurrection is pretty humble; it amounts to signs of hope where there seems little to justify it, signs of love where it seems in short supply, signs of justice and peace where injustice and violence dominate. On these journeys, the courage and fidelity of so many Israelis and Palestinians always strengthen my own.

There are many more plans, but they will unfold as I travel. Wherever and whenever possible, I will post regular updates and include some pictures of the wonderful people and places I visit. Thanks for joining me along the way. Shalom, Salaam, Peace. Cotton