Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Christian Cowboys in Sderot

The drive south from Tel Aviv to Sderot takes only a little more than an hour. Sderot is, of course, the Israeli town lying closest to the border with Gaza, known to us primarily as the town that has been the target of so many Qassam rockets. In the past the residents of Sderot have been regularly terrorized by incoming rockets but, as a waitress told me this morning, there have not been any rockets for more than five months. "It is quiet, thank God." Reinforced concrete shelters stand along most roads and I saw new shelters being constructed behind a row of two flats.

My goal in these visits is to learn how people live and what they hope for. Most want what we want ... to live normal lives, to feel safe in their homes, to educate their children, to support their families. The waitress I talked with this morning lives with her husband and children in his parent's home. She likes Tel Aviv better, but economic necessity brought her and her family back to Sderot.

Much of what I saw in Sderot was what I expected to see - ordinary people trying to live normal lives in abnormal times. What I did not expect to see was a gaggle of Christian cowboys from Texas, easily identified by their Stetson hats, fancy buckles and cowboy boots. They were from the Cowboy Church, a self-described community of Evangelical Texans who love horses, think alike and love Jesus. They were both friendly and eager to tell me why they were here ... to support the Jews in restoring Israel to the people God gave it to, to prepare for the rapture when the Messiah returns to bring all this messy history to a close. "We'll all be one then." Except for those who don't accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. "How about the Muslims, will they be saved too." No, they've had their chance and they've rejected Jesus. "It's what the Good Book says."

Well, it went along like that for awhile and then got worse. Learning that I was from Illinois, the inevitable question came: "What do you think about Obama." Well, sir, do you know he has disobeyed every one of the ten commandments? And do you know that "mercy killing" - just like the Nazis carried out on disabled Jews - that could happen in our USA? "When they come to the door to get my disabled daughter, I've got a plan how to hide her." And you watch, "if ever the United States does anything negative toward Israel, there will be negative consequences for us. You just watch and see if that's not true."

These are not the first Christian Zionists I've met in Israel. John Hagee was here recently and was honored as a great friend of Israel by Bibi Netanyahu. Many members of CUFI (Christians United for Israel) must have come along with him.

It's frankly a little bizarre encountering these folk. I try to approach them openly, listen respectfully, ask questions gently. I think what disturbs me most is the abandon with which these Christians give their support to an Israel I cannot believe in and the extreme caution with which progressive Christians, especially my own Episcopal Church, advocate for our Palestinian Christian brothers and sisters and their Muslim neighbors. If we wanted justice and peace as strongly as CUFI wants whatever the hell they want, we might see a little less violence in this troubled land.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

With Brian in Jenin, Jit and Khalandia

On Sunday I traveled to Jenin with Rabbi Brian Walt, the co-founder Ta'anit Tzedek - Jewish Fast for Gaza, to visit the Palestinian Fair Trade Association and Canaan Fair Trade facility that produces the wonderful olive oils, Za'atar, olives and couscous now available in the US through Whole Foods. After a tour of the facility we visited one of the farmers who is a member of the cooperative. As we introduced ourselves our host said (through a translator) "I do not understand how a people who have suffered so much can turn around and inflict that same suffering on others." Later, after coffee and apricot nectar had been served, Brian responded to our host. I'm sure I don't have his exact words, but he told our host that he shares his sadness at the suffering of the Palestinian people and wants him to know there are other Jews who are deeply sorry for the suffering they experience. It was a privilege to be present at a moment of such honesty and compassion.

Brian had been in touch earlier in the day with a Palestinian friend in Jit, a small village west of Nablus, who is field staff for Rabbis for Human Rights, an organization Brian headed in the US. He told Brian that he and one of his brothers had been attacked by settlers the previous Friday and asked us to visit on our way home from Jenin. Zechariah told us his story but not until he had fed us a sumptuous meal and introduced us to all seven of his brothers who gathered in his apartment to meet us. Zechariah is a large man who in addition to his native Arabic speaks fluent Hebrew and English. The story he told is typical of so many incidents in which settlers harass or attack Palestinians. In this case both he and his brother were injured, two video cameras and cell phones were stolen, and the police said there was insufficient evidence to charge anyone. Israeli authorities frequently comment that these ideological settlers are out of control, but it seems far more likely that they function as shock troops to push Palestinians into smaller and smaller enclaves.

From Jit we were driven by a generous neighbor of Zechariah to the Khalandia check point through which we would reenter Israel and catch a bus to Jerusalem. I had walked through this check point before so was accustomed to the routine. Brian, however, had not, and was stunned. At one point there is what can only be described as a cattle chute through which everyone must pass waiting to be admitted to the x ray machine and the soldier to whom permits and visas are presented. We passed without incident, but with a painful reminder of the humiliation Palestinians experience daily.

Brian and I talked the following day. We acknowledged the emotional impact the experience had on both of us and and our decision to give ourselves a day "off" to recover. Our Palestinian brothers and sisters never get a day off from an occupation that is now at 42 years and counting.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Miracles on the Mount of Olives

"The Israelis are very fine people; they are clever, but they are not wise. No one wants to be occupied. They damage themselves. How can we have peace when there is no justice?"

When I visited Betty Majaj last week I did not expect to encounter a fire-brand whose words and wisdom still ring in my head and heart. I toured the Princess Basma Centre for Disabled Children which Betty heads to learn more about an institution I had heard about through the American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem (AFEDJ). Since I am very near Betty's age, I can say that she looks like a refined, mild-mannered senior citizen. She is indeed refined and mild-mannered and she was a gracious host to me later in the week when I went for tea with friends at her home. But this is one powerful woman who speaks the truth in love. People like Betty Majaj are the best friends Israel will ever have.

Betty has been director of the Princess Basma Centre for Disabled Children for more than 20 years. She was born in Lebanon, trained as a nurse and married a physician who later became the Minister of Health in Jordan and, later still, medical director of two hospitals in Jerusalem. I visited her at the Centre a week ago and joined her for tea last Friday at her lovely home just a few minutes walk from St. George's Guest House. If a tour through the Princess Basma Centre doesn't break your heart and, at the same time, inspire a vibrant new hope, nothing will. The Centre runs a school and treatment center for 756 boys and girls, serving children with cerebral palsy, the hearing-impaired, creating prosthetic devices for children wounded by the violence, and a great deal more. What was most striking though was the atmosphere of warmth, professionalism and competency that pervades every aspect of the Centre. Room is provided for mothers to stay overnight with their children when they are brought for treatment. An Empowerment of Women for Women helps teaches Palestinian women to demand their rights. Since West Bankers can no longer come to Jerusalem, two satellite clinics have been established in the north near Nablus and in the south near Hebron. One of the Centre staff described a 5 year study comparing the traditional training for cerebral palsied children with a new functional training that has already shown promising results. Another showed me the workshop where he builds prosthetic limbs for amputees and braces for cerebral palsied children. The carbon fiber and titanium joints used in his work are state of the art and very expensive.

It would be difficult to overstate the impact of the loving care and professional treatment children and their families experience at the Princess Basma Center. I rarely speak of miracles, but the term applies when, against all odds, a person like Betty and her staff not only bring new life to disabled children but, by their words and the actions, become powerful witnesses for the justice and peace so desperately needed in this land.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Reunion in Jenin

I left early this morning with Rabbi Brian Walt (former director of Rabbis for Human Rights and founder of Fast for Gaza) for Jenin, the Palestinian Fair Trade Association Offices and the Canaan Fair Trade facility. It was an "interesting" ride from Jerusalem to Ramallah and then to Jenin via a road which read "Road closed to Jenin". We made it though, and our introduction to PFTA and the Canaan Fair Trade facility was wonderful. I went to Jenin specifically to shoot enough video and stills to create a 5-7 minute introduction to PFTA and Zatoun olive oil, a product I hope more churches and synagogues will market in their congregations. More about that later.

The totally unexpected surprise came, though, as the small group that gathered to learn about the Association began introducing ourselves. When we got to a man I thought I recognized he told us he was a chiropractor from a kibbutz near Haifa called Harduf. I suddenly realized this was the man who rescued me several years ago from the Jalameh checkpoint where the soldiers had refused to allow me to return to Israel and a group I was to meet in Nazareth. It was Harry Finkbeiner! Without any display of anger Harry had argued with the soldiers for a good hour and a half until they finally released me. It was the most elegant display of negotiating and peacemaking skills I have ever witnessed. Harry apparently recognized me at the same moment I recognized him, and we both erupted in howls of laughter and joy ... and repeated hugs. What a gift to know Harry Finkbeiner who was my saint-at-the-checkpoint is still working for justice and peace in Israel/Palestine!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Visiting Jamal in Hebron

Well, not exactly Hebron. Just north of Hebron in a small Palestinian village called Beit Ommar. I set out fairly early from Jerusalem with a friend from Sabeel to visit Jamal and Saddiey Moqbel and their family. Colleagues in Chicago told me of the courageous work Jamal is doing with an organization dedicated to peacemaking by creating opportunities for Israelis and Palestinians to talk with one another

The #121 bus left from the Damascus gate station and dropped us at the junction of Bethlehem and Beit Jalla. From there we took the Hebron mini bus south. Shortly after we boarded, I gave my seat to an elderly Palestinian woman. After standing in the aisle for awhile she signaled for me to come take her seat as she went to the rear of the bus where fellow travelers were smiling and crunching up to make room for the older woman. Palestinians could teach us all something about courtesy.

As we approached the check point at Beit Ommar, traffic slowed before an incident taking place about 10 cars ahead of us. IDF trucks and soldiers were everywhere, people were running and tear gas cannisters were exploding. I immediately began shooting pictures through the front of the bus and was ushered to a front seat by the other passengers who were clearly pleased someone was recording the incident. As this was our destination, we left the bus and followed about 15 of the press to the embankment just above the clash which, by then, was somewhat quieter. We got most of the story from English-speaking journalists and internationals. ISM (International Solidarity Movement) had staged a similar demonstration the preceding Friday, protesting the unjust treatment of Palestinians in Hebron and the IDF were apparently not well prepared. This week they were.

As we stood on the embankment, the soldiers basically ignored our presence and our photography as well as our questions about what was going on. Suddenly, they were no longer ignoring us. There was a lot of loud shouting (in Hebrew) and we were being pushed up the hill; most of the press were running. When I looked back my Sabeel friend had just stepped aside from someone being pushed in front of her and the next thing I saw a soldier was dragging her by the arm down the embankment to the street and the army vehicles. When I got there an Israeli policewoman was explaining that she had been arrested, would be questioned and later released. My friend’s broad smile told me she was having something of a good time, so I quit worrying about her and asked why she had been arrested and where she would be taken. Suddenly, a soldier grabbed my arm, asked if I had been arrested (I had not - yet) and began shoving me up the hill. My continued resistance was clearly going to lead to my arrest so I followed the journalists/photographers to higher ground and a road which led past the scene of the clash.

Things continued to calm down, so I walked back toward the soldiers, found a friendly one and explained that I wanted to find out about my friend. He said he would walk me up there ... at which point I saw her walking freely toward us. As she explained, the policewoman (soldiers apparently cannot arrest) was quite kind, gave her some water to ease the sting of tear gas and warned her not to put her hands near her eyes. For whatever reason, they decided not to keep her. We were both aware that had she been Palestinian the result might have been very different. But she got a good sample of how Palestinians are frequently treated.

Jamal kindly met us a little later and drove us to his home and family. His wife, Saddiye, and four children came out from their lovely home to meet us, all smiling and politely introducing themselves. Amr is three, Yara is 9, Zain a bit older, and Yazan 15. A very handsome bunch. As the day unfolded we learned a great deal about the Moqbels. They are refugees from 1948 and 1967. Jamal was 16 when the first Intifada broke out. Soldiers suspected him of throwing stones (he was), came in the middle of the night, blindfolded and handcuffed him and held him for 20 days. He was imprisoned three more times, the last time at an infamous prison near Hebron for 1 1/2 years. He was shot once and was beaten severely during his last imprisonment. He and Saddiye were married in 1995 after a seven year engagement. With a wife and children, Jamal realized he had to take a different course in resisting the occupation. So he decided to build a house in Beit Ommar where his family lived and open a barber shop. Although it is in Area C (Palestinian-controlled), Israeli authorities repeatedly denied him a building permit. When he began to build, they repeatedly brought demolition orders. But the house stands and Jamal and Saddiye have raised four wonderful children. “First in Class” awards hang on the walls.

In spite of or perhaps because of all he has been through, Jamal began the organization sponsoring dialogue between Jews and Palestinians. Jamal proudly told us that their son,Yazan, had talked their Jewish Israeli friend into realizing it would be safe for him to come visit the Moqdels in Beit Ommar. And he has.

As with all my visits to Palestinian families, the hospitality is abundant and kindly given. Saddiye prepared a wonderful lunch for us. But before we ate, Jamal and his son spread a prayer rug and offered silent prayers to Allah ... as we respectfully watched and offered our own prayers of gratitude for Jamal and his family.

Jamal and Saddiye have precious little worldly wealth (he turns off his car’s engine to coast down hills), but they are obviously rich in what counts. After all they have received at the hands of Israel, they refuse to hate, continue to seek justice, and work for a world in which all can live peacefully. A Lenten inspiration for us all.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Easy Leaving, Not So Easy Returning

One of the realities Palestinians have become accustomed to is the ease with which they can leave Jerusalem (or anywhere else in Israel) and the difficulty they experience in returning. It's a little complicated for those of us with US passports, but nothing like what the Palestinian must put up with day after day.

On Sunday I shared a cab to Ramallah with friends to participate in the hundredth anniversary of the Ramallah Friends Meetinghouse and International Center (more about that later). On the way north we buzzed right through the Khalandia checkpoint (which looks very much like a national border facility). On the way home, though, I boarded an Arab bus that regularly goes from Ramallah to Jerusalem. When we got to Khalandia, everyone piled out of the bus and walked toward the facility housing equipment similar to that used in US airports to scan for weapons and explosives. After these scans everyone moves through turnstiles where identification papers and permits are inspected. As I moved to leave the bus an older man and the bus driver called me back, saying that people over 60 did not have to deboard and walk through the check point. That's what I call "geezer identification".

Our bus slowly approached the auto checkpoint and stopped, waiting for the car ahead to be inspected. As the soldiers opened the car's trunk and ordered the passengers out for inspection, I took out my rather large camera and began shooting. Big mistake. A woman soldier saw me and signaled her displeasure. When we pulled into the checkpoint, they boarded the bus, demanding to see my passport and the pictures I took. I heard the word "delete" several times. To my good fortune I had also taken pictures of cabbages for sale on the street in Ramallah (beautiful vegetables!) and the soldier got to those after seeing the shots of them inspecting the car. At the cabbage shots the male soldier mellowed a bit and said "ok" ... much to the disapproval of the female who turned out to be Russian (Tatyana). No smiles from Tatyana. We pulled through the check point, drove to the parking area on the other side to wait for those who were slowly coming out of the facility.

Two days later I visited a remarkable man, Daoud Nasser, who has developed a place called "The Tent of Nations", south of Bethlehem on the way to Hebron (more about Daoud and the T of N later). I rode a bus from Jerusalem and, as to Ramallah, we buzzed through the check point leaving Israel. In mid afternoon I got dropped back at the Bethlehem checkpoint to return to St. George's in Jerusalem. I got in the long line waiting to move through the checkpoint and welcomed a Palestinian who needed to get to work in an hour to enter the line in front of me. He kindly reminded me of the routine. He would have to empty everything on him in trays to be x-rayed and then move to the turnstiles where a device read his handprint and he showed his permit to enter Jerusalem. I could simply put my backpack through the x ray but did not need to empty my pockets and take off my belt. "Just show them your US passport". Even when the electronic monitor I walked through picked up my metallic hips, I was waved on. So simple for me. So tiring and humiliating for my Palestinian acquaintance. But he is used to it; he makes this passage twice daily.

As my Palestinian friend and I left the turnstiles, the sign on the wall read, "Welcome to Jerusalem. Have a nice day".

Sunday, March 7, 2010

A Celebrative Evening in Sheikh Jarrah

I approach demonstrations in Israel very carefully. I usually don't know enough about the organizers to be sure of their commitment to non-violence, and even when I do, serious incidents can occur. I usually attend as an observer. But the demonstration planned for last night in Sheikh Jarrah merited support. I had visited Palestinian family members evicted from their homes, observed the Ultra Orthodox settlers who claimed their homes and knew enough about the protest to have confidence in the planners. I also knew the Israeli Supreme Court had issued strong orders supporting peaceful protest.

Usually, the only ones on time to a demonstration are the police. When I arrived a half hour before the announced start time the Palestinian police were there in full force - I would guess at 1,000 police with riot gear and all the military accoutrements. We were well protected.

Israeli authorities had issued a permit for the demonstration to take place on a nearby soccer field. When I arrived only a few hundred had gathered, and I feared a non-event. Gradually, though, buses began arriving from Haifa and Tel Aviv and Beersheva. And by the time the event began in earnest, there was at least several thousand (Ha'aretz reported 5,000 this morning). What was most wonderful about the crowd was its great diversity and positive mood. There were parents with their children, a good number of older people (like me), lots of young adults; Jews, Christians and Muslims. And they were all in a celebrative mood! There was great music, lots of dancing, dramatic speeches (few of which I understood) and chanting crowds. A Jewish woman told me, "This is wonderful! Protests used to be filled with angry and unhappy people. These people are happy. I feel like dancing!" And she was.

The assymetry of Israeli law, the evictions of poor Palestinian families, the taunting presence of Ultra Orthodox settlers, and the seeming intent of Israel to claim more and more of East Jerusalem have clearly mobilized many - Palestinian residents, Arab and Jewish israelis, internationals.

As I left the demonstration a sizable counter demonstration was being organized by the Ultra Orthodox. The Jerusalem police moved quickly and effectively to move them out of any proximity to demonstrators. Happily, there were no incidents. Happily, too, there was a powerful witness to values held by people of every faith and of no faith - and perhaps the beginning of a new coalition working within Israel for a more just society.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

More Kindnesses

Earlier today a guest at St. George's guest house became faint and collapsed near the front desk. When I learned of the incident the staff had already made her comfortable and called for an ambulance. The Israeli emergency medical team was talking to the woman, suggesting that running some tests at the hospital was probably a good idea. Having been on the receiving end of such an incident, I know how very much you do NOT want to be taken to the hospital. Denial sets in immediately and going to the hospital means something may actually be wrong. She explained to the team that she would get up in just a moment and be fine. Her words were slow, though, and she was obviously not going anywhere on her own steam. The team leader patiently and kindly kept encouraging her to go for some tests. In addition to this man's gentle manner, there were three other attendants whom I learned were 11th and 12 grade Jewish Israeli students who volunteered their time every Saturday to work in ICU or on an ambulance. They were most impressive.

Sometimes in crises our common humanity takes over and potential enemies become people just like us.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Sheikh Jarrah

A neighborhood in East Jerusalem called Sheikh Jarrah has recently become the focus of an intense struggle between Palestinian residents and Israeli authorities and ideologically religious Jewish settlers for the future of this Arab community. A web site which mobilizes support for Palestinians describes the source of the conflict and the injustice of laws which favors Israeli Jewish citizens over Israeli Palestinian citizens.

"The asymmetric legal situation in Israel, through the Absentee Property Law, makes it possible for Jews to return to property that was owned by Jews before 1948 — while Palestinian property return is completely impossible. This is both unjust and unwise. In Sheikh Jarrah, this has resulted in Palestinian refugees, originally housed in the neighborhood by the Jordanian government after 1948, becoming refugees a second time. Of course, unlike the settlers forcing the Palestinians out of their homes, the Palestinians cannot return to the homes they owned before 1948 — not in Jaffa, nor in West Jerusalem or anywhere else..."

Yesterday I visited members of two families who have been evicted from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood that is only a few blocks from the Anglican Cathedral where I am staying. Where I stood with an international observer from Denmark, Miriam and Aiman and Nabil Said Alkurd was immediately across the street from the home Miriam and Aiman used to occupy. It is now the home of Israeli settlers who have draped the house with Israeli flags and who, while I was there, walked between us to the empty house Nabil built but is not allowed to live in. The home now occupied by settlers has been claimed as Jewish Israeli property. Both groups have deeds to the property and both claim the other's deed is forged. It is, obviously, a very provocative situation.

Nabil explained to me his history in the property where we stood and where they now camp. As a Palestinian refugee he came to this location in 1956 when the Jordanian government and the UN built a simple house for him and his young family. When he came, he said, there were only olive trees here. After 1967 and the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem he repeatedly applied for a building permit to expand his home to make room for a growing family. Like many Palestinians, however, these permits were never approved. Finally, he proceeded to build the addition without a permit. He has never been allowed to live in this addition and it is now claimed as settler property, although no one lives there.

Demonstrations by Israeli Palestinians, Jews and internationals have been held here each Friday for many months. A much larger demonstration is planned for this evening. Tension has clearly risen in Jerusalem in part because of Prime Minister Netanyahu's recent appropriation of the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem as Israeli national heritage sites. Clashes occurred yesterday between soldiers and Palestinian students near the Al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount and soldiers were inspecting all cars on the road outside my room at St. George's guest house, something I have never seen before.

I will observe the demonstration tonight. The Israeli court has so far upheld the right of citizens for peaceful demonstrations. 50 people will be allowed in the space in front of the house. The rest - however many - will remain at the top of the street leading to the evicted families and the home now occupied by settlers. If the police keep their cool and the demonstrators retain their disciplined non-violent approach, it may well be an important witness to the claim of many for justice for all the citizens of this land.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Ibillin Conversations

Mar Elias is a school the legendary Melkite Archbishop Abuna Elias Chacour built following years of struggle in the small village of Ibillin near Haifa in northern Israel. At Mar Elais more than a thousand Muslim and Christian children are taught by an interfaith faculty of Jews, Christians and Muslims. During the course of my day here I've had three conversations which begin to describe the complexity of life as an Arab in this land.

Abuna Chacour is an Israeli citizen. At lunch today Abuna talked about his experience of Israeli bureaucracy as an instrument of Israeli policy, seemingly to make it as difficult as possible for Christians to remain in this land. A Lebanese Melkite priest Abuna needs to serve a parish in Israel has been waiting a year and a half for the visa required to come here. "And he is still waiting," Abuna said. For this academic year the Israeli Ministry of Education has withheld over a million dollars owed Mar Elias as punishment for assisting a Muslim school in a neighboring community. Some teachers, Abuna said, have not been paid for many months. Despite a robust faith and a long record of perseverance (no one will push this man out), Abuna is clearly discouraged.

Later in the afternoon I talked with two high school students on their way home with their mother who teaches in the lower school. Both told me they did not like to think or talk about politics. "The Israeli government is better," they said "and the Israeli technology is far superior than the Palestinian." These are two very bright and ambitious students. One will major in technology, the other in medicine. Later this evening I talked with another Palestinian family who was more outspoken about the racism they experience from Israeli Jews but made clear the difference that being an Israeli citizen makes in their lives. They can travel as they wish and they live under Israeli law rather than the far more restrictive law of the occupation. All of these people are trying their best to live normal lives in an admittedly abnormal situation.

Finally I talked with ......., a Palestinian gardener and maintenance man from Jenin who is not an Israeli citizen. ....... spends two to three months working at Mar Elias and then returns home for a week or two. He has six children whom he misses, but, he said, "if I want to eat, I need to work". To get to Ibillin, ....... travels 6 - 8 hours, crouched in a truck with other men, from Jenin to Bethlehem, through Jerusalem to Tel Aviv to Haifa and Ibillin. Without a permit he is not allowed to travel the half to three quarters of an hour from Jenin directly to Ibillin. Before I headed back to my room, ........... proudly showed me the English-Arabic book he had purchased for his son and read me words he had learned to pronounce. "My son will learn English soon."