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."