ISRAEL/PALESTINE TALK
June 14, 2009
HOLY APOSTLES CHURCH
Fr. Stephen Chinlund
    It is a great privilege to be able to tell the story, to my home parish, of  the pilgrimage to the Holy Land made as a member of one of the Transformational Journeys sponsored by the Church of All Saints, Pasadena, California. There were twelve of us and we went from April 2 to April 14, 2009.

    My remarks are divided into three parts. First I offer a very brief summary of the history of the area, recpognizing that even the last hundred years are controversial and complex, filled with broken promises, bloody attacks, as well as hopes and dreams.
Second, I will tell the inspirational stories of some of the amazing people of all faiths we met who gave generously of their time to talk with us. They are the central part of this report. Finally, I want to share the glory of the beauty of the land itself and the inspiration of standing and walking in the places where Jesus lived and preached, healed and taught.

    So I begin with a summary of the history. Both sides, Arab and Jew, feel that they are victims. Both sides feel that they are amply justified in those feelings. Each side wants to have the entire area that we call the Holy Land to be theirs. Any compromise, any “giving” of part of that land seems to the extremists to be a betrayal of their history and tradition. There is agreement that the Hebrew people conquered the land in approximately 1270 BCE. The accounts in the Talmud (the Old Testament in the Christian Bible) make it chillingly clear that God told the people to go into the Promised Land and take it by force from the Canaanites, Jebusites, Hivvites, etc. Various other nations occupied the land after that, but Jewish people go back to the time of conquest as their justification for the land being “theirs.” Meantime the Palestinians say that they are the descendents of the Canaanites who were the original settlers, so it is “theirs.”

    The Church contruted a giant part of the tragic tangle when it launched the first Crusade in 1098. Muslims, Jews and Christians had lived largely at peace for 400 years! But then the wicked notion was introduced that “the land must be purified of the infidels” and  blood flowed. Revenge was demanded. The cycle has never fully stopped from that time. So the tendency of some Christians to look down from some imaginary moral perch and cluck about “their” bad behavior should stop. We have enormous apologies to make.

    Fast forward to the 20th century. The Jewish people suffered cruelly from all sorts of legal and social discrimination, pogroms and, ultimately, the Holocaust. My own vocation as a Christian minister dates from the revelations, in newsreels, of the horrors of the concentration camps. I was 12, terrfied, and moved to try to find God and some stability in a whirlwind which shook even my unshakable parents. My life was comfortable, but I was overwehelmed by the suffering of the Jewish people. At the age of 13, I decided that I wanted to give my life to the alleviation of suffering, any suffering in the world. Just before going on the pilgrimage, I was haunted by the 60 year old nightmare of the Jews who were in the camps where they were forced to have the gold extracted from their teeth, with pliers and hammers, without the benefit of any pain killers. I love the Jewish people and want to be their friend until I die.

    So I understand the various clumsy efforts to create a Jewish state after the Second World War. I was attentive to the process as a boy and applauded it. But it is only very recently that I became aware of the cruel inaccuracies which were parroted at the time. The worst one was that there “should be a nation for the people who have no nation in a land where there are no people.” In fact there were 1,200,000 Arabs living in Palestine after the war and 700.000 of them were forcibly moved from their houses to make room for the Jewish people. It would have been easy to move into land where there really were “no people” or offer generous compensation to those willing to take it and move elswhere. The failure to do that has led to the bloody wars that have followed. That is the responsibility of the Allied Powers and our Christian leadership. So as people cast about for blame for the present mess, the USA and the UK must accept the primary share.

    Now, out of our feelings of guilt for having responded with shocking indifference to the plight of the Jews for all the years leading up to and including the Holocaust, we have armed Israel to the teeth, including nuclear arms, making it far and away the  strongest military force in the MIddle East.. We also have declined to be critical of any action it has ever taken anywhere in the area. No nation is perfect. The USA has much to apologize for. Why should Israel be different? Only because of the strength of their lobbying in Congress, where the perception has been that  any elected official who is even mildly critical will face the prospect of losing his or her seat in the next election.

    So Israel has moved into areas belonging to the Palestinians, occupying territory which does not belong to Israel, creating “settlements” now housing 400,000 Jews. They are well settled in and any attempt to move them would create great disruption. So President Barack Obama has said that one compromise would be simply to freeze them at the size they currently are.

    We saw the settlements and we saw the walls which have gone up at astronomical expense, all over Palestine. The stated purpose is to contain the movement of suicide bombers and other Palestinians who are fighting against the illegal occupation. But the walls, we saw, actually, in many places, cut through Palestinian areas and only create great inconvenience for the Palestinians; they often do not even seem to protect Jewish areas. The intent is clear: squeeze out the Palestinians.

    On the other hand, the problem of rocket attacks and suicide bombers is real. The extremeists among the Palestinians find many, including children whose parents we met, who are ready to die in some last act of defiance against those they see as their oppressors. “Mommy, I am going to die anyway. I will be shot by the Israeli soldiers anyway, even if I am innocently going about my business of going to school. Perhaps it would be better if I could die in an act of defiance.”

    So my heart goes out to Arab Muslims and Arab Christians, to Jews all over the world. I still wish that there were a way, as I wished as a boy, to alleviate the daily suffering that they experience.

    It is then, with amazement and thanksgiving that I turn to the inspiring individuals who live in the Holy Land, who live with the threat of death from people of their own faith or of other faiths, and manage to do so with a graceful courage that often reduced me to tears. I sometimes have difficulty sleeping at night, thinking about many small things. These people sleep well; they even, some of them, seem like children, looking wide-eyed at a world bristling with threats, trusting in God to be with them in this life and in the life to come. Christians yield to the will of God, walking where Jesus walked, knowing that his path led to crucifixion and death. But they believe in the resurrection in a way that has made them absolutely fearless. The Muslims are the same, living a faith whose very name”Islam” means surrender to the will of God. They go forward with their peace-making efforts, trusting that Allah is watching over them and will continue to be with them even in death itself. And the Jews believe that they live in “shalom,” not just peace, but the special peace that comes after great struggles, tragedy, even war. They believe that it will not serve the Israel they love to commit the same crimes which killed their own ancestors and families. Like the others, they go one step at a time each day, living examples that “tsedeka” justice is justice which weaves together the torn places in the fabric of community; justice which is non-violent, sharing the vocation with the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, trusting that God will work his will by his strength and not with swords and chariots.

    The first hero we met was on our first stop,  the Arab Episcopal School and Home near Ramallah. She is Sister Najaf and the school could not have a more spiritually grounded, beautifully radiant representative. She was herself orphaned at a very young age when her parents were both killed by one of the innumerable acts of violence, She did not say which side caused their deaths and it was clear that it did not matter to her. They had been Christians, so she was taken to the orphanage which is now also a school. It is a handsome, substantial establishment, nourished by funds from the outside, especially individuals from the Diocese of Long Island and  elsewhere around the world. The photos of the children in the kindergarten reflect happy, confident faces like the ones of all ages we saw as we toured the school. I wish I could adequately describe the sense of serentiy communicated by Sister Najaf. She simply said what the different rooms were for, but she did so with the special rootedness that comes from being utterly at home, knowing she was doing just what God wanted her to do.When one of our group asked if she was ever afraid, she just beamed and said, “Maybe sometimes, but (with a wave of her hand) God has brought me this far and I know he will be with me always, through whatever comes next.”

    Jean Zaru was born of Quaker parents and is “head” of her local Quaker meeting, the only woman who is head of a faith community in the Middle East. She describes herself cheerfully as a Quaker Muslim and speaks with rich appreciation of the Muslim faith and the ease with which the two seem to fit together for her. Mohammed would have been pleased. She wrote Occupied with Non-Violence; a Muslim Woman Speaks (Fortress Press). One of many examples of her work is a youth program in the West Bank teaching non-violence to young people. It has now been taken on by some Norwegians into Gaza.
She started a group to study liberation theology. The group was troubled by the emphasis on the Exodus, with its narrative of the drowning of the soldiers of Pharaoh. The group wanted a non-violent liberation narrative.

    She spoke of her own family in a memorable, rambling narrative. “Ihave two sons, one in Canada, one in California. We need them here, but I understand. My younger son was saved by the Episcopal community in Southern California. He had wanted to die, be killed in the first Intifada. He kept saying, ‘I don’t want to hate anyone.’ We lived next to Arafat’s compound. The explosions blew out our windows four times. We fled for 34 days and when we came back, the army had made our house their HQ. There were no doors on our house. For the first time, I had no hope. But  my grand-daughter saved me because I had to take care of her. I lost my health card, my ID, everything.

    So a new group was created, called “Sabeel” an Arabic word which means “the Way.” That word was chosen because it was the first term by which Christians were called, before they were called “Christians.” (Acts 24:14) The group liked it because it referred to the way the early Christians behaved, rather than what they believed. The emphasis was on joy and peace rather than fine points of theology. The early Christian martyrs, the ones who sang hymns on the way to their deaths, were people of The Way. Sabeel has continued to thrive under the direction of Rev. Canon Naim Ateek and his wife Maha, a full partner in what has become a world-wide endeavor. The USA representative (in Portland Oregon) is Dick Toll, (503-659-1772; cell 503-201-7158; rtoll41439@aol.com) who has  organized 18 regional conferences. It is possible to become a “Sabeel Parish” and support the work with non-violent training and actions as a congregation. It has also been a meeting point for people of all faiths in Palestine, though the Jewish involvement is not a public matter inside Israel.

    Dr. George Sa’adeh is the Principal of a Greek Orthodox School. His family too has been Christian for many generations. His younger daughter was killed by Israeli soldiers who raked his car with gunfire thinking it was the car belonging to Palestinian terrorists. He was seriously wounded in the neck, taken to an Israeli hospital where he had six hours of surgery, He has now fully recovered, but the death of Christina was widely reported and there was a formal apology from the Israeli government. As a result of the publicity a Jewish man contacted him and said that his daughter was also killed, about the same time. She was the victim of a Palestinian bomb. “Would you like to meet?” Dr. Sa’adeh said he would and with difficulty they found a place where that was possible. They took special comfort from the meeting, not only because they felt that they could talk more freely with one who had suffered a similar loss, but because they had transcended the “enemy” burden. Dr. Sa’adeh spoke with barely contained grief, clearly a man with the greatest affection for his whole family and particular concern for the unique problems faced by the surviving daughter.

    And so The Parents’ Circle was formed. The numbers are very small, the turnover is a problem and the challenges are great, faced by parents coming from both faiths, when they return to their home communities. It is a measure of the depth of the anger that even parents who have lost a child cannot thereby be embraced by their neighbors as they seek the unique comfort of the Parents’ Circle. But Dr. Sa’adeh spoke without discernible bitterness, totally commited to his surviving daughter and the children of his school. When one of our group asked how he did it, he firmly said, “I have the power of God to help me tell the story of my younger daughter’s death. This is my country. This is my home. I must stay and do my best.” It seems miraculous.

    No less amazing is Pastor Mitri Raheb, Director of the Abu Gubran Guest House in Bethlehem. I call it “The Everything House” because it is a combination Guest House and Neighborhood House on a scale that may exceed even our own Henry Street  Neighborhood House. The accomodations were excellent and the food was good, but the inspiration came from the Pastor’s daughter, Angie, 25, who guided us through the programs for the elderly (“who lie about their age in order to get in the program”), for young people and children. They offer psychiatric services (Dr. Biaka is paid by the German government), a pool, exercise sessions, lectures on a wide range of topics, language classes in English and Arabic. It was there I learned that spoken Arabic and written Arabic are virtually two different languages (“diglossic”), one of many obstacles in the work of making peace.

    The most moving part of the Everything House was The Cave, a workshop in which glass, which was gathered from the floors and the streets after the bombings by both sides, is made into ornaments, vases and bowls. Mostly of angels, the light shines through in a way which expresses the purpose of the house: to transform tragedy into new life. I bought many ornaments, hoping to share with others the joyful refusal to let violence and pain be the end of all that is good in life, but rather transform it into new vitality.

    The Oasis of Peace (Nevi Salaam) is a school and community, now with 25 families, Christian, Muslim and Jewish, was created to be a place of reconciliation. Howard, our guide, is a teacher there, born and raised in the USA, mostly North Carolina. He fell in love with a Jewish woman there, married and had three children. They decided to come to Israel, for her to find her roots and help in the process of peace-making. The site was originally a monastery, given or rented to the Oasis for the purpose it now pursues with energy and imaginbation. The homes are quite beautiful, more elegant than I would have thought, having such an idealistic purpose.

    The most unusual part is a spherical chapel, set in the ground, overlooking the Jordan River and the hills of Jordan beyond. It was intended to be interfaith and a committee was established to determine how the interior would be decorated. They could not agree! It is one more sign of the bottomless depth of pain from which the community people come, that having any symbols of the faith of the “others,” even though they now live together in peace, made worship together impossible. So the chapel is bare inside and out. The Quakers feel especially at home there and it is used by others as well.The acoustics are extraordinary, so people come to sing. They do so across faith lines sometimes and many hope that in time it will be possible to pray together in ways which celebrate the most peaceful aspects of each tradition. Howard was yet one more relaxed hero, happy to be where he is, glad to have his children growing up there, a crucible for the purpose of peace.

    More dramatic is The Tent of Nations, near Bethlehem. Daoud Nasser ;lives there with his family, where his ancestors have lived since the time of the Ottoman Empire, centuries. A chunky, energetic and determined man with hair beginning to go gray, he told his story. “I was born a Christian in Bethlehem, finished school in 1989.  During the First Intifada. schools were closed for over three years so I went to Austria to study computer science and the Bible, then to Germany for a year to study tourism. In 2002, with the Second Inifada, we started the Tent of Nations. We could not just sit by and be miserable; we had to do something. My grandfather came to this part of our land, lived in the cave (which we visited) until his death. During the 1970’s the Israelis began to require proof of ownership even though this is Palestinian land. They told us we had to leave unless we had proof. I went to court and showed the papers which almost no other Palestinians had. The Israeli authorities were astounded. They backed off briefly, but over the past 17 years the harassment has continued. Soldiers and settlers came onto the property. This is the only hilltop in the entire region which does not have a settlement built on it. They required new surveys, special certifications, eye witnesses, delays in court. We have no access to water, no electricity. Settlers came, uprooting trees; stopped by the court. They came back with guns. Another court order backed them off. More trees were uprooted. I have been ecouraged all along by a group called “Peace in Jerusalem” in Europe. Friends I made in Austria and Germany have been crucially helpful with money and influence. They also came with 250 trees and helped to plant them, replacing the ones which had been uprooted.

    There are four possible responses:

One reaction is violence. The Israelis like that because it shows that “the Palestinians are violent” justifying their own violence. For us that is out of the question.

A second reaction is to wait for a superpower to come and solve the problem for us. Long ago I gave up on that solution.

A third option is to leave. They offered us millions of US dollars to leave, a blank check. We said, ‘This land is our mother. We cannot sell our mother.’

The fourth option is to find a positive channel for our frustrations. We do not want to play a victim role. So we started to develop The Tent of Nations. The government said you may not because you have no permit to build. So we decided to get our electricity from diesel generators and build below ground, in the caves. Every year we plant 1,000 olive trees. Another settler came recently  with an officer and soldiers and said that we must leave or they would demolish our tents and old buildings with a bulldozer. I applied for the permits and was again denied. From the peace organizaion (international) called Peace Now I found out that there are many houses in the neighboring settlements which were built without permits. I was told that was not my business.

    So we offer activities for children: mosaics, creative recycling, art, music and theatre (we did Romeo and Juliet- no need to explain about the problems of the Montagues and the Capulets). Volunteers come from Germany, the UK and elsewhere. The International presence is a big help in everything that we do. We are now planning a Women’s Center since all cultures do not treat women well. Most of all we want to make a Peace Center, but we are now almost entirely cut off by settlement growth all around us.

    We have a few good experiences with settlers: one Jewish woman, very brave, came and said, ‘You have no running water. We have swimming pools. You have no electricity. We are lit up all night. Now, for the first time, being here on your land, I see you as neighbors.’ A couple of months later she came, walking far with her husband, to wish us a happy new year. A small sign of hope.

    During the violence in Gaza, we had to do something positive. Again, we could not just sit around and be miserable. So we built a new cistern. We have a baby goat and a beautiful new foal over there peeking over the flowers. Thank you for oming.”

    We then walked out of the Tent of Nations area and looked with new appreciation at the sign he has painted on a huge boulder: in Arabic, English and German, he has painted, WE REFUSE TO BE ENEMIES.

    There are also American heroes living in Palestine. Jeff Halpern and James Johnson are leaders of a group called The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions in Jerusalem. Halpern appears to be a secular Jew living for a long time in Israel; Johnson is in his late 20’s, from Detroit, under threat of deportation by the Israeli government for his activities.

    “Since 1990, Israel has demolished 24,00 homes. “They also have rebuilt about 160 homes in solidarity with the Arab people, so there is another way to proceed. Henry Kissinger has said that Congrees does domestic policy, not foreign policy. That seems true, and it means that seeking help from Congress is very difficult. The majority of settlers come for practical, economic reasons. The Israeli government makes it very attractive for Jews to come, but they want ‘good Jews’ not from Ethiopia, even Russia.”

    We visited  a settlement being built and marketed to Jews from outside Palestine/Israel. They are having trouble filling it because of the messianic extremism of the particular Jewish settlers nearby.

    “The law says that it is OK to get land back which belonged to Jews before 1948, now owned by Palestinians. But not the other way around. Paletinians cannot buy land previously owned by Palestinians before 1948.

    There are four types of demolition:

1. When the intent seems to be to kill the people inside. The house is surrounded by troops. Then the house is pulled down on the people inside. There have been about 130 incidents since 1967. Innocent people are almost never killed because untargetted people are allowed to leave.

2. Punitive demolition of houses because the people inside are seen as involved in crimes elsewhere.. Families as well as perpetrators are sometimes killed in this way.

3. a. Military demolition to reorient neighborhoods, e.g. roads too narrow for tanks to pass through. So houses are bulldozed. Some people are killed accidentally since no warning is given before the sound of the tanks and bulldozers approaching.

3. b. House has no building permit. Some areas have no zoning plan or a changed plan, making houses of any age suddenly illegal. Land and buildings must be re-registered. A deed going back to Ottoman times is not valid unless you got it renewed under Lebanon and then again under Israel. Also require sewage and electricity permits at great cost, sometimes more than the cost of the house itself.” The work of the committee is further described in An Israeli in Palestine, published by Los Angeles Jews for Peace.

    Johnson also said that “If there were a real volcano of hatreed, you would not be able to live in peace where you are saying in St. George’s Cathedral Guest House, on the border of East Jerusalem. Hamas is pragmatic and uses violence when they think (however we might disagree) that it advances their cause. The fundamentalists within Hamas are not, at the moment, the dominant group.”
   

    The story of the last hero I will try to describe is one I have difficulty telling without tears. Dahlia Landau is the daughter of parents who came to Israel from Germany, when she was an infant, over forty years ago. One day, when she was nineteen and her parents were not at home, she answered the door to find three Palestinian men in their 20’s, very well dressed and extremely polite. One, named Bashir, asked if they could come in. He said, “This house belonged to my family before the creation of the State of Israel.” Dahlia Landau hesitated,  thinking that she should say that they should come back when her parents were home, but then, as she said, “in a moment which comes and changes your life forever,” she decided to let them come in. She gave them tea. The other two also were looking at the homes which had once belonged to their families. In one, an angry old woman refused to speak with them and shooed them away. The other was now a school. Bashir asked if he could look upstairs. Dahlia went up with him and said, “This is my room.” He said, “This was my room when I wasd a little boy.” Dahlia said that she felt foolish, never having asked her parents about where the house had come from. They went back downstairs and Bashir asked if he could look inb the back yard. When they went out, he went straight to the lemon tree. He touched the tree and one of the lemons. Then he said, “My father planted this tree. Could he come and see the tree? He is going blind and it would mean a lot to him.” Dahlia said that she would ask her parents. She was surprised, when they returned, to hear that they would not object to the father coming. A date was set and Bashir came with his father. He went to the back, touched the tree and one of the lemons and he wept.

    A whole new world opened to Dahlia. She learned the history of Palestine and Israel with a new awareness. Not long after the first visit, she heard that Bashir had been arrested and convicted of bringing explosives to terrorists. He was sentenced to fifteen years in jail. She finished her schooling, became a teacher and married another teacher. Meanwhile Bashir took advantage of a surprisingly liberal prison system. “He completed his own education, took courses in philosophy and music as well as the regular curriculum. He added to his language skills. Now, under Netanyahu, that may be changing. One Warden was very kind to Bashir. I do not know why, but he is very bright and charming. That is surely part of the reason for the odd sentence. Fifteen years is very lenient for a young man convicted of terrorist consipracy.”

    The house is now a school and a place of meeting for people of all faiths. The neighbors were slow to accept Arab Muslims coming into the area, but Dahlia is herself very bright and charming and she seems to have won them over, at least to the point of acceptance.

    Bashir lives in exile as a lawyer, and now works for peace, with no interest in being involved in violence, He is married, with children.

    The old lemon tree died, but a new one has been planted in its place and is flourishing.

    We visited a refugee camp. There are no more tents since the population has gone from 20,000 to 12,000. People die, go to prison or emigrate with much encouragement from Israeli authorities. Murals tell the history, showing the tents, the molotof cocktails and stones being thrown at the tanks and commemorating their martyrs. There is one mural of a giant keyhole through which one can see a lovely land far away. The keyhole is surrounded by keys, tacked to the mural. Theyu are the keys of residents who had hoped to return to their homes. They have come to realize that they will never go back. Their homes have been demolished.

    While we were in the camp, Israeli police came past with eight young Palestinian men, blindfolded and handcuffed, carrying their personal possessions in plastic bags. I do not know the story beyond what we saw. Linda Paquette, intrepid member of our group and a photographer, took their picture.

    Finally, I want to list some of the traditional places we visited. I had never been to the Holy Land before so it was a unique experience to visit the places where Jesus was born and lived, taught, preached, healed and died. We went to Bethlehem, the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane; a chapel commemorating the place where Jesus stood over Jerusalem and wept; Capernaum where there is a huge rock seeming to rise up out of the floor of a church where Jesus’ words to Peter are remembered, “Thou art the rock...” We had a short boat ride on the Sea of Galilee, near the Mount of the Beatitudes. Our leader read them beautifully(wonderful acoustics) to us from high up. We said the prayer over the water from the Baptism service as we stood next to the River Jordan; celebrated Holy Communion. I was surprised to find the countryside so lush and filled with flowers. It is deeply lovely; maybe especially because we were there in early Spring. But it was often a stunning contrast with the agony of the narrative we heard just before getting back on the bus, under the blue sky, continuing over the soft, lovely hills.

    We attended the traditional Three Hour service at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Nazareth, in every way like a “regular’ Episcopal service except that the language was Arabic.  We walked the Via Dolorosa carrying a small cross, stopping at the stations and reading from John Peterson’s excellent book that goes with the Good Friday observance, then on to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. For Easter we were in St. George’s Cathedral. Bishop Dawani preached in Arabic and English, emphasizing Jesus’ words, “My kingdom is not of this world.” He certainly hopes for justice in the area, but he has been very cautious about doing or saying anything that could be seen as confrontational. Neverthless, the Israeli authorities would not allow him to enter Gaza to visit the hospital there, over which he has jurisdiction! He had only wanted to go and thank the staff for having worked so long and hard during the violence over the New Year.

    It was an immensely intensive time for me, so much to take in over a very short time. So it is only after returning, seeing the photos and reflecting on it all that I have been able to focus on the heroes rather than the seemingly intractable and violent apocalyptic tragedy which continues to unfold. I have tried to take strength and wisdom from Sabeel and from Daoud Nasser and Dahlia Landau and allow it all to be part of my own faith, to be closer to Jews and Muslims by deepening my own faith in Jesus Christ.