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An Israeli Arab and a Palestinian Jew walk into a bar… 

 (…if I had included this entry in the previous post as originally intended, the setup would have included a Russian nun.)

First, a disclaimer: I am an amateur in observing the processes for peace and justice in the Middle East. As an American I have an affinity for and support of Israel, as a Christian a sense of solidarity with many Palestinians, as a Catholic adamantly against anti-Semitism or any form of religious discrimination, and as an educator and practitioner of dialogue a commitment to non-violence and the truth. My limitations are such – neither speaking Hebrew nor Arabic, not being a native or a professional diplomat or peacemaker – that I have always known there were others who would understand the situation better. But I hope to learn more in these months. It sometimes, probably naively, seems like it would actually take little effort – it simply must be willed. The majority of people I meet could live with one another without problem, given the chance. I will offer further reflections on the current situation and overall concerns at a later time.

efrat

Efrat, Israeli settlement/disputed development, south of Bethlehem.

In the last week, I have tagged along with the sabbatical students of Tantur’s continuing education program – mostly priests, with a couple of religious – for a “dual-narrative” tour and conversations. I understand this set up was something of an experiment for Tantur, and I personally think it worked very well.

Two experienced guides, one Israeli, one Palestinian, traded off presentations designed to introduce participants into the overriding narratives in the region regarding the current situation. And, unsurprisingly, to suggest that it is black and white, and only two-sided, is erroneous.  Yet, many of us were only familiar with one or the other. (I have had an excellent introduction to Judaism and Israel, through the Shalom Hartmann Institute and the Russell Berrie Fellowship, but, while I have a good grasp of Islam generally, the specific Palestinian story was less firm in my mind; others had the opposite experience).

The most impressive feature was probably the positive dynamic between our two guides, and their openness to learn from one another, even as we learned from them. AS much as was possible, we had them both together, though occasionally separately.

We started with a presentation on the history of Zionism and its various movements. Then a presentation on Palestinian nationalism, and the shift from Arab to pan-Islam identity. We drove from Jerusalem to Jaffa-Tel Aviv along Route One, getting an interwoven dialogue of the history of the Israeli War of Independence; the displacement of Palestinians (mostly Muslim) from Israel and of Jews from the Arab countries (in roughly equal numbers); the stories of villages destroyed and of those survived. We visited the old city of Jaffa, the first Jewish neighborhood outside the old city, Neve Tzedek, and ended at Rabin Square, visiting the site of the former Prime Minister’s 1995 assassination.

The iconic image of peace in the Middle East from my youth.

The iconic image of peace in the Middle East from my youth.

Oh, and we saw a couple gazelle along the road, too.

Our second day included a presentation by a couple of young workers involved in the Christian Peacemaker Teams based in Hebron, detailing their role as observers of the relationship between the Palestinian locals, Israeli settlers, the IDF and Border Patrol. Lunch at a famous restaurant above Shepherd’s Field, The Tent, was delicious and enlightening,conversation lead as it was by the regional director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace, a “network of organizations that conduct civil society work in conflict transformation, development, coexistence and cooperative activities…among Israelis, Palestinians, Arabs, and Jews.” In the afternoon we visited with a Christian Palestinian and an Israeli Jew, a former Seattleite turned settler, involved in an organization called Roots, which “draws Israelis and Palestinians who, despite living next to each other, are separated by walls of fear- not just fear of each other, but even of the price of peace.” We rounded out the day at the disputed Israeli development at Efrat, located in Judea/West Bank. A current population of about 10,000 is split into roughly 20% secular, 20% Haredi (“ultra-Orthodox”), and 60% Orthodox/Observant Jews, it was founded in 1983.

At the end of the day as we gathered for evening prayer, we found Tantur overrun by children. Turns out the seasonal gathering of Kids4Peace had been bumped out of their scheduled location and had had some trouble finding a place – some locations made some members uncomfortable, and unbelievably, some places did not want them. Who could object to kids wanting peace, getting to know each other? It was a beautiful benediction wrapping up a couple of intensive days, and a compelling reminder of what is at stake here in the land called holy.

While still processing much of the information and experience, i am a small step closer to understanding each of the narratives that often seem impossible to come from the same situation. And there are, as in every situation, exceptions and variations. It is also amazing how people living in such a small area,in such close proximity to one another can have so little contact with each other. This is one of the dangers of the current situation. As a couple people have noted, at least the older residents remember living side by side with someone who was “other”. Now, for the millennials, this sort of thing has never been part of their experience. How much easier is it, then, to establish increasingly divergent narratives?

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Holy Land Seminar Day #9

The Wall, border between Israel and Palestinian Authority

Our final day in the Holy Land was spent beyond Israel’s borders, as it were, in the Palestinian Authority area including Bethlehem – just a few minutes from Jerusalem. The wall reminds me of the border between San Diego and Tijuana, though the crossing was a lot smaller. There is a distinctive difference from Israeli to Palestinian controlled territory, but not nearly as dramatic (in terms of poverty and plenty) as the Mexican to American transition. Instead of kippot, you see keffiyet. The Arabic signs are more prominent, but English and Hebrew are still present.

Basilica of the Nativity, Bethlehem

Ezra, our driver, and Yitzik, our guide, being Israeli citizens are not allowed to cross the border, so we had a new driver and picked up a new guide once on the other side. We spent the better part of the morning at the Church of the Nativity, and then walking through the streets to the Church of the Theotokos, or as it is more commonly called, the Milk Grotto. We paused to view shepherd’s field, which upended my lifelong mental image of the shepherds on a hill top and the little town of Bethlehem in the valley below – it is actually the other way around. Villages are built up along the hillside to leave the valleys clear for farming and grazing.

Church of St. Catherine, Catholic portion of Nativity site

Like so many of the holy sites, the Nativity church is shared/divided among Catholic (Roman/Latin, Franciscan) custodians, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian Orthodox. The main basilica is shared by the Orthodox churches, and the adjacent church of St. Catherine is catholic. The former is ancient, dirty, dusky, and dark. The latter is bright, well-lit, and modern. The original mosaics of the basilica are still present in some degree, though so covered in grime as to be virtually unrecognizable. The contrast is striking, and only a happy medium would be an improvement.

Grotto of the Nativity, Catholic chapel

The Cave of the Nativity is small, located below the main altar in the Orhtodox section, with some of it accessible from the Catholic side –including St. Jerome’s living space of the last quarter century of his life- though the traditional site venerated as the place of Christ’s birth is on the Orthodox side.

The official site of the Nativity, under the altar in the Orthodox section of the grotto

The Milk Grotto is one of those sites that at first glance, I had to cringe. This was a place where Mary fed Jesus? Did George Washington sleep here too? Give the faithful some credit! …But, even cynical prayers are answered.

The Franciscan custodian inside the grotto volunteered to give us a brief synopsis of the church – historical arguments and pius myth both included. Apparently, when St. Helena made her state visit to Bethlehem, the local Christians showed her two places – the cave of the Nativity, and the site of Joseph’s house in Bethlehem, where the Holy Family lived until ordered into flight to Egypt, and where the Magi are supposed to have visited. The “milk grotto” story developed from the idea that in one of her feedings, the Blessed Mother spilt two drops of her milk to the stone, which immediately turned white. Powder taken from these stones, when imbibed, is supposed to heal any reproductive ailments a woman might have, and is a very popular devotional/sacramental in some parts of the world. That the church is one of the oldest sites dedicated to Mary as Mother and to include Joseph, the poor man, is what makes it most worthy of veneration.

On our way out of town, I had to stop and take a picture of a café sign that reminded me how good my people are at exporting western values…

Western economic ideas in Bethlehem

Holy Land Seminar Day #8

On our penultimate day in the Holy Land we started with a fascinating discussion with David Neuhaus, SJ, director of the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Jerusalem and Patriarchal Vicar for the Hebrew-speaking Latin Catholics in the Holy Land. Most Catholics, both Latin and Eastern, are Arabic speaking in Israel, Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Cyprus, the area covered by the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. But, there are also a significant number of Hebrew-speaking Catholics of the Roman church, and he is their go-to guy.

It was only a brief overview of the complexities of the church in the middle east. On top of the complex details of the Status Quo ecumenical “treaty” governing the holy sites, the internal Catholic complexities converge with language, rite, church, ethnicity and nationality. And Fr. David has to transverse borders of all kinds in the execution of his ministry. Some of the interesting pastoral notes were the mandatory minimum 2-year RCIA period, often longer, for people converting to Christianity from Judaism or Islam, in large part to make sure it’s a manageable process for the family. Another is the case of Hebrew-speaking Israeli children, at Hebrew schools, where all their classmates are doing Bar Mitzvah. How do you respond when they say they want one too?

We then went on our walk through the Old City of Jerusalem, through the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian Quarters, including a stop at HaKotel, the portion of the Western Wall of the Temple Mount which has become the primary site of prayer for Jews in the last couple centuries – the closest they can get to what was once the Holy of Holies in the Second Temple, now the site of the Dome of the Rock.

Following the post-crusader pilgrimage route of the Via Dolorosa, we did a brief walking tour of the original Stations of the Cross, ending at the Holy Sepulchre, which is a massive church complex visibly divided by the broken state of Christianity. Various parts of the church (and of the other holy sites) are cared for and controlled by various churches – Catholic (Latin Franciscans), Greek,  Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopian, and Syriac Orthodox. Some areas are common space, which means nothing can change without the consent of all parties. The doors to the church are protected by Muslim families entrusted to the charge since Saladin, one has the key and another guards to doors to keep them open during established times. As we got to the main entrance, you can even see a ladder set on a ledge that has not been moved since the Status Quo was established. While we were celebrating the Eucharist on the first day in Jerusalem and started to chant the alleluia, we were shushed by some sisters who had come in to join us – apparently singing is forbidden to the Latins during the normal schedule, because back in the day the only singing happened at “high mass” and only “low mass” (unsung) were permitted…

For the evening Shabbat meal, we traveled out toward the Judean desert, in view of the crusader Good Samaritan fortress inn, to Ein Prat Midrasha. The midrasha is a place where young Israelis -mostly after high school and before military service, or after military service and before university –spend four months living in community and studying Torah, philosophy, other religious texts. It seems like a profoundly formative opportunity. We were joining them for their final Shabbat meal together before ‘graduation’, and got there just in time for small group studies.

Just before the sun sets, they head out to a bluff overlooking a desert valley, facing west to welcome the Shabbat (the Sabbath), which arrives with the sunset on Friday and ends only when three stars are visible on Saturday evening. This is done first with the singing of psalms and dancing, practices which I think originate in the mystical tradition from around the 16th century. Following this, before the meal, are the more traditional and common prayers that begin the Sabbath. As I commented to one of the students I ate with, the Sabbath practice is one of the great gifts Judaism has for the world, and is especially powerful for my fellow Americans and our intensive, frantic business and inability to slow down much!

It was a beautiful evening, and I was blessed to share it with the community here.

Holy Land Seminar Day #7

Morning sessions today included Rabbi Jack Bemporad, visiting professor at the Angelicum, on the challenges of “Facing the Holocaust Theologically and Morally” and Rabbi David Hartman on Zionism and the Challenge of Sovereignty.

Catholic-Jewish relations are coming up on a critical turning point. The current generation of leadership at the very highest level of the church is a generation formed by WWII, the Holocaust, the founding of the State of Israel from the former British protectorate of Palestine and the resulting wars, intifadas, and other forms of violence. Pope Benedict was a youth in Nazi Germany. John Paul II was a young man under Communist Poland.

But for me and my generation of peers both Catholic and Jewish, these are historical events. Important, yes. The Holocaust cannot be forgotten lest genocide be allowed to happen again, as it has too many times this century. But they are not experienced events. They did not shape our identity, and the future of Catholic-Jewish relations will not be able to sustain the Euro-centric focus that has dominated it for the last few decades. What happens when we elect an African pope (or Asian, or one from the Americas?), especially one who is now 60 or younger? It might not be at the next conclave, but it will happen. Thankfully, the conversation is already started.

Rabbi Hartman’s quote of the morning, “Weakness invites violence; strength invites dialogue” indicated that this is not the kind of interfaith meeting between reform rabbis and liberal protestant pastors that are familiar back home! Politics cuts different lines here, but religious dialogue needs to continue, including if not especially from the more traditional parts of our respective religious bodies.

After the presentations, we concluded with a celebratory meal and ‘graduation’ ceremony. It has been an intensive week, but far too short. We are left thirsting for more – which I suppose is the idea – rather than having questions answered, I have come away with more questions than with which I arrived!

The afternoon schedule was something I had been looking forward to and dreading at the same time, a visit to Yad VaShem (the Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Memorial and Museum). We were honored to begin with meeting Dr. Ehud Loeb, a survivor from Germany and member of the committee on the Righteous Among the Nations. The committee singles out and recognizes people or organizations who risked their own lives and safety to rescue Jews from the Holocaust, using rigorus documentary standards. Dr. Loeb’s own life was saved by several people at various points, including five now honored among the Righteous.

It has been almost 14 years since my first visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Musem, and it remains one of the most powerful experiences of my life. It took me over four hours to make it through, and much longer to process it all. I anticipated Yad VaShem to elicit a similar response. Unfortunately, you cannot do something like this on a schedule, and I am skeptical even about doing it with a guide or a group. The museum is in itself excellent, powerful, evocative. But we did not have enough time to experience it all, or to process it afterwards, or discuss the content – including the controversial panel on the “Silence of the Church” and Pius XII. I will go back to Jerusalem, even if just to get the full experience there sometime.

Rabbi Bemporad did take the opportunity at that point in the tour to make clear his objection to the treatment of pope and Church in eloquent and informed terms – unfortunately our guide was not one of the historians or otherwise responsible for the content. That would make an interesting debate – “Hitler’s Pope” [sic] as understood by different Jewish voices. This was part of the discussion during Pope Benedict’s visit last year, and the recent opening of more archives to allow all scholars access to information regarding Pius’ actions during the Holocaust.

Dinner was at the Motefiore estaurant, in the shadow of a Motefiore’s Windmill (or, as we dubbed it, the Dutch Church/ St. Eveline’s). An interesting neighborhood history, with him having to pay Jewish settlers to live outside the city walls during the waning Ottoman occupation in the late 19th century. One of our guests was artist Avner Moriah, who gave us each prints out of his newest series of work, “Genesis”, featuring Abraham taking Isaac up to Mount Moriah for his sacrifice. I got to sit between two post-modern Jewish philosophers for dinner – and there are not that many, I hink!

Holy Land Seminar Day #6

This morning’s program featured orthodox Professor Menachem Fisch, examining the topic, “Beyond Mere Tolerance – Jewish Resources for a Genuine Religious Pluralism” using Nostra Aetate and Dignitatis Humanae as starting points, noting that neither Judaism nor Islam has adequately responded to these 50 year old documents.

Then post-modern Jewish scholar Micha Goodman, who is what we would call a lay ecclesial minister, offered an overview of Anti-Semitism, its causes and the realities of the current situation.

For our afternoon excursion, we went to the village of Ein Karem, which is believed to be the village where Zachariah and Elizabeth raised John the Baptizer, and also includes the church of the Visitation and Mary’s Well, two locations vying for the role of memorial to the meeting of Mary’s visit to her elder relative.

For dinner guests, we had recent graduates of the first cohort of law students at Ono Academic College, bringing together the Christian, Jewish and Muslim judges responsible for the religious laws in Israel. Unlike most countries, Israel has no civil marriage. If you want to get married you have to do so through your religious authorities; therefore also divorce and custody issues are handled by religious law. This program took the people responsible for these decisions and put them through a three-year degree in civil law together, creating interreligious dialogue along the way. Our able included a Haredi Jewish Rabbi, an Islamic Judge from Jaffa, and a Melkite Catholic priest.

Holy Land Seminar Day #5

The Shalom Hartman Institute, which is serving as our academic centre for the morning sessions of our seminar in the Holy Land, was founded by Orthodox Rabbi and Professor David Hartman in the 1970’s and named for his father. It serves as what we (Christians) would call an ecumenical centre of education, bringing together Jews from almost the entire range of thought and life – Modern Orthodox, Traditional, Reform, Liberal, Secular, and a few that defy customary categories. It serves as a centre for the continuing education of Rabbis, has two high schools (boys and girls separate), and several research fellows and innovative education programs, including the intensive week seminar that serves as part of my Russell Berrie Fellowship in Interreligious Studies.

This morning’s first session was with the founder’s son, Rabbi Donniel Hartman, continuing the themes of membership and identity, the differences between these questions being addressed in Israel and in North America (where the largest population of Jews live). We then engaged the question of feminism in Judaism, especially as it is being dealt with in Orthodox Jewish congregations, and how it relates to other movements.

An example: There is a mitzvot,  one of the religious laws, that 10 men are required for liturgical prayer. This is traditionally interpreted such that it does not matter how many women are present, one or a hundred, you cannot begin until you have at least ten men. A Reform synagogue might say, “this is an unjust law – women are people too!” and dispense with the rule, or amend it so that ten people of either gender is sufficient for the liturgy to begin. One Orthodox congregation, by contrast, has decided instead of breaking or ignoring the law, they will honor it but add one of their own, requiring also ten women to be present before the liturgy can begin. (I would be interested to hear thoughts on this, to me, the Reform response seems more masculine, and the Orthodox more feminine!)

The afternoon we spent in the neighborhood of our hotel, known as Mt. Zion (though historically, the original reference to Zion was probably the temple mount in the City of David, and this Mt. Zion took the name later). We started at a holy site that is simultaneously holy to all three major monotheistic religions, including the Last Supper Room and Pentecost shrine, which was at one time converted to a mosque, and the Tomb of David.  

Nearby we stopped by the Church of the Dormition of Mary and the Church of St. Peter Gallicantu (the rooster sings), commemorating the denial of Christ by Peter and including what is thought to be Caiphas’ house. The organ at the church of the dormition was being tuned while we were there, adding an eerie tune to the background while meditating on the mystery of the resurrection of the body.

A word about food…

Tonight is a good example. When we got to the restaurant, our group of 16 plus some local guests, the fresh baked bread and about a dozen little bowls of dips and toppings were ready and waiting – humus, salad, vegetable, couscous, several that I do not know names for. Over the last few days, my experience has been that usually the first course is like this, with bread or pita for dipping on several tastes, then a main course of meat or fish. So next came some excellent seared tuna with strawberries, whitefish in a sweet sauce, and thin-sliced veal caprese. It was one sumptuous taste after another. After we had been eating for a little over an hour, I was pretty well satisfied.

That was when the waiter came over to ask if he could clear the appetizers and bring us the main courses.

Little filet mignon, skirt steaks, meatballs, each wonderfully flavored. Rice, mashed potatoes, and cubed French fries.

Then dessert – three flavors of sorbet, vanilla ice cream topped with flaky strings of crunchy goodness, and a hot chocolate torte.

Except for the mini-loaves of bread, each of these came in bite size servings… but as each dish disappeared, another took its place! Whatever weight I lost after five months of walking in Rome, I will have gained back after a week of Jerusalem fare and Berrie Foundation generosity!

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