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(…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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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 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…