Saturday, 27 August 2011

Occupied with justice – A visit to the Holy Land

A shorter version of this article first appeared in the Greenbelt Trust festival programme in August 2011. Grateful thanks to all at Amos Trust for organising the visit.

 Zoughbi Zoughbi, a Palestinian Christian and the Founder and Director of the ‘Wi’am’ Conflict Resolution Centre, offers us all sweet tea in small glasses and, thankfully, fills us with some much needed hope. “Having hope”, he says, “is a form of non-violent struggle. And it keeps us sane!” Zoughbi is a big man with an over-sized heart to match his over-sized frame. “I am against the system, not against the Israelis. All are created in the image of God.”

Wi’am’s modest offices are in Bethlehem, our base for most of the week, and are overlooked by a stretch of the Separation Wall several metres high. The Wall is a constant reminder of a conflict that not only needs peace but justice and reconciliation too. Zoughbi believes the times are changing though. He has little expectation that the traditional power elites will ever achieve much. He puts greater faith in the energy of ordinary people and ‘civil society’. “We used to ask each other ‘what faction do you belong to?’” says Zoughbi, “PLO, Popular Front, Hamas?’ Now we just ask, ‘are you on Facebook?’”

This was certainly not a traditional pilgrimage to see the Holy sites or walk in the footsteps of Jesus. We were here on a different kind of pilgrimage, to hear from the living witnesses and to see for ourselves the reality of the ‘facts on the ground’ in year 44 of the Israeli Occupation.

After just a few days, a clear and very disheartening picture was emerging. This is the ‘Holy Land’ in name only. In practice, it is the land of checkpoints, of house demolitions, of segregated roads, of ever-expanding Jewish Settlements, of water expropriation, of harassment.

One morning we leave our beds at 4.30am to join hundreds of Palestinian workers queuing to pass a checkpoint to get into Jerusalem. They line up along a narrow, barred passageway and then have to push and shove their way through a full-length turnstile that opens and closes at arbitrary intervals creating unnecessary rush and panic. It seems to have little to do with maintaining security and much to do with creating a daily grind of indignity and humiliation.

Like the Western (‘Wailing’) Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem where prayers are stuffed into the crevices of the stones, the newer Wall is also the place for heavenly supplications. But rather than on tiny pieces of paper, these prayers are written with cans of spray paint for all to see.

“You stole our land but we are the criminals”

“Build bridges not walls”

“Where ever there is injustice, there is my home”

“Once a human rights teacher was born here”

“Jesus wept”

“Free Palestine!”

Some prayers work best as pictures. The graffiti artist Banksy has been to Bethlehem too and stencilled his peace dove wearing a bullet proof vest.

The construction of the Wall, often cutting deep across the 1967 border line, divides villages, cuts farmers off from their land, children from their schools, businesses from their customers and labourers from their jobs.

In West Jerusalem we meet Mia from ICAHD (The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions). Mia, a secular Jew, leads us on a tour to explain what passes for planning and house building regulations in the occupied territories.

We see a poster that neatly sums up this bureaucratic aspect of oppression: ‘Kafka is alive and well and working for the Israeli Civil Administration.’ For me, as the only Jew in our Group, Mia and her ICAHD colleagues are not just working as secular humanitarians, they are upholding all that is best in Jewish ethics and the teachings of the Hebrew Prophets.

During our week we meet many inspiring individuals, who are passionately committed to a non-violent, democratic and faith based approach to healing Israel-Palestine. As Sami Awad of the Holy Land Trust tells us, “It’s not about good Palestinians and bad Israelis. It’s about standing up for human rights.” In Hebron, a real flashpoint between Jewish settlers and local Palestinians, we meet Kathy Kern of Christian Peacemaker Teams. Kathy takes us onto her rooftop to survey the streets and homes that have been abandoned by Palestinian families driven out by the ultra-religious and ultra-nationalist Jews. Kathy appears worn down but determined to stand by, witness to, and record the ongoing dispossession of her neighbours.

We end our visit on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, if not walking, then certainly paddling in the footsteps of Jesus. We are reminded that this is the spot where he blessed the peacemakers and, following the crucifixion, where he appeared to his despondent disciples to give them renewed hope. It’s a timely moment of inspiration for us all as we end our pilgrimage and reflect on what small part we can play to bring a just peace to the Holy Land.

Banksy strikes in Bethlehem 2007

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Dorothy in Oz – Micah on the West Bank

Below is an account of a meeting with an Israeli West Bank settler which took place earlier this year. Names have been changed but the facts are sacred and the quotes are faithful.

Isaac set the parameters for the meeting knowing full well that we have spent the last few days in the company of Palestinians who view his home as an illegal settlement on occupied land, a barrier to peace and a piece of theft.

Except Isaac doesn’t like the word ‘settlement’.

“It’s a ‘town’, you know, T-O-W-N. It’s just a town.”

He’s right, it is a town. In fact it may even look a little like the suburban America where Isaac grew up. The town has nearly 10,000 inhabitants many of whom are professionals commuting to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv to work. The commute doesn’t take too long. The roads are built specifically for the exclusive use of Israelis. It’s a rather easier journey from the territories than the one we had witnessed for Palestinian workers who must line up from 5 a.m. to pass through long and humiliating security checks to get through the Separation Wall.

Isaac led us through tree-lined paths, past modest houses with tiled, pitched roofs. Palestinian homes have flat roofs with water butts to collect rainfall. Water here appears to be less of an issue.

A young boy walked past us wearing a T-Shirt with the slogan ‘We need to talk.’ He was right, we did. But as it turned out we were to do most of the listening.

Sitting in pews in a beautiful modern synagogue with beautiful, blue stained glass windows, Isaac put us in our proper place: “You are here to listen and learn and I am here to talk and to teach.” Isaac stood on the ‘bimah’, the raised dais in the centre of the house of prayer, and started to preach.

“You come from the UK with your values and you try to apply them here in a place that does not work in the same way. This is a Middle-East culture and your way of looking at things does not fit neatly here and that is why you are disturbed by it. I have some news for you all – you’re not in Kansas anymore!”

Well, we could all agree on that. They certainly do things differently here.

My mind raced ahead to see how far I could push Isaac’s ‘Wizard of Oz’ analogy. If I and my friends were the naïve and confused Dorothy, was Isaac the Tin Man with no heart and the Palestinians the straw men with no brains?

Or maybe it was Isaac who was the real Dorothy, looking to find his way back to a place called ‘home’.

Isaac had re-invented himself. He had been born in Pittsburgh to a Jewish family who were not religiously observant. But in coming to Israel for the first time he had found a sense of identity, of belonging, of rootedness that he felt the United States could never provide for him.

For an hour we put our polite but pointed questions to Isaac. Every question had been heard before and every answer felt well-rehearsed.

Isaac’s story felt like the story of Zionism in miniature - the powerful desire to escape the past and claim a new future. As the early Zionist pioneers would have put it: ‘To build and to be built’. Isaac said his wife had a similar story to tell - a shallow Jewish upbringing in America and the realisation that Israel offered a route to personal authenticity through a renewed and revitalised, Orthodox Judaism.

“We are here because God promised this land to us. Just as He sent us into exile 2,000 years ago, now He has enabled us to return.”

This was the traditional Jewish God who intervenes in history, just as He did throughout the Hebrew Bible. For Isaac, this was the very same God who had intervened when the West Bank was captured by the Israelis from the Jordanians in the ‘miraculous’ Six Day War of 1967.

“You need to understand that there never was a Palestinian State with Palestinian citizens. There were Arabs here and Jordan took the land in 1948 when they, and the other Arab nations, attacked the baby Jewish State.”

Isaac was lobbing theological grenades into my head. So, if I had understood him correctly, God was here in 1967 for the Jews. And in 1948 He was here for the Jews too – protecting His ‘baby’. This must have been the same God who averted His eyes as three quarters of a million Palestinians were forced to flee their homes? Even more disturbing, was this ‘interventionist’ God a God who had stood idle at the gates of Auschwitz but then had ‘redeemed his people’ through the birth of the State of Israel? Was Israel cosmic compensation?

Isaac and I must have been praying to different Gods. This was not the God who in my prayers I try to turn my face towards. Nor was it the God who grieves at the destruction of His creation, or the God of the Hebrew Prophets who exists in the very agony of those who suffer injustice. This God of Isaac’s was the grand re-invention of iron-age tribalism. This God was an intoxicating and unholy fusion of misconstrued Biblical myths with 19th century European ‘blood and soil’ nationalism.

Isaac had stolen my Bible. I wanted to steal it back again and I could feel the adrenalin flooding through my hands.

Hadn’t Jeremiah taught that God was no longer tied to the Land? That He was a God for everyone in all places? Hadn’t Jews over the last 2,000 years evolved their understanding of Hebrew scripture from a culture based on Land, Temple and a tribal god into a ‘portable’ faith that made all of God’s creation sacred through prayer, study and practical action? I tried to put this point to Isaac.

“The rabbis developed a holding pattern, a default position while we were exiled.”

Are Jews living outside of Israel less authentically Jewish than those living within Israel?

“I would say we were more ‘complete’ as Jews.”

So even the non-religious Jews living in Tel-Aviv are more ‘complete’?

“Yes, even the Jews in Tel-Aviv (I call it ‘Sin City’). But in the Land of Israel any place is more Jewish even if it is full of secular Jews. More Jewish even than Brooklyn!”

What if you could continue to live on this land, in this town, but it was part of a Palestinian State. Would you be comfortable with that?

“Comfortable? No. But we would stay here.”

What if all of the land, including the West Bank, was one State with everyone a citizen of Israel, would that work for you?

“No. One State like that would not be acceptable. What is important is that it is a Jewish State. That’s what is important to me. A place where Jews can be Jews.”

By now Isaac’s ‘Jewish radar’ must have been alerted by my line of questioning and my talk of ‘the genius of rabbinic Judaism’ but he continued to speak on the assumption that his audience were all Christians from the UK motherland.

“When you go home to Britain you want to live in a British State don’t you? Or at least it was British.”

That last throw-away comment took a moment to register properly and then I realised what had just been said to us.

I thought about my train journey into work each day and my fellow commuters to Manchester. Black British faces, White British faces, Muslim British faces and my own Jewish British face. What kind of face did Isaac think Britain should have? What does a ‘Jewish State’ mean in practice for Isaac? What face does it have?

If this town, T-O-W-N, town, and the hundreds of others like it across the West Bank, was needed for Jews to feel ‘complete’ as Jews then it was already high time to head straight back to ‘Kansas’. Isaac was right, I, and my friends were Dorothy.

By now my pen was shaking and I had stopped taking notes. I was eager to get out of that synagogue, to find my ruby slippers click my heels three times.