Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Israelis and Palestinians

We've been in Israel for almost a week now, and it's easy to see why this situation is so complicated. Since we've been here we've heard from an Israeli human rights organization, an Orthodox Jew, a representative for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, someone from the U.S. Embassy, a Palestinian activist, former militants from both sides, and Palestinians who live in a refugee camp in Beit Sahour. We spent all day Saturday in the West Bank, meeting with Palestinians and observing the situation in and around Bethlehem. (Historical note: The West Bank was not a part of Israel until the 1967 War when it was reclaimed from Jordan. It is supposedly under the Palestinian Authority, but is really controlled by Israel.) There is currently a wall of concrete and barbed wire surrounding Bethlehem and much of the West Bank, curving around aquifers, illegal Israeli settlements, and Palestinian communities. It makes life miserable for Palestinians, especially those who rely on tourism for their income, or those who have to journey into Israel proper to work everyday. They are subjected to humiliating searches and checks as the cross the "border." We walked along this wall for a while, looking at all the graffiti and pleas for Israel to remove the barrier. While we were in the West Bank we met with a Palestinian man who had led the al-Aqsa brigades during the second intifada and who has since become a nonviolent activist. It was cool to be in Bethlehem, but it was also hard to see the Israeli settlements on the hills surrounding the city. We also went to a refugee camp in Beit Sahour, a city right next to Bethlehem. The wall ran right through it, and the bullet holes from Israeli soldiers were still visible in the walls of a mosque and school. Little boys ran around us playing soccer, and we helped push a car out into the street for a young guy. The refugees were hopeful, but hold out for their return to their villages.
Today we got another side of the issue. We went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. It was an intense presentation of the atrocities committed by the Nazis, with hundreds of pictures depicting the concentration camps and deportations of Jews. There was a room where there were hundreds of shoes piled up under a glass panel in the floor, and in other places personal items were on display, sometimes the only surviving proof that the owner once lived. It is unbelievable what human beings can do to one another, and how much the human body can endure before death. The Holocaust was so calculated; the Nazis planned exactly how to systematically exterminate an entire people group. This is the textbook definition of genocide. After seeing these horrors, it is amazing to think that anyone survived, and thus makes the creation of the state of Israel as a home for the Jewish people quite a feat. The problem is still present though. Even though the Jews were intensely persecuted in Europe and survived the worst genocide the world has (and probably will) ever see, does that mean they can persecute another people group under their authority? The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has so many facets, and will take compromises on both sides for something to improve. The things we're learning every day make this so much more real, and it becomes ever clearer that change will not come easily. I still hold faith in the power of human relationships though, and the power of nonviolence and peace to change people's lives.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Entering the Holy Land

We've reached the culmination of the travel component of the MESP semester. Yesterday we came across the Israeli border from Jordan, after spending a couple days in Amman. We heard from a couple speakers and spent an afternoon at the Dead Sea. It is ridiculously salty, but the mud and sand make great exfoliants. We had fun doing our own skin care.
Let me back up and talk about Syria also. On Thursday last week we crossed the border from Turkey to Syria, which took a while, then spent the night in the city of Hama in northern Syria. (This city was almost completely obliterated in 1982 by the government of Syria because it was seen as housing Islamic militants. It has since been rebuilt, but the legacy of the destruction and despair continue.) The next day we went to the Krak de Chevaliers, an old Crusader castle in the hills of Syria. It was so cool. We climbed all over, and I think most of us reverted back to about age 8. After the castle we visited Maaloula, the only Christian Aramaic-speaking village left in the world. (Aramaic is the language that Jesus is thought to have spoken.) We visited a few monasteries and churches, and heard the Lord's Prayer in Aramaic - so beautiful. Then we drove to Damascus, where we spent the next three days. We stayed in a monastery in the Christian quarter of Damascus, not far from the Old City, so everyday we walked to the Eastern Gate and did some shopping. There was lots of beautiful things in the Old City, and amazing chocolate-filled croissants that melted in your mouth if you bought them hot. (I've decided that America has failed at bread, and the Middle East has stolen my heart for its baked goods.) In Damascus we also heard from a couple working for the Mennonite Central Committee, who told us about Biblical nonviolence and putting that into practice. I really appreciated hearing from them because I have thought seriously about working for an organization like MCC. We also toured the house of Ananias in the Old City, where Paul was converted to Christianity, and went to the U.S. Embassy to hear about U.S.-Syrian relations. On Monday we drove to Amman, then Tuesday was our Dead Sea day.
Yesterday we entered the Holy Land. The border crossing took a while because Israeli security is very tight, but we all made it through without too much trouble. Crossing into Israel from Jordan actually meant crossing into the West Bank, and so we drove on an Israeli-controlled road until we got to Jerusalem. On the way we passed many settlements on the hills, Palestinian towns (such as Jericho), and Bedouin camps. We're staying at the Austrian Hospice in the old city of Jerusalem, right on the Via Dolorosa, which is the route that Jesus carried the cross to Golgotha. We walked around the city last night, passing by the Wailing Wall, the Dome of the Rock, and David's Tower. The view from our roof is amazing; you can see the Christian quarter, Muslim quarter, Armenian quarter, and Jewish quarter from a distance. Today we heard from a pastor of an Anglican church (supposedly the oldest Protestant church in the Middle East) who talked about the Jewish roots of Christianity, and also a representative from an Israeli human rights organization working in the Occupied Territories. A few of us walked to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre during our lunch time, which is widely considered to be the holiest site in Christianity. It is the site where Jesus was crucified and buried - the church is built on the rock of Golgotha. There are places in the church where you can reach down and touch the stone, and the slab of stone where they laid Jesus after he died is one of the first things that you meet when you walk in the door. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is an interesting phenomenon. Hundreds of tourists crowd in, touch the stone where Jesus was laid, praying and laying religious objects on it. There are icons and gold decorations everywhere, and the atmosphere is rather overwhelming. It seems gaudy and honestly, not very spiritual. Many Protestants prefer the Garden Tomb as the place where Jesus died, which I want to visit sometime soon. It is just a tomb in a garden, very simple but apparently it feels more spiritual for those of us who don't particularly appreciate icons or gaudy decorations. Tomorrow we're having shabbat dinner with Jewish families after we visit a synagogue, and then on Saturday we're crossing into the West Bank, where we'll see Bethlehem, including the "security barrier" that Israel has constructed between many parts of Israel proper and the West Bank. I'm really excited to visit a refugee camp and see how the Palestinian situation really looks.
This is the most fought over piece of land in history, and from what I've seen so far, it's mostly a barren desert. But when the authority of God intersects with modern nationalist ideals and a powerful state, conflict is inevitable.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

On the Road to Damascus

We've spent the last week in Turkey, first in Istanbul and then in Ankara, the capital, located in the interior in the country. Turkey is interesting historically because Constantinople was the seat of Christianity under the Roman and Byzantine empires for over 1000 years. Then the Ottoman Turks from Central Asia moved in during the 15th century, changing Constantinople to Istanbul and founding the Ottoman empire, which lasted until the end of World War I. This transition from Christianity to Islam makes the architecture and feel of Istanbul very interesting. We visited the Hagia Sophia, a huge church built in the 5th century, and probably the most impressive building I've ever seen. It was converted to a mosque when the Ottomans conquered Anatolia, and then became a museum in the 20th century under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Hagia Sophia has amazing domes and mosaics depicting Christ, but also Islamic symbols from the Ottoman empire. All the mosques in Turkey are modeled after the Hagia Sophia, so they all look the same, and much prettier than the ones in Egypt. In Istanbul we visited the U.S. Consulate, and heard from politicians and a Turkish Protestant pastor. We also visited the famous Blue Mosque and the Grand Bazaar, which was basically a big covered maze of shops selling all sorts of tourist items. In Ankara, we visited the Turkish foreign ministry and toured Ataturk's mausoleum and museum. Ankara is a lot less interesting than Istanbul, so we've also spent a lot of time in our very nice hotel.
Today we head to Syria, where we'll spend the night in the town of Hama and then visit a Crusader castle on Friday. From there we'll go to an Aramaic-speaking town, and then to Damascus where we'll meet with a couple that are working for the Mennonite Central Committee, something I'm particularly interested in. We're also visiting the U.S. Embassy in Syria to discuss our foreign relations. We won't have internet in Syria, or at least not very accessible, so I won't be updating until we get to Jordan or Israel next week. For now, we're heading off on the road to Damascus . . .