During the first two weeks of January, 2011, I traveled with three students for a cross-cultural trip to Israel/Palestine. Rachel is an MA student at ESR working on her thesis (Her blog is Walking Cheerfully Over the Earth). Sara is an ESR Access M.Div. student. Glenn is a Connections student at Bethany Theological Seminary working toward an M.Div. We had a great time together traveling to various locations within Israel and in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. We spoke with Jews, Christians, and Muslims. We met both with Israelis and Palestinians. For several nights we stayed with families in Beit Sahour and experienced daily life in Palestine.We also had meetings with high ranking officials such as Xavier Abu Eid (Communication Advisor for the PLO Negotiations Team), and also Mark Regev (Spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Israel). It was an incredible two weeks planned out for us by the Siraj Center for Holy Land Studies, thanks to the efforts of George Rishmawi and Michel Awad. We had good guides leading us, the main one being Mohammad Barakat, an exceptional guide, delightful person, and someone who knows all the best restaurants (whose owners always had some connection to East Jerusalem where Mohammad lives).
The Palestinian Christians we met talked with us about the recent Kairos Palestine document, an ecumenical statement calling for Christians to recognize the oppression of the Palestinians and call them to solidarity and action for justice in Palestine. The list of religious organizations and institutions we visited is long: the Jerusalem Interchurch Center, Wi'am (Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center), Bethlehem Bible College, Bethlehem University, Friends International Center in Ramallah. We toured other places like the Ramallah Friends School, the Mossawa Center in Haifa, the Freedom Theatre in Jenin, the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee, theApplied Research Institute in Bethlehem, the Al Kamandjati music center in Ramallah, the Jenin Creative Cultural Center, etc.
Early in our trip we talked with Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights. My initial impression was that this handsome, Harvard-trained, Zionist American Jew with Israeli citizenship could play the role of Jesus on the silver screen. I came to think of him more as an Apostle Paul to the Palestinians, someone known to be on the front lines when Palestinian homes are being demolished in Jerusalem or at the Friday demonstration in the village of Bil'in, suffering at the hands of his fellow-Jews on behalf of others.
Not all our conversations were easy ones. On the day we were to visit Hebron, we started out with some humor about the Palestinian equivalent to southerner jokes in the US. It seems that Palestinians tell stories about Hebronites, and we heard a funny example. In fact, while walking through the marketplace, we were witnesses to a couple of guys trying to pull a camel backward into the back of a Renault hatchback. What was difficult is that our day was bookended by visits with people who represented extremes. Not radical extremists, but close enough. To begin the day we met with Ardi Geldman in his pleasant home in the settlement of Efrat. We were uneasy to begin with but we were made more uneasy by his approach to us, putting us on the defensive as though we were among the bigoted people who think Jews have horns. We did want to hear his story and learn of his motivations for settling his family there. He had both religious and economic reasons for wanting to leave the States and live in Israel. The only thing that seemed to matter to him, however, was the justification that God gave the land to the Hebrew people and the Torah was their possession. His pessimism about the possibilities for peace were matched by our visit at the end of the day with Khalid Amayreh, a Muslim journalist living in the Palestinian village of Dura. He was a kind and gentle man who welcomed us into his home office. He used strong language to denounce the Israeli occupation, but eloquently discussed political and social issues. He did not advocate violence. He didpredict that there would not be a peaceful resolution but only major conflict within the next five years.
There were many cities we visited in Palestine. It seems like in each one we walked through their markets, ate at a sandwich shop (falafel, shawarma, the bread, and the salads – oh, the salads!), and talked with someone at a center for civic and cultural development. The cities of Hebron in the south and Jenin in the north were the most tragic. We got the best taste of the Palestinian struggle by visiting Bil'in at the conclusion of the Friday demonstration at the barrier wall. There was a special call for protest in the wake of the previous week's incident of Jawaher Abu Rahma dying as a result of tear gas inhalation (see the report by IMEMC). Our guide brought us to the village just after 1:00 pm after the Israelis opened the main roads again. On the outskirts of town we began to smell the effect of the Israeli Defense Forces' retaliation against the demonstrators. It became worse when we stood by the side of the road, watching the marchers returning, dripping with the sewer water with which they had been hosed. We slowly walked closer to observe the action in the distant valley. The people lined the dirt road with their signs and flags. Like a Fourth of July celebration gone wrong, tear gas canisters were being lobbed into the air to fall among the crowd. A truck carrying a large tank with brown liquid suddenly surges forward and a water cannon sprays the fleeing people. As we began to walk back to the van with the marchers, the wind shifted. My eyes began to water and my throat burned as the dissipated tear gas came our way. It took ten minutes or more before I could see clearly and swallow normally again. There were many others who suffered worse as they made their way home to clean themselves. Among the people we met there was Mustafa Barghouti and Mairead Corrigan Maguire (I'm not sure if it was her). We heard that Rabbi Ascherman had been there. The man we were supposed to talk with afterwards, Eyad Burnat, the leader of the Popular Committee in Bil'in, had been taken away by ambulance. Even though he had been treated by the EMTs with oxygen and an IV, he called us to meet him in his living room. After he showered and we were welcomed with gracious hospitality, he sat with us and talked about the protests in Bil'in.
There were some beautiful moments as well. Listening to the Muslim call to prayer throughout the day in various places gave us a holy sense of God's presence among the Palestinian people. But we shared that as well with Jews in a synagogue service the Friday evening after our experience in Bil'in. The churches, synagogues, the Jerusalem western wall, the Samaritans on Mt. Gerizim, the mosques wherever we traveled were all testimony to the many people who seek God in the Holy Land. There were other places as well. After visiting Jericho we headed out into the desert hills until we came to a place where we could look out over the vast landscape beyond an immense cavern as we watched the sunset. In the evening, when we stayed in a beautiful guest house in Nazareth, I watched the sun setting over the city with the dome of the Church of the Annunciation only a few blocks away. As beautiful as a postcard was the scene from the side of Carmel Mountain overlooking the Baha'i gardens, the view of the city of Haifa stretching from side to side before us, and the blue waters of the Mediterranean serving as the background with the coast of Lebanon in the distance. The most emotional I felt was calling my wife on my cell phone while riding in a "Jesus boat" on the Sea of Galilee. From the earliest years of our relationship she has heard me talk of my desire to travel to the Holy Land. The beauty of that experience, however, was tarnished by the politics of flying the American flag next to the Israeli flag while playing our national anthem. (I think that was even worse than the series of evangelistic sermons – "can I hear a hallelujah?" – we heard from the guide at the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem.)
For me there was a theme running throughout my travels. On the first flight of my journey I encountered a scene in which a passenger was telling a soldier, "Thanks for your service." During the next two weeks I met numerous people who have dedicated their lives to being in dangerous situations for the goal of bringing justice and peace to oppressed people. I was reminded of the saying I've heard from well-meaning Americans, "If you don't back our troops, why don't you get in front of them?" I visited some frontlines of conflict and witnessed people sacrificing their lives for others. As you may know, the member of our group, Rachel, lives with the experience of her Quaker meeting's youth leader, Tom Fox, having been executed in Iraq by his captors in 2006 while working with Christian Peacemaker Teams. She plans to be a part of a CPT delegation to Iraq in April, 2011. At the end of my journey, having been scrutinized by Israeli customs officials at the airport in Tel Aviv and a similar intrusiveness in Amsterdam (full body scan) before the international flight to the US, I was told by the US customs official in the Minneapolis airport after a brief conversation, "Welcome back." I appreciated that and it hit me at an emotional level. Our group went to Israel/Palestine to learn about another multi-cultural context but not to be activists or even to debate with people. It still felt good to be welcomed back to my country. For others who return from traveling to the frontlines of conflict for the work of advocacy and participation in non-violent resistance to injustice, I wish for them not only to hear, "Welcome back," but also, "Thank you for your service."
Tim Seid is Associate Dean and Assistant Professor of New Testament Studies at Earlham School of Religion. He has served pastorates in Quaker meetings in New England Yearly Meeting and Indiana Yearly Meeting.