Tuesday, 18 June 2013
Tuesday, 1 November 2011
The programme of this study tour of Israel and the Palestinian territories has got busier and busier, and the conversations and encounters more challenging. In particular my mind is still reeling from being shown round an area of a settlement in East Jerusalem by a long-time resident in danger of displacement, limping on crutches from what he said was a private security guard’s (hired by the settlers) bullet wound, and then hearing a long and passionate apologia from a leading settler blaming the whole problem on the past and present leftist governments of Israel. Quite unexpectedly (understatement) the settler was the first person I’ve heard describe the security wall as “apartheid”.
Maybe you see why my brain is spinning.
Then again most of my readers seem less interested in these real-life descriptions than in theoretical argument, so I doubt the rest of the travel journal will be missed.
Saturday, 29 October 2011
It was nice to have a free morning today. I used some of the free time to get up the Mount of Olives early, but half regretted my decision to walk. I had forgotten how steep the climb was, and, in fact, how up and down the walk round the northern wall of the city was.
The view, however, is well worth it. Jerusalem is a city that draws the heart, and this view encapsulates more of its pull than any other. It also underlines something of the way in which it draws the heart of three faiths into at best an unstable and unresolved tension, at worst major and mortal conflict. That, or course, is the main reason for this group being the interfaith mix it is, and why we are meeting people of very different ethnicities, beliefs and backgrounds while here.
Today we had two talks with question sessions, and a time to reflect together on how we were finding the experiences.
Our first talk came from a Muslim Palestinian scholar. Dr Mustafa Abu Sway is Professor of Philosophy and Islamic Studies at Al-Quds University. He spoke to us with remarkable dispassion. One argument he made was that at different times in history, Jerusalem has been under Jewish control, Christian control and Muslim control. History ebbs and flows, and it is impossible to absolutise any one period into a right in perpetuity.
He also offered some statistics, which I have not had time to fully record or check out. He did, however, point out that in comments about treatment of Palestinians, he only ever used official Israeli Government statistics to avoid any argument over whose statistics were more accurate. On those figures, he said, only 12% of the tax Palestinian people paid went back on public services for Palestinians. He offered further figures and examples illustrating his claim that Palestinians were discriminated against. I note, however, that unlike many anti-Zionists (and possible anti-Semites) he didn’t accuse the state of apartheid policies. However he did make a plausible and careful case that the implementation of basic social policy is structurally discriminatory. It was not clear in any of this whether he would live happily either in or side by side with a non-discriminatory Israel, although he said nothing to suggest he would not, and interacted as warmly and positively with our Jewish members as with any of us.
The second of the days speakers was a Jewish scholar, Dr Alick Isaacs, the author of a book I have added to my reading list, A Prophetic Peace. He stimulated some of the most passionate discussion so far, not least because he was offering arguments none of us had really heard before. At the risk of gross simplification, he argues that liberal secular solutions are not enough, because they will never persuade the most passionately religious to accept them. Further, the exclusion of religion from peace settlements will ensure the most a settlement can achieve is a truce, not peace, because such a settlement has failed to address some of the root causes of the problem. He also insisted that the Temple Mount couldn’t be a later add-on to an agreed settlement, but had to be addressed as part of any future peace: disagreement about this piece of real estate was not an option, but the heart of the conflict.
He then described some of his work with a range of voices on the Jewish side to explore what peace means, and how far people are motivated by their faith to envisage peace, and work for it. He has managed to draw both left-wing chatterati and the settler religious right into the same dialogue about what peace might look like from within the Jewish tradition. He sees the key to this lying in the way in which Jewish thought has embraced argument without resolution: rabbi X says A , rabbi Y says B, to which rabbi Z added C. None of these arguments reach a decision, but hold the different viewpoints together in co-existence. Perhaps a peace that could accept that in politics as well as theological discussion might offer a way forward. He didn’t say whether any politician might find that practical, nor whether he expected the Palestinians to sit around waiting for a Jewish solution. However, he is clearly trying to break longstanding logjams with an innovative and different way forward.
It would be possible to launch into question and critique quite readily, and we certainly didn’t hold back on the questions tonight. As always, I am aware that I am listening to people advocating a view in ways they hope will appeal to me. And all our speakers have been engaging. However, from the point of view of these journal entry posts (mainly for my own benefit, dear reader) I just want to summarise some main points of material I know I will be following up and digesting for some time to come.
Friday, 28 October 2011
Today’s is a short blog, because it has been a different kind of day. Now that we’re in Jerusalem for several days we’re being given a little space.
This morning’s main agenda were visits to the Holy Sepulchre, when (out of the blue) the Greek Patriarch turned up in considerable procession for something – possibly a family conversion / baptism looking at some of those trailing behind his magnificence. It’s quite easy to see how bishops get a sense of self-importance. The other main focus was the Western Wall. (It being Friday, the Haram al-Sharif / Temple Mount was closed to non-Muslims, although our Muslim members went to join Friday prayers.
I was surprised (again) by the unexpected randomness of spiritual and emotional experiences in this place. Today (and entirely unlike the previous time I visited, I had a powerful and tangible sense of historical placedness / God / immanence (hard to pin down) both at the Stone of Unction (the site where Orthodox tradition says Jesus’ body was prepared for burial, and at the Western Wall. Last time both those left me untouched emotionally. This time I had a moment of feeling overwhelmed in each place.
Then again, experience anyway, but especially in this place, is a funny old thing. The first site where I ever had a sense of “this is where the Bible happened” was the Church of the Beatitudes. I think the “event” it commemorates is Matthew’s literary construction, yet that was the place I had the experience.
I’m now off to get ready for tonight: joining first in a synagogue service, and then going to share hospitality afterwards.
Thursday, 27 October 2011
Today has been an interesting mixture. We began with a visit to Capernaum. I always feel that this is one of the more likely identifications, and the evidence for a first century house, expanded in stages, with a later church does support the tradition of this being Peter’s house. Even if not, there are real first century streets exposed to daylight from excavation, and more than most places, one can say with a fair degree of certainty and precision, “Jesus woz here!”
From Capernaum we travelled to Nazareth, visiting both the Orthodox Church of St Gabriel and Mary’s Well (the eastern version of the site of the Annunciation) and the RC Basilica. Both are splendid but very different buildings, and both resonate with me.
So far, so Christian pilgrimagey. After that things took a different turn. After all, the primary purpose of this trip is listening to the different voices and stories of the peoples of this land.
We observed prayers (the Muslim members of our group participating) at the White Mosque in Nazareth. This is the oldest, and in many ways the most integrated of Nazareth’s mosques. After prayers were finished, we received hospitality and a otur of the mosque together with a resume of its history. I was intrigued to learn the way they tell the story of 1948. The hereditary leader of the mosque community was also Mayor of Nazareth. He used his influence to first calm things down, and then went out and met the IDF forces to assure them Nazareth would offer no resistance, but co-operate. As a result Nazareth suffered no damage, nor were its citizens made refugees.
I’m not sure what other stories might be told of this, but this in itself is an interesting telling of the history. I am aware that the mosque leaders wanted to portray themselves to a mixed group such as ours as reasonable. Every voice we have so far heard has wanted to commend their own position to us, and I don;t know enough to read between all the lines. On the other hand, I heard a Jew saying that he had been introduced to the mosque leadership by a catholic bishop. This mosque seems to pride itself on getting on with life and maintaining the best relationships it can with other groups in the community. There was enough evidence in banners around a town square, that other groups of Muslims were less conciliatory, and angry that Christians had stopped development of a mosque in close proximity to the Basilica.
On the way down the hill to lunch some of us stopped to say the Angelus at the Basilica. Where else is that more natural a prayer?
Following lunch we travelled to the village of Kafr Qara to hear a talk from the Qadi (islamic Judge) for that district, as he explained how Sharia law worked in Israel, where it is allowed to work for Family Law, and how they tried to dovetail it into the provisions of the civil code. It sits alongside the Bet Din, and also church courts, in being recognised as having a role to play. Qadi Iyad Zahalka suggested that this was one area where Israel had something to teach Europe and the West about recognising ways in which religious teachings can adjudicate things for their adherents within the framework of Civil Law, and with the Civil Supreme Court still acting as the final Court of Appeal. Much of this was explored in question and answer afterwards. Listening to aspects of Sharia described by one who has to apply it gives a rather different picture to that of the UK Press. It was just as interesting, however, hearing him speak so positively about the Israeli constitution, and the role of Civil Law.
In the evening we arrived in Jerusalem to meet for supper in a Jewish home and hear short stories from several young adults, Palestinian and Jewish, about the programmes they had been on through the Intereligious Co-ordinating Council in Israel (ICCI). They had been encouraged to get to know, and trust each other to the point where they could tell each other how they saw things, felt things, understood things, told their stories of how things got to be this way. These young adults (all in their 20s) talked both about what had worked, and what hadn’t, in these programmes. For example, one group, committed to continuing to meet together, had fallen apart under the pressure of hard realities when its Jewish Israeli members were called up as reservists expecting a new conflict. Nonetheless, for a number of young people, the programmes were generating fresh understandings and some real friendships across the great divides of their diverse religious, cultural and ethnic identities.
All in all another day with a great deal to take in, and, following the example of the Maiden of Nazareth, to ponder the meaning of these things in our hearts.
Wednesday, 26 October 2011
A very brief report towards the end of the second day of this tour with FODIP. The morning was spent learning about the life of Neve Shalom / Wahat al-Salam (as I mentioned yesterday). This is an impressive commitment to sharing life between faiths / ethnicities / nationalities across the divide that has torn this narrow strip of land apart. It’s clearly neither a panacea for all Israel or Palestine’s ills, nor without its problems.
However, the village is growing, engaged in significant education work, and offering what Pope John Paul II called a sign of contradiction to the overarching narrative of hostility and hopelessness.
One feature of the village is “the House of Silence”– a space to be apart and quiet in reflection, meditation or silent prayer. Precisely because of its common nature in a community which embraces three faiths and none (or as their leader put it, some of our members have faith in peace, or in humanity) the house is a venue for silent prayer or thoughts only, not a place for words. Our Muslim brothers and sisters said midday prayers outside, respecting the silence of the building space, while both Jew and Christian were able to offer their silent intention at the same time. I found it a moving experience.
In the afternoon we went on to the Sindyanna Visitor Centre in Kufr Manda in Galilee. There we heard about their work as a women-led non-profit that tries to strengthen the economy of the Arab-Palestinian population in general and to enhance the empowerment of Arab women in particular.
We also had a talk from Fuad Farah, a senior lay member of the Greek Orthodox community in Nazareth, who has written a history of Christianity in Palestine. From what he said, I would have some questions about the relationship of his narrative to other ways of telling some of that history, but he offered a reflection on today which was not only in favour of a two-state solution, but also expressed some anxiety about the Islamisation of Palestinian identity and its implication for a future Palestinian state.
Interestingly, he also stressed that while he saw any such solution as being based on the 1967 borders, he thought based on left some wriggle room for some give and take in relation to a limited amount of land on either side.
What he didn’t mention was Jerusalem. Given his anger at his Church hierarchy – unlike Catholics, Anglicans and Lutherans they have never had a Palestinian / Israeli Arab bishop – over a long history of selling off local Christian property in Jerusalem to Jews, I suspect he might find Jerusalem a more difficult question to deal with emotionally as well as practically. But some of his anger was simply due to being governed by autocratic and non-representative foreigners.
The day ended with an almost endless meal (it turned out that what we thought was the meal was just the starter) as a sample of Druse hospitality. We may find out more about their community in the morning, although the last time I listened to a Druse trying to explain their faith and identity I ended up far more confused than I started. Then it will be travelling through the day and ending up rather late (possibly too late in the day to blog) at Jerusalem.
Tuesday, 25 October 2011
I seem to have been travelling for a very long time. But our first overnight stay is at the only intentional Jewish / Arab community in Israel, Neve Shalom / Wahat al-Salam. I discover that we are a group mainly of Christians and Muslims, with one Rabbi travelling with us from England, and another local Jewish educationalist accompanying us here.
Main reception – the only area with Wi-Fi – has closed for the night (the village guest house is a grouping of separate rooms with chalets) so I’m sitting outside well within Wi-Fi range, but aware of what sound like some very active bats in the trees above my head.
I’m not sure how often I will get the chance to blog, but when I can I want (as much for my own sake as anything else) to note some impressions as I go.
The group as a whole are happy for me to photograph and video stuff as we go along, and I hope I might get some of them talking to camera as well about impressions. I’m not sure how much of this might end up editable into YouTube reflections after I return.
Tomorrow we spend some time learning about the history and life of this unusual experiment for inter-religious and (because this seems to be mainly secular) inter-racial peace, before visiting the oft-forgotten fourth religious grouping of Israel-Palestine, the Druse.
More updates as and when for those who are interested.