Holy Land Journey 2014

Submitted by Ashley S.

JerusalemThe Holy Land. What a loaded term. But it turns out to be quite truthful and a better description for that area of the world than anything else. When I first started talking about going on the Mosaic of Peace trip, I told everyone I was going to Palestine. After several questioning looks, and a comment from one of my grandmother’s friends (“there is no Palestine”) I rephrased it as Israel/Palestine. But the land is so much more than two states fighting with one another for their own right to sovereignty. I witnessed pain, joy, hope, devastation, and everything in between in my 10 days exploring the land at the Mosaic of Peace Conference with the Presbyterian Mission Agency and 100 Presbyterian peacemakers from around the United States.

Our trip started in Jerusalem where we saw as many holy sites as possible, had some free time to wander around the old city- the part of city surrounded by the ancient wall and dividing into 4 quarters (Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Armenian)- and listened to two Jewish Rabbis who support Palestine, as well as both the Greek Orthodox and Latin (Catholic) Patriarch of the region. While walking the streets of the old city, it is easy to drift between the quarters without much notice except for some language changes on the signs around the shops. Except in the Jewish quarter. There is a clear military presence at the border of the distinguished Jewish portion of Old Jerusalem, and even a security checkpoint all visitors must go through before nearing the Western Wall. It was shocking to me that such a holy city would have such a heavy military presence, and yet people walked by as if the soldiers were nothing to worry about. But still the streets are full of life. Vendors trying to sell tourists overpriced souvenirs, t-shirts with Dora the Explorer and just about every college football team written in Hebrew, bins full of candy and some of the most delicious smelling food you will ever encounter. Of course this is one of the most popular tourist destinations, so the occupation is harder to see and feel in the heart of the Holy City.

Dheisheh Refugee CampWhile in Jerusalem, we listened to two Rabbis, Dr. Donniel Hartman and Naamah Kelman, both of whom are in support of Palestine’s liberation from Israel’s military occupation, and in favor of the two state solution- where both Israel and Palestine are their own, independent, sovereign nations living side by side. Dr. Hartman proposed the idea of three types of peace- Unitarian or messianic peace, the idyllic lions lying with lambs talked about in scripture; Peace of domination where there is no war because the conqueror’s dominance is simply accepted and it is assumed the oppressed group never had it so good under anyone else; and finally a peace of justice where one groups interests or needs do not deny the rights of another group, a peace where all parties can participate and be treated fairly. This really struck me, as Dr. Hartman explained that so many people dream of the utopian peace, and are discouraged when it is not easily achieved. But as we slowly work towards that day when lions do lie with the lambs, we can’t forget that a peace of justice is attainable, and something we can one day find in the Holy Land. What I remember most is when he said that the Jews can’t truly come home until the Palestinians have as well, giving me hope for the future of peace in the region. We also visited Hebrew Union College to hear Rabbi Kelman speak of her efforts to bring peace. As the Dean of the college, she made sure every student takes a course in every major religion, and has to work in the community on a project to bring unity to Jerusalem. She works very hard to provide support to the Palestinian effort, and even had calls for help from Ultra Orthodox Jewish women when there was a movement to segregate men and women on public transport buses. She was very clear to note it is the Ultra Orthodox Jews who are pushing so hard to completely push out Palestinians from their territory, since they were handed the keys to the religious aspect of the state of Israel at its creation. The founders of the state were predominately secular, and had little interest in religious affairs. This is what has led to the strong movement against Palestinians, as the Ultra Orthodox believe Palestinians have no right to land the way the Jews do. Rabbi Kelman also said she would love for Palestinians to organize nonviolent movements to protest the occupation, like parading through the streets of Jerusalem with flowers. This is something I struggled with, especially after spending time in Bethlehem and learning about the different nonviolent actions so many people are using throughout the Palestinian territories for decades.

The WallIn Bethlehem where we were fortunate enough to be hosted by the International Center of Bethlehem and Diyar Consortium, and of course by the wonderful Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb. I had read one of his books before arriving and already admired him, but seeing first-hand the work he does is just incredible. The ICB and Diyar Consortium work with the Dar Al Kalima College to provide education, creative outlets, resources and so much more to help Palestinians make a life for themselves. As one of our speakers, Dr. Jad Isaac, said- Palestinians living happy lives is a form of resistance in itself. Seeing people continue to live their lives despite everything that is going on is incredible to me, as I myself would most likely have given up and left. They face humiliating checkpoints whenever they want to go somewhere and there are roads they are not allowed to dive on simply because they are Palestinian, making their travel time double or even triple what it would normally take. But the creative resistance, as Rev. Dr. Raheb calls it, is what keeps the community alive and continuing on. We had the pleasure of watching two different plays about life occupied territory, and it was so encouraging to see people pouring their frustration and hurt into something to wonderful and creative.

Now I can go on and on about all the different ways people are doing things to help Palestine be free of Israel’s military ruling. The Carter Center is working to take steps to further legitimize Palestine as a state and the BDS (Boycott Divestment Sanction) movement is working with people all over the world to boycott Israeli products, divest from companies that support the occupation, and encourage government to put sanctions on Israel regarding products made in illegal settlements. There are smaller versions of organizations like the Diyar Consortium in towns all over West Bank working to provide education, legal resources, and to keep the youth from turning to destructive behavior like throwing stones at Israeli soldiers. There are so many ways to get involved and help and so much working being done, but if there is one thing I learned and remember the most is that we all need to do as the Bible says and love your neighbor as yourself. It doesn’t matter if your neighbor is trying to shoot you or push you off your land. Rev. Dr. Yohanna Katanacho, Academic Dean of Bethlehem Bible College told us the story of when he was a student having to pass a checkpoint every day to get to his classes. Every day he was humiliated by the soldiers, but one day he simply told them, I love you. And both parties were so shocked they let him go. As he told us, love is a choice. It is a muscle you must work on in order for it to get stronger and grow. It is not an excuse to ignore justice either, but a call to pursue justice. Rev. Dr. Raheb echoed similar words, saying hope is not what we see, but what we do. Yes the situation in Palestine is hopeless, which is why we all have the duty to do something about it.

There are many organizations with efforts to bring attention to the crisis in Israel and Palestine. We heard from Omar Barghouti, the founder of the controversial BDS (boycott, divestment, sanction) movement uses the world’s economic vote to put pressure on Israel to end the occupation of Palestinian territory. Specific companies like Soda Stream, Caterpillar, and HP produce their goods in or have aided Israel in the occupation of Palestinian land, and the movement calls for boycotting those items, divesting from these companies, and placing sanctions against Israeli goods. While the Israeli government tries to hide the fact that it is having any impact on the economy, it has called a special session to deal with this “strategic threat” and takes any form of BDS very seriously. This pressure put on the Israeli economy is very similar to what was used by various nations to end apartheid in South Africa, and is supported by many groups globally since its founding in 2005. It is an issue more complex than I can ever explain in a short report, so please check out bdsmovement.net to learn more.

Another group, Breaking the Silence, consists of former Israeli soldiers who share stories of their experiences in the military, specifically their time spent in Jewish settlements. This is a way of taking accountability for their actions and spreading the word about the atrocities being committed by the military against Palestinians. Yehuda Shaul, one of the founders, gave us each a copy of one of their books of testimonies which interestingly contained several accounts where soldiers ended up defending Palestinians against the attacks of violent Israeli settlers. Each testimony is chilling, and while there are cases where soldiers follow their moral compass instead of orders, there are plenty of accounts of unwarranted attacks on Palestinians, mostly as ordered by officers to keep a state of fear alive. B’tSelem is a human rights organization that helps bring awareness through giving tours of the settlements to Israelis and anyone who wants to learn more about the facts on the ground, and what astounded me most was their video project. B’tSaelm gives video cameras to Palestinians to show what everyday life is like. When soldiers raid a home, the heavy and constant presence of military throughout town, and these videos provide undisputable evidence of the occupation of Palestinian territory.

Dheisheh Refugee Camp 2On our last day, we met with former Greek Catholic Archbishop Elias Chacour who has been working for decades build schools and community with both Palestinians and Israelis of all faiths to bring peace. He stressed that Israelis and Palestinians don’t need to learn how to live together, but remember how to live together like they have for hundreds of years before the Zionist movement began at the turn of the 20th century. People of all faiths lived in relative harmony in the Holy Land long before there was a state of Israel, and there is still time for that to happen.

This trip to was life changing. To witness something so tragic happening in front of me and to have much of the world turn a blind eye to the issue is frustrating. I learned a lot, had a wonderful time visiting the Holy sites like the Sea of Galilee, Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Church of the Nativity, seeing Bethlehem, Nazareth and Jerusalem, and experiencing fellowship with 100 other Presbyterians passionate about peace was an amazing experience. I know that I will continue to be vocal about bringing peace in Palestine, and do my part whenever I can. I will continue to update my blog from the trip as I continue to reflect on my experience and do what I can to bring peace to the Holy Land. Check it out, along with photos and posts from the trip at whispers-of-mortality.blogspot.com