Thursday, September 20, 2012

Kairos Palestine, and an unlikely alliance

I was also assigned to watch and write about two videos: 60 Minutes’ segment "Christians of the Holy Land" and Bill Moyers of PBS’s segment "God and Politics in the Holy Land." Both are relatively short—I highly encourage you to watch them if able.

“Christians in the Holy Land” informs the viewer that Christians comprise less than 2% of the population in Israel/Palestine. Referring to the security and checkpoints that Palestinians have to go through, Israel’s Ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, nonchalantly says that it’s “their inconvenience, our survival.” He blames Christians leaving the West Bank on Islamic extremism, while Palestinians themselves (Muslim and Christian, alike), blame it on the Israeli occupation. The video references Kairos Palestine, a document in which Palestinian Christian religious leaders criticize Islamic extremism and call for a non-violent response to Israeli occupation, which they call “a sin against God.”

Ambassador Oren says these Christian leaders go “beyond legitimate criticism…accusing us of crimes that would be very, I think, historically associated with anti-Semitism.” Oren’s statement is interesting, as he doesn’t seem to think the Jewish state capable of the same—or similar—crimes that have been perpetrated against Jews throughout history. Just because Jewish people once suffered (and suffer) the crimes of anti-Semitism does not mean Israel is somehow immune from committing similar travesties against other people.  Oren’s attitude about Kairos Palestine (it is “so inflammatory that many of us didn’t even bother responding to it”) shows a lack of commitment to dialogue and peacemaking. Without such dialogue and a genuine attempt to understand the 'other,' there is little hope for peace.
The second video, “God and Politics in the Holy Land,” describes the alliance between Jews and Christians. Christian Zionists believe that Jesus will come again only when Israel is completely in Jews’ hands. As a result, Christian Zionists are fundamentally, unswervingly opposed to (and actively work to oppose) “any peace settlement that would give any land to Palestinians.”


Frankly, I find some of the views expressed by Christian Zionists in this video to be downright frightening (and even wrote this observation—THIS IS FRIGHTENING—in my notes). I was disturbed by comments such as Tom Delay’s at the Christian Coalition of America’s gathering. In describing a recent visit to Israel/Palestine, he says: “The Jewish State is a very tiny country, and you know what, I didn’t see any occupied territory—I saw Israel!” This statement received cheers from the audience, and Delay called himself an Israeli at heart.

Regarding Jewish and Christian beliefs, Sandra, an Orthodox Jew from Cleveland who currently lives as a settler in the West Bank said, “We share a belief in a Messiah, in a Messianic age, in the fact that what we are seeing in Israel today is part of a redemption.” 

The idea that any person of faith could share this belief—that what is happening today in Israel is part of a redemption—is unthinkable to me. May we all take part in working toward a future (and a present!) that sees redemption as inseparable from peace--a peace that is characterized by equality, mutual understanding, and justice for Palestinians and Israelis--Muslims, Jews, and Christians--alike. 

“Man's greatest blunder has been in trying to make peace with the skies instead of making peace with his neighbors.” -Elbert Hubbard 

City of Peace

This post and the following one are adapted from the first reflection paper I wrote for my Independent Study. The reading I consulted for this reflection was Karen Armstrong’s Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths.

Jerusalem means “city of peace”—an ironic name for a city that has been destroyed twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times. This much-contested city is one of the core issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Currently, East Jerusalem is Palestinian territory held by Israel under military occupation. The Palestinian Authority claims East Jerusalem as the capital of the future Palestinian state, while Israel claims all of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital (though this is not recognized by the international community). Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike regard Jerusalem as a holy city.

Karen Armstrong wrote her book to answer the question: What is a holy city? What does ‘holy’ mean? She believed this was equally important in regard to issues surrounding the history of Israel/Palestine as questions of ‘who came first?’ Armstrong argues that the meaning of ‘holy’ is complex, and intersects with the notion of place. Place, historians believe, “is one of the earliest manifestations of faith in all cultures” (xv). Because of this, no one can see Jerusalem objectively. In the question of holiness, three main factors are involved: God, myth, and symbolism—all interconnected and relevant.

I was assigned to read chapters 15-18 of Armstrong’s book, which detail the history of Jerusalem, beginning with the Ottoman Empire. Under Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent’s reign (1520-1566), Jerusalem flourished. He rebuilt the city wall (which currently surrounds what is known today as the ‘Old City’). Under Suleiman’s rule, dhimmis (non-Muslims) enjoyed relatively fair treatment, and Jews found a safe place from Christian Spain. He designated a place of prayer for Jews at the Western Wall—a site that was not significant at the time but has since become the holiest place of the Jewish faith. Also active in Jerusalem at this time were several Christian groups, including Greek Orthodox, Syrian, Armenian, and Franciscan (Latin), all of whom fought over (and still fight over) the Holy Sepulcher Church—an issue that is fascinating in itself. Suleiman’s death in 1566 marked the beginning of the decline of Ottoman rule, accompanied by the rise of European powers.

Following 1831, Ottoman commander Muhammad Ali controlled Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, made himself independent from Istanbul, and introduced secularism. He encouraged Europeans to come to Palestine, and allowed the first Western consulate in 1839 (William Turner Young for the British). In 1840 the Ottomans were back in power, and 10 years later there was a Jewish majority in Jerusalem for the first time. 1857 was the beginning of the exodus from the walled city, when communities such as Mea Shearim formed. The Arabs began to resent Turkish leadership, and there were now 3 competing groups: the Arabs, Turks, and Europeans.

In 1865 the Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF) was formed. Its president, also the Archbishop of York, said, “the country of Palestine belongs to you and me; it is essentially ours” (361). These were the beginnings of ‘crusading archaeology’—and an overall attitude of entitlement that saw Palestine as belonging to whoever could stake a claim (least of all, the Palestinians themselves). Jews around the world were increasingly looking to Zion as their homeland, and encouraged each other to buy land in Palestine. Orthodox Jews, however, disagreed with this practice, believing that any such moves were aimed at “precipitat[ing] forcibly the redemption” (364).

Moses Hess and Heinrich Graetz were influential Jewish voices at this time, although they advocated for different ends. The first Zionist colonies were established in the Palestinian countryside in 1882, and the first Zionist conference was held in Switzerland in 1899. Spokesman of Zionism Theodore Herzl thought there needed to be a Jewish State, but not necessarily in Palestine. Interestingly, he suggested Uganda instead, but was later forced to abandon this idea. The idea of a Jewish ‘homeland’ in Palestine (for which Jerusalem was not necessary) gradually shifted to a demand for a Jewish state in which Palestinians were seen as invisible. Hitler’s ideology spurned this on further.

In the early 20th century British promises to the Jews and Palestinians became increasingly at odds. Palestine naively believed that justice would be on their side, as the land was ‘obviously’ theirs. The Balfour Declaration, White Paper of 1922, and the New White Paper were all influential in these negotiations. Ultimately, in 1948, David Ben Gurion proclaimed the State of Israel. Jordan intervened, and both Jordan and Israel disregarded the UN’s Resolution that Jerusalem should be a corpus separatum (separate body) under international control.

East (Palestinian) and West (Israeli) Jerusalem were separated, although Israel eventually ‘reunified’ all of Jerusalem. The November 1967 UN Resolution called on Israel to withdraw from the territories it occupied during the Six-Day War. In the 1977 Camp David Accords, Egypt recognized Israel, and Israel, in turn, agreed to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula. This is by no means, of course, an exhaustive history, and there is obviously much that follows in the subsequent years up to the present. It is at this point in history, however, that the Armstrong reading ends. One is left to wonder—will the City of Peace ever be worthy of its name?

“It is not enough to experience the diving or the transcendent; the experience must then be incarnated in our behavior towards others. All the great religions insist that the test of true spirituality is practical compassion. The Buddha once said that after experiencing enlightenment, a man must leave the mountaintop and return to the marketplace and there practice compassion for all living beings. This also applies to the spirituality of a holy place. Crucial to the cult of Jerusalem from the very beginning was the importance of practical charity and social justice. The city cannot be holy unless it is also just and compassionate to the weak and vulnerable. But sadly, this moral imperative has often been overlooked. Some of the worst atrocities have occurred when people have put the purity of Jerusalem and the desire to gain access to its great sanctity before the quest for justice and charity.” -Karen Armstrong, from her Introduction to Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths

Thursday, September 6, 2012

picking up the pen--er, keyboard?--again

I served as a PC(USA) Young Adult Volunteer in Kerala, India, from 2010-2011, and blogged about the experience here. Blogging, during that time, was an important thing for me. With infrequent internet access, it was a way to keep in touch with those back home. With few English speakers to talk to, it was a way to vent, process, and share the things I was going through. Now, it’s a record that I sometimes look back on, and remember with deep gladness that place and those people who I love so much. I remember the details, and my favorite memories from that year—the awkward, the heartwarming, the quotidian, the difficult, the annoying, the humorous, the surprising, the infuriating, the small-insignificant-important moments--everything, all wonderful. 

I enjoy writing, that’s for sure. Coming back from India, I began to feel two voids in my life: one, the pang of missing that which was there, and was no longer, and two, the absence of the exercise of writing. I often considered—and was encouraged by others to consider—continuing blogging, but I kept coming up short at the question: about what?? What is there to write about when one is no longer somewhere different and fascinating, like India? Of course, life itself is different and fascinating—I know that. But for whatever reason, for better or for worse, I didn’t start writing again.

Now I am on the brink of something new. In October, I will be going to Israel/Palestine for 3 weeks as part of a group called Keep Hope Alive. Perhaps I will write more about the serendipitous way in which this came to be in the future, but for now, we’ll stick with some basics about what I’ll be doing. Keep Hope Alive is an organization that uses olive trees for peacemaking efforts in Israel/Palestine. This is made possible through the Joint Advocacy Initiative of the East Jerusalem YMCA and the YWCA of Palestine.

The Joint Advocacy Initiative hosts two international groups per year. The February delegation plants olive trees for Palestinian farmers whose trees have been destroyed. My dear friend Marietta and I are going on the October delegation, which helps harvest olives from trees that are still standing, but that may be difficult for Palestinians to access due to checkpoints and other restrictions. In addition to harvesting olives, we’ll meet with and learn from groups working for peace in the area, and do a bit of sightseeing, too.

So, what does this mean? First and foremost, it means that I am fulfilling a lifelong dream of visiting the Holy Land—and am hopefully doing some good and becoming more educated—thus, enabling myself to educate others—in the process. It also means that I have a reason to write again. I want to document this experience for me, personally, and also for you, whoever you may be. I want you to learn what I learn, and see what I see, even if just through the lens of this little blog, and perhaps a few photos here and there. In addition to being for my personal use/record/reflection, this blog is part of an Independent Study I am doing for school in conjunction with the Keep Hope Alive experience (but that’s by choice—I created the syllabus myself and purposely included the blog in it). The class has an extensive bibliography, and I will have to write several ‘reflection’ papers in the coming weeks based on the readings, and I will probably post those here, too, for anyone who is interested in learning more about the context of the conflict in Israel/Palestine. These are important issues that affect real people—not only in the Middle East, but in the world at large. We all have a responsibility to be informed.

I suppose this is just a long introduction of what’s to come. I realize that Israel/Palestine is a very polemic, polarizing topic for many, and I don’t mean to offend anyone by expressing my views or the things I learn here. I expect that the experiences I blog about will probably be much less ‘rainbows and butterflies’ than most of what I wrote about in India, but this will be an important processing tool for me, nonetheless. Thanks for being on this journey with me. Welcome back, faithful readers ;)

“What does the Lord require of you but to seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?” –Micah 6:8