YDS group at mid-point of two-week travel seminar to Israel-Palestine
Thirty-four participants in a Yale Divinity School travel seminar are in the midst of a two-week journey to Israel-Palestine, having just finished a four-day immersion experience in Jerusalem. The group, which includes alumni, students, faculty, staff and friends of YDS, has visited Bethlehem, Hebron, and Qumran, in addition to the Holy City— and has met with a number of people, both Palestinians and Israelis, who are actively engaged in peacemaking efforts. The group maintains an active blog site chronicling the trip every step of the way.
Leading the travel seminar are Dean Harold Attridge, a New Testament scholar, and John Lindner, director of the Department of External Relations, who has a background in ecumenical and interfaith relations. Also on the trip is Director of Development Constance Royster, who arranged many of the trip details. Coordinating the blog and writing most of the entries is second-year M.Div. candidate Elaine Ellis Thomas, who worked as director of human resources for Episcopal Community Services in Philadelphia and has served as an organist and choirmaster throughout southeastern Pennsylvania.
Following are just a few excerpts from the blog entries, along with a sampling of some of the photos.
Greetings from Bethlehem
On the approximately 90-minute ride from Ben Gurion Tel Aviv Airport, we were regaled with miscellaneous information that will be useful to us about currency, weather , agriculture, the roads leading to Jerusalem, and historical points of interest... Although it was dusk when we set out from the airport and dark before long, our guide, Naim Khoury, provided a fascinating narrative, even in the dark. This is the introduction the travel participants were given to our guide early in our planning stages: Naim Khoury was born and attended school in Jerusalem. Later he traveled to Germany to study Archaeology and History. Naim was licensed as a guide prior to the Six-Day War of 1967. He guided Pope Paul VI and together they planted an olive tree. He’s an excellent guide and has guided tour groups for Group Travel Directors for fifteen years. Naim resides in East Jerusalem.
A day in the City of David
Our first destination this morning was Manger Square and the Church of The Nativity. The sun shines bright off the white limestone buildings in Bethlehem, so entering the subdued light of the church itself lends a sense of drama. Entering through the Door of Humility, which requires one to stoop low to pass through, the muted scent of incense greets visitors as they enter the 4th century basilica claimed by the Greek Orthodox Church. It is a dramatic moment to descend the steps to the place that tradition holds as the site of the manger in which the newborn Jesus lay.
We travelled by bus to Dar al Kalima (House of the Word), a college for Palestinians offering courses in music, drama, tourism, art, jewelry-making, ceramics, and assorted other arts to prepare students to enter the local workforce. Here, the economy is largely driven by tourism. A project of Diyar, “a Lutheran-based, ecumenically oriented organization serving the whole Palestinian community,” this college is intended to prepare young people for success in an area experiencing 30% unemployment.
We later met with the founder and organizer of Diyar, The Rev. Mitri Raheb, a Palestinian Lutheran pastor. A contextual theologian, Mitri has applied his theological learning and faith calling into a respected ministry among Palestinians in Bethlehem... Mitri’s passion for the Palestinian people is compelling, as are his efforts to generate global support for his ministries....Mitri claims that he is only following the model of Jesus as found in Mark 1 – preaching, teaching, and healing.
Next on the itinerary was Bethlehem University, a Catholic university founded, and still administered, by the LaSalle Brothers. A panel of several students fielded questions and spoke of their aspirations for careers but, more importantly, for freedom. Only Palestinians attend this university, 70% of them Muslims, and their movements are restricted to such a degree that they have no personal contact with Israelis. These bright young faces presented a compelling case for international attention to be brought to bear on the occupation of their lands.
Finally, we visited the largest of three refugee settlements in Bethlehem -- Dheisheh, inhabited by 11,000 descendants of the 750,000 Palestinians displaced by the war in 1948. We were broken into groups and invited into homes of residents of the camp, a crowded, dismal and spirit-crushing place, but the hospitality we were shown equaled any we found on the trip thus far.
Mosques, Tombs, Fortresses, and Settlements
This morning, we loaded all 34 of us plus our guide, Naim, and driver, Muhammad, onto our bus and drove the 15 km south of Bethlehem to Hebron and the Tomb of the Patriarchs.
After the women in our group covered their heads, we all removed our shoes and were led into the mosque, where we met Sheikh Hatim, a civil judge and leader of the Hebron Muslim community. The sheikh spoke of his great desire for peace, our common ancestry going back to the prophets, and his own respect for all faiths. During his talk, an Israeli soldier entered the mosque accompanied by someone carrying a microphone. The soldier did not remove his boots, an act of disrespect that occurs frequently, according to our guide for the day, Whalid.
We next walked through the old Hebron marketplace with stalls of exotic goods and merchandise that might be found in any open-air bazaar in the world. This central area of Hebron is heavily contested, with Israeli settlements built on top of some of the shops. The settlers claim that having the shops below them is a security risk, so the businesses are shut down by government order. We saw many shop doors that had been welded shut, as well as netting strung across the market alleyway to protect pedestrians and shopkeepers from stones and debris thrown from above by the settlers.
Whenever I have read about Israeli settlements going up in Palestinian territory, I always imagined tents or squatter’s quarters or temporary huts, but these are well-constructed houses that are protected by Israeli security on land the settlers in Hebron claim was taken from them in a 1929 massacre. The settlements have expanded into central Hebron and have “jumped” the market alleyway in an apparent effort to bisect one side of Hebron from the other. This would serve to further isolate and restrict Palestinian movements, exacerbating the current poverty rate of 77%.
Jerusalem, Day One
We began our day by leaving Bethlehem through the checkpoint into Israel. An armed soldier boarded our bus, walking from front to back and staring at one of our number who was taking pictures, not realizing that she was being watched. When she turned and saw him, he very curtly said to her, “Are you finished? Delete it.” It was a rather tense moment.
When we entered Jerusalem, we picked up our morning guide, Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli attorney specializing in Israeli-Palestinian relations in Jerusalem, and the founder of Ir Amim, an NGO that furthers Jewish-Arab coexistence in Jerusalem. Daniel is a passionate advocate for a two-state solution to the troubles in Israel-Palestine, but believes that the current situation is deteriorating at such a pace that the possibility for that solution will end within 18 months to two years.
Daniel took us to a few of the “radioactive” spots in Jerusalem that are creating a seemingly intractable barrier to a peaceful and equitable resolution. While there is too much intricacy for me to even begin to detail here, it is clear that continued expansion of the Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem, increasingly exclusionary religious groups controlling the dialogue, and control of the religious sites are major obstacles.
Dinner was held at the nearby Leonardo Hotel in West Jerusalem (Israel), followed by a talk by Naomi Chazan....She is a passionate advocate for women’s rights in Israel and sees a current climate in which these rights are being rolled back and curtailed in very alarming ways. For instance, there are currently 59 gender-segregated buses in Jerusalem to satisfy Orthodox sensibilities. Military service is compulsory for men and women in Israel, yet women are treated differently and rise through the ranks only very slowly.
The first female general was only appointed last year. Naomi believes that the democratic health of a country can be measured by its treatment of women, and this is a low point in Israel.
Jerusalem, Day 2
We began the day at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial. There is really no way to describe the experience of walking through gallery after gallery detailing the ominous buildup to the Final Solution in post-World War I Europe. Video images, photos, personal artifacts, and recordings paint a vivid portrait of an increasingly isolated Jewish population throughout Europe, culminating in the ghettoization, deportation, and mass execution of millions of Jews....It is an immensely powerful and moving place, and adds a degree of sensitivity to the deeply held convictions of Israelis and their quest to protect their country and, by extension, themselves.
Next on our itinerary was the Israel Museum and the Shrine of the Book, which houses part of the Dead Sea Scrolls and explains the extensive history of their creation and discovery...Dean Attridge was able to provide a good overview of Qumran and the scrolls. We will be visiting Qumran on our journey so will have an opportunity to see first-hand the location of the caves inhabited by the Essene community that secured the scrolls.
Our day culminated with a private audience with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III. We were quite privileged to have him speak with us about his work in Jerusalem, especially his participation in the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land. Peace negotiations over the past decades have largely ignored the faiths represented in Jerusalem, and it is to be hoped that this council will have some influence over how Jerusalem will be handled in a two-state solution in Israel-Palestine. “Jerusalem is a city whose heart breathes three faiths,” he said, and any negotiated settlement that fails to take that into account is doomed to failure.