After the Israeli elections, the only halfway house for Arabs in Israel faces an uncertain future

This article was published in America magazine.

HAIFA – The two are unlikely neighbors. On one side of the cobblestone courtyard there is a modest halfway house for prisoners convicted of serious criminal offenses like murder, arms dealing and drug trafficking. On the other side, built with the same pale yellow stone, is the chandelier-adorned Church of Our Lady, a place of worship for Melkite Catholics.

The halfway house, known as the House of Grace, is the only such facility in Israel designated for Arab offenders. It may also be the only rehabilitation program in Israel that offers Divine Liturgy.

Salah Akoul, 53, said that without House of Grace, he would be back in prison. After spending 26 years in and out of prison for drug- and arms-trafficking offenses, Akoul has now completed his residency and is living on his own. He said that the experience changed his “primitive” way of thinking and taught him how to be part of a family. “It’s important for me to let people know that this place does really help,” he said.

Almost 1,000 prisoners were released early from prisons in Israel in December due to overcrowding, including those convicted of sex offences and domestic abuse. So in some ways rehabilitation for former inmates is needed now more than ever.

The recent elections in Israel will directly impact House of Grace, since as a service provider for the government, the new government can now alter or decline to renew House of Grace’s annual contract, valid until the end of the year, or even decide to grant additional funding.

Under Prime Minister Netanyahu, who was re-elected as Prime Minister on April 9, House of Grace has been fighting for more funding. The government only covers about a third of its operating costs, said Elias Sussan, the director of the halfway house services at House of Grace.

“We’ve had a lot of disagreement with the government about financing. It’s not reasonable to raise funds from Europe or from the [United] States—or from wherever—for prisoners that the government should be taking care of,” said Sussan.

“For us rehabilitation for ex-convicts is the goal; it is not a business,” said Sussan,

But House of Grace is accustomed to facing uncertainty.

After more than three decades of work, House of Grace’s prisoner rehabilitation program almost closed in 2015 when the government canceled its contract. “House of Grace is facing new struggles as we strive to continue our striving to serve the ‘least of these,’” Jamal Shehade, director of House of Grace, said at the time. After widespread outrage from community members and civic leaders, including the head of Israel’s Anti-Drug Authority’s program for Arabs, the contract was renewed.

House of Grace has been providing rehabilitative services for incarcerated Palestinian citizens of Israel since it was founded by Shehade’s parents, Kamil and Agnes, in the 1980s. Inspired by Jesus’ call in Matthew 25 to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the prisoner, they transformed the premises of a then-abandoned church into House of Grace. Shehade grew up on the property and did not realize until much later that his “uncles” were “ex-convicts, recovering addicts and runaways.”

The program can house 15 men at a time. There are currently over 3,500 Arab citizens of Israel being held in Israel Prison Service facilities, according to government statistics. Arabs make up only about 20 percent of Israel’s population but approximately 40 percent of its prison population. (These statistics do not take into account about 5,000 prisoners in Israeli prison facilities from Gaza and the West Bank, according to B’Tselem, The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.)

“15 beds are not really lot for that,” said Shehade.

Since 2011, the Israeli government has contracted with House of Grace to rehabilitate Arab prisoners. Following an interview process with the facility, residents live at House of Grace for nine months while they receive group therapy and one-on-one counseling and are accompanied by staff 24/7. House of Grace staff focus on community-building, helping residents find jobs, pay their bills and learn how to live together.

Once their nine-month stay is complete, they are required to visit House of Grace periodically over the following year, and former residents must submit to further counseling and drug-use checks. Additional programs at House of Grace include support for the families of the incarcerated and an after-school program for children in the community. These programs aim to curb recidivism by former inmates who are under pressure to provide for their families once they leave prison and to prevent children from getting involved in criminal activity as they grow up.

In the past, House of Grace served both Israeli and Arab prisoners and offered support as well as to the local homeless population and to women. In 2011, the Israeli government stipulated that House of Grace’s residential rehabilitation program work exclusively with Arab offenders.

Shehade says that although House of Grace has a Christian mission and is based on church property, it is not an evangelical enterprise. Its residents, like Akoul, are mostly Muslim, and don’t use the church located on the facilities of House of Grace.

Shehade is a Melkite Catholic and Palestinian living in Israel. Melkites are the largest group of Christians in Israel, but Christians are still a very small minority, making up about two percent of the overall population, according to a 2018 report from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. There is an even smaller percentage of Christians in Palestinian territories—the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics puts Christians at 1 percent.

Although Shehade has Israeli citizenship, according to Israel’s Nation-State law, passed in 2018, Israel is the “historic homeland of the Jewish people” and “the nation-state of the Jewish people.” These new stipulations suggest to many Palestinian citizens of Israel, whether they are Muslim or Christian, that their status is considered secondary.

This puts Shehade and other Palestinian Christians living in Israel in a unique, often difficult position. “For Jews, we are Arabs; for Muslims, we are Christians; for the Arab world, we are traitors,” he said.

But Shehade says that House of Grace shows that Palestinian Christians in Israel have a “special role” because of their intersecting identities and in showing paths toward peace on a local level.

“As a Christian I have a message in this world. And that message is to be a good Christian as Jesus told us, and to serve the other—it doesn’t matter for what reason or who he is, even if he is my worst enemy and he needs support, I will try and help him,” said Shehade.

“This message is very needed in the Middle East where you have conflicts between every ethnic or religious group that you have here.”

Article reprinted courtesy of americamagazine.org


Day #6: Jerusalem

JERUSALEM – Our day on Friday started just inside of Jaffa Gate, one of the seven entrances to the Old City of Jerusalem. We also had an extra addition: Professor Ari Goldman.

The night before, some of us had celebrated Purim by dancing to Israeli music and eating Israeli-Yemenite pastries on the streets surrounding city’s Mehane Yehuda market. Even the next day, as we stood outside Jaffa Gate, people were still carrying holiday gift baskets and dressed in costume. But, instead of continuing our Purim celebrations, we were preparing to explore the holy sites of the Old City.

Arnita Najeeb, our tour guide for the morning, started with the Jaffa Gate to give us a sense of Jerusalem’s complex and extensive history. The gate was originally constructed by the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century and was eventually expanded to include a bridge, used by Kaiser Wilhelm II, to enter the city.

From the gate, we were led through the Armenian Quarter, where we learned about the city’s four quarters. While Jerusalem is split geographically into Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Armenian quarters, residents are not exclusively tied to these areas. Jews can and do live in the Muslim Quarter and Armenians do not have to live in the Armenian Quarter.

We eventually arrived at Zion Gate, one of the newer entrances to the city. The gate was officially re-opened in 1967 after the Six-Day War, but the craters and cracks around the arch stand as evidence of the conflict the gate was witnessed.

In telling us the history of the old city, Najeeb presented us with a theme that still resonates today. Jerusalem is, and has always been, a city characterized by the constant building up and tearing down of walls.

“Here, walls do not help people,” Najeeb said. “They make it difficult for people to work and they make people more stressed.”

We then visited the site of the Last Supper, the Cenacle or the Upper Room. In the room, a tour group from Indonesia cried out hymns in a circle, worshiping one of the holiest sites in Christianity.

Located above King David’s Tomb, the Cenacle is also a demonstration of how one site can be overtaken and refurbished by different religions. Across the room, Arabic inscriptions can be seen and a dome-like structure sits at one corner. In the 12th century, while Jerusalem was under Ottoman rule, the Cenacle was converted into a mosque.

Discussions about the intersections of religions in Jerusalem continued outside of the holy sites. Between the Jewish and Armenian Quarters on Ararat Street, Najeeb had us stop. Behind him stood both a mosque and a church. In front of him, back on Chabad Street, were Jewish homes.

“Do you see people fighting here?” Najeeb asked us. “People can live together in peace.”

Weaving our way down the cobbled streets and steps of the Jewish Quarter, we eventually arrived at the Western Wall.

In front of the wall, Jonathan Harounoff, a fellow journalism student, gave his personal insight into a Jewish ritual: wrapping the Tefillin. Two sets of small boxes with leather straps, the Tefillin is meant to be wrapped daily. One goes over the head and one is wrapped around the arm.

 

( Photo Courtesy of Eleonore Voisard)

“It symbolizes your relationship to God,” Harounoff said. “It’s the ultimate mitzvah, or good deed.”

After viewing the main section of the Kotel, some of us broke off to observe the southern part of the retaining temple wall. The southern part is often referred to as the egalitarian section, as both men and women can pray and read Torah together and without any separating barrier.

The egalitarian section can only be accessed through the Davidson Center, the archaeological site adjacent to the Western Wall. While the Kotel is free, a ticket to the Davidson Center and the egalitarian section costs 29 ILS for an adult ticket.

The southern section is home to one of the best views of East Jerusalem, spanning from the Mount of Olives to the walls of the Jewish Quarter. However, only two other visitors were taking advantage of the view and the egalitarian section. Unlike the Western Wall, at midday on Friday, no one was praying or reading Torah.

A few hours later, after we broke off to report on our own stories, we regrouped at the Western Wall for Shabbat service. The mood of the wall had shifted. There were many more observers than tour groups, and the Kotel began to feel like a true place of worship, rather than a tourist site.

In the women’s section, a line of women stood up at the barrier to hear the men chant and sing Shabbat prayers. A few women sang along and clapped their hands, while others stayed silent and focused on the wall. The praying was individualistic and each woman kept to herself.

The men’s side of the Western Wall featured small groups of men, praying and dancing around tables. Their chants were loud and relatively in sync, although some went at their own pace and lagged behind.

Once they finished their prayers, each of the women would back away from the wall with slow steps. Each woman’s gaze never left the wall.

After the Sabbath prayers at the wall, we made our way up a small hill to our hotel, the Sephardic House Hotel in the Jewish quarter. There we had a “family style” Shabbat dinner with a number of guests, including Professor Goldman’s nephew, and Columbia Journalism Professor Gershom Gorenberg’s wife and son. Our guide and educator, Ophir Yarden, also invited his wife and four of his children. As students, we were treated to a traditional Shabbat dinner, complete with the blessing of the bread and the wine. An hour in, Ophir interrupted our conversations and presented us with a question.

“What is your holy envy?” Ophir asked the table. Theorized by Krister Stendahl, holy envy refers to one’s willingness to admire aspects of other faiths. Ophir took this further, asking us if there were any rituals or practices in other faiths that each of us almost wish we could partake in.

While others took time to reflect on the rituals of other faiths, his son answered immediately.

“I’m jealous that others don’t have to wrap Tefellin,” he said.


Day #5 : Bethlehem, Part I

BEIT SAHOUR -- This morning we woke up in the homes of the Palestinian families who hosted us overnight in this town just east of Bethlehem. Maiz, the school-age daughter of the family, sat at the breakfast table and learned that school was cancelled. If the math exam she had been diligently revising for the night before was consequently postponed, Maiz was far from celebrating.

Maiz’s school, like most of the businesses and shops in Bethlehem  remained closed in an act of solidarity. The night before, just a few miles away, Ahmad Manasra, a 26-year-old  Palestinian was shot dead at an Israeli military checkpoint. The young man’s death marked the fourth killing of Palestinians in the past 24 hours.

As we left the homes of our hosts and made our way to the Christmas Lutheran Church in the  Old City of Bethlehem, a climate of tension was palpable.

Yet, the tension around us was just a regular feature in the life of  Pastor Munther Isaac. As he sat in the chilly basement of the Christmas Lutheran Church, the pastor   gave us a brief introduction into the Christian Palestinian community, a group he called “second class citizen in their own land.”

 

( Photo Courtesy of Eleonore Voisard)

Isaac explored five main contemporary challenges faced by the Palestinian community:

1:  A gap between the people and the Christian religious establishment, mainly on issues such as the selling of church-owned land to Israel.

2: The political  reality of the occupation,  means that  Israel controls  every aspect of their life, from freedom of movement to who Palestinians  can marry.

3: The unemployment rate in the Occupied Palestine Territory  currently sits at approximately 27 percent. For recent graduates, the situation is even tougher and the unemployment rate reached 55 percent  in 2017. Pastor Isaac also cited water as one of the sources of economic hardship.

4:  As the Palestinians are cut off from both their Jewish and Arab neighbors,  Christians started developing a minority complex in the West-Bank.

5: “The Church worldwide is part of the problem, not the solution,” said Isaac. Evangelical Christians – who see 1948 and the creation of the state of Israel as a sign of God - are particularly not helping the debate to move forward according to Pastor Isaac.

Our heads filled with new perspectives on the conflict and the issues playing out on the ground, we rushed to the Nativity Church without time to process and digest the enlightening conversation we just had with Pastor Isaac.

( Photo Courtesy of Eleonore Voisard)

There, our tour guide Nour was seemingly moved by Wednesday’s night tragic event. Yet, the young Palestinian remained professional and gave us a rapid tour of the Nativity Church built in 565 by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian.

One by one -like the 3.5 million tourists and pilgrims who visit the site each year - we entered the Basilica through its 1.2 meters high  door that forces every visitor to bow down and show respect, but also “lows the egos of several state leaders who come to the church,” said Nour with a smile.

If the Basilica is currently being restored, our group still got a comprehensive tour of the UNESCO World Heritage and especially the grotto - a small alcove under the main altar area - regarded by various denominations as the birthplace of Jesus. An unsettling and enriching moment.

 


Day #4, Part I: West Bank

RAMALLAH AND TAYBEH –

“What’s the most common thing in journalism?” our professor Greg Khalil asked.

It was a little after 7:30 a.m., and for a moment, the group was quiet – groggily awaiting the energy promised by cups of coffee we downed minutes ago at our hotel in Tiberius.

“Plans falling through,” Leah Feiger called out.

“Exactly.”

Khalil announced that we had to cancel our plans for the first half of the day: our trip to Nablus to see Jacob’s Well, our stop at Mt. Gerizim and Beit Filasteen, a tour of the Kasbah, our meeting with Munib Masri, and a lunch conversation with the Samaritans.

(Zahi Khouri, photo by Natacha Larnaud)

 

The reason for our spontaneous shift was instability in the region. This Sunday, two Israelis were killed and one injured at Ariel Junction, a transportation hub for Ariel, a West Bank settlement. The suspect, 20-year-old Omar Abu Lila, had remained at large until he was killed by Israeli soldiers—along with two other Palestinians in the area.

Khalil made some quick calls, and soon we had a new plan for the morning: a trip to Ramallah, a bustling Palestinian city in the central West Bank, and a stop in Taybeh, the only entirely Christian town left in the Holy Land.

We sped between lush green plains, the white minarets of Palestinian village mosques rising in the background. Vehicles with green and white license plates, Palestinian cars, zipped past us on a parallel highway. Our road allowed Israeli cars only.

When we reached the checkpoint going into Ramallah, traffic snarled around a roundabout bloated with cars, Arabic ads for clothing stores and apartment buildings plastered on a wall by the roadside. Yasser Arafat, former president of the Palestinian Authority, and Marwan Barghouti, a Palestinian leader imprisoned for killing Israelis, stared out at us, their faces spray-painted on the cement barrier separating Ramallah from Jerusalem. Khalil pointed out Qalandiya Refugee Camp on our right.

After the slow crawl of traffic through shop-laden streets, we found ourselves outside a shiny, red building emblazoned with a familiar insignia – Coca-Cola. In a bright conference room, we met Palestinian entrepreneur Zahi Khouri, founder of the Palestinian National Beverage Company, which has a license for the Coca-Cola franchise. Khouri described fleeing his home as a 10 year old in 1948 and shared his experience building his business in the Palestinian territories.

Khouri has strong religious roots in the region. His great grandfather headed the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem before moving to Jaffa, where Khouri was eventually born.

He doesn’t think religion is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – though he does see a “Judeo-Christian struggle,” a tension between churches and the Israeli government over taxes and land acquisition. But before the state of Israel, Jews and Arabs in Palestine had “enormous common interest, common culture,” he said.

Khouri has taken part in multiple interfaith initiatives with other entrepreneurs, like “Break the Impasse,” with mixed results.

“It ended up going nowhere because, frankly, I felt the Israelis didn’t have the guts to push their leaders toward a two-state [solution],” he said.

For Khouri, bringing the National Beverage Company to Palestine wasn’t just a business venture. It was an attempt to uplift his community.

“I thought, ‘I have to open a business that puts Palestine on the map,’” he said.

Now the National Beverage Company employs about 900 people in total. It’s the largest employer in Gaza, since it opened a branch there four years ago, he said.

It’s important to him to keep young, educated Palestinians in the region.

“I consider brain drain our biggest problem, not occupation,” he said.

(The Coca Cola headquarters. Photo courtesy of Sara Weissman.)

Back on the bus, we headed toward Taybeh, famously Jesus’s last stop before his crucifixion in Jerusalem. But again, we had to change our plans. Outside the checkpoint we intended to pass through to leave Ramallah, people were gathering. One woman in a blue hijab carried a tire. A Palestinian flag waved atop a cement pillar across the street. It was clear there would soon be a protest there. Our bus driver turned around and found another route out of the city.

After passing several church steeples, we dismounted the bus and found a steaming lunch spread waiting for us at Taybeh Golden Hotel. There, Dr. Maria Khoury – who manages public relations for the hotel, Taybeh winery, and Taybeh beer – greeted us warmly with shot glasses of local Palestinian wine.

Khoury talked to us as we helped ourselves to Palestinian classics like maqluba, a fried vegetable and rice dish, and mujaddara, spiced lentils.

She told us Taybeh existed 3,000 years before Jesus was born, and the name of the village “Taybeh” means “good” or “delicious” in Arabic. She and her husband decided his hometown was the perfect name for their family-owned winery and microbrewery.

Like Zahi Khouri, she hopes her businesses will bring commerce to the area. In 2005, 50 percent of the town was unemployed, she said. But Taybeh Beer’s annual Oktober Fest event draws people to the village and encourages them to buy local products like honeys and soaps.

Khouri also hopes to show people the beauty of “the last little Christian stronghold.”

“It’s not all bloodshed and violence like my friends see on TV,” she said. “We’re a peaceful village here.”

Born Greek Orthodox, Khoury feels blessed to live in Taybeh.

“I live here by the grace of God,” she said.

Toward evening, we arrived in Bethlehem.

(Top image: Near Qalandia checkpoint. Courtesy of Sara Weissman.)


Day #3, Part II: Beit Jann

BEIT JANN -- After lunch in Nazareth, our bus started driving further into the hills of Galilee. Our first stop was in Cana, where Jesus is said to have performed his first miracle, turning water into wine at a wedding celebration.

 

Sister Karen received us in Kafr Kana, at a Christian school teaching English, Hebrew, and Arabic to children from three to 13 years-old. Originally, Sister Karen comes from New Jersey. It’s her eighth year in Israel. Prior to teaching English, she spent a year on the Mount of the Beatitudes. Here, she enjoyed discovering a new culture. “Here, wedding receptions last for almost a week,” laughed Sister Karen. “That’s maybe why they ran out of wine!”

 

Back on the road, our bus wove into the heart of the Galilean hills strewed with olive and pomegranate trees, to the Druze village of Beit Jann. As we enjoyed the spectacular views, Ophir recalled the early history of Jewish inhabitants in the Holy Land. Back at the time of the Roman Empire, the Jewish Zenati family settled in a few villages of Upper Galilee. The Jewish community was numerically insignificant, but it has a symbolic representation of the continuity of Jewish demography in Israel.

 

Today, Beit Jann is home to another religious community that faced persecution in the Middle East: the Druze and their estimated 140,000 adherents in Israel. There, Sheikh Jamil Khatib, a prominent faith leader from the Druze community, welcomed us in his wood-paneled living room overlooking a Galilean valley bathed in a picturesque sunset.

 

“The encounter between people make them closer together,” said Sheikh Khatib. “And for us to develop honor, respect, warmth, and love.”

 

The leader of the Druze community and Beit Jann native explained to our group how the Druze faith developed in a strong commitment to monotheism while respecting all the prophets and other religions. The community is divided into two segments of worshippers: the religious, who are the only worshippers who have exclusive to the holy texts, unlike the secular, or the uninitiated, freer in their daily practices.

 

Sheikh Khatib explained that Druze ceremonies and traditions are unique. One does not convert to the Druze faith, but can only be born in a Druze family. It takes three months for a believer to become a religious leader, who represent role models for the whole community. The role of these leaders is crucial to pass on the traditions and keep the religion alive. Sheikh Khatib’s grey mustache revealed a proud smile as he mentioned that unlike other religions, no Druze leader had ever been accused nor convicted of crimes of some sort. “He who is heroic can control his impulses and let his values guide him,” said the sheikh, quoting a rabbinic saying.

 

( Photo Courtesy of Natacha Larnaud)

We were presented with the diverse symbols of the faith, such as the colors of the flag and the faith’s main leader, Sheikh Amin Tarif, whose portraits were hanged in almost every corner of the living room. The flag of the state of Israel hangs proudly near the Druze symbols. Outside of honor and religion, the attachment to the land is the third fundamental value of the Druze faith, and tradition requires them to remain loyal to the state of the land they inhabit.

 

Our discussion was interrupted by Sheikh Khatib’s wife Ibtisam - meaning “smile,” in Arabic- and the rest of the family who brought food platters for us to enjoy Druze food. Stuffed grape leaves and zucchinis, rice and lentils dishes, home-made bread and hand-picked vegetables salad: obviously reputedly the best food in the region.

 

After we unabashedly helped ourselves to more food, dinner was followed by a discussion with Sawsan Kheir, a double Ph.D. candidate at Haifa University and Abo Akademi University in Finland, working on the evolution of Druze and Muslim communities in Israel.

 

Kheir walked us through her research on how the Druze youth has been slowly turning away from religion as they progressively open up to a more Westernized environment, with access to social media and other cultures influencing their identity.

 

But deep inside, Kheir explained, the Druze maintain a profound sense of spirituality and remain proud of their identity. Even if Israeli Druzes are prevented from connecting closely with their Lebanese and Syrian neighbors, they support each other and believe that they form one community. “Keeping this brotherhood is fundamental to us,” said Kheir. “There is this spiritual connection, this mutual help that unites us.”