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

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 #4, Part II : Shilo

The second part of our day began with a half hour drive through rocky green hills to Shilo, an isolated Israeli settlement 28 miles north of Jerusalem.

Flanked by Israeli flags, our bus moved slowly up a hill, turning right at a brown welcome sign that read, “Ancient Shilo,” a historical site believed to be the resting place of the tabernacle before the establishment of the Jewish temple.

Today, the settlement lies adjacent to the ancient city, and is home to approximately 400 hundred Israeli families. It’s also part of what’s known as “Area C,” a section of the West Bank under Israeli security and civilian control.

After entering the settlement, we followed the green Hebrew road signs filled with biblical echoes, strode past an empty children’s playground and an array of bright yellow sunflowers to meet Rabbi Dov Berkowitz, a resident of Shilo. The gray-bearded rabbi, who has spent time in Manhattan near Columbia University, now calls this settlement his home.

He led us across the brown tile floors of his house, and we joined him in a circle across the living room.

As he spoke, noises from the nearby kitchen filtered across the room. The rabbi’s wife, Tzippi, swiftly chopped white onions, preparing food - from toasted granola, chickpeas, to vegetable soup - for the upcoming Purim celebrations. During Purim, it’s custom to give food to family and friends, Tzippi said. It’s something she often does here in Shilo, and even in Jerusalem.

Downstairs, the rabbi spoke candidly about his journey to the settlement. Stroking his beard, he recollected memories of his first visit, a Shabbat experience in the town. “We loved the people,” he said. It was not ideological – at first. But then, the Palestinian uprising known as the first Intifada happened 1987-1993.

He remembered Molotov cocktails damaging settler cars during the uprising. “Nothing like that had ever happened,” he said. The period took him through a moment of “re-organizing” his mindset, “Zionism is many things, but the bottom line of Zionism is the Jewish people came to Israel not to be killed.”

But in Shilo, settler motivations are mainly religious. “This is ground zero of the promised land,” said Ophir Yarden, referring to the historical Judea and Samaria promised to the Israelites in the Torah, the Jewish sacred text. And according to the Rabbi, more and more Israelis are looking to rent space in Shilo.

The rabbi was quick to acknowledge the sensitivity of the settlement issue.  “Settlements do not help the dialogue. Settlements do not bring peace,” he said. But without the Palestinian acceptance of “the state of Israel as a legitimate Jewish state,” he sees an impasse.

(Image of Shilo, public domain)


Day # 3, Part I: Nazareth

TABGHA — From the Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha to the White Mosque in Nazareth, the morning began and ended with song.

As we walked past groups of pilgrims from China and Spain, circling the stone cloisters arranged around an olive tree, a hymn began to ring out from the church. Standing before the altar and the underlying mosaic depicting the miracle of the loaves and fishes, Maria Safir chanted alone.

She sang “Aquí estoy señor,” a Spanish hymn, her voice echoing off of the simple wooden ceiling and the polished stone walls, as her fellow worshipers stood in silent meditation beside her. Outside the church two of our group’s members, Professor Greg Khalil and Radha Dhar, were approached by Chinese pilgrims from Shenzhen, who were eager to meet travelers from different countries. In just a few minutes, we had come face to face with pilgrims — both Christian and not — who had come to Tabgha, known in ancient Greek as Heptapegon, to commemorate this holy Christian site on the Sea of Galilee.

“You may find the pilgrims here as interesting as the church,” said Ophir Yarden, our resident expert, as we discussed the recent influx of Chinese tourists to Israel.

Framed by olive groves and rolling hills beyond Lake Tiberias, Tabgha is a place so quiet that we could barely hear our own voices over the sound of birdsong. In the property beside the church, Paul Nordhausen helps the Benedictine monks run an extensive recreation park for children with special needs.

Standing beside a newly built playground with a carousel equipped for wheelchairs, Paul pointed out that kids of many faiths and backgrounds come to play here together every summer. “From that gate on, it’s only humans coming in here, not Israeli, Palestinian, Christian, Muslim, or Jewish,” he said. “Only human.”

A few years ago, this tranquil peace was shattered by an arson attack on the church by a group of far-right Jewish extremists. While the church has since recovered and been rebuilt with the help of donations from devotees and assistance from the Israeli government, it was a scarring experience.

“I was here in the middle of the night and the church was burning,” said Paul. “It was very difficult, but luckily we had a lot of support.”

As we ended our visit, walking past one of the seven springs that gave Heptapegon its name, we stopped to contemplate what we had learned at the Dalmanutha, a place for prayer and meditation composed of several wooden logs arranged around a rock altar.

Our bus then wound its way above the Sea of Galilee and into the mountains surrounding Nazareth, passing by historic sites like the Megiddo Plain and the Horns of Hattin. As we entered Nazareth, the roadside signs quickly went from Hebrew to Arabic, and traffic choked the road ahead.

After a brief walk through the old city, we reached the Catholic Church of the Annunciation, its wide dome soaring above the narrow streets of central Nazareth. As we entered, I realized that I had forgotten that it was an important day in Christianity: the feast of St. Joseph.

In the cavernous upper basilica, I took a moment to kneel in prayer. In the course of our whirlwind tour of the Holy Land, I had neglected to consider my own connection to the sites we were visiting. Feeling the pull of the dozens of icons of the Virgin Mary, I said a few more Hail Mary prayers for good measure.

As I made the sign of the cross, a Portuguese song rose upwards from the lower basilica, where a group of Brazilian pilgrims was chanting hymns in a small chapel. Soon enough, however, my serenity was interrupted by an oncoming tour group behind me.

After leaving the church we walked to the iconic White Mosque, passing through the meandering lanes of old Nazareth and the city’s central market, where we would attend the midday duhur prayer.

Sheikh Sami Abu Anas welcomed us into the mosque’s courtyard, where we sat down to listen to his discussion of faith in the city of Nazareth. As the largest Arab-majority city in Israel, Nazareth is an important symbol of how several identities which we often consider to be mutually exclusive — Muslim, Palestinian, Israeli, Jewish, Christian — can coexist within a single person.

Worshipper performing his ablutions before prayer at the White Mosque (Photo courtesy of Eleonore Voisard)

Reciting a passage from the Quran, Sheikh Abu Anas stressed that there should be no compulsion in religion. “The solution is dialogue,” he said, recalling the surrender of Nazareth to Israeli forces in 1948. When the mayor of Nazareth, then also the imam of the White Mosque, decided to peacefully surrender, it marked what Abu Anas termed the “first Palestinian recognition of the two-state solution.”

“I don’t have two faces,” he said, looking toward his congregation, which was slowly gathering inside the mosque. “I say the same to my community in the mosque.”

As the call to prayer, or adhan, began to emanate from the speakers, the faithful shuffled into a room inside the mosque. After a brief sermon from Sheikh Abu Anas, all the men in attendance stood to hear the prayer. On each successive chant of allahu akbar, the worshipers bowed their heads, and then knelt on the floor to pray. Then they paused in prayer, their heads close to the ground, before rising to stand again. At the prayer’s conclusion, the rows of congregants slowly retrieved their shoes, exiting the mosque to resume their day.

Even in the relative noise of a city like Nazareth, we were struck by the beauty of the adhan. For the students Jonathan Harounoff, Natacha Larnaud, and Leah Feiger, this was a more personal moment. They all remembered being woken up by the song of the call to prayer in their childhoods in Morocco, Dubai, and Zanzibar. “I felt warmth,” said Leah.