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 #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 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.”

 


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.