Day 3: Baptisms in the Jordan and the View From an Israeli Settlement

In the trusty hands of Zaki, our driver from East Jerusalem, we loaded into our big blue bus and departed Nazareth for a drive through the Jordan Valley toward Bethlehem.

In stop-and-go traffic, under a milky sky, we passed through rolling hills, a rainbow of greens, browns and purples, as we made our way to the West Bank and its Israeli-occupied settlements, which are illegal under international law. 

The falling rain around us was an expression of the melancholy that professor Ari Goldman said he felt leaving Nazareth. To lift our spirits, he led the Hebrew song “Boker,” (or “morning” in English), our daily routine. “Morning comes, it’s time to work,” we all chimed in, finishing the lyrics.

We cut through the north of Israel, arriving at another place important to Christian pilgrims — the site on the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, as recounted in the New Testament. 

Sabri, an archeologist and guide, said baptism here is a ritual of purification and a way of entering the community for many worshippers. For those who have been previously baptized, it is a renewal and recommitment to their faith.

A cheer rang out from a crowd of pilgrims as a young girl burst from the water, eyes closed, waves rippling from her body and water cascading down her face. Some pilgrims tentatively dipped just their hands into the cool murky water. Another woman filled up plastic bottles of the water Christians believe to be holy. She’ll take them home and boil the water to use in future rituals. 

Sabri’s wife, Abeer Mashni, a Palestinian from East Jerusalem, has strong views about the site. For her, it's a symbol of “refugees, borders, families separated and occupation." Standing nearby are heavily armed, green-clad Israeli soldiers — the Israeli Defense Forces keep watch over the Jordan border, just about halfway across the site, separated by a floating rope. “We need to see religion in political context,” she said.  

We then drove to nearby Jericho for a quick lunch of hummus, pita and grilled meats, passing a large red sign. “The Entrance for Israeli Citizens is Forbidden, Dangerous to Your Lives and Is Against The Israeli Law,” it warned. 

Leaving Jericho, adjunct professor Greg Khalil directed our attention to the Russian compound atop the Mount of the Olives, to orient us to Jeruselem proper on our drive to Efrat, an Israeli settlement. Among the buildings, there's one particularly notable distinction between the Palestinian villages and the Israeli settlements which populate the West Bank. Sitting on Palestinian roofs are black and white water tanks—residents' limited source of running water, which is subject to running dry. Israel controls 85 percent of the water in the West Bank, with control over licensing and distribution. It's a distinct difference from settlements with flowing running water and no visible tanks. 

We walked through an open door at settler Sara Tesler’s house in Efrat. A grand entrance hall led into a large living room, where a semicircle of chairs were pushed together to join two sofas into a circle. A panoramic glass window stretched around two sides of the living/dining room. Tesler highlights the view of hilly landscape, two neighboring settlements and the Israeli wall. In the middle is a small patch of olive trees. Tesler doesn’t hesitate to tell us that the landscape is Palestinian land and that she, her family and her community are not allowed to go there. 

The view from Efrat

Seven years ago Tesler made the decision to move her family from New York to Efrat. “I had this feeling that in America I was watching Jewish history unfold," she said. "Here, I am part of it." She took leave from the school she worked at in Riverdale and originally planned to spend ten months living in Efrat. Her family never left. 

Tesler and her neighbor Kally Kislowicz told us we could ask them whatever we wanted; they assured us they wouldn’t be offended. Student Anvita Patwardhan asked what they would like the media to better represent about settler life. “I’d like to see the settler side humanized a little better,” she responded, adding that she’d prefer articles focusing on positive relationships being built among settlers and Palestinians. 

Tesler said she had Palestinian friends from the neighboring villages. She was quick to tell us of her Palestinian carpenter whom she sees regularly. We asked whether she would be friends with Palestinians who are not supportive of her viewpoint. To this, she said no. “I would be too scared.” She said also never drives into Palestinian areas, noting she would never drive into Jericho. She takes detours to avoid interactions that make her anxious. 

Tesler shared her views on the Israeli army. “They are portrayed as bloodthirsty and aggressive,” she said. She knows many of them personally and thinks the army should be humanized. More than 170 Palestinian civilians, including at least 30 children, were killed across the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem in IDF-led raids last year. 

Two of Tesler’s teenage daughters drifted in and out of the living room to join the conversation. One of them begins her military service in two years. While there are a few exceptions, military service is compulsory for both Israeli males and females beginning at the age of 18. Tesler pictures her daughter waiting at a bus stop wearing her army uniform and is anxious for her safety, saying this would make her a target. Kislowicz has three sons who will all be going through the military in the coming years. “It’s going to be a big part of our lives,” she said. They are both grateful Israel has power. 

Aromas of the family’s dinner floated into the living room, signaling the time for us to leave. As we drove away, the volume rose on the bus as conversation broke out.