Servas Israel Tour – Bethlehem, Palestinian Authority, Servas Goodbye, and Evolving Thoughts
CHRISTMAS IN ISRAEL WITH SERVAS
I speak neither Hebrew nor Arabic. I’m neither Jewish nor Muslim. I try to live Quaker concepts: equality, justice, simplicity, service, integrity, pacifism, and seek the light of God within each person. Although Christian, I like Hindu ideas (of karma and an understanding that many paths lead to the top of the mountain) and Buddhist views (of compassion and right work). I graduated from Horton Watkins High School with its about 95% Jewish students; I admire the emphasis on learning. Barry, my husband, comes from a Jewish family. One stepmother was Jewish. I’ve read Anne Frank, Sarah’s Key, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, seen Shindler’s List, . . . and gone to the Holocaust Museum in Frankfort. We have good friends who live in Jerusalem and are Israeli. In other words, I have a pro-Jewish point of view.
But I also love the poetry and stories of Naomi Shihab Nye, whose father was Palestinian and mother American. And we’ve met good people everywhere we’ve traveled. Although the U.S. news about Israel is usually grim, Barry and I were very interested in what we would find as we participated in the Christmas in Israel Servas 2014 Tour.
So what do I think now after my five weeks in Israel?
I’m more conflicted than before. Perhaps a reason it’s taken me so long to write about this great trip (besides being busy) is because much about Israel is complex. Our final day tour with some of the other Servas members was a trip to Bethlehem, controlled by the Palestinian Authority. That day revealed the complexity and contrast in several ways.
The map shows how the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and Gaza are situated within Israel, a country about the size of the U.S. state of New Jersey. Note how the Arab countries of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt border Israel:
Before we went to Bethlehem, we stayed in Jerusalem at the clean, comfortable Eden Hotel, owned by Line, a gracious and efficient Jewish woman; friendly Muslim women cooked our yummy buffet breakfasts. <http://jerusalemhotel.co.il>. Throughout our trip, we experienced many such examples of Jewish/Arab cooperation and interaction within Israel.
We tour members met that Saturday evening to say farewell to our Servas Israeli hosts. For ten days, they had housed and fed us, shared their lives, shown us important historical and religious sites (especially Christian for this Christmas season); we know them as wonderful, generous people. Many of our Israeli hosts and their family members had incredible stories of suffering, survival — and miracles — in order to be alive –and live in Israel.
That night, we all met at a Hand in Hand Bilingual School in Jerusalem, one of the five Hand in Hand schools in Israel: A Center for Jewish Arab Education in Israel. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LXE4ofvd9vk>. Hand in Hand students learn to read and write in both Hebrew and Arabic — and from third grade on, in English, too. The schools are public and open to all children. Besides teaching the languages, the schools are committed to respecting all who live in Israel: “Learning Together, Living Together.” <https://www.handinhandk12.org/inform/our-schools>
The setting was perfect for our Servas interactions, which are to promote peace and understanding around the globe. That night we again enjoyed presentations, games, dancing, and singing. My favorite part was making a necklace from the beads contributed from each of our tour members. There were amber beads from Poland; green beads representing the Belarus flag, pretzel beads, silver bicycles, Jewish flags ….. I love my necklace and the friendships and connections it represents.
Some Servas members arranged the beads by size and shape; I made mine in the order in which I could reach the bowls that held the beads. I added Muslim prayer beads, Buddhist prayer beads, and a Christian Coptic cross so that my necklace connects not only countries but also religions.
The Hand in Hand schools exemplify Jewish/Arab interaction and cooperation. After an act of vandalism at this school, the Hand in Hand children flew a banner pledging continuing Arab & Jewish unity.
Among the other presenters, Barry and I got to share Maui highlights. We hope Servas tour members and our Israeli hosts come visit us.
Again, we’d had another wonderful evening experiencing fellowship together.
Then on Sunday morning, those of us going to Bethlehem met at the hostel where some of the tour members were staying.
Before we left, Manda gave a moving tribute to our Servas 2014 Christmas in Israel organizer – the wonderful Claudia.
Although we had been in Israel, our Servas tour hadn’t gone to Bethlehem for Christmas Eve because, we were told, it would have been even more crowded and chaotic than on other days. And since Bethlehem is under the control of the Palestinian Authority, our Israeli Jewish hosts are not allowed to go there.
We Servas members travelled the six miles (10 km) by public bus and met our Arab Israeli local guide in Bethlehem.
On the bus, we sat across from three friendly, bright Arab boys. They knew a little English and wanted to know where we were all from: Russia, Poland, England, Sweden, U.S., Germany . . . The boys could identify each of us. If the boys are Arab Israeli, they have the same education and health support as the Jewish Israeli children; the Palestinian Arab children under the Palestinian Authority do not have the same opportunities.
In 339 AD, Constantine and his mother St. Helena had a church built above the place of Jesus’ birth.
The Door of Humility, the small rectangular entrance to the church, was created in Ottoman times to prevent carts being driven in by looters and to force even the most important visitor to dismount from his/her horse to enter the holy place. Except for Stepan, the rest of us needed to stoop to enter.
While we waited in our crowded lines, a tour guide screamed across the church nave at another guide, “Don’t cut in line! Wait your turn!”
The other guide yelled back, “We didn’t cut.”
The first guided screamed, “If I’m lying, you can cut off my head!”
Yikes, this is the birthplace of Jesus! Have we learned nothing? We were at one of the holiest religious sites on Earth, and a few people were acting rude and ridiculous. Shocking, actually.
According to the World Heritage site, the Church of the Nativity is managed by the three churches: the Greek Orthodox Church, the Custody of the Holy Land (Roman Catholic), and the Armenian Patriarchate. Now an advisory committee formed by the Palestinian President is involved too. Historically, the three churches that have joint control over the Church of the Nativity have not cooperated with each other. A Huffington Post article written in Dec. 2013 tells of the renovation efforts. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/12/bethlehem-church-of-the-nativity_n_4432606.html. Over a year later, little seems to have been renovated, but it’s the first major renovation in 600 years, so perhaps more has been done than we could see.
The paintings look restored – and beautiful.
Throughout history, this part of the Middle East has had religious significance and people fighting over it. For instance, in 1847, the theft of the silver star marking the exact site of the Nativity was a factor in the international crisis over the Holy Places that ultimately led to the Crimean War (1854–56).
Across from the birth site, a “baby in a manger” marks where Jesus was placed. The replica of baby Jesus must be a popular theft item since it has a cage around it 😦
A Bethlehem shop owner, Mitri, sent a bus for us – and so we went to his souvenir shop in Bethlehem, which offered a good variety of gift items; the payment was in U.S. dollars.
As we were waiting to get back on our bus to return to Jerusalem, someone pointed out that the tire looked bald. The Arab bus driver immediately asked what was wrong and said the tires were just fine.
Earlier, we’d seen 10-year old boys selling gum in the Bethlehem Manger Plaza. One kid asked me for $100 for a pack of Wrigley spearmint! I laughed – but did get a pack – for much less.
The kid is sure to have a great future in sales. But why isn’t he out playing or doing sports?
Some buildings we saw in Bethlehem were dilapidated or boarded up. At the time, Israeli news reported an embargo on concrete into the West Bank and Gaza. The Israelis couldn’t be sure that new shipments of concrete wouldn’t again create tunnels such as those used the previous summer to send Arab fighters and missiles into Israel.
The conflict in July 2014 resulted in many deaths – especially for Palistenian civilians since Israel has the superior missiles and also defense system.
“Amnesty International, which has a number of people on the ground in Gaza and consistently condemns Israeli and Palestinian abuses alike . . .Palestinian armed groups have stored munitions in and fired indiscriminate rockets from residential areas in the Gaza Strip . . . and have also reportedly urged residents in some areas of the Gaza Strip not to leave their homes after Israel had warned it would attack the area, all of which have the effect of putting Palestinians at risk in the fighting.”
The Gaza Strip is a Detroit-sized area on the border with Egypt up against the Mediterranean Sea that is one of the most densely packed places on Earth with 1.8 million people living in just 139 square miles. Technically part of the Palestinian Authority, it has been governed since 2007 by the militant group Hamas.
An Al Jezzera story: http://abcnews.go.com/International/israel-gaza-conflict/story?id=24552237
The Washington Post story tells about the conflicting reports on casualties – the numbers of civilians killed <https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/the-un-says-7-in-10-palestinians-killed-in-gaza-were-civilians-israel->disagrees/2014/08/29/44edc598-2faa-11e4-9b98-848790384093_story.html
The irony is that if the radical Arabs would stop trying to eradicate Jews, and the Israelis wouldn’t retaliate (yet not be killed) all who live there could help each other. The tax rate on everything in Israel is 18%! Much of the money goes to defense. It could go to education and health of all its citizens. The Palestinians are obviously suffering economic hardship.
The situation is complex. If Israel hadn’t had their “Iron Dome” this last summer or if Hamas had not stored muttons and fighters in heavily populated areas, the death rates would have been much altered. Palestinians, many of them children and civilians would not have been killed in the retaliation. This is not a sustainable situation.
I can understand that Jews can’t trust other countries. While we were in Jerusalem, we met recent Jewish immigrants who feel that France is again no longer safe for Jews. Jeffrey Goldberg asks, “Is It Time for the Jews to Leave Europe” in the April 2015 issue of The Atlantic (p. 62-75).
I understand why Israel retaliates against Arab attacks.
And I can see how Palestinian frustration and revenge can work too. The problem is that the few cause trouble for all. Basic religious tenants promote love and peace.
Jewish people need a safe country, and the Palestinians need a safe country too. All want their children to be happy and have opportunities.
As a global community, we must work together and respect each other. Our leaders must find ways to peace beyond bombs. And individually, we can develop inner peace and hold respect for those who are different from us.
I believe that Gandhi is correct: “An eye for an eye makes everyone blind.” The Israeli/Palestinian situation is complex, but surely they can evolve their relationship in sustainable ways to live together in peace.
Whatever your view, the result now is suffering for both sides.
Would we go back to Israel?
Yes, I would love to return to Israel. Next time we would rent our own car and so miss the inconvenience for us of Shabbat.
I would visit Servas hosts everywhere – including Palestinian Servas members in Hebron.
Barry and I would visit Ruth and Danny, Claudia and Shumel, Rohee and Etai, and other wonderful people we met. I’d love to go back to Lotan or do another kibbutz experience. The music festival was great. I want to go when it’s warm enough even for me to swim in the Sea of Galilee. I’d like to bike or hike the Gospel/Jesus Trail from Nazareth to Capernaum <http://www.gospeltrail.com>. And I’d like John to experience the Taglit-Birthright Israel opportunity: http://www.birthrightisrael.com/Pages/Default.aspx.
As poet Elizabeth Alexander says, . . .
With a similar understanding, American/Palestinian poet Naomi Shihab Nye often focuses on the ordinary, on connections between diverse peoples, and on the perspectives of those in other lands. In Hugging the Jukebox, she writes: “We move forward, / confident we were born into a large family, / our brothers cover the earth.” Surely, there is room for all.
Go visit Israel. See for yourself.
“What if the mightiest word is love?” May all beings be happy and free.
Aloha and Shalom,