Saturday, June 21, 2014

Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem: Israel vs. Palestine?

I have no idea what kind of solution could bring peace to Israel.

In my last post I described what I heard of the Palestinian case against Israel - and it sounds compelling. The fact that Palestinians have no right to nonviolent protest offends my American sense of right and wrong. Losing homes, checkpoints, no citizenship to those in the West Bank and Gaza strip - or even Palestinians in Jerusalem, armed violence against a mostly unarmed people? Not the greatest rap sheet.

But I cannot forget the long list of crimes the Jews have been victim to. On Wednesday Dr. Yousef of Al Quds University showed us a picture of a woman in the foreground pointing a threatening finger at a unit of Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers through the separation fence. He asked us what the Jews were afraid of?

The Jews are not afraid of an unarmed woman, they are afraid of bombs on their buses and SUDS sent to Tel Aviv. Building codes requires a bomb shelter in every building. Most Palestinians throw rocks, but terrorists do not. People say, "No one here has guns" but terrorists look like any other person in a crowd. This is a guerrilla war. The United States could pull out of Vietnam or Iraq (try to anyway) but can the Jews pull out of Israel?

Where else would they go?

Israel became a state for various reasons, but in large part because of the Holocaust - because 6 million of their people had been systematically killed in Europe. Even today, 70 years later, the population of Jews in the world has not caught up to what it was in the 1930's. Even before that the history of putting Jews into ghettos or forcing them off their land or forcing conversion goes back millennia.

Case in point let's follow the fate of Greek Sephardic Jews. Sephardic Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal around the time Columbus was crossing the blue. Before that there had been a Jewish presence in Spain at least back until Paul the Christian Apostle was making his missionary rounds. They well could have been there since the Assyrian or Babylonia expulsion of the Jews before the common era.

So around 1500 most of the Sephardic Jews resettled around the Mediterranean. One of the most popular places was in the Ottoman Empire, including what is today Northern Greece in the cities of Salonika (Thessaloniki of the New Testament book Thessalonians) and the surrounding areas because there was something of a live and let live style of rule of minorities at the time.

Fast forward to 1943 with the invasion of the Nazis and deportation of 96% of the Jewish population of 50,000 to Auschwitz. In 2000 there were 1,000 Jews in Salonika. Most of the survivors moved to another country - many to Israel.

If Palestinians want the Jews to leave, where are they going to go? Israel is the only home they have ever known. And with a history like that can you blame them for having an effective military? Especially when the people of every country surrounding them doesn't want them here?

But ask most Palestinians or Jews if they want to kick the other out of the country and they'll say "No, I just want peace." Where is the discrepancy?

After speaking with people on both sides, one might conclude that this is a war between the extreme wings that the middle is getting caught in. The extreme Zionists want the Palestinians out and the Jihadists want the Jews out. Both commit violence against the other. We're all left to try to clean up their mess, either diplomatically or with force.

But it seems to me that both villainize the other. They want to stab us when I we walk through their neighborhoods. They are killing our children. I couldn't trust them to keep the peace, they would go right back to pushing us all the way back to the sea. It's striking how identical the two accounts are - the Israeli of the Palestinian and the Palestinian of the Israeli - when you listen to them.

I have to admit, I was initially hopeful when I went to hear from the Palestinian professor and students that I might hear or see something that would make peace plausible. And initially I thought I did hear something. This professor and these students were telling me they wanted peace.

But what happened after crushed all hope I had.

There were eight students in our group that day, three of whom were Jewish, and five Palestinian students from Al Quds University.  The Palestinians decided to spend the afternoon with our group. When we split up to go to different parts of Old Jerusalem, not a single Jewish student spent the afternoon with a Palestinian student.

It's that disconnect that is denying peace. It's still too strong.

The only solution I can see is if more schools like Hand in Hand: Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel to walk through the difficulty of living together as Palestinian and Jew one day at a time, year after year. Making friendships, hearing each others stories, telling each other that our day of catastrophe was my day of freedom.

Unless there are deep personal connections between individuals, until people truly understand the very humanity of one another, I don't believe there will ever be peace in Israel.

On the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict from the View of Palestinians

Before starting this blog, I would like to say that I am neutral on the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict. This blog will state what I have learned from the Palestinians at Al Quds University. I hope to present the Israeli side in another post.

This was a trip to meet with Professor Omar Yousef and some students at Al Quds University in Jerusalem - the only campus of this university in Israel and not the West Bank.

I had never heard the Israeli-Palestinian conflict described from Palestinians themselves before.
Think something as basic as a passport. Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza are legally citizens of no country. They can travel in the West Bank - going through any number of checkpoints - but no where else. Palestinians who live in Jerusalem are considered Residents of Jerusalem. This is a weird hybrid of citizen and Palestinian. They are not Israeli citizens, but can travel freely between Israel and the West Bank. They do have passports - But from Jordan. Even though they may never have set their eyes on Jordan and can access Israeli social benefits such as health care, but they are somehow have a Jordanian passport. But they can only stay Residents of Jerusalem if they agree to keep Jerusalem as the center of their life. If they decide to move to Bethlehem less than 10 km away, they have this status taken away. If they move to another country, same thing.

Then there are complicated zoning systems that only allow Palestinian control of all matters only around their major cities - called A zones, authority over education and administration, but not security or the policy - called B areas, and C areas in the West Bank - which comprises most of it actually - that is entirely controlled by Israel.

The young women said that they dread going through checkpoints. It could take hours. They are usually harassed. One student recounted a story where she was singled out from an entire bus of people, told to come outside and take out every hairpin. She likes putting her hair up in complicated designs, so she may have had 30 hairpins in, but the soldier at the checkpoint wouldn't let the bus go until she took every single one out. This was not an unusual story. A young man said that it would be extremely difficult to go to a medical school that Israel would accredit because the closest one was in the Northern West Bank - several hours of a drive with four separate checkpoints.

Then there are green lines that divide up where Jews and Palestinians can live in the city of Jerusalem, although some Jews live in the Palestinian areas in places they call neighborhoods but Palestinians call settlements. Housing and building codes make it essentially impossible to build new homes in their designated areas, even though their population is growing - so overcrowding is an increasing difficult problem. The zoning and building codes, for whatever reason, do not exist in Israeli controlled areas so expansion is no problem there.

Palestinians - especially young men, live in fear of Jewish interpersonal violence. One Palestinian student said he doesn't go to certain neighborhoods because there is a high likelihood of him being stabbed. 

Palestinians do not have the right to protest, even peacefully. I saw a video-montogue at the Tel Aviv Art Muslim that followed some of the violent interactions between Israelis and Palestinians. During one scene Palestinians came to protest the fence peacefully - they had no weapons, they were throwing no rocks. In fact, one Palestinian's goats had wandered onto the other side of the fence and he wanted to get them back. They peacefully, though illegally, approached the fence and the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) threw tear gas and (possibly) nerve gas at them. They were also shooting - though no one on the Palestinian side even had a weapon. I had heard that during protests the IDF only shot rubber bullets, so when a man was shot in the chest and fell to the ground bleeding I thought they must not be using them. I learned later that "rubber bullets" are actually metal bullets coated in rubber. They are deadly.

When asked if they wanted a peaceful solution with Israel, they said yes, absolutely. When asked what they would compromise, one student said, "What do we have to give? They have taken everything."

Palestinians consider themselves occupied by Israel. When hearing their stories, it wasn't hard to tell why.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Lift Up Your Head Church - A Community of Refugees

Here's is where it begins - in the remains of abandoned buildings in the rough part of Tel Aviv.

Mary Boncher, my professor, and I pulled up a building that didn't look as if it were even in use, none the less the church we were scheduled to visit today for class.

Luckily Pastor Jeremiah was walking in as we arrived. With a warm smile and handshake he introduced himself and beckoned into the building. Up two flights of stairs that were falling apart.
A very strange coincidence. Walking in we saw this notice - a woman from Ghana had passed away this week. Her name was Lily and she died at 25.

I stood there aghast. This Lily had walked by this very spot for the last time this past Saturday and now a student from America, also Lily, also 25 was standing here for the first time.

 And where posters left their remains despite human efforts.
 A new poster giving a glimpse of hope - there might just be life somewhere in this building.
 Then we came to the door. A door typical to Israel, especially in buildings built around the time of the 1967 and Yom Kippur wars. Blast doors.
 And it was like we'd entered a new world.

Roughly 200 people attend this church, with core membership at about 100.  In addition to functioning as a place of worship, the church converts the space into a shelter for homeless individuals, mostly political or economic refugees.

The story of how this Nigerian born pastor came to lead a congregation of immigrants, mostly here illegally but seeking asylum, starts halfway across the world in a town near Los Angeles. He and his wife, at the time pregnant with their first child, had canceled their hotel reservation thinking they could find a better hotel to stay in. It turns out every available room was booked. The pastor even begged to be allowed to stay in the lobby but was told no.

So he and his wife took to the streets, afraid and alone in a foreign country. A man came up to them and asked if they were alright. When they told him their situation, he said that he had a room in one of the nicest hotels in town. He would give them his room for free.

He felt so blessed, so relieved. But for the first time in his life he understood what it was like to be wandering around without a place to sleep. God put it on his heart to help others that were in that situation.

He opened a church in South Tel Aviv, in a building that had been mostly abandoned. A person had gone to a church down the street looking for shelter and they sent the person to Pastor Jeremiah. He took them to an office with storage and a single love seat pull-out couch. To that homeless person, it was a five star hotel.

Today 80-90 people sleep here every night. They are welcome up to three months so they have time to get on their feet before they leave. The pastor said that about 9000 people have taken shelter here since the church opened in 2007.

The service, conducted for people from Nigeria, Eritrea, Kenya, Sudan, South African, and a host of other nations left me, an American with a humbling sense of privilege, humbled and at the same time lifted up. 

The message was "Love, The Mind of God." The love of God, he said is not the Greek love eros, and not philos, either - referring to a love much hard to break, like a marriage. But God is Agape love, unconditional love. Forgive, he admonished. Do not hold onto unforgiveness, but forgive as your God has forgive you. 

Here he is, facing people who have experienced civil war and economic conditions unfathomable to a girl like me, and he is tell them to let go. Don't retaliate, let God take revenge. That's His job. If you hold onto the unforgiveness, that desire to retaliate it will poison you. Instead love unconditionally. "Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love," Pastor Jeremiah left us with (I John 4:8).

After the service Mary and I had the privilege to talk with some of the congregants, most of whom were from Nigeria.  Many were lucky enough to get a Visa that allows them to stay in Israel, but not to work. So they end up taking jobs that pay under the table in horrible conditions. Many work 15-16 hour days in kitchens or restaurants.

When asked if anyone need prayer for something, one woman came up and knelt on the ground. Her son had been imprisoned back in South Sudan - and he was not a criminal, just a Christian. She had been frantically trying to get hold of her two other sons in South Sudan, without being able to reach them.

I will never forget, though, when the Pastor called Mary and I up to introduce us to the congregation. Everyone in the church came up to shake our hands. The men holding our hand in both of theirs like a loving father. Most of the women wrapped us in a hug that felt warmer than I had in a month. Complete strangers who felt not like strangers at all.

Seeing this church, a light in lives filled with so much darkness, made me believe that yes, Prayer Changes Things. 

Monday, June 9, 2014

A Christian in a Jewish Country

Living in Israel has most forcefully made me aware of one thing - the privilege I carry as a Christian in the United States.

My whole life I would go to church on Sunday, my day off from school and work. I had Christmas off and for much of my life Spring Break would align with Easter. It always occurred to me that there were people that didn't celebrate these things, but I never saw any harm in my having the backing of the government via National Holidays and Weekends. If stores were closed on Sunday, I might have been put out at times, but I respected the business's right to practice their religious beliefs - their Christian belief to respect the Sabbath (Sunday) by not working. 

But now I get it.

In Israel, the weekend is on Friday and Saturday, to accommodate Shabbot, the Jewish sabbath beginning at nightfall on Friday and ending nightfall on Saturday. Almost nothing is open on Saturdays - the buses don't even run. This past week was Shavout - Pentecost and for a day and a half it was like Friday night and Saturday again - only in the middle of the week. Children had the week off from school to accommodate the holiday. 

When I first learned this difference in days of the weekend, I was frankly offended. How am I supposed to go to church if I don't have Sunday off? While I have never practiced the Sabbath by abstaining from work, I still feel that it's holy. Even when there are half-marathons or 5Ks on Sunday mornings I always have a twinge of anger - it feels disrespectful that I would have to forgo going to church to attend - something I find deeply important to me. And here Sunday's just another work day. 

But how humbly to turn the tables and think of the Jewish populations in the United States who don't have the same sort of government and societal backing to allow them to honor their holy days. 

We had a speaker who came to talk with our class about their conversion from Protestant Christianity to Orthodox Judaism in New Zealand. Their conversion was a slow process, beginning by practices such as observing Shabbot. Well, this became very difficult - if any of her five children had a sports game on Saturday, they couldn't attend. The availability of kosher products in a country where the closest Synagogue was 2.5 hours away was difficult at best. 

Another Jewish woman, this one in the United States, told me a story about how she had been assigned an important meeting with prospective clients on Yom Kippur - her employer was willing to accommodate her, but not by rescheduling the meeting but by saying that another employee would run the meeting. This would result in my friend potentially losing out on all those accounts. So here's her choices: participate in one of the holiest holidays in her religion and lose major accounts for the future, or not participate and be financially stable. 

That's not much of a choice. 

And it took pulling me out of that position of Christian privilege I held in the United States to truly see it. What other forms of privilege am I completely oblivious to? 

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Adventures in Snail Mail

You'd think going to the post office would be fairly straight forward - boring, really - no matter what country you're in. Or that's what I thought, anyway. I'm used to stamps being offered to me by my friendly cashier at the clean, gigantic Walmart a mile from my house.

Not in Israel. I asked three separate people if they sold stamps. "No, go to this post office - it's a big one." So I go to that post office - corner of Pinkas and Weizmann. It's 13:30. But closed. What the heck? So I decide, oh well, maybe it's just closed today - I'll come another day. Two days later I'm there at 13:15. Closed. I figure, well maybe they close for lunch. I'll come back in an hour. So I walk around Tel Aviv for a full hour. Checking out stores, really just wandering randomly. And show up again at 14:00. Closed. Again. Really?

Now at this point I'm frustrated. I'm thinking they must sell stamps somewhere else. So I'm looking everywhere for the English words "postage" or "stamps." I ask more cashiers. Finally I'm in a cab and a mile away from where my group is dropped off I see a foreign currency exchange that sells stamps! Woo hoo!

Except it's too far away. And I don't want to leave my group. By the time I get a chance to make my way down to the store at 14:50 I can't find it. And besides, it's Shavout - Pentecost in English - at sundown and all the observant Jews close their stores at 15:00 to get ready. Another botched attempt.

Finally I ask one more cashier - there must be another way, I think. So she tells me to go to the same post office. I explain to her that I tried going their twice during the day, not on Shabbot (the sabbath), and they were closed. "Well they are open 8-1 then they reopen from 4-6."


So today at 12:10 I head to the post office. And by the time I arrive at 12:30, it's still open.

So I walk in and everything's in Hebrew, which is normal except that I don't know how this Israeli post office thing works. Is there a machine where I can buy stamps in like in the US? Or do I wait in line? There is no line...just two rows of chairs with people seated here and there.

I see a machine asking me if I want it to talk to me in English or Hebrew. Desperate I click Hebrew. It gives me two options - SMS or General Services. I haven't a clue what SMS is so I go with general services. Then it prints me out a ticket with a number - 318. So if there's a machine for a number, does that mean there's a machine for stamps?

I go up to ask a postal teller. She finds my question rude - "Wait in line with the others."

"Oh, so that's what this ticket means?"

"Wait in line with the others. We call your number."

"Okay, thank you."

So I sit down in the back row, trying to hide my culturally ignorant self. A gentleman with good English turns around and points at a screen.

"It will show you're number there when they are ready for you."

"Oh!" I say. "Thank you. Toda."

So I wait. Then the number after my number comes up and I go to a teller asking if they'll help me, rather alarmed. But she says yes, she'll take me. I give her my letters. She starts putting blue stickers on them and tells me the price. "Oh, wait. If I get 5 more stamps can I mail them out front?" "Yes, you can." "Okay, I'll take 5 extra stamps then."

She hands me a roll of 14 or 15 of the blue stickers. "Take some."

Let me tell you, I don't want to pay for 14 stamps. "Do I just take five?" A little taken aback, she answers yes, that's fine. She tells me the number of shekels I owe her. I give her the money. Then she takes out a sheet of what look like stamps in the US. Counts out ten and gives them to me.

"Put the stamps on for these letters now."

Oh, so I have to have the blue thing and the stamp. And I have to lick the stamp. And I have to do it now, in front of her. Okay. So I do. Then I take my stamps.

Even the simple things are not so simple in the Holy Land.