A Pilgrimage (of Many Sorts) to Israel

I’ve been in Jerusalem for the last two weeks and will be here for the rest of January. I’m taking a course through my seminary on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in Israel, and then will be traveling on my own for a week. I’ve come to the Holy Land with two goals. First, to experience the story of Jesus in a whole new way by walking in his footsteps. Second, to delve deeper into the Israeli/Palestinian conflict by seeing it for myself. What I’m discovering, however, is that these two goals are more inextricably woven together than I had previously thought.

Thousands of people pilgrimage every day to Bethlehem where Jesus was born. The same is true for Galilee, where he performed miracles, and Jerusalem, where he was crucified. Yet to truly walk in the footsteps of Jesus means more than simply visiting the places he lived. It means walking in the way of Jesus – living the way he did and being about what he was about. Following the Via Dolorosa must include appropriating Jesus’ concern and passion for justice to our own times…and that’s why I find it impossible to stand by and do nothing while Palestinians are being oppressed.

The history of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is highly complex and complicated. Both sides have committed injustices against the other and both are responsible for much bloodshed. Yet there’s no skirting the fact that the creation of Israel in 1948 went hand in hand with the destruction of more than 400 Palestinian villages. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced to become refugees and exiled from their land, never to return.

In the aftermath of the 1967 War, Israel grabbed even more land. Their expansion continues today through Israeli settlers taking over more Palestinian territory despite this being against international laws. In a meeting in 1998, then Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon gave his fellow Israelis this advice: “Everybody has to move, run and grab as many hilltops as they can to enlarge the settlements because everything we take now will stay ours. Everything we don’t grab will go to them.”

It’s quite obvious after being here that Israel is trying to create a situation on the ground (the 149 Israeli settlements and 100 outposts) that makes it impossible for a future Palestinian state to be formed.

We Need Bridges, Not Walls

I’ve sat with Palestinian refugees and listened to their stories. I’ve shared meals in their homes and heard what it’s like to live under Israeli military occupation. And I’ve seen firsthand the myriad of ways that Israel’s government makes life difficult for the Palestinian people.

Take for example the giant wall – 26 feet high in some places – that Israel built to separate itself from the West Bank. Eighty percent of the wall is built on Palestinian land; it’s simply one more way to grab land. The Israeli government claims the wall is for “security,” yet has nothing to say to the thousands of Palestinians that are now separated from their families and workplaces. It’s no wonder that posters at protests say, “Open your eyes, this is apartheid!”

On this particular day (pictured below), I waited nearly an hour when returning from visiting friends in the West Bank. Every morning, 2,000 Palestinians have to get through this checkpoint in Bethlehem. (There are 46 other checkpoints in Palestinian territory.)
Banksy, a British graffiti artist whose identity remains unknown, has been one of my favorite graffiti artists for a while. His concealed identity is one more reason I like him; it’s the exact opposite of artist-celebrity-stardom like that of Andy Warhol. His paintings are done mainly with stencils and are filled with political satire and social critique.

In 2006, he created a series of nine pieces on the wall separating the West Bank, and I’ve been able to track down most of them while here. These murals are poignant commentary on the ethics of wall-building and the plight of the Palestinians.
He later issued this statement on his website: “The segregation wall is a disgrace…The possibility I find exciting is you could turn the world’s most invasive and degrading structure into the world’s longest gallery of free speech and bad art.”

Banksy also offered two snippets of conversations with an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian who happened upon him while he was in the process of creating the graffiti art on the separation wall.

Soldier: WTF are you doing?
Me: You’ll have to wait til it’s finished
Soldier (to colleagues): Safety’s off

The conversation with the old Palestinian man didn’t go much better.
Old man: You paint the wall, you make it look beautiful.
Me: Thanks
Old man: We don’t want it to be beautiful, we hate this wall, go home.

As my friend Mary Knapp says, “Art cannot make the ugly beautiful, only more interesting or tolerable.”

Collective Responsibility

As Americans, we’re deeply enmeshed in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict whether we want to be or not. Israel’s military – the fourth most powerful in the world – is largely funded by U.S. tax dollars. One quarter of all foreign aid given away each year by the United States goes to Israel, almost all of which is then spent on the nation’s army. We’re fooling ourselves if we think this is just an issue of “those people over there in the Middle East.” Woven into the fabric of this conflict are the stars and stripes of our own flag.

Furthermore, many Christian leaders in America pour fuel on the flames of this strife by giving theological justification for Israel’s unmitigated military might. They grossly misinterpret the promises of the Bible to demand that the Jews be given the land regardless of generations of Palestinians who have been living there.

These theologians and preachers fail to realize that Jesus’ mission has to do not with taking over the Holy Land and pushing others out, but with bringing the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. No theology can call itself “Christian” while legitimizing the ethnic cleansing and displacement of people groups.

I have many Jewish friends back home, and I’ve met some wonderful Jews while here. In fact, I had lunch today with two rabbis-in-training. My issue is not with Jews but with the occupation and expansion. As the Palestinian theologian Naim Ateek has said, “I am not pro- this people or that. I am pro-justice, pro-freedom. I am anti-injustice, anti-oppression.”

Anti-Semitism has been called the world’s longest hatred, and it’s still very real today. I have much concern for the Jewish people – and that’s one more reason I must speak out against the Israeli occupation and treatment of the Palestinians. Israel is surrounded by Arab countries, and the more the conflict escalates, the more endangered Israel’s future becomes.

Here are the words of Israeli peace activist Gila Svirsky: “We cannot be a light unto the nations while we are still an occupying power. If you really care deeply about Israel, you’ll care about its soul, and it soul is being eaten away by the occupation. So if you want to be a really good friend of Israel, end the occupation.”
As an undergraduate, I studied with the Jewish theologian Marc Ellis. In a recent book on Jewish identity and the State of Israel, he writes, “In the truth of potential mutual destruction are the seeds of possibility and the hope of moving into an engaged struggle on behalf of the history of the Jewish and the Palestinian peoples. To seek to escape such destruction is not weakness, lack of political maturity, or even self-hate; it is a call to use power morally.”

A Toast to Dr. King

I felt it fitting to post this entry on the day we celebrate and honor our nation’s greatest public prophet. Martin Luther King, Jr., aroused a whole country’s conscience with his tenacious spirit and acts of civil disobedience. One of the reasons King has been a hero of mine (my first post on this blog was dedicated to him) is that his ministry was a combination of resistance and reconciliation. Involved in both the civil rights movement and the peace movement, Dr. King understood that there can be no peace without justice, and no justice without peace.

I think if Dr. King were around today, he would have much to say about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict – and America’s role in all of it – for he believed in the indivisibility of justice, meaning that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He wouldn’t be able to stay silent as long as Palestinians are deprived of their basic human rights and treated as second-class citizens.

A few days ago I took part in a protest against Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem. The Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood has been historically an Arab area, but over the last two years the Israeli government has evicted most of the Palestinian families living there and allowed Israeli settlers to take their place. Though the United Nations has condemned these actions, the government refuses to give the Palestinians back their homes.

Toward the beginning of the protest, a reporter from an Italian newspaper asked if she could interview me. She wanted to know why an American was protesting on behalf of Palestinians. I told her that despite the complexity of the conflict, I think it’s clear that there’s an apartheid taking place in this land. Israel has all the power here and needs to be held accountable for how it uses that power, and that’s why I’ve come out today – to have solidarity with my Palestinian sisters and brothers, and to let the Israeli government know that the whole world is watching.

As the protest went on, a large group of Israeli policemen – who looked no different from Israeli soldiers – began to gather across the street. Though our protest was of a nonviolent, peaceful nature, they announced on a megaphone that we had five minutes to disperse before they would start using force. The video below shows what took place a few minutes later.

At their sergeant’s command, the policemen rushed across the street and began arresting protesters and shoving them into a van. In the end, 15 people were arrested, including Hagai Elad, the director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. None of the internationals were arrested. I think Dr. King would be pleased that nonviolent acts of civil disobedience are exposing the unjust and inhumane policies of the Israeli government.

I also want to say a word about the Kairos Palestine Document that was drafted in Bethlehem last month by a group of Palestinian theologians. The twelve-page document deserves to be mentioned in this discussion of King’s legacy, for it resembles in many ways the “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” The Document states boldly that the Israeli occupation is a sin against God. Here is the quote in full:

“We also declare that the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land is a sin against God and humanity because it deprives the Palestinians of their basic human rights, bestowed by God. It distorts the image of God in the Israeli who has become an occupier just as it distorts this image in the Palestinian living under occupation.”

Christians around the globe, not least those in America, would do well to sit down and read slowly through the Kairos Document. Perhaps you’ll send it to your small group and your pastor. I’d encourage you to discuss it with your friends, especially point six titled, “Our word to the Churches of the world.” Henry David Thoreau said that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.

Continuing the Pilgrimage

My pilgrimage to the Holy Land has only begun. I plan on continuing to learn from the enduring resilience and faith of the Palestinians long after I’ve returned home. I also want to keep dialogue open with the Israelis I’ve met, and try to see the situation from their perspective. And I hope to create more nonviolent ways to continue protesting, and to develop personal and corporate practices (such as divestment and boycotting Israeli products) that oppose the oppressive occupation.

This is what it means for me to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and carry his message forward. It’s a grave mistake to separate the spiritual and the political when reading the Gospel stories, and it’s equally a mistake to separate the spiritual and the social responsibilities that come with following Jesus today in a world ridden with strife and injustice.

And let me add that a pilgrimage to Israel ought to include weeping over Jerusalem as Christ did, weeping both for the pain and misery of the Palestinians and the constant fear that the Israelis live in.

As long as the Israeli government fragments the West Bank (through settlements and discriminatory policies) in a concerted effort to eventually expel all Palestinians from its borders, we must protest, resist, and struggle on behalf of our Palestinian sisters and brothers. I’ll leave Dr. King to close us with a benediction.