Sunday, July 18, 2010

Week 31: Jerusalem

At Gethsemane a small grove of olive trees have been preserved with some, like the one featured here, now over 2,000 years old. This tree may well have known Jesus, as he prayed for guidance at this place prior to giving himself up for arrest and crucifixion. It has seen the passage of time from Roman rule, to the Byzantinian period, thru the Crusades, to Islamic rule and the Turkish Empire, thru the British, Jordanian, and Israeli rulers of the past 100 years.

For me this tree in the olive grove next to Church of Gethsemane has a spiritual significance beyond any other location Kris and I visited in Jerusalem during our seven days there. Sites holy to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are present throughout Old Jerusalem, as well as just outside the historic city walls. There is the Dome of the Rock (where Abraham is said to have been willing to sacrifice his son about 4,000 years ago), the Western Wall (what remains of the Second Jewish Temple, destroyed by the Romans in AD 70), the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (built on the location where tradition says Jesus was both crucified and was buried), and the Al-Aqsa Mosque (the third most holy place in Islam, after Mecca and Medina -- nearby the Dome of the Rock where Mohamed is believed to have been raised into heaven). Kris and I visited these places and many more, especially sites associated with Jesus` Stations of the Cross and his mother Mary (who, according to Orthodox Christians, has her remains at Mary`s Tomb). While the historical accuracy of many locations is questionable (the site said to be where the Last Supper occurred was located just above King David`s Tomb), the faith of believers is very real.

Sadly, this faith has made Jerusalem a battleground for centuries, with soldiers on the streets of the Old City even today. As told by excellent displays at the Museum at David`s Tower, Jerusalem has been destroyed six times and rebuilt seven. The blood of the innocent is everywhere -- shed, for example, by Christian Crusaders who conquered the city and slaughtered every Jewish and Muslim man, woman, and child while celebrating their victory. No such extreme brutality has been ever been manifest under either Islamic or Jewish rule. What might Jesus (with his message of suffering love) have to say about that? If we take a little time to ask the old olive tree, I think we can hear an answer....

Today over 80% of Old Jerusalem (within the walls) is Palestinian Muslim, with Jewish immigrants forming a majority of the population in the areas of the city built since the 1860s. These Muslims, as well as those residing in East Jerusalem, are in territory occupied militarily by Israel since the 1967 War. No nation (other than Israel) recognizes this occupation as legal under international law (though both major parties in the U.S. consistently support it with military aid that has now reached record levels). Soldiers armed with automatic rifles are stationed throughout the Old City, but not elsewhere in Jerusalem: Here the Muslims are seen as an ongoing security threat. Although they were allowed to remain after the 1967 War (and were even given Israel citizenship), not one Muslim I spoke with on the streets will vote, and all call themselves Palestinian (not Israeli).

Zahir, our Muslim guide while visiting Mt. Moriah (The Temple Mount which includes the Western Wall and Al Aqsa Mosque), showed us the bullet holes in the Dome of the Rock (sacred to all three religions) made as Israeli soldiers entered the holy place in 1967 killing many who had taken refuge there. With our own eyes Kris and I then observed armed Israeli soldiers enter the Dome (now a mosque), completely violating its sanctuary even now. Witnessing this intrusion, Zahir went on to tell us how he, as a Muslim of under 50 years of age, is not allowed to worship inside Dome. Prior to the year 2000, Muslim policy allowed Christians and Jews to freely enter this site that is sacred also to their faiths. Israeli state policy now limits entry to the Dome by anyone they choose to exclude, including all tourists, Christians, and Jews. Any complaint can lead to arrest and detention without trial.

Random conversations with Israeli soldiers and many others continue to blame such policies on security concerns caused by terrorism. They often see Zionism (which requires Israel to be a majority Jewish state with its capital a united Jerusalem) as the only protection against an historically hostile world. I am reminded of an aspiring actor on a bus who told Kris and I that even the United Nations supports the terrorists. This otherwise very rational person would agree with the man I talked to while he played with his dog: ``the entire world is critical of us, and the whole world is wrong``. The roots of such statements run deep into the anti-antisemitism of Crusaders who labeled Jews as Christ killers, the pogroms common through hundreds of years in Europe and Russia, and could be easily felt by Kris and I as we walked through the Holocaust Cellar (near the Tomb of David) where pictures abound of Nazi brutality and one can see soap made from the bodies of those exterminated in German concentration camps.

At Ecce Homo (a former Franciscan convent where we stayed in Jerusalem), a conversation over dinner one night might also provide insight. ``Ecce Homo`` refers to a statement made by Pontius Pilot (at this location long ago) in which he presented Jesus to those present by saying ``Behold the Man``. Catherine (a black woman from Cameroon now living in Atlanta) observed how unkind mankind is – and that is just the way it IS. I responding by asking whether what ``is`` always ought to be. Aisha (a civilian employee of U. S. Department of Defense working with the Air Force) felt that there must be a better way of resolving problems than by always returning violence for violence. Following a discussion with references to Jesus, Gandhi, and Buddha, I then invited all at the table to join Kris and I as we were to say goodbye to our friends in Bethlehem the next day.

Only Aisha came with us to see the folks at Wi`Am (a Palestinian Center for Conflict Resolution referred to my accounts of earlier weeks). While we were able to share briefly with Hope, most other folks at Wi`Am were bust elsewhere that day. Yet Mazin Qumsiyeh (a U.S. citizen born in Bethlehem) and his wife Jesse (a native of Taiwan who met Mazin while both were students at Texas Tech) were there. I had arranged, by email, to see them as they had just returned from speaking engagements in Europe relating to Palestinian human rights concerns. What was expected to be an hour at most turned into three, as Mazin took us on a tour of Bethlehem which included where he works in the Science Department at the University, as well as where he was arrested while seeking to block an Israeli bulldozer (in an area where The Wall continues to be built.

We observed the construction workers using heavy equipment where homes had been cleared (a practice which has been publicly proclaimed to be on moratorium), and he showed us a detailed map of the area which shows how The Wall literally surrounds pockets of land for future annexation to Israel (as a buffer area intended to protect their hold over Jerusalem). While only Aisha was shocked by what she saw, the reality of seeing more of what we had known about still impact Kris and I. There is the Muslim home, being surrounded by fence and The Wall on all sides (clearly conveying the message to MOVE OUT). There is the barren land where only a few olive trees remain of the bounty that once was. There is The Wall, symbolic of what IS but showing no indication of what OUGHT TO BE.

As first posted, this entry neglected to mention that my birthday was celebrated in Jerusalem (on July 11th). Ought THAT to be?! At age 30, I never thought I would make it to 60 – yet here I 61. Kris and I attended church in the morning with an Armenian congregation totaling 7 people (and Kris was asked to do some of the readings)! In the afternoon we were joined by Laura, Ryan, and Hope (from Wi`am) and they treated us to a very pleasant dinner out! My late evening was spent watching the World Cup Final soccer game with about 20 people crowded around a small TV outside a Palestinian drinking spot with me sitting between a Polish national (fan of Spain) and a Norwegian (fan of the Netherlands). Sipping mango juice and not caring much about the game outcome, my attention focused more on those around me: internationals from 5 nations, Muslim Palestinians bitter about the occupation, Zionist Jews dressed in distinctive black coats, and even three Israeli soldiers with their machine guns hanging loose. Although a full picture of a peace will not likely come in my lifetime, this day certainly provided glimpses of what is possible when people put differences aside and show the humanity that is theirs in common.

As Kristine and I have now departed to Egypt from what should be a more holy land. We have journeyed the length of the land and seen where Jesus taught his message of love. We walked on via Dolorosa (the route where Jesus carried his cross), and have seen how his pain continues in the lives of those being judged and punished today. Perhaps it would be well for us all to consider both what IS and what OUGHT TO BE. What would Jesus have us do? Perhaps listening to the old olive tree may still be helpful?

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