Israel and Palestine Journal
All Souls Unitarian Church, New York City
January 5-13, 2012
I wrote these journal entries in spare moments—early morning, late at night, in transit—over an intense and tightly scheduled eight-day period. They record impressions, thoughts, and feelings that might have escaped my later recollection.
Thursday (Jan. 5): Tiberias
The sun was just setting on the Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinneret, in contemporary parlance) as Holly and I wended our way down to the shore of the lake from the hills north of Nazareth. It was a lovely descent (the lake is about 650 feet below sea level) into this mystically poignant and densely theologically region – my first visit. It was too late for photos this evening, but stay tuned. We have several days to explore on our own before I join, on Sunday evening, a delegation of leading senior clergy (15 in total) from New York City: Jewish rabbis, Christian rectors and pastors, Muslim imams –and one Unitarian Universalist minister. I'll remain with the delegation for the week.
In the meantime, tomorrow we'll wander up the Mount of Beatitude (supposed site of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount), explore Safed (historical and contemporary center of the form of Jewish mysticism known as Kaballah and, along with Tiberias, Hebron, and Jerusalem, one of four Jewish holy cities), the Golan Heights (a strategically vital overlook occupied by Israel and surrounded by Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan), and, if time permits, a meander through Nazareth (the putative boyhood home of Jesus; though today Nazareth is best known as the largest Arab town in Israel).
I spent a goodly portion of my (Conservative Mennonite) childhood memorizing significant portions of scripture – the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament. I know many of these places by memory; I'm eager to know them by experience. That said, people who live in these regions today aren't reenacting history. They are living their own lives during the days they have been given, as we all do.
Friday (Jan. 6): Mount Beatitude, Safed, the Golan Heights, Nazareth
Today was a disappointing day, weather-wise: intermittently heavy rain for much of the day, and dense fog. But a break in the clouds yielded a dramatic scene over the Sea of Galilee, before our short jaunt around to the north of the lake, where Mount Beatitude rises from the shore. The Mount is most remarkable for being completely unremarkable—a nondescript hill, indifferently tended these days. Which is probably right: assuming Jesus did preach the Sermon on the Mount from here, the commonplace setting would have stood in stark contrast to the opulence of Herod's temple and the patrician aspirations of many of the Jewish leaders of the day. And his words set a moral contrast as well: Blessed are the poor in spirit, Jesus said, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. And so on.
We continued climbing to Safed—located about ten miles north and several thousand feet of elevation above the Sea of Galilee—and into the fog, some of the densest I have ever encountered. While there may be something symbolically appropriate about approaching the acknowledged center of Jewish mysticism in the fog, in practical terms it was less than satisfying. We nosed around for an hour waiting to see if the weather would clear, which it did not. The Old Jewish Quarter—some call it the Old Synagogue Quarter because of the sheer number of synagogues—hosts a vast diversity of temples and teachers. I'll return to Safed sometime to explore and ponder what I think may be some interesting parallels between Kaballah in the Jewish tradition and Transcendentalism in ours. In different ways, both represent something of an inward turn, focusing more on the inner life of the believer and on direct experience of the divine. For this reason, both also tend to look at least occasionally askance at the institutions and common practices that constitute the outer dimension of a life of faith. Anyway, lots to think about.
The Golan Heights in the rain and fog? Not such a good idea. When the weather's not good, you can't see why the region holds such strategic value, with its commanding view of four nations. But you can see how fiercely it has been contested over the years. The battle scars run deep across this spare landscape: today, many fields are fenced by barbed wire and posted with signs warning of live mines, the legacy of battles past. Last stop of the day: Nazareth, a bustling Arab-majority town that doesn't entirely conceal the tension among its Muslims, Christians (the Basilica of the Annunciation, where the angel supposedly appeared to Mary to tell her that she would bear a son by atypical means, dominates the lower town), and Jews. A minor technical difficulty with our rental car kept us in Nazareth past sundown (vigorous pealing of the Basilica bells) and, shortly thereafter, the evening call to prayer (amplified from a mosque adjacent to the Basilica).
Saturday (Jan. 7): the Negev Desert, the Jordanian border, the Dead Sea, Masada
Excellent weather: clear, sunny, and warm. It's also Shabbat, which led to a lesson worth remembering: behind every disappointment lies an opportunity. The technical difficulty with the rental car yesterday required a car exchange today. Since today is Shabbat, all the car rental agencies in Jerusalem are closed, so we needed to return to the Tel Aviv airport to make the exchange. From there, the closest route to Neot Hakikar, below the Dead Sea on the Jordanian border, led us south to Beer Sheva and the across the northernmost part of the Negev Desert. Without the car problem, we'd have missed the Negev entirely, which would have been a shame. This vast landscape is ineffably sublime—a word that applies to experiences (often landscapes) which both inspire us and make us feel trifling and insubstantial by comparison. The ancient people of Israel reportedly wandered in these parts for forty years, looking for a place to call home. According to the story in the Hebrew Bible, God used the experience to put the people of Israel in their place. It worked—for them and for me as well.
After a brief stop in Neot Hakikar, a lush and fertile agricultural outpost along the Jordanian border south of the Dead Sea (everything was closed for Shabbat), the other major stop of the day was Masada: a large, flat, isolated mountaintop where Herod built a spectacularly sited palace refuge (though he never used it) overlooking the Dea Sea in the first century before the Common Era. The site is better known as the place where 967 Jewish rebels, in the final defiant act of the Jewish Revolt against Rome from 66-73 CE, committed suicide rather than submit to the Romans. The Rome siege against Masada lasted two years, during which time nearly a thousand Jews lived in isolation atop the mountain. It's an extraordinary site, with all the elements of a sizeable village, plus extensive storehouses for food and weapons, and cisterns for water. As to their mass suicide, the Jews knew they would die at the hands of the Romans anyway—after suffering horribly. Given the choice, they chose swift death at the hands of their own kin.
Sunday (Jan. 8): The Old City, Yad Vashem, modern Jerusalem
A morning trip up the Mount of Olives to view the Old City of Jerusalem from the east, and then a tour of the Armenian and Jewish Quarters (the other Quarters to come). The Armenians, like their historical and theological first cousins the Mennonites (I grew up Mennonite), mostly keep to themselves; they are the quiet in the land. Otherwise, the land in the Old City is quite noisy and has been for the better part of 3,000 years. That's a long time to play king of the mountain—or king of the Temple Mount, as the case may be. The chronicle of bloody changes in possession of Jerusalem, most of them religiously motivated, is enough to make one altogether wary of religion. This may well be the bloodiest square kilometer of land on the planet.
On the positive side, people in Jerusalem, of whatever religious persuasion, take religion seriously, which means that they practice their religions. Jerusalem vividly illustrates that religion is a way of life practiced by a particular people in a particular way at a particular time in a particular place. All religions necessarily differ. As George Santayana once reminded us, there is no such thing as religion in general, there are only particular religions. To try to practice religion without practicing a particular religion is like trying to speak without speaking a particular language. The diversity of religious practice in Jerusalem is astounding, which is good as far as it goes. Religion goes off the rails—and has done so often here in Jerusalem—when it competes for the title of most true or most right, which has been the typical approach over the centuries. Instead, religions should compete for the title of most relevant to creating a life of meaning and purpose for a particular people, based on everything they know about themselves and the world: religious wisdom inherited from their forbears as well as scientific knowledge of the world they currently occupy.
The incorrigible patriarchy of the religions of the book (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) is on full parade in Jerusalem. And no, separate does not mean equal: the women's doors are smaller, their sections more peripheral, their status clearly subordinate. For the good both of religion and of civilization, this must change. Before we left New York, we met with the Israeli Consul General to the US, and we asked him how we could be useful during our trip. He replied that we should ask about women everywhere we go. His view is that putting women in positions of civic and economic leadership (in my view, this will also require them to be religious leaders) is the key to enabling the Middle East to emerge from its current quagmire. He added that men—on all points of the religious and political map—need to be persuaded to let women use their freedom. Amen.
The experience of Yad Vashem—the museum of the Holocaust—is powerful beyond words or photos. If you visit Israel, don't miss it. It's worth a trip, actually; because until you experience Yad Vashem, it's hard to understand modern Israel, either religiously or politically. Understanding the backdrop behind the creation of a Jewish state doesn't solve all—or maybe any—of the contemporary problems facing the Middle East, but at least it helps explain why Israel acts as it does.
After a tour of some of the older neighborhood of "modern" Jerusalem (founded in the late 19th century), we ended at the Jerusalem market, lavish with fresh produce, spices, and nuts, among other delights. I've become a fan of persimmons.
At dinner tonight (the full delegation of 15 senior religious leaders from NYC has now arrived), Avi Issacharoff, the Correspondent for Middle East Affairs for Ha'aretz (the New York Times of Israel) presented his assessment of the current political situation in the Middle East, with questions and discussion following. A thumbnail sketch of his assessment: the situation in Egypt (the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists) is not good news from Israel's perspective, but it's not yet a disaster; the fall of Assad in Syria would be good news for Israel; the fall of Abdullah in Jordan would be bad news for Israel—but even worse news for Hezbollah and Iran; Iran remains a serious and worrisome threat; the West Bank has made good economic progress in recent years and has become more stable politically; the situation is Gaza has deteriorated under Hamas, politically and economically. On the question of Israeli settlements in Palestinian areas: two-thirds of the 500,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are in settlement blocks that the Palestinians and Israeli have already agreed would remain under Israeli sovereignty in a two-state solution. These are the settlements that the Obama administration has (inexplicably) protested. The remaining third of the settlers live outside these designated blocks; their presence could indeed threaten a two-state solution. His bottom line: he believes it is possible to achieve peace in the Middle East, but probably not with the current Israeli and Palestinian leaders in place. The region needs leaders who have the courage to tell their own people the truth and to meet the other side half way.
Monday (Jan. 9): Religion and Politics in Jerusalem
We began the day at a 7:00 AM breakfast with Rabbi David Rosen, Director of the American Jewish Committee's Department for Inter-Religious Affairs. A vigorous activist and a compelling personality, he's on the leading edge of the progressive movement within Modern Orthodox Judaism. He observed that Israel is a vigorous democracy made up mainly of people who have no inherited tradition of pluralism and democracy. Thus it's not a dialogic society (where we're all searching for truth and can learn from each other) but a monologic society (where I'm right and you can learn from me). Rosen is trying to expand the domain of dialogic conversations about religion—at least in some ways. Near the end of our time together, I observed to him that three women had recently won the Nobel Peace Prize for helping to bring peace and reconciliation in parts of Africa. "Let's say that ten years from now," I continued, "three women—a Jew, a Muslim, and a Christian—win the Nobel Prize for helping bring peace to the Middle East. What will have happened?" His response: "The messianic kingdom will have come." Everyone laughed at his joke; and that was it, for an answer. In other words, such an event it won't happen in this world. The eclipse of women in Jewish, Muslim, and Christian communities in Jerusalem, as in the Middle East generally, continues to appall me.
We then explored the Christian Quarter and visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the supposed site of Jesus' death and burial. The Muslims hold the keys to the church (literally: they open it each morning and close it each night); and various Christian traditions (Greek and Eastern Orthodox, Armenian, and Catholic, among others) have divided the spaces within into exceedingly small spaces and rooms, with rights and privileges assigned to various traditions in various places at various times. One group can pause in front of the place where Jesus died, for example, but they can't pray there. Another can pray there at one time of day, or once a week—but only then. And so on, ad infinitum. This pastiche of practices gets presented as religious cooperation, but it seems more like détente. Members of each group would doubtless like the church for themselves (and some probably think they should have it), but fear that any attempt to increase their share would backfire, leaving them worse off in the end. So everyone puts a happy face on the status quo.
The situation at the Western Wall of the Temple Mount—the most sacred (accessible) site of Judaism—isn't much better. The site is controlled by Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovich, an Orthodox rabbi with whom we met. You can have your bar mitzvah at the Western Wall only if you conform to Orthodox custom. Women have a small and separate section to one side of the wall where they can pray, but only silently; and they cannot read the Torah at the wall. Rabinovich appears to receive as much criticism from the Ultra-Orthodox Jews who wish to ban everyone from the Wall except Orthodox men as he does from more moderate Jews (like those in our delegation) who believe the wall should be open to everyone.
Atop the Temple Mount stands the Al Aksa Mosque (the third most holy site for Muslims) and the Dome of the Rock (where the temple Herod built for the Jews once stood), which only Muslims can enter. Our delegation includes two imams, who entered and said prayers.
After lunch, we went to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where we were briefed by Benjamin Krasna, Director of Political and Economic Policy Research. Then we went to the Knesset for a conversation with Danny Ayalon, Deputy Foreign Minister and a former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. He reiterated the issues in terms often used by the Netanyahu administration: recognition and security for Israel, and independence and sovereignty for the Palestinians. He noted two broad trends in the Middle East over the past couple of years: economic integration and political disintegration. He also focused on two specific challenges: how to assimilate the Ultra-Orthodox into the modern Jewish state (an increasing challenge: they currently make up 11% of the population but 20% of first-grade students); and how to assimilate Arab Israelis, whose political participation is declining but whose political, economic, and civic integration is vital for a peaceful and prosperous Israel.
We also heard from Anat Hoffman, an impressively energetic woman who serves as Executive Director of The Israel Religious Action Center, whose mandate is to promote a tolerant, pluralist, and compassionate Israeli society—especially for women and non-Jews. She also heads Women of the Wall, an organization that fights against the restrictions places on women's prayer and reading at the Western Wall. Her motto: "Love is what remains after you know the truth."
We also met with two of the Knesset's young progressive superstars: Nino Abesadze, a Russian-born former journalist, and Yohanen Plesner, who served in an elite military unit in Israel before studying at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. I was inspired by their passion and commitment. They represent the best of Israel's political leadership for the future.
We ended our day with an hour-long conversation with Natan Sharansky, Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel and a former Russian refusenik. If you don't know his story, you should. During his nine years in a Siberian prison, Sharansky came to the realization that people want to be free and they want to belong. These are the two human passions: freedom and identity. The discovery of your identity, he said, gives you the strength to fight for your own freedom and the freedom of others. The Arab Spring, in this view, was and is motivated by the discovery that identity is not enough; you also need freedom.
As for me, I'm exhausted by the pace and the prodigious learning curve we're on, but I'm also deeply grateful for this opportunity to think with new clarity and seriousness about the challenges of creating and maintaining a religion—a way of life imbued with meaning and purpose. Despite all the egregious ways that religion can thwart human flourishing (and they are many, especially in these parts), this experience bolsters my belief in the necessity of religion—the right kind of religion, of course, one in which the book of revelation remains open and the tradition of faith continually renews itself.
Tuesday (Jan. 10): the Gaza border, Sderot, Bethlehem
We began the day with a drive to the edge of the Gaza Strip (we didn't actually enter Gaza), to Netiv Ha'Asara, a farming village located (literally) in the shadow of the barrier wall that separates Israel from the Gaza Strip. We met Ronnie Kedar, a resilient and energetic woman whose family is one of the 70 families who make up the agriculture core of the village. With a total population of 750, the village grows vegetables, flowers, and fruit in extensive greenhouses and in the fields around for Israeli markets and for exports; the village also produces seeds that are sold around the globe. The community itself was initially established in 1973 in the buffer zone between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, but was relocated 30 miles to the north in 1982. In many ways, the community is like any other small farming village—except for the ubiquitous shelters to protect residents from the ever-present threat of rockets from Gaza (some 8,000 over the past decade). When the warning sirens sound—the village is close enough that the residents can often hear the launch itself—they have three seconds to seek shelter. In this land of rockets and shelters, Ronnie Kedar models the way of peace, cooperation, and dialogue. She leads an organization called Other Voice, which counters the mainstream Jewish view that firing back is the best way to dissuade those in Gaza who fire rockets. Ronnie Kedar's view is that the Palestinians in Gaza—their closest neighbors, closer than the nearest Israelis—are suffering just as much as they are.
David Buskila, the mayor of Sderot, shares this view. His town of 25,000 lies 800 meters from the Gaza border, which gives residents 15 seconds when the sirens sound to take cover in one of the town's 5,000 shelters. He spoke in plaintive tones of the 3,500 children in Sderot who don't have the freedom to be children: many suffer from PTSD and require therapy, which they receive. But, he went on to say, the children of Gaza live in the same situation. They also live in impossible circumstances. They also can't be children, playing outside as children should play, carefree. When asked what message he would send back to religious people in New York, he said, "We want to live in peace. There is enough land here for everyone. The people of Sderot can live together with the people of Gaza. The problem is that some of the leaders don't want us to get along. They don't want us to talk." We were left with the impression—indeed, the belief—that if people across the border could interact neighbor to neighbor, peace would not only be possible, but would come to pass. Even so, peace has not yet come; and as much as I admire the tenacity and resilience of the courageous souls on both sides of the border, I find myself relieved when our bus pulls away without incident.
Michael Friedson of The Media Line joined us for our trip from Gaza to Bethlehem. The Media Line is a news organization that tries to report on the Middle East in a fair, non-partisan manner (they are regularly used as a source by major US and UK news organizations), in order to break down barriers to understanding in the Arab and Israeli journalism communities. You can sign up for their daily news bulletin at themedialine.org. Michael's credentials as a journalist enabled our group to visit Bethlehem, which is in the West Bank and fully under Palestinian control—both administration and security. Michael commented that if TIME magazine chose a word of the year for the Middle East, the word for this year would be narrative: each side has its own. The current stalemate will end, he said, when both sides have leaders who are able to articulate their own narrative honestly and who accept the narrative of the other side on its own terms. The two leaders will find the common elements in their respective narratives, agree to give up some of what they want and accept some of what they don't; and the Middle East will enter a new day. He added that if peace comes, it will come from the bottom up, not the top down. Especially at the leadership level, neither side is reflective about how their actions contribute to making things worse, not better. Though I've never traveled into an actual war zone, the journey into Bethlehem came close enough. The barricades and checkpoints, along with the looming towers and pervasive razor wire, set me on edge.
In Bethlehem, we first met with Dr. Victor Hanna Jubrail Batarseh, a physician by training who serves as the mayor of Bethlehem. He's a Christian: ten cities in the Palestinian territories have Christian mayors, by decree of the Palestinian authorities. A city of 32,000 people, Bethlehem is two-thirds Muslim and one-third Christian (before 1948, 92% of the residents of Bethlehem were Christian). Of the 15 city council members, 8 are Christian and 7 are Muslim—and 5 of the 7 are from Hamas. The mayor articulated clearly the mainstream views of the Palestine Authority: acceptance of a two-state solution, with the Palestinians receiving 22% of historical Palestine (Israel currently offers 13%, by his count).
The biggest threat to peace, in the mayor's view, is the continual expansion of the Israeli settlements, which are sanctioned by the current Israeli administration, whose leaders (again, in the mayor's view) want all the land and do not want peace. He criticized the United States and the Western European nations for accepting the rise of political Islam in the nations roiled by the so-called Arab Spring, insisting that democracy can only operate within a secular state. On this point, the mayor made clear his difference from the five Hamas members of his City Council. Hamas wants an Islamic Palestinian state—a desire shared by only one-third of Palestinians, according to the mayor. The Palestinian Authority seeks to create a secular Palestinian state—a desire shared by the remaining two-thirds of Palestinians. These differences, along with the dramatic educational and economic disparities between Gaza and the West Bank, are "not good for the Palestinian cause" and need to be reconciled, the mayor said.
The biggest day-to-day challenge for the people of Bethlehem, however, is that they live in what mayor rightly described as a six-square-kilometer prison defined by the wall of separation (the Palestinians describe the wall in terms of separation, while the Jews describe it as a security fence or wall, whose construction began in 2002). People from Bethlehem cannot go to Jerusalem to work or school unless they have a special permit, which is hard to get. Tourism is down, unemployment is up (18-20%), and medical care is far less accessible than it was before the fence's construction. The status quo is clearly untenable. Given the mayhem and carnage of the two intifadas, the Israelis understandably want a security perimeter. Given the conditions in Bethlehem and the sense of stability and security that now exists, the Palestinians understandably want better access to jobs, health care, and education.
One exceedingly bright spot in this picture is Bethlehem University, a Vatican-sponsored university founded in 1973—the first university in the Palestinian territories. The university has a lovely campus and serves more than 3,000 students today, 70% of them Muslim. We met with Dr. Adnan Musallam, a professor of history, who told us about the history of the university and explained how it understands its mission. When peace comes, he said, we will need a pool of talented, educated, and creative people to help build a new Palestine. The challenges? Sixty-nine percent of the funding for the university comes from annual fundraising efforts, which leaves the university in a perennially fragile economic condition. And Israel (inexplicably to me) refuses to grant travel permits to Palestinian students in Gaza so they can attend Bethlehem University.
I have two overall observations to make this evening. One has to do with state of mind. Truth be told, everybody here seem anxious—Israelis and Palestinians alike. The source of their anxieties differs, of course; but no one seems to be flourishing at the deepest levels. The Israelis have become, at least in some measure, that which they most despise: oppressors of people who are not their own kind. For a people with such a profound and longstanding sense of justice and fairness, this moral dissonance must be enervating. And the Palestinians, at least in some measure, feel marginalized and demoralized. Many of them rightly feel trapped and angry. As one of the characters in the movie Beyond Rangoon says, "Suffering is the one promise that life always keeps."
As I've listened to various people (politicians, religious leaders, academics, ordinary citizens) talk about the current context, I've been trying to listen for what I'm not hearing. The model case is the perversely constructed term "violence against women." What's missing? Any mention of an agent—the one committing the violence. The Palestinians use the term intifada in a similar way—as though the intifada simply dropped from the sky one day. In fact, the two intifadas were a sustained campaign of terror and destruction in two phases, one from 1987 to 1993 and one during the years 2000-2005. These provoked an Israeli reaction, which in turn produced many consequences from which the Palestinians still suffer. Simply put: no intifada, no wall. For their part, Israelis treat the idea of a modern Jewish state in a similar way: as though it came to pass in the fullness of time, which is to say that it was divinely ordained. In fact, the modern Jewish state came into being because, in the wake of the Holocaust, the Jews desperately needed a nation where they would be welcome and safe. A group of visionary Jews banded together to develop the institutions, resources, and military power needed to conquer their ancestral homeland and make it theirs, which they did. Israel exists because the Jews united and made it happen. This is no miracle from the sky, but an exercise of military power and political will in the modern world. A little more candor and transparency in language on both sides would help, I think.
At the end of another intense and stimulating day, I'm again grateful to be here. And I must say that I'm also grateful—and more than a little proud—to be an American.
Wednesday (Jan. 11): Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jaffa
As we travel to the Rabin Medical Center in Tel Aviv, here's a brief outline of the makeup of Israeli society. Roughly 20% is made up of members the so-called Mayflower generation of Jews and their descendents—Ashkenazy Jews of European descents who came to Israel before the founding of Israel in 1948. Another 20%, mainly Sephardic Jews, are later immigrants from Spain and other parts of Europe and North Africa. Another 20% are Russian Jews who have emigrated from the former Soviet Union. An additional 20% are Arab—mainly (more than 90%) Muslims, but some Druze (a millennium-old offshoot of Muslims in Egypt) and some Christians. Finally, 20% are Modern and Ultra Orthodox Jews, who are the best organized and most active of all the groups politically. One final note: unlike the United States., Israel is not a melting-pot nation. Each of these groups tends to live in its own communities and neighborhoods and ally themselves with each other (or some subset) politically. In the most recent round of elections, 35 political parties vied for power.
A few thoughts on the current standoff between the Israelis and the Palestinians. In my remarks about the interplay of various religious traditions at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I said that the relationships among the religions looked more like détente to me than cooperation. It seems to me that the current atmosphere of relative stability in the relationship between the Israelis and the Palestinians is also a form of détente. Unlike the Cold War, however, this standoff is not tenable over the long run. The suffering of Palestinians, both in the West Bank but more so in Gaza, is palpable and pervasive. The lack of reasonable access to medical care, education, and work, not to mention the lack of ability to travel to visit family and friends, is a denial of human dignity at a minimum, and in many instances a denial of human rights. The moral dissonance on the Israeli side, on the other hand, is also palpable, though less pervasive. Even so, the ability of Israel to maintain its bona fides among liberal Western democracies requires Israel to get out of the occupation business, probably soon.
So here's the question that's on my mind this morning: whose interest is served by the status quo? My own answer points mainly in two directions: Hamas, whose fortunes have dramatically improved under the occupation; and, to a greater or lesser extent, the Muslim-majority Arab nations in the region. Israel's role as an occupying power can be (and has been) used for self-serving domestic political purposes by the leadership class in Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, among others. The Arab street seems less concerned: Israel and the United States weren't a target of protests during the Arab Spring. We'll see if I think differently after tomorrow's meetings with Shimon Peres, President of Israel, and Salam Fayyad, President of the Palestinian Authority; but my sense at the moment is that the ball is in the Palestinians' court. They need to do two things: recognize Israel's right to exist (tantamount to endorsing the sunrise, it would seem) and accept the fact that Palestinian right of return will be limited to a return to a Palestinian state (for Israel to agree otherwise would be, effectively, to abolish to notion of a Jewish state). With these accommodations, my guess is that a deal could be cut in record time. My sense is that, for Israel, everything else is—or could be—on the table. Who on the Palestinian side would oppose these two concessions? Hamas. As the mayor of Jerusalem noted in one of the week's more dramatic understatements, the disparity between Gaza and the West Bank economically and between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority politically is a problem. Indeed.
The interest of some of the Israeli settlers is also served by the status quo. Here's the situation: maybe 500,000 Israelis, many of them right-wing in their politics and strongly committed to keeping the Biblical "land of Israel" Jewish—have settled in Palestinian areas in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. As I mentioned earlier, two-thirds of these settlers live in four settlement blocks around Jerusalem that the Palestinians and Israelis have already agreed would remain under Israeli sovereignty in a two-state solution. The remaining third of the settlers are the problem. They have built settlements outside these designated blocks for a specific reason: to thwart the creation of a Palestinian state. If enough Jews live in enough settlements across the Palestinian territories, the theory goes, it will make it hard to form a contiguous state of Palestine.
The Ultra-Orthodox Jews, who make up about a million of the Israel's population of nearly eight million, reject the idea of Israel as a secular Jewish state. Like Hamas, they want to impose their religious identity onto the broader culture, thereby denying freedom to women and Palestinians, as well as to secular Jews. Here's the irony: Fayyad and the Palestinian Authority oppose the strategy of Hamas, whereas the Ultra-Orthodox make up an essential part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ruling coalition. Peace will probably not come anytime soon.
Our first stop of the day was Rabin Medical Center in Tel Aviv, Israel's leading center for medical care and research. Dr. Eyram Halpern, CEO of Rabin, and several physicians on his staff described to us their program for providing care for patients who live in Gaza and need specialized procedures, as well as their outreach to Arab villages for the treatment of certain genetic disorders and diabetes.
We then traveled up the Mediterranean coast to Haifa, Israel's third-largest city and its principal port. The city is beautiful and beautifully sited. As Yona Yahav, Haifa's gregarious and charismatic mayor explained to us over lunch, Haifa is located where the mountains meet the beach and the ocean meets the bay. It's also a city where, as he proudly attested, Jews and Arabs have a tradition of mutual respect and cooperation that extends back more than a century. The Beit Hegefen Arab Jewish Center in Haifa, where we met with the mayor and local religious leaders, was established in 1963 to strengthen Arab culture in Israel. Not that their cooperative mettle hasn't been tested. One imam described in moving terms the traumatic events of 1948, when Palestine became Israel and many Arabs in the region fled to Jordan and elsewhere. In Haifa, many Arabs stayed, and the Jews in the neighborhood kept them safe. In the same way, Haifa endured the intifadas—not without incident, but without rupture. Why has Haifa been able to achieve a level of respect and cooperation between Israelis and Arabs—Jews and Muslims—where other cities and regions in Israel have failed? Perhaps because, as the saying goes, in Jerusalem you pray, in Tel Aviv you play, and in Haifa you work. Haifa is a primarily a working-class town, and when there's work to do, differences in religion and culture seem to matter less. In Haifa, Arabs and Jews work alongside each other, shop in each other's stores and eat in one another's restaurant. It's what the future of the Middle East looks like.
One highlight of the visit to Haifa: at lunch I sat next to Dr. Albert Lincoln, who serves as Secretary-General of the Baha'i International Community. The founder of the Baha'i faith is buried in a mausoleum in the spectacular Baha'i Gardens, which cascade down 19 terraces set in the hillside above the sea. The Gardens themselves are worth a visit to Haifa (though January isn't the best month). Dr. Lincoln and I discussed at some length the considerable similarities between Unitarian Universalism and the Baha'i faith—a conversation we agreed to continue when he's next in New York or I'm in Haifa.
Another highlight of the visit to Haifa: we ended our day in Haifa with a visit to the Great Mosque in Chalisa, a neighborhood even further up the hill from the Baha'i Gardens. Our visit was unscheduled—and an unexpected revelation. The mosque is part of the Ahmadiyya Muslim tradition, a late-19th century as a reform movement within Islam, which today both Sunni and Shite Muslims view as heretical. The tradition, which has congregations in more than 100 countries and counts upwards of 100 million believers, organizes itself around a simple motto: "Love for all. Hate for none." The founding caliph sought to repair Islam from its hatred for other religions, its rejection of science, and its belief that the sword had been and should be used to spread the faith. As Muhammad Sharif, head of the Ahmadiyya community in the Holy Land, explained to us, jihad means supreme effort; it's not a military term. He added: the Koran says there should be no coercion in matters of faith; religions should relate to one another through dialogue, not through violence. He concluded by endorsing the separation of church and mosque: everyone is equal under the law, which means that the state should make no preference when it comes to religion. I need to learn more about the Ahmadiyya tradition, but from what I've learned thus far, I hope their numbers grow—and grow rapidly—among the world's Muslims.
Wednesday evening we had dinner in a private home overlooking the Mediterranean Sea in Jaffa, a stunningly beautiful coastal city of 55,000 (60% Jewish, 40% Arab) just south of Tel Aviv. In addition to our delegation of 15 clergy, our hosts had invited a disparate mix of local guests, ranging from the head of the local Arab league to the owner of the best wine shop in Tel Aviv. Some were Arabs and some were Jews, but all spoke passionately about Jaffa and how much they loved living in a diverse community. Knowing that our schedule the following day included meetings with Shimon Peres, the President of Israel, and Salem Fayyad, the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, they urged us to pass along the message that not only can Jews and Arabs live and work together in productive harmony, many of them prefer not being sequestered in communities of one kind. The food was sumptuous and delicious, the conversation was wide-ranging and engaging—a wonderful evening!
Thursday (Jan. 12): Jerusalem, Ramallah
On Thursday morning, we made another visit (at least for me: Holly and I had visited the museum on Sunday) to Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Museum) to view a couple of private exhibitions: one about the children of the Holocaust, and the other about the art of the Holocaust. The stories of how children were brutally slaughtered chilled me to the bone, a feeling only partially offset by stories of brave and courageous women and men who tried mightily to save them, sometimes successfully, but many times not. Fortunately, art can often express feelings and emotions when words fail. If you visit Yad Vashem, plan for at least half a day. It's an altogether powerful experience that will leave you both astounded at the human capacity for cruelty and encouraged by the resilience of the human spirit.
Our visit with Israeli President Shimon Peres in his home—he spent an hour talking with us and answering questions—was one of the highlights of the trip. By almost any measure, Peres is one of the master practitioners of statecraft in our time. One of the key leaders of the State of Israel over the past 60 years, he has held almost every major post in the government, including Prime Minister and head of the Israeli Defense Forces. The world's oldest head of state at age 89, he has a deep calm and a quiet wisdom about him that emerges from his deep faith in the ultimate triumph of good. This triumph will come, he said, not by might alone: we need to use the strength of our spirits instead of the strength of our arms. There are two sides to the future, he went on to say, the side of values and the side of science. Unless our use of scientific knowledge is grounded in our values, science can easily become a tool of destruction. The best example of the union of science and values, he explained, is a hospital, where people of all faiths and identities can work together to bring healing. He wondered: how is it that when we are sick we can live in peace, and when we are well we begin to quarrel? Peres spoke at some length about the importance of education for all Israeli children. Education, he said, is the way to distribute equality to all. As to the current standoff between the Israelis and Palestinians, Peres said emphatically, "We were not born to rule other people." In fact, he added, Israel was the first nation to recognize the Palestinian state. As to the pace of the peace process, Peres counseled patience. It took 40 years for the people of Israel to make their way from Egypt to the Promised Land, not two weeks. The struggle will be long, he said; it will be hard, not easy. Peres said that he sees Palestinian Prime Minister Salem Fayyad as his partner, and he went on to pay Fayyad the ultimate compliment: he compared Fayyad's role in building the Palestinian state to Ben Gurion's role in building the state of Israel. I left Peres' presence exhilarated and encouraged—and more than a little awed. He is rightly lauded as a hero to the Israeli people. He's one of my heroes too.
From the home of Shimon Peres, we traveled north from Jerusalem into the West Bank to Ramallah, where Salem Fayyad presides over the construction of what will become the State of Palestine. According to the testimony of those who had visited Ramallah in years past (before 2000), the city has been and continues to be transformed. Building sites are everywhere: world-class commercial buildings, stately civic halls (such as the new home of the Palestine National Legislature), and elegant apartment complexes. And we all agreed that Ramallah feels like a city at peace with itself: we felt safe there—completely safe. Prime Minister Fayyad, whom I had met previously at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, welcomed us into his newly constructed office complex. An economist by training and former professor at the University of Texas at Austin, he served at the St. Louis Fed and the IMF before becoming Prime Minister of the Palestine National Authority. A teacher at heart, he's fond of the phrase, "It stands to reason as a matter of simple analysis…." Warming to his task of addressing an interfaith delegation, he began by saying that if the tw0-state solution is to materialize, faith activity will need to play a key role. The problem facing the Palestinians and the Israelis, he said, is the problem of competing narratives, which is not independent of religion but ultimately is about geography and real estate. This focus on pragmatism—"practical" was an oft-used word in his conversation—is a hallmark of Fayyad's approach. For example, in addressing the issue of sites that are holy to all three faiths, he suggests establishing a "code of conduct" which would ensure that a religious claim about the meaning of a site would not be challenged. Otherwise, the conversation would devolve into a battle of who got there first or had stayed longer. Rather, the focus should be on practical arrangements and assurances. When asked about the core issue for the Palestinians, Fayyad responded: "We desire to live as free people in a country of our own with dignity. We want to live in peace and harmony with Israel." For my part, I believe him—and I think his pragmatism is exactly the right approach. Fayyad is busy building the institutions of the Palestinian state (the stock market in Ramallah is up and running), buoyed by significant foreign investment from other Arab nations. Ramallah is beginning to look like the capital of a nation—a welcome development and an encouraging sign. As to Gaza and Hamas, Fayyad insisted that it's impossible to have a Palestinian state without including Gaza. Unfortunately, he said, Gaza has been hijacked by a regime that took over violently. He's not optimistic that Hamas will change its platform any time soon. We need to find ways around this problem, he said: practical arrangements—framed by our commitment to non-violence. For my part, I was thrilled by what I heard from Prime Minister Fayyad and what I saw in Ramallah. Palestine will become a nation—maybe sooner, but given Hamas, probably later. But it will happen.
To read my summary and concluding thoughts about this extraordinary experience, see my sermon at All Souls on Sunday, January 15, "A Journey to the Heart of Faith."