Palestine & Israel 2011
If you’ve enjoyed the postings from our volunteers and want to learn more about the VIM team’s experiences in the Holy Land, you may wish to attend the Forum that they will be presenting on Sunday, November 20.
A light lunch, featuring Middle-Eastern foods, will be served and team members will share their photos and stories – as well as offer suggestions on ways the FUMC community can contribute to programs working for peace to this troubled area of the world.
Here’re some of the photos that they will be showing at the forum:
You can read the blog entries they posted every day here.
Eight of the VIM group took the 45-minute bus ride from Bethlehem to Ben Gurion Airport in TelAviv on Saturday, Nov 5.
Mark and helena Greathoouse went on to Prague, and Leif and Marge Terdal, Pat Brockman, Shirley Knight, Sandy Lofy, and Maxine Thomas flew to Newark and then Portland.
Questions at Ben Gurion were brief and easy to answer. When asked about her I Love Palestine bag, Sandy asked the guard, “Do you want it?” Sandy also had to reshuffle items from her overweight checked bag to Maxine’s carry-on to avoid a $200 extra charge.
Pat waited about an hour to get her boarding pass because her husband Cal’s name was still on their passenger list even though he had cancelled months before. Perhaps someone thought Cal was staying on in Israel. Instead he met Pat at PDX with a bouquet of flowers.
The remainder of the flight went smoothly, and we arrived at PDX only an hour later than our original schedule–tired, glad to get home, and full of memories of a wonderful experience.
This morning began late, because we didn’t need to leave the hotel until 9 a.m.
So, after a late breakfast, we got on the bus and discussed last night’s heavy
rainfall which included one or two claps of thunder. This was the first rain in a month; no one knows how much rain fell. Our bus driver is Josef again today, and he and our guide indicated how rain feels like a blessing in this season around here…after such a hot summer.
Elias outlined our morning for us, and told us that the Muslim community is now preparing for the Al Aphah holiday, in which they will sacrifice sheep. We took the Hebron Road south past the Dehaishe Refugee Camp, with 15000 people per square km.
Arriving at the Solomon Pool National Park, Elias summarized the history of water in the near east, and its importance. King Herod the Great built two pools which sent water via aqueducts to Jerusalem, which is lower than this area on Ephrata. It also sent water to the Herodion, also lower. Pontius Pilate built a third pool. Tradition says Solomon built them, but all the archaeological evidence says Herod and Pontius Pilate.
The pools were kept full and used for drinking water until 1967, and emptied in 2007 after several children drowned in them because they didn’t know how to swim. So they were drained, and the first pool with its terraces and stairways and open bottoms used for occasional concerts in the summer. The entire time we viewed these pools, we were escorted, from a distance by two security guards, who are hired by the Palestinian government.
We returned to the new museum in Bethlehem, where we could see a portion of the Roman aqueduct through the windows. Then Elias took leave of us, because today is his daughter’s birthday, and he has a wedding to attend this evening as well, so he took his own car. And then we changed buses, because the 56-passenger bus was too long to maneuver the narrow streets on the way to our next stop, the Elderly Care Center in Beit Sahour.
The Beit Sahour Elderly Center is a United Methodist Advance Special. We were met by Elen Qassis, the Director, who filled us in on the day care center for elderly. It has up to 160 persons in attendance per day, ages 65 to 90+. It was founded in 1984. A typical day begins at 7:30 with coffee and visiting, the women on one floor and the men on another. Then they play cards or do other activities until a 10 a.m. lecture. At 11:30 they play, exercise, dance, sing, until lunch at noon, which costs NIS 5 (about $1.50). After lunch they visit the sick, do various projects, etc. Its day ends at 3:30 p.m., when the participants return to their own homes.
Our lunch at the Elderly Center consisted of chicken, rice, salad, yogurt, cauliflower, and soda. During lunch the Director told us that her son is in the States, attending university, and cannot return to Palestine because of his involvement in the Infitada.
We next stopped at a grocery store to pick up spices for our Forum presentation at FUMC…and it was quite a project for the male guide and store keeper to translate the meanings of the labels on the spice containers…neither having cooking expertise.
Again we changed buses, and dropped 12 people off at the Manger Square to shop, sightsee, and then walk back to the hotel. We had the rest of the afternoon to nap or pack…squeezing in those purchases into already full suitcases.
At 5:45 we left to have our farewell dinner at the Grotto Restaurant, a Middle Eastern restaurant. Dinner consisted of yogurts and hummus with corn or peas embedded, then ground lamb meet balls and chicken, then dessert. Issa and Elias gave each person in the group a memento of carved olive wood manger scene. They announced that they would match the group’s gift of $200 for carpet for the Kindergarten. Betty presented our card and gift to Janet, and we left the restaurant at 8 p.m., saying our goodbyes to Adel, Janet, Jan and Tina, as well as both Issa and Elias. We’ll say our good-byes to Josef in the morning. Some of us will ride his bus to the Tel Aviv airport…and some of us will hop on a different bus and head north to the northern border crossing into Jordan.
Our VIM experience is concluded, however we’ll have more to share with you in the weeks to come as we process this powerful journey. There may be some posts from Jordan depending on our computer access. More to come…
It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood! The sun is shining brightly…so far we have had perfect weather. By early afternoon we must prepare for the cool of the evening, with long sleeves and sweaters. The hotel breakfast at 7:00am, with visitors from many countries (India, Romania, Greece, Italy and Ireland currently), included some interesting political talk this morning. We get some news here in Bethlehem with CNN and BBC. Chaos in the world continues it seems.
Some in our group are suffering with colds; our pace each day is fast with little time for rest. Our days begin with departure at 8:15 or 8:30 and ending the day at 9:00pm, however this evening we are ending at 10:30, after an important final team meeting.
Many souvenirs have been purchased; especially popular is the Jerusalem Cross (representing Christ and the four apostles) and religious items made from olive wood. We have taken hundreds of photos (some group photos) with the help of our guide holding at least ten cameras (belonging to us) on his arm! Quite a sight!
Today will be a full day with a start at the work site at Wadi Fukin, then a quick change at the hotel followed by a visit to Hebron and Herodian National Park. I wear the same work clothes each day and they are beginning to look very ‘used’ and shabby. In addition, the work days require me to take water, a hat, scarf (to cover my nose to protect from dust…swatting flies too!), camera and money belt (keeping my passport close to my body). Ready to take off now, on the bus, a man is selling necklaces 4 for $10 or 2 for $5 on the street as we climb aboard…and before we know it, Leif is offering these necklaces and prices from the front of the bus for the man on the street! No one bought necklaces this morning. The seller did not want to take ‘no’ for an answer!
Travelling to the work site, we see many mounted donkeys carrying big boxes to market. What a delight to see a step back in time still existing. Most are white donkeys…great means of transport that is inexpensive. There are many taxis carrying Palestinian Arabs to work in the Israeli settlements. They cannot drive into Israel, but they need the jobs therefore the taxis are their only means, and these taxis can’t drive on the same roads as Israelis.
As we arrived at Wadi Fukin, there was not as much work to do on our fourth day here. Adel told us that we needed to clean up the rooms in the center, sweep, wipe dust from chairs and tables, organize tools and equipment, and tackle the cleanup of the kitchen (a bit of a challenge without hot water today). The jobs were finished quickly and we had a chance to rest a bit as we awaited our walk to Adel’s grandparents’ home. (We were proud of ourselves to have accomplished so much…yard free of debris, rocks and dirt moved, chipping and filling with spackle the walls before painting.)
While waiting, Joseph, our bus driver is visiting with us, as he carries his Rosary in hand. We have time to hear about his parents (both deceased) and his children, all of whom live in Nazareth, most in his household. He is Palestinian, and his family has always lived in Israel.
When we arrive at the home of Adel’s grandparents, high on the hill above the village, we are welcomed into a cozy home of cushioned chairs and sofas and rugs. We removed our shoes before entering, and were served Arabic coffee and tea as we settled into our seats and awaited our host. Adel introduced us to Joseph, and Joseph greeted each of us with ‘Mahaba’, meaning ‘hello’ in Arabic. We had seen and heard Joseph in the short documentary that we had viewed on Monday.
Adel translated as we heard 90 year old Joseph tell the stories of his life in this village. He was in the British Army from 1946-1948. In 1948 the British Mandate along with the UN essentially made Israel a state, and at that point all of the weapons that had been used by the British forces became Israel’s. A Palestinian could be jailed for having one. At that time this village’s population was just 500; by this time it is about 1200. Nakba happened in 1948…the Catastrophe for the Palestinians…the moving of populations from their villages, beginning with the villages that are now inside Israel (not West Bank). His village moved to the biggest camp in Bethlehem, which was Jordanian at that time. When the people of Wadi Fukin left their village they were farming 7000 acres, but now have 2000 to farm (the rest is covered in settlements).
The elder men of the village (The Muktar (speaker for the village) being Joseph’s father) pressed the authorities to let them come each day to work in their fields; they weren’t asking to move back, but wanted to tend to their land and provide food for their people. They were granted permission, and although there were skirmishes and plenty of Israeli confrontations and even deadly ones, the villagers made their daily trek, probably on donkeys.
In 1972, Israel needed room in the Dehaisha Refugee Camp, where Wadi Fukin villagers had lived since 1948, and by stroke of luck, the villagers were permitted to move back to their village so that some Gazan refugees could move in to the camp! The villagers began rebuilding and continue to rebuild to this day, in the shadow of the huge Betar Illit settlement.
After a walk back to the Community Center, we enjoyed pita bread warmed with zata’r and olive oil, served with cucumbers and tomatoes, yogurt and hummus! We feasted on this local fare with gusto! The lunch and VIM week at Wadi Fukin ended with Betty making the presentation to Adel of the funding for the youth program and the women’s program at the center. That is after the funds that came with our VIM fee, which will be undesignated for the center’s use.
We rushed up to our hotel rooms to quickly brush teeth, take bathroom breaks and maybe make a quick change in clothing to make a quick turnaround time for the afternoon…only to get the lobby and have a wait of nearly 45 minutes…a chance to sit and chat together and experience this example of ‘Palestinian time’ that we have heard so much about.
Herodian was the first stop when did board our bus and make our way south and east of Bethlehem. Herod was a brutal leader, a converted Jew, who tried to win his Jewish subjects’ favor, but never did. He built awesome structures in several parts of Palestine, probably to provide protection for himself, but they were massive, ornate and beautifully constructed. He was known as Herod the Great because he was a great builder. This was his winter palace, and is his burial site. Herod had only been to this place 3 times in his life and once was to be buried.
The palace is built on a man-made mountain, with layers of construction…the ruins of which are not fully excavated, even after more than 4 years of work. There were plenty of photo opps here; one of the views on the upper level (not the top…too tired to hike to the top today) was a view east to the Judean hills, the Dead Sea and the Jordanian mountains in the far background…the Moab Mountains. The foreground interested us also; it was a trailer park of settlers, which is likely the first outpost of yet another a new settlement. There was a military establishment on the side of the Herodian mountain, and lots of soldiers present to protect the settlements, sprawled over the hillsides in view.
The drive from Herodian, south to Hebron, was through the Wilderness…which is grazing land in this area. We passed several small flocks of sheep and goats; there are herbs, shrubs and small trees in this area, among the rocks that are everywhere. There were acres of lush crops down in the valleys of this region…olive groves bigger than we had seen before, and many vegetable crops. This apparently is the area with the 2nd largest aquifer, therefore an ideal location for irrigated crops and a desirable area for settlements…the Israelis need water. Almonds, grapes, apricots and other nuts are grown here. There are also great stone works here in this area, extracting the huge stones from the ground and then cutting and preparing them for construction…and sold all over the world…beautiful Jerusalem stone.
Every Friday the villages in the area of south Bethlehem demonstrate nonviolently for peace…this has become their tradition.
Soon we enter Hebron, and have the chance to stop in to view glass blowing and painting of pottery at the Hebron Glass Factory. The shopping was fabulous…with good prices and a huge array to choose from. The Old City required a walk through the 2nd oldest city in the world, next to Jericho, to the Tomb of the Patriarchs. The building has become half mosque and half shrine, with soldiers present at every entry. We viewed the place in the mosque where in 1994, one of the extremist settlers, came into the mosque and massacred many Palestinians as they prayed during their holy month of Ramadan. This is a Palestinian city and has been through all of its history, but 400 Jewish settlers have moved into the Old City and have 1200 Israeli soldiers to protect them.
Most of the shops in the Old City are closed; some of them were ordered closed and some closed because of lack of business since the tension with the settlers has begun in these last years. Betty, who was here several years ago, felt as though the city was less tense, fewer shops open and not as much garbage today, as compared to her previous visit.
Hebron is a huge city of 200,000 people. Sometime after the 2nd Intifada (2002 or so) all entrances to Hebron were blocked for hundreds of days at a time…no entry or exit…the people essentially prisoners in their town. This is a huge industrial area with shoe making, glass, stone and pottery to name a few. (We saw camel meat hanging in a butcher shop along the main street as we drove…assured by our guide, Elias, that this is a tasty meat…lean and flavorful…many skeptics on the bus!!)
There were too many street sellers of cheap jewelry on the streets following us wherever we went, even through the dark, ancient streets of the Old City and throughout the religious site entries. They were shooed away by our guide and by police from time to time, but were persistent and some of us bought their wares to appease them…the number of visitors to Hebron has decreased dramatically, and these people are desperate for the business, meager as it is with the inexpensive items. It was wearing to have all of the desperate pleas to buy…it was depressing. Some lovely Palestinian craft items were purchased in a couple of the few shops open in the Old City.
We had a chance to see the outside of the Hebron Rehabilitation Center, and meet the director on the street in passing on our way down to the Mosque/Synagogue. The mission of this organization is to restore the Old City…no small task. The extremist settlers frightened nearly all Palestinians out of their Old City homes, but with the efforts of this Rehabilitation center nearly 85% have moved back into this area. 580 days of curfew were experienced by the Palestinians (maybe all people) in this Old City area because of the tension of the 2nd Intifada and the actions of the militant settlers. There have been difficult times for this community.
Our drive home in the dark was reflective…we were recuperating from the barrage of street merchants, begging for our money…and thankful for the opportunity to experience this place, despite our brief time there.
Dinner and our last team meeting, which included Tina, Jan and Janet as observers, finished out the long, emotional day. It was our task to decide what our VIM team will do in the next 6 weeks, 6 months and 1 year with the information and experience we have had in the areas of ancient sites, work sites and Palestinian political and cultural issues. We made our plan, and you will soon learn about them!
Day 11 – Touring Wadi Fukin, visiting the Wa’im Conflict Resolution Center & exploring the Separation Wall in Bethlehem…separating Bethlehem from Jerusalem.
Today, Wednesday November 2, was another beautiful day in the West Bank, Palestine. We were on the bus bound for Wadi Fukin by 8:20. Adel met us at the work site and before we started our work projects, lead us on a walking tour of the village. He told us Wadi Fukin means the green valley. It is indeed a small, fertile valley and has been tended and farmed by his ancestors for thousands of years, except for the time between 1948 and 1972, when villagers were expelled from their homes and lived in a Bethlehem refugee camp. Adel’s grandfather and other elders of the village stubbornly pressed the authorities to let them return to their farms made their way back…a fluke…as this is the only Palestinian village out of the 531 that were depopulated and destroyed where Palestinians have returned to their land.
This village and farms are in the shadow…surrounded by Jewish settlements, one of which we watched being built before our very eyes! Cement trucks and heavy equipment were clearly building on the hillside right above the olive groves and vegetable fields of the village. This is a community of 80,000 Orthodox Jews, with the first construction having begun in 1998 and some housing just now being built. (Wadi Fukin has 1200 people!)
Adel showed us, and explained their cooperative water system which is fed by natural springs. As we progressed through the one main street in the village, we were greeted by very friendly adults and some small children. The rest of the children were attending the large new looking school towards the end of the village street. All of the construction is fairly new, because only a few buildings survived the Israeli demolition of the Nakba (Catastrophe) of 1948. The villagers have slowly rebuilt their houses and community buildings as they have accumulated money over the years…slowly…and helping one another along the way. It took Adel’s family 12 years to rebuild their family home…and about 10 people were helping work on it as they earned money to continue to build.
We walked past a women’s health clinic, a large building full of chickens and bought soft drinks at a little grocery store…’convenience store’ sized. We met a couple of farmers with their small, well used tractors and saw a sleepy white donkey beneath an olive tree, waiting for his next task. One man proudly showed us his beautiful white rabbits. (He divulged to one in our group that he had two wives, and hoped he would, God willing, have as many children as he had rabbits!) My impression was one of walking through a small, friendly, peaceful village in an ancient land.
Back at our worksite at the community center, we broke into groups who worked inside the center scraping and spackling walls, cleaning kitchen cabinets, leveling and liming the yard area for a future garden.
Three women in our group went up to Adel’s home to work with his mother, Nehad, as she prepared our lunch. (She actually did all of the work herself…our team members watched carefully and jotted notes about process and ingredients, which again included ‘special spices’!! Nebad’s daughter-in-law, Duaa said, with a smile, “She always likes to do it herself…she likes to have control of things!”) The meal was a delicious rice and garbanzo bean dish with garlic and subtle spice with a lovely chicken rubbed with paprika and other spices. The dish is called Kedra, and we hope to recreate it at our FUMC forum on 11/20. Nehad wants to get the spices for us before we leave! We’ll also look for them in Bethlehem spice shops in the next couple of days, because there are blends for certain dishes, and we may be able to find the combos we want since we know the names of a couple of yummy dishes we have been served by these wonderful cooks in Wadi Fukin. The rice and chicken dish was served with the traditional tomato-cucumber-mint-lemon-parsley salad (cut up in very small dice) and yogurt.
We ate in a sort of great room located next to Adel’s parents’ very nice house. He was very proud of his mother’s cooking (which was well deserved) and was especially concerned that we felt his house was also our house. It was a lovely meal, enjoyed by all, immensely!
After getting back to Bethlehem and a fast clean-up and change of clothing, we boarded the bus again and visited Bethlehem’s Wa’im Conflict Resolution Center. (Wi’am means ‘cordial relationship’ in Arabic.) This is a Christian grassroots organization that believes in human rights and justice achieved through non-violence. Their mediation projects focus on the Arab traditions of reconciliation, called Sulha. They use mediation teams of three people who are available to help people having domestic or civil problems. Our speakers, the program manager (Emel) and the founder-director, Zoughbi Zoughbi, said their successful mediation sessions end with everyone drinking small cups of Arab coffee which is the sign of reconciliation in this culture. As the twenty-two of us sat around tables listening to these men sharing their important work, we were all served Arab coffee and tea…twice! (There was a needlework sign in the office as we entered that read, ‘Make Tea, Not Walls’…and that is what happened this afternoon…lots of tea and no walls between us!)
They spoke of their program to help young people in the schools learn the skills of peace-making and reconciliation so they can become peaceful Palestinian ambassadors to the rest of the world. They also spoke of programs they have especially for women and young children. They freely spoke of their efforts to deprive the Israeli government from an enemy by continuing the non-violent movement. We found ourselves once again having a sobering, thought-provoking discussion with two remarkable Palestinians. Before we left the center we browsed and bought several beautiful hand sewn items and other handiwork from their shop.
Our last stop before returning to the hotel for the evening was the infamous Separation Wall. We stopped at the same spot where Dee and I stopped 3 years ago. Now there are many more things drawn and written on the wall. Where we posed for our group photo those years ago, as we spray painted FUMC on the wall, is a huge heart being ripped in half. This time 20 of us from Portland posed in front of that spot and had our VIM team picture taken. We continued our walk in sober quiet, wondering at the poignant things written and drawn on this terrible wall. Many photos were taken and we were all discussing how unbelievable this thing is as we boarded the bus to end the travel of the day.
One of the photos included is of a Palestinian home, surrounded on three sides by ‘The Wall’ which seems to be a microcosm of the pain and capriciousness of this structure on the lives of this community. Communities have been enormously impacted as families have been separated from families in some cases, businesses have closed due to lack of traffic with checkpoints and rerouting, and with losing their access to Jerusalem and the holy sites of their faith, whether Christian or Muslim. Sobering, frustrating and sad! The Israelis call it a security fence and the rest of the world sees it as Apartheid!
The day starts early for those who hear the “call to prayer” which is usually around 4:30a.m. Since we left the Guest House in Ibillin during our first week and are now at the Mt. David Hotel in Bethlehem we no longer hear the roosters. If we hear the “call to prayer” we may go back to sleep until it’s time to be at breakfast at 7:00a.m.
The dining room tables have signs indicating where the “Americans” are to sit. In addition to “American” table signs there are signs for “Ireland”, “Romania” and “Greece”. We finish breakfast in time to return to our rooms to gather what is needed for our second morning of the work project at Wadi Fouqeen (sometimes spelled Wadi Fukin) and to be on the bus that will leave at 8:15.
I continue to be amazed and impressed with our bus driver’s skill in maneuvering this huge bus, which seats 55 people, on the narrow, steep, busy and twisting streets and roads. (Our guide, Issa, said today that the Bethlehem streets were built by donkeys…and he meant that donkey paths of old have become the streets of today!) We hop on the bus and to make sure everyone is present and accounted for, we call out our number before the bus takes us to our next adventure.
The views from the bus window are always fascinating. The street and road signs are written in Arabic, Hebrew and English. In addition to the directional signs we may see fertile valleys with fields of green vegetables. Other places appear to be too rocky to grow anything. Between cities we may see terraced areas with green growth or a barren area with Bedouin camps. But we’re not in the countryside; we’re arriving at Wadi Fouqeen to find out what our “work of the day” will be.
Adel, the young man who will be giving us our work assignment greets us and identifies the need for two groups; one to pick up rocks and level part of the garden area and another group to help pick olives at his family’s home. Even though we’re all adults, many of us are excited about the opportunity to pick olives. When we find out those who don’t pick today can pick tomorrow, everyone is eager to help where ever needed and do not hesitate to begin work.
By noon the olive pickers return to the house, the rock workers have finished their leveling, scraped off the chipped paint, cleaned walls and windows and are ready to take off their face masks (to prevent inhaling rock dust) and are ready to eat. A delicious meal of Mugdahr made with lentils, vermicelli and ‘special spices’ prepared by Adel’s sister-in-law, Aziza, is accompanied by a traditional tomato-parsley salad and fresh yogurt! We dig in, happily! From there, we’re off to the bus, back to the hotel to clean up and be ready by 2:00 to visit the Bethlehem Bible College.
At the Bible College we were greeted by Alex Awad and his wife Brenda. Alex is the Dean of Students and also head of the Shepherd Society, the humanitarian arm of the college. We were shown the new building with classrooms and an auditorium which opened last year. The college library has recently become a community library, open to the public. There are 170 students, with an equal number of males and females. (Rami, our guide last week, graduated from this college.) The college was started by Alex’s brother in 1979. Christian students of many denominations can obtain a four year liberal arts education, with courses in ministry and biblical studies. The college also offers several programs to help students stay in the area and find jobs related to biblical history: Mass Media, Tour Guiding in this historically rich part of the world and the Shepherds’ Society, which provides study in the areas of social need. Yes, they include students of all faiths including Muslim in their student body.
Alex provided us with an excellent, thought-provoking presentation on the Palestinian perspective of the Israel-Palestine Conflict and some insights into the part Christian Zionism is playing in exacerbating this conflict. His Power Point presentation was available for purchase in the bookstore as was his book, Palestinian Memories. Many of us will have these resources with us when we get home. This was a very important summary of the issues for us.
Next we visited the Aida Refugee Camp, one of three refugee camps in Bethlehem; Aida houses 5000 refugees. The spokesperson and youth leader, Salah, described the camps as ranging in size from 3000 – 15,000, as a result of the depopulating of as many as 531 cities and villages since 1948. Families lived in tents, thinking this was a temporary situation, for 6 long years. When the UN realized this was not so temporary, all families were moved into hastily built buildings with very little space. His story is the story of thousands of refugee families; no rights, poor housing, treated like animals, shot in the night, tear gas thrown into homes, removed from home in the middle of the night by soldiers, shot at if out after curfew, and so many other inhumanities. We ended the visit by going to the rooftop of Lajee Refugee Center with the huge black water storage tanks we have been seeing on Palestinian homes. Salah pointed out the playground, which they would like to purchase for the children but the cost is $400,000…way too expensive. (The back of one of the big hotels was in view, and sometimes the camp residents can hear water filling the hotel pool, when there is no running water in the camp …therefore the need of the black storage tanks.) He also pointed out the gateway to the camp with a huge key above it, representing the key to justice they hope can come through UN Resolution 194.
The eventful day ended with a treat from Issa; yummy ice cream for each of us at Little Italy. Thank you, Issa, for the treat and thank you Janet for all you say and do for us! The end of another beautiful, educational and fun day!
Another beautiful day in Bethlehem! The air is cooling a bit each day….a welcome break from the heavy, hot, below sea level air of yesterday.
Up early to 7am breakfast, and on our way to Wadi Fukin, staying in The West Bank, by 8:15am. Janet began with a talk about the settlements the Israelis are building ringing Jerusalem that will eventually close ranks to completely ring the city making all the land de facto Israeli land, and cutting Palestinian access to Jerusalem. We drive on an ‘Israeli- only’ nicely paved modern highway and observe the ‘Palestinian-only’ dirt road passing under the Israeli highway. Janet explains Palestinians are forced to use these dirt roads even when it means carrying a sick child miles, changing taxi cabs as required in all kinds of heat or cold.
Wadi Fukin (The forgotten village or Valley of the Thorns) is the first United Methodist Community Project outside of the USA. A small home has been rented to house a market place for the village women’s products (needlework, soap, oil) and especially honey, in an effort to help the village develop self sufficiency. A women’s program here teaches health maintenance and first aid, which is needed since the “World Vision” build clinic has extremely limited and irregular hours, and is lacking funds for operation.
This village of about 1200 residents has seen much difficulty, as has every Palestinian village. The people of the village were forced to leave in the 1950’s, returning in 1972, all the while secretly returning as they could to tend their fields and olive trees. We learn land and olive trees are regarded with much pride and affection (as if they are children), you are known for how many olive trees you have. On return from exile the villagers cooperatively helped each other rebuild their homes.
A large new Israeli settlement of Betar Illit (High town) has been built on a nearby ridge (population 80,000!!) and has caused major problems spilling raw sewage onto the Wadi Fukin farmers’ fields while denying responsibility for the spills. The construction of the settlement has provided jobs for the villagers in construction, cleaning and other menial labor which is a constant irritant to the pride of the village men.
This settlement houses mostly Orthodox Jews…American and Russian. Orthodox men do not work; they study and pray and are supported by the Israeli government.
On a positive note, the Israeli town on the other side of Wadi Fukin (built in 1993, with 30,000 people) has a very good relationship with Wadi Fukin, buying their vegetables and honey, and this Jewish town has intervened in court action to prevent “The Separation Wall” from completing construction that would cut access between the two villages, as well as helping them get action regarding the sewage issue with the newer settlement. Wadi Fukin is truly sandwiched in between these Jewish settlements.
Janet introduced us to the work of the UM Community Development Project and to the director of the community center, Ata. He introduced us to his nephew, Adel, a handsome young man in his late twenties. The two men, who each have just recently been elected to their village council, began by showing a video made about Wadi Fukin by an American Jew highlighting the difficulties Wadi Fukin has experienced in recent years, esp. explaining the raw sewage spills from Betar Illit, and the denials of the city planners for responsibility.
Adel continued, by telling the story of his arrest in the middle of the night in 2003. The entire family was brought out of the house and questioned resulting in Adel’s arrest and detention. The family was told it would be only for questioning for a “day or two” but it became a prison sentence of four years. He told of being severely interrogated for hours being pressed for names of others which he adamantly refused to name. While in prison he was elected representative of 100 other prisoners having taught himself Hebrew while incarcerated.
After release he entered university, graduating with a degree in Political Science and English Literature. While in college he discovered that Israelis harass Palestinian students by setting appointments, cancelling appointments and then resetting them over and over again to distract them from their studies and in some cases forcing them to miss exams. There are more than half a million “political prisoners” in Israel. He now lives at home with his extended family and has developed and leads a class for male youth in his village, concentrating on first aid, politics and culture, (teaching them to think critically) in a effort to provide positive encouragement for these young men, ages 16-25, to not be afraid to do something positive for their people. He is need of “a real job” as are most of the men in Wadi Fukin. His testimonial was intense and emotional for many of us.
We then picked up trash on the outside, and scraped walls inside, in preparation for spackle and paint in the coming days. This work began after drinking tea together, flavored with fresh sage, which Ata prepared for us while Adel told us his story.
In the afternoon we traveled to Beit Sahour (House of Shepherds) and visited The Chapel of the Angels dedicated to remembering the shepherds who being the least among us were who God chose to announce the birth of Jesus Christ. Per Elias, our guide, God sent the angels to announce the good news to “the most talkative people on earth”; the shepherds of this part of the world…now Beit Sahour!
Next we visited the Church of the Nativity, Circa 4th century build by Queen Helena (who also built the Church of The Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem). The church is built over the cave where Christ was born. It is opulently decorated with all manner of draping, icons and incense burners. There are beautiful gold mosaic mural fragments on the upper walls of this basilica style church. We waited in line with people from all over the world to enter the lower cave and look at the birth place and manger for a few seconds. Not at all like the stable image from most of our childhoods.
Last, but not least, we were treated to an Arab sweet delicacy “Knafeh” Elias’ favorite dessert at a busy Arab bakery. This was the most exciting food of the day! We enjoyed a lunch in Bethlehem of a hot chicken pita sandwich at Issa’s favorite place, but although quite tasty, not as spectacular as some of our earlier meals. (Someone reported reading in their guide book that Bethlehem is not noted for its food…we are not complaining…just realizing how lucky we were to have such a wonderful welcome with authentic homecooking in the early days of our stay.)
Sunday Oct 30th…another sunny day in Palestine!
7 AM Breakfast the menu is getting a little tiring but at least there are several options from the buffet. We have been fed very well through out our trip, no chance to lose a few pounds. The restaurant serves instant coffee and being from the coffee capital of the NW it’s a little hard to get it down. Fortunately the last 2 days a few of us are able to buy freshly brewed Espresso with milk ($3.00) Yummy! Worth every penny.
9AM we are off to the Greek Catholic Melkite church in Beit Sahour for Sunday Service. The church was filled with beautiful icons. There were probably 60 people in the congregation. As we entered the church we were handed a program in English; on the outside of the program it said “The Divine Liturgy of our Father John Chrysostom and inside they listed the 8 Beatitudes, I thought I would list them here since we saw them through out our visit and I find it appropriate when thinking about the Palestinians.
- Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
- Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
- Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
- Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
- Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
- Blessed are the pure in heart , for they will see God.
- Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
- Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven
The service or Mass was lead by a visiting Priest from Ireland, Fr. Michael, but he has been working in the West Bank for 8 years. The service, of course, was given in Arabic. It was a time for all of us to reflect with the beautiful music (voices only) throughout the service. We took our cues from the people around us to stand or sit. We were also reminded not to cross our legs and show the bottom of our feet; this is very insulting to whom ever sees it. I also could not take my eyes off the robe that the priest was wearing. It was made of gold silk with red geometric crosses throughout the fabric with antique gold trim(probably from Germany). I think we should consider buying one for Pastor Donna? They offered communion for those who were Catholic and being the kind and thoughtful people they are there was a young man standing at the entrance as we were leaving the church and he offered us blessed bread from a basket.
After the service the priest offered us coffee so we went into another little modest building and he told us a little about the church and the challenges of the Palestinian people. Unfortunately we didn’t get our coffee because the person who is the usual coffee maker was ill…alas, we were rushed off to the bus to keep our next appointment. Many of us would have loved hearing more of what the Priest was sharing but you can imagine herding 20 people from one location to the other.
11 AM off to Jericho. Our guide Rami told us a few stories on our way as we passed the locations of the Good Samaritan, the Valley of the Shadow of Death near the Mt of Temptation, in the barren, rugged Judean Hills. We dropped a couple thousand meters in elevation on this trip.
We arrived in Jericho, “the City of Palms, located to the westside of the Jordan River at 825 meters below sea level, known as the oldest city and the lowest city in the world! We visited the Sycamore Tree where the chief tax collector, Zachias, climbed the tree (because he was short) to get a look at Jesus…or was Jesus short…Rami says no one really knows which is true from the writing!
Jericho is the 2nd most excavated sight in Palestine next to Jerusalem being #1.
Then we were off to Qumran National Park where all the excavating took place after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls; this is where the Bedouin shepherd found the Dead Sea Scrolls and that find has changed the study of the Old Testament.
We also saw the first casino that was built in Jericho the only people who were allowed to gamble there were the Israelis; the Palestinians could work there, but not go there as patrons. In 2000 more checkpoints were put in place so the Israelis could not go there anymore, today the casino closed, but has become part of a nice hotel.
4pm. we left for the Dead Sea. A few of our group changed into their swimsuits and submerged themselves in the mud and water of the Dead Sea. They looked and acted like children frolicking in the water…along with hundreds of other playful bathers! Others waded in the water and the rest of us sat on the bank and watched as everyone was enjoying themselves. We have great pictures to prove it!! More photos to come!
In the 5:15pm darkness we started the climb out of the lowest place on earth to our current home in Bethlehem!
Tomorrow we head to our new work projects!
Another beautiful sky is greeting us this morning. The sun is bright and it’s just a tad breezy. Leaving on time for our destination was our plan but going through the check point was slow. The Prime Minister of Palestine was visiting Bethlehem this morning so we had to be patient. We actually got to see the car that he was being driven in—a beautiful, black Mercedes. Oooo lala. We also had to show our passports while a soldier came onto the bus and checked all of them. And of course, while getting mine out I dropped it down the side of my seat! YIKES! It was a woman soldier and she said “it’s okay” and went on to the next person. WHEW!
Our guide Rami is always quizzing us on the info he has shared with us over the week. And, because our brains are on over load and like mush, we can never really remember. As we were going through this check point, Rami asked, “Why do the trunks of the cars need to be checked at the check point”? He “scolded” all of us in a nice fashion for not knowing the answer. He once again reminded us that soldiers are making sure that items and products are not being purchased in the West Bank. That would be a big no, no for any Israeli with a permit to be in the West Bank. Most Israelis are not allowed into the West Bank.
Our touring for the day began in the Old City of Jerusalem. The Old City has four quarters and the Muslim quarter, which we visited mostly, is the largest of the four. We enter at Lions Gate (sometimes referred to as St Stephen’s Gate), which has two panthers on each side of the gate. Through this high arched gate we visit St. Ann’s Church. Ann is the mother of Mary (Jesus’ mother). According to tradition it is believed that a cave underneath St. Ann’s Church is the birthplace. The Crusaders built this beautiful church and is one of the many churches that was not destroyed by the Muslims. This church has a special echoing effect. Many people enter to share a song or two. Our group sang the Doxology. The harmonies and heartfelt singing brought shivers and goose bumps to many of us.
Close by St. Ann’s are the Pools of Bethesda. The two pools were main sources of water to the Temple. These pools were used to wash the sacrifices that were then sent to the Temple. Many people believed that the pools had magical powers and could heal people. After the pools were blessed by an angel, it is said that the first person to enter the pools will be healed.
The streets in the Old City are very narrow and there are many, many people walking through them. It was a little challenging getting to our next destination as we had to share these narrow streets with tractors and cars. We also had to maneuver through a bazaar (shopping area) to begin our tour of the Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrow). The Via Dolorosa takes the visitor through the 14 Stations of the Cross. Each station represents a place or an event of a sacred memory on the route where Jesus followed bearing His cross. There are only nine Stations of the Cross that are spoken about in the Bible. It would be difficult to explain all of the stations but to highlight a few we begin with Jesus being condemned to death, Jesus falling three times as he carries the cross, Jesus being nailed to the cross, Jesus dying on the cross and Jesus being laid in the tomb. I encourage you to study and explore on your own to educate yourself regarding this part of Jesus’ story. As we approached the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre (site of Jesus burial and Resurrection), the last five Stations of the Cross are within the Basilica. There are hundreds of people waiting to get into the church. Today, entering the Basilica was like a mob scene. Our guide constantly reminds us to stay together in situations like this. Keeping track of 21 people is quite the challenge! The station that is symbolized of where Jesus dies on the cross and the last station where Jesus is laid in the tomb is so crowded that it is difficult to see the beautiful altars and wonderful presentations at these stations. A very long line is formed to get close and pray at these stations. Our group did not have time for the line but we are able to walk around these stations and admire and pay our own respects to these holy sites.
Before leaving the Old City, we ate lunch at a wonderful Palestinian restaurant. Our lunch was a delightful pita sandwich, a Sharma, full of chicken, veggies and tahini sauce with the best spices imaginable for flavor. Of course, some choose our drink of choice—Pepsi.
Our afternoon is spent with an Israeli Jew, Itamar who guided us through the streets of “modern” Jerusalem. Itamar explained the complicated history of the Israel and Palestine conflict. He wants us to be aware of the historical significance of what we see as the “Holy Land” and how this conflict has been passed on generation after generation. This conflict has progressed over the years and is more and more complicated.
To hear Itamar share his point of view is a complicated story but one that needs to be shared and heard. Of course, it is all too much to record here in this blog, but IMAGINE your own state of Oregon where you have to go through check points and identifications are checked to get yourself to work, IMAGINE if you were born in Oregon but not considered a resident, IMAGINE you are at a check point and your car is searched because you are not allowed to purchase any goods or items from a particular section of Oregon, and IMAGINE you are not even allowed to drive your car in SE Portland because you were born in NE Portland. IMAGINE a separation wall that divides your own block from east and west. This is what it is like for many Palestinians.
IMAGINE a world where everyone got along and that there is world peace. There is a lot of beauty and sorrow that our group witnessed today and I believe that we will all take a hope home to Oregon with the intentions to make the world a better place….not just in our own community but globally as well.
After breakfasting in our new place and then meeting with Janet to be briefed on the more volatile environment we find ourselves in the West Bank, we climbed aboard our bus only to be waved through our first checkpoint (several blocks from the hotel) on our way to Jerusalem…for now we are back in Israel. Rami briefed us on Jerusalem, considered the most beautiful city in the world. The story goes that God created the world based on 10 measures and Jerusalem received 9 of them. But God also bestowed 10 sorrows, and Jerusalem received 9 of those as well. Jerusalem has never experienced peace! It has changed hands through the centuries—it has been destroyed 18 times, has a tunnel to the Mount of Olives, is considered the Holiest City on Earth, so many different nations and cultures have influenced from it. It has had 17 names, including ‘Navel of the world’, ironically ‘City of Peace’, ‘City of Kings’, War and Lights. It is thought that the peace is so elusive because after all of the populations living here, anyone can find God here…and considers this the most important place to find their God.
Our tour in the morning included Jerusalem, the Mount of Olives, and Gethsemane. Traffic was very congested with all the big tour buses going both directions on such narrow streets, with tourists crossing in front of the buses, trying to stay with their tour groups. We walked a great deal up and down on rough stone paths, trying to stay out of the way of vehicles, starting up at the top of the Mount of Olives with the stunning, glittering vista of the entire city, the Kidron Valley between us and walled the Old City…the walls build by Solomon the Great, and the sprawling suburbs in all directions. Some settlements were in view in East Jerusalem, and clearly against the international laws.
We were directly across the valley from the Al Aqsa Mosque, the 3rd most important site for Muslims in the world, and could hear the call to prayer and then the Friday Prayers on the loudspeaker. These Friday Prayer gatherings have been pivotal in the Arab Spring demonstrations throughout the Middle East this season. We could see well enough to know there were people on the Temple Mount outside the Mosque.
Threading our bus through the crowded streets from one side of the Kidron Valley to the other, we slowly made our way a very short distance to the Dung Gate, one of the 7 gates of the Old City. On foot now, following Rami, our bags were searched as we entered the Jewish Quarter and prayed at the Western Wall of the Temple Mount (the Wailing Wall, for the Jews, crying for their lost Temple). Many of us placed our own prayers on tiny papers into the crevices of the wall…and as is the custom, walked backward away from the wall so as to not turn our backs on those stones, which is the closest one can get to the Holy Presence of God. (These old stones hold God’s Presence for many worshippers.) Herod wanted to win favor with the occupied Jewish population, and rebuilt their first lost temple. He doubled the size of the temple, so this enormous supporting structure was needed, and the Herodian stones are evident in the base of this wall…now holding some of our prayers.
As we were finishing our time in the plaza, across the Tirobian Valley (valley through Jerusalem, evident in the slopes of the large plaza) from the wall, observing the praying men, separated from the praying women, we noted the emergence of hundreds of Israeli police, and then noticed the 16 police vans (holding 6 police each) that were parked close to the checkpoint we had entered. The police came down from two sides of the wall area; one of those exits is the recently constructed entrances that can only be used by non-Muslims for a short time on a few mornings of the week…this troop exit did not fall into that time frame! Were they up there for Friday Prayers? We wanted to photograph their shocking presence to the site, but refrained for fear of detention!
After a buffet lunch at the Alhambra Palace in Jerusalem, it was off again to nearby Bethany, east of Jerusalem…with steep vistas of valleys and rocky hillsides…another checkpoint, but we didn’t have to stop since we were leaving Jerusalem and not entering!
Our first stop was the Four Homes of Mercy, greeted by the director, Dr. Arafat. This care facility is for severe physical and mental disability patients, currently caring for 77 Palestinian people, ages 4 to 85 years old. This is a UMC Advance Project, supported by the Global Ministries of the UMC. This facility was established in 1940 by a Palestinian woman, Katharine Siksek, and eventually was moved to this site on land donated by the king of Jordan. We toured the hospital, meeting nursing staff and patients…men, women and children, none of whom are able to walk.
Currently only four of the patients pay to be there; the rest of the funding must be found from other persons or philanthropic groups since they have no government support. In fact, the staff has often gone 2-3 months without salary. The facility has 67 employees, and several volunteers and students, costing them $55,000 to $60,000 per month. Even though this is a Christian organization, they have only one patient who is Christian. Our VIM team felt privileged to be in contact with these people, and to see first-hand the work of this courageous team of medical caregivers.
A short bus ride later, still in Bethany, we walked up to the Church of the Tomb of Lazarus, and then up the steep neighborhood hill again and down the 15 rock-hewn steps to the Lazarus Tomb. We had to wait for other groups to exit the Tomb as the passage way down into it is narrow, and requires one to bend way down as one descends to walk down to get into the small place where Lazarus’s body was found and brought back to life by Jesus after having been embalmed for four days! The church is decorated with
beautiful mosaics funded by many countries depicting scenes of Jesus’ birth, life and ministry.
The end of our excursions for the day, but for our bus ride, the ‘back way’, staying in the West Bank, avoiding Jerusalem, back to Bethlehem. A longer route (as a result of the wall), but offering vistas of the steep and rugged landscape of this part of the country. Monasteries perched on hillsides above deep valleys…one valley with a rivulet running through…a rare site. An occasional Bedouin enclave with the sheep, goats and donkeys on those hillsides…beautiful end of our day.
Tomorrow we explore more deeply the Old City!
This morning, following breakfast, our group gave a standing ovation for Asmahan, our housekeeper and excellent cook. We then hauled all luggage to the bus and departed by 8:30 a.m. – a full ten minutes ahead of schedule. Before departure we also gave a heartfelt good-bye to Michael Chacour (Micha), our work crew manager.
Our first destination was Nazareth again (for the second day!) because of schedule changes the previous day. Leaving Mar Elias at Ibillin there were the typical driving challenges of narrow roads, close calls, and simply too many vehicles everywhere. Nevertheless, we successfully made our departure, owing to the skill of our driver, passing interesting sights on our way, which included a rock crusher (!) and a jail for “elite” criminals, e.g. Russian mafia, corrupt politicians, etc. They are provided with quite nice accommodations including TV and access to other amenities. It reminded us of a resort! It’s interesting to look at the destination signs written first in Hebrew, then Arabic, and then English — always in that order. Because of the large percentage of Russian Jews in Israel, there is currently an effort underway to also include Russian as the fourth official language. (Can you imagine changing all the signs in the country to include another language?)
We first arrived in Nazareth, a small town with a population at the time of Jesus of 200 – 300 inhabitants. It is now over 60,000. We visited the Roman Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation, believed to stand on the site of Mary’s home where the angel Gabriel was said to have appeared to her and announced that she would bear the Son of God. There were many mosaics donated from countries around the world. They appeared on walls inside and outside the Basilica, all of which focused on Mary. We also visited the Greek Orthodox church which believes that the annunciation of Mary took place at a well while she was fetching water.
We then drove on towards our next stop, the town of Jenin (our first West Bank destination), which is considered to be the headquarters of Palestinian resistance. This town is in one of the Palestinian areas designated “Area A”, which is off limits to Israeli Jews. Jenin was the location of some of the atrocities of the Second Intifada, after year 2000, in which there was an Israeli massacre at a refugee camp. Our goal in this town, however, was to visit Canaan Fair Trade Center, an organization begun in 2004 which was basically a union of more than 49 cooperatives of farmers to develop fair trade standards and sell their products. This organization processes and sells many varied products including, of course, its famous olive oil. It even has sold to an outlet in Portland! We were fortunate to be able to tour the entire plant and see how the products were first collected and then processed including the final step of labeling the jars ready for sale. All products are organic including such items as sun-dried tomatoes and cherry preserves. Our guide, an articulate Palestinian woman, Vivienne, represented the powerful mission of this center as regenerating the soil of Palestine and therefore regenerating the self worth. The olive oil pressing in this factory is combining ancestral knowledge with modern science and technology.
Following the tour of the processing factory, our group enjoyed a Palestinian meal. This meant sitting cross-legged outside the plant on mats and eating such delicacies as hummus ma lahem, falafel and bandura…another amazing meal…and then shopping in their gift shop for treats to bring home!
One of the final highlights of the day was a visit to Jacob’s Well in Nabulus (Samaria), thought to be the location where a Samaritan woman offered Jesus a drink of water after which he revealed to her that he was the Messiah. Inside the church of Jacob’s Well we were able to see the well (35 meters deep) and even hoist some water using a bucket on a rope. We all met the priest who was responsible for restoring a church which has been built over the site of this well.
From Nablus, we began our journey south toward Jersulalem and Bethlehem, through the countryside with terraced olive groves, the arid rocky hillsides, lovingly worked into production over centuries. Rami, our guide told us at one point, that we were traveling through the Valley of Thieves, a narrow draw where caravans were often raided moving from Damascus to Egypt on the trade route…such steep hillsides close to the road on both sides…a perfect place for an ambush! We saw our first Jewish settlements as we got closer to Jerusalem, always built by the Israeli government (all alike in a particular location), always built high on a hilltop (for security) and always red-roofed…and always on confiscated land according to international laws and UN resolutions.
Towards the end of this full day, we drove through crowded Jerusalem (right through the center of the city winding up in a traffic jam!) and then shortly to our accommodations, Mount David Hotel, in Palestine. That meant crossing our 6th checkpoint of the day, either guarded by Israeli soldiers or Palestinian soldiers.
But one last event awaited us: a party! Our dinner was celebrated in a large nearby restaurant with a stage in honor of National Elders Day for Palestinians. How fortunate we were to be there at this time. We ate Palestinian food and enjoyed watching (some of us even participated) dancing to very loud, festive Palestinian music. It was a fantastic evening!
As usual we started our day with a 7:00am breakfast, preparing for the 8:00am work session which began with Michael Chacour (Micha), the executive manager at Mar Elias. He met with our VIM team and divided us into several groups.
Group A: Archeological diggers hauled rock from a lot in the back of the school to fill a hole about 75 yards away. We used heavy bags to fill rocks and hauled them with a discarded Fred Meyer grocery cart! Hundreds of school children had the opportunity to watch this slow-going effort. (Shirley, Maxine, Marge, Richard, Leif and Phyllis worked on this team!)
Group B: Cathedral workers helped clean and move heavy church benches so the cathedral floor could be cleaned…some called this ‘pew pushing’! (Frey, Doug, Barbara, Sandy, Frances, Cally, Pat, Betty, Linda, Helena and Mark were on this duty.)
Group C: Consisting of three VIM members wrote more than 75 thank you and progress postcards to friends in Portland who have supported the VIM effort by buying shares for this trip. (Liz, Sue and Larry were the note writers!)
Group A had a delightful interruption when several hundred students spoke with Richard Colgan and Leif Terdal, the two guys who hauled rock into the grocery cart to fill a hole. Richard showed them how to do ‘high fives’. Leif took a picture of two students and showed them their image in the back of the camera. About 200 students came over as Leif took 28 photos of between two and six students per shot. The children stayed with this team until their class restarted after the break.
Group B had the pleasure of Micha’s singing Hallelluah for them, around the beautiful altar, under the newly painted dome.
We had our lunch break at the usual noon time; and then refueled from morning tasks we headed to the bus for our1:00pm departure. Our first afternoon stop was the beautiful, large city of Haifa. We stopped for some photography opportunities at the stunning Baha’i Botanical Gardens on the steep Mt Carmel hillside in the city. Haifa is a major port city on the Mediterranean. Intel has a major plant in this city, as well as other hi-tech companies. Several of us were mesmerized by the beauty of this port and the vista from the top of the hill, looking across the huge Haifa Bay to Akko, with cruise ships in port, tankers and barges out in the bay and gorgeous buildings and plantings up and down the hillside. Haifa is considered the industrial capital of Israel.
While in Haifa, our tour guide, Rami, told us that six different religions are represented in the city and they get along very well…Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Baha’i, Druze and Sufi. Rami also pointed out Mt Carmel where the prophet Elijah set up a contest between the ‘true God’ and the pagan gods. The account is given in I Kings, chapter 18. In the Biblical story 450 prophets of Baal are executed after Elijah’s true God sent fire to consume the sacrifice on the altar Elijah had constructed and the Baal gods received no fire on their altar. Elijah was then chased by pursuers and the story says he likely hid himself somewhere on the mountain, perhaps in a cave, so this mountain is associated with the prophet Elijah. (‘Carm’ means Vineyard in Hebrew, while ‘El’ means god, therefore Mt Carmel means the Vineyard of God.)
Our next stop was the fabulous Caesarea National Park in a beautiful Mediterranean coastal location, about 20 miles south of Haifa. King Herod built this large, planned city with a temple, theater (an amphitheater that could seat 4000), markets, residential quarters and Roman baths. (Herod named the city for Caesar Augustus, and gilded the city with marble.) The city also has an aqueduct that brought water from springs five miles away and a sophisticated sewer system. It was of interest for our group to be on site of the powerful Roman presence during the time of Jesus.
Back at our guest house at Mar Elias, Betty Cobb-Colgan lead a group session for us to reflect on spiritual insights while touring the Sea of Galilee religious sites as well as our travels today. We met in four groups of five each and shared our personal perspectives, reported out several thoughts from each group and then discussed common experiences.
After dinner, we enjoyed some dessert and coffee with local families. Our conversations continued for at least an hour. One educator in this group was Ahmad Fawaz who teaches history and civic studies at the high school here at Mar Elias. Some of his students have travelled to Germany on student exchanges. He would welcome such an arrangement with a school in Portland, Oregon.
Tomorrow we will stop in the holy sites of Nazareth on our way to the West Bank for our stay in Bethlehem.
We spent this gorgeous, summery day with thousands (maybe tens of thousands!) of other tourists up on the Sea of Galilee, experiencing the traditional site of the miracle of Jesus of the loaves and fishes at the Tagbha Church, then the church commemorating where Jesus delivered his Sermon on the Mount, the Primacy of Peter church which houses the rock thought to be the table Jesus used as his prepared a meal for his disciples after his resurrection (The Table of Christ), and then Capernaum, the town Jesus called home for his three years up in the Galilee while he was preaching and ministering.
With sweaty brows and red-faced overheating from the blazing sun, we climbed aboard a large, motorized wooden boat for a ride on the Sea of Galilee (which is really a freshwater lake). Though a bit hazy, we enjoyed the cooling breezes on the water, while seeing some of those religious sites of our morning explorations from this vantage point. Beyond the coast, we could see patches of irrigated crops, looking lush on the arid hillsides above the lake…brown, rocky, steep mountainsides.
Refreshed, we headed for a luscious lunch of Tilapia (local fish) and a myriad of vegetable salads that excited our palates and gave us another colorful, local culinary experience. The St. Peter Grotto restaurant is prepared for the bus loads of tourists that arrive all day during this high season, for their Galilean fare. Our tasty meal was finished with plates of fresh dates (not dried!) and a tiny sip of our favorite Arabic coffee.
An hour north we picked up Tomme, our new Palestinian friend, in Gish, his hometown since 1948, when his family and entire village, were required to leave their homes in Bir’im and make their way several miles north, up to the hilltop location of Gish with fear in their hearts. In 1953, he and many of his village friends watched as their houses were bombed by the Israeli army. We drove to the site of that Bir’im village, which has become an Israeli National Park, not commemorating the obliterated Palestinian town, but rather the site of an old synagogue (which is not situated in the direction one would expect of a Jewish synagogue). Tomme told his painful story, with love and grace from his ever hopeful heart. We walked with him through his town, as he reminisced, explaining which families had lived in these village houses, reduced to rubble now. (One of the houses was that of the family of Elias Chacour, our famous founder of this educational institute where we are staying and the story of this village is told in his book, Blood Brothers.) The villagers come to Bir’im to clean up and take care of the remnants of their once vibrant town, lovingly, so that the story will not be lost. These elderly villagers (Tomme was 21 years old in 1948) have even restored their Christian church…you’ll see a photo of Tomme telling his story in that church.
It was a touching moment as he stood in the midst of the rubble remains of his family’s home, showing us the covered hand-dug well with its still pristine water, describing his love of this place. This ended Tomme’s storytelling time with us, but we’ll carry the power of his story with us. The challenges this long established Palestinian community faced with the 1948 change in their world and their continued sense of loss of place is an important story we usually do not hear…and as you might guess, there were no other tour buses at this site!! Ours is not the usual tour of the area!
This was a day of contrasts: the inspiring morning, following in Jesus’ revolutionary footsteps and the afternoon, experiencing the sight of the results of a fearful army destroying the life of believers who had lived peacefully in their village since before the time of Jesus, Arab next to Jew.
As our bus pulled back into Ibillin in the late afternoon darkness, Rabbi Haviva Nerdaviv cut into traffic behind us, spotting us from her edge-of-town waiting spot, so as to safely find her way up the steep, winding streets (alleyways, really) up, up into Mar Elias. In meeting her, soon after settling from our day, we learned she was raised an orthodox Jew in NYC and despite the challenges of her denomination, was a determined feminist rabbinical student. She currently lives in a Galilean kibbutz.
With her husband and young family, she moved to Israel, following their Zionist upbringing, and spent ten years in Jerusalem, which she described as an ‘Anglo’ and ‘segregated’ experience. Jewish neighborhoods are segregated from Palestinian neighborhoods, often separated only by a street that is rarely crossed by ‘the other’. While in Jerusalem, her children participated in ‘Kids for Peace’ (Jewish, Christian and Moslem children camping together in the US), she was privately ordained a rabbi after becoming a Conservative Jew and her family found many ways to work for peace. She wanted to work in a denomination of Judaism that would allow for full egalitarian leadership potential for women, and that required a move from her Orthodox roots.
Although their kibbutz is left-leaning, all are Jewish; they are situated very close to the Palestinian town of Kfar Manda, our first stop when we arrived on Sunday. Surprising to her, segregation is still present here in this more rural Israel. She and her family use medical services in the Palestinian town and her children attend school with Palestinian children, but this is not the norm. Jews fear the Palestinians, even her progressive Jewish population; the idea that all Palestinians may be terrorists seems ever present.
Haviva has encouraged several Jewish women to join her in weaving baskets with the Sindyanna Palestinian women weavers…we were hosted by these weavers at our first luncheon her in Israel. Weekly they join together, however language is a bit of a barrier, requiring translators, since few of the Arab women speak Hebrew and few Jewish women speak Arabic. (Haviva is learning Arabic with her 10 year old daughter, as ‘she is embarrassed that she cannot fully communicate with these women she has grown to appreciate as dear friends’.)
She told the story that on the day of the flotilla attack in the Mediterranean off of the coast of Gaza, the Sindyanna women, Arab and Jewish, were weaving together, not yet knowing of the attack. Jewish cellphones rang, fearfully calling the women to come home. Haviva stayed! She stayed with the Arab women feeling as though she was right where she wanted to be and that it would have an affront to her friendships to leave these women in fear.’
Haviva summed up her message by describing herself as a ‘post-denominational’ rabbi, committed to serving all, egalitarian in her faith, recognizing the humanity of every person. She will remain in Israel, although no longer Zionist, ‘as long as she feels she can do things for peace, small as they might be, one friendship at a time, to honor and eventually alleviate the tension each feels in their current situation.’
Haviva is a generous, brilliant, loving Israeli woman, who exposed her own tensions and humanity so beautifully as to expose the heart of the challenge in this complicated culture with tortured histories…an end to a huge day of complicated contrasts.
We are all up for breakfast at 7:00. Some of us slept soundly all night while others awoke as early as 3:00 or 4:00am. I lay awake from midnight ‘til I finally got up at 6:00am. Jet lag! At 8:00 we walked through the parking area where groups of school children were gathering for their day’s classes. Our guide for the morning was Michael Chacour (Micha), executive director at Mar Elias. He is justifiably proud of the accomplishments of the school and its students. (Michael is the nephew of the visionary founder of this educational institution, Elias Chacour.)
The elementary school, which meets in the first three floors of the building where our group is staying, opened in 1982 with 18 students. Now there are over 1500 students. Likewise, the high school now has 1252 students, who come from 65 Arab, Jewish and Christian villages in Galilee. Students excel in English, computers and communication.
The campus also includes a middle school, a kindergarten and even a childcare center for the children of teachers here at these campus schools. About 70% of the students are Moslem, and 30% Christian, and a few Jewish. There is a staff of 250, including some Jewish teachers, Micha tells us that 75 to 80 of the staff have Ph.D. degrees, and that the Christians are the highest educated minority in Israel.
Micha next led us to the recently constructed church. He had planned on our helping with the final painting, but perhaps realized our mostly senior-citizen group couldn’t work on the ladders and scaffolding?…in any case, instead of putting us to work on a painting project, he chose to spend the next two hours touring us through the church, pointing out the numerous icons pointed on the walls, and discussing the focus of the church. It is called Church of the Sermon on Mount, follows Eastern Orthodox traditions, but is a Greek Catholic church…a Melkite church (a new term to some of us)! The liturgy is spoken in Arabic…a Greek Catholic church, under the umbrella of the Roman Catholic church with Arabic worship services! Quite ecumenical!
We were all relieved to hear Micha say that it is more important for us to learn about the church and the school than to do the ‘work’ projects. Most, if not all, of us appreciate the emphasis of the church on nonviolence.
But we did do some hard work for an hour this morning – a sweat-inducing cleanup project involving shoveling rock and gravel that slid down a rock cliff behind the elementary school, scooping it into buckets, pouring the contents of those buckets into large canvas bags, toting those bags to a grocery cart, pushing that cart up a steep sidewalk and dumping it into an area in need of fill…some spreading of the material after depositing also.
After lunch, we met our new guide, Rami, who is one of only 43 Palestinian guides authorized to operate in Israel. We went by bus into the Galilean countryside, past rolling hills, citrus orchards, olive groves, rocky fields, small villages and even a farm with cattle.
We spent about two hours at a national park, called Sephoris in Hebrew and Zippori in Arabic. The name means “birds-eye-view”. This is the area where Mary, mother of Jesus, grew up. It is also a Roman archaeological site. The sons of Herod the Great built Sephoris. We walked into a huge cistern which stored water brought from springs 4 – 5 km away by aqueduct. It is thought that perhaps Jesus and his father Joseph participated in this massive building project, as builders.
In the ruins of a Roman bath house are beautifully maintained mosaics from the first century A.D. One large mosaic depicts an ancient celebration of the Nile River rising above its usual high water mark…our guide called it the Nile-o-meter!! We walked higher on this hill to the partially restored ruins of a Roman mansion which featured a huge room size mosaic, including the face of a beautiful woman, referred to as the Mona Lisa of Galilee. This fancy Roman home of a wealthy family overlooks surrounding farms, orchards and village. In this vista, Rami pointed out a kibbutz built on the site of a Palestinian town destroyed in 1948 when Jewish settlers came. At the very top of the hill we explored a Crusader fortress, built from Roman ruins, including sarcophagi, used as cornerstones and as blocks here and there in this stone citadel.
As had Micha in the morning, Rami spoke of discrimination against the Palestinians who live in Israel. For example, 15% of the available water is allotted to Palestinians and 85% to the Israelis. There are many additional challenges for Arab-Israelis regarding building permits, school qualifying exams and other differences in treatment between the Jewish population living in Israel and these Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian.
Heavy traffic caused us to postpone our planned trip to Bir’in in Upper Galilee and we returned to Mar Elias as the sun was setting. We’ll get Bir’in tomorrow… we are anticipating a day on the Sea of Galilee!
Our food, again today, was tasty, homemade fare cooked and served by Esmahan, the caretaker of this building and us, while we are in her care! Beef kebabs, seasoned with cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice, mashed potatoes, cabbage and parsley slaw with the lemon juice/ olive oil dressing that is so common here, and barekas (cheese filled, savory bites of phyllo) filled us up at dinner. Lunch and breakfast included the local pita, yogurt and zat’ar flavors…authentic of the neighborhood. Most of us are already addicted to the Arabic coffee, served after every meal…some of us hope to find some to share with you when we get home!
Greetings from Mar Elias Educational Institutions (which is a UM Board of Global Ministries Advance Project) in Ibillin in Lower Galilee! We are so grateful for our team of Janet Lahr Lewis and Elias Ghareeb who met us with a bus and great welcome as we wearily emerged from customs at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport. (Happy to report a totally uneventful customs experience!)
We are writing at 9:15pm after a lovely dinner of homemade food and a rooftop tour of the town of Ibillin. In the darkness we can see the lights of Haifa to the southwest, the string of lights along the shore, Mt. Carmel to the south and then this campus of Mar Elias, perched on this rocky hillside. This is a combination of eight buildings that provide education for almost 4000 students, kindergarten through ‘college’ age Palestinian students, conceived from the vision and unvavering dedication of Elias Chacour, a champion of the Palestinian cause for justice and equality.
We are housed on the top floor of the campus guest house, and are ready for bed! Most have been up over 30 hours at this point…maybe a bit of sleep on the flight from Toronto to Tel Aviv…thank goodness for airplane movies!
We traveled north out of Tel Aviv on route 6 to the Arab-Israeli village of Kfar Manda, to enjoy lunch with the Palestinian women of Sindyanna. Tabbouli salad, hummus with Sindyanna’s organic olive oil, fresh pita bread and bulghar with eggplant, peppers and onions was our first real meal of this VIM journey, beautifully prepared and so satisfying to our palates after the airline food. The meal was followed by a tiny cup of delicious Arabic coffee, flavored with cardamom and a touch of sugar.
After lunch and shopping in the basket and olive oil shop at Sindyanna (which is a UMC Partner Project), we experienced a bus ride through alley-way streets just wide enough for our bus…and almost not wide enough! Exciting! A short bus ride to Ibillin, to unpack and explore before the delicious supper and our orientation. Many of us nodded off as we rode our bus and strained to stay alert for the important info Janet had to offer.
We are missing Dee!! We thank you for your wonderful work in getting this trip organized and are so grateful for all you did to prepare us! We are all wishing you well, and thinking of you with love.
Until tomorrow…your VIM team in Israel/Palestine.