Friday, May 27, 2011

Israel Palestine

I spent the last two weeks in Israel/Palestine with Brother Li Wei. We were disappointed that our peace initiative did not resolve the situation there, but the trip was otherwise a great success.

                                    Jerusalem's Wall

                                  The Tower of David

Jerusalem is a city well worth visiting, even for the godless. It’s surrounded on all sides by an Ottoman-era wall, and internally it’s crisscrossed with narrow lanes and alleyways in which it is easy to get lost, which we occasionally did. At one point we stumbled upon the Church of the Holy Sepulcher which, according to those who know, stands on what used to be Calvary and the tomb from which Jesus arose.

                                          Old City Lane

As we struggled to find our way out of the city, we gradually realized that we were following the Stations of the Cross, but in reverse order. I’m hoping this won’t be interpreted by the celestial authorities as a devilish ritual, like the black masses that Satan supposedly oversaw in medieval times.

We hoped to visit the Wailing Wall and the Dome of the Rock one day, but were told these sites were closed. Why? “There is a problem,” one heavily armed Israeli soldier told us. In fact, there are heavily armed soldiers regularly patrolling the streets of Jerusalem, but on this particular day the place was truly swarming with them, and with uniformed police. We learned later that this was due to the Palestinians marking of Nakba Day, the Day of Catastrophe, which is their term for the founding of Israel. There had, in fact, been some disturbances in different parts of the country, including in the Golan Heights where some Palestinians were killed by Israeli soldiers as they attempted to cross the Syrian border.

We did eventually get to see the Wailing Wall and the Dome of the Rock on a more relaxed day.

                                  Wailing Wall

                                Dome of the Rock

It seemed to us that Jerusalem and the nearby towns were more tense than other parts of the country. There were far more people dressed in garb that suggested serious religious devotion and the great majority of Palestinian women in Jerusalem covered their hair with a hijab.

                        Jerusalem: T-shirts for Tourists

                                     More T-shirts

One thing that surprised me was the way some of the young Palestinians managed to dress very flirtatiously despite their de rigueur head covering. One young lady we passed on the street wore skin-tight Levis along with her modest hijab. Another wore a rather tight, black, sheath-like dress adorned with a glittery silver belt that hung across her hip line in a way that seemed designed to draw attention. For some of these young women the head coverings appeared to be an ethnic marker indicating loyalty to the Palestinian cause rather than modesty per se.

Major sources of tension in the Jerusalem area are some of the aggressively placed Israeli settlements. Some of these are clearly established with the intention of making life more difficult for the Palestinians, and these pointedly aggressive settlements are generally occupied by Israelis with serious religious notions about God having given this land to them.

I never trust people who claim that God gave them some piece of land. In fact, I’m waiting for some group to get up and leave their homeland saying, “Well, we got a message from God, and he told us he gave this land to that other group, so off we go.” No. It’s always, God gave it to us! Is God just being mischievous when he tells one group that they should take over a piece of land while neglecting to tell the people already living there what he has in store?

Let’s face it: claiming that God, like some sort of divine real estate agent, has given you the right to occupy an already occupied territory is just a way to justify bullying the people living there. As a rule, I consider all self-serving policy goals that claim justification from God as products of either gross self-delusion or outright lying. That's why I see the ultra-orthodox settlements planted in the heart of Palestinian lands as particularly ugly.

Israel, of course, is a dream come true for Jews all over the world. And at the center of the dream is the Old City of Jerusalem. Many of us who are not Jewish find the story of Israel's creation inspirational in many ways. So here's a toast to the fulfillment of that dream - "Next year in Jerusalem."

But, the Palestinians...

The displacement of thousands of Palestinians in the creation of Israel has been an injustice and a tragedy. It doesn't have to be an unending tragedy, but the intentionally belligerent settlements virtually ensure that it will be. Expect more violence because of them.

Away from Jerusalem we did find attitudes much more relaxed. In Haifa, particularly, people seemed truly dedicated to a “live and let live” philosophy. Appropriately, this is where the all-inclusive Baha’i faith has established a beautiful garden on the slopes of Mount Carmel.

Looking down on the Baha'i Garden on Mount Carmel

                             A Part of the Garden

But some security was apparently felt to be necessary, for we encountered a group of very nice young Israeli soldiers on our way to the garden whose weaponry must have weighed about as much as they did. They were very helpful to us and happily posed for pictures.

          Li Wei with Friendly Soldier Lasses

The Golan Heights was an interesting area, partly because of the leftover traces of the 1967 war in which Israel took that territory from the Syrians. But, like all of Israel and Palestine, it had much more than this to offer. There were Druze communities, where some of the men wore distinctive headgear, and an ancient fortress, named after Nimrod, that overlooked a trade route.

             Golan Heights: Remains of a Tank

In order to get to the Golan Heights, we drove across the West Bank getting lost a couple of times, once on the outskirts of Ramallah, and again near Nablus. In Ramallah, we encountered the notorious wall that cuts into the West Bank and which boasted reams of graffiti – some serious and political, some frivolous.

         The Security Wall North of Jerusalem

  Palestinian Guards at a Nablus Checkpoint

Every time we crossed from Israeli territory into Palestinian-controlled territory, or vice-versa, we had to go through a checkpoint. But almost everybody was uniformly pleasant, whether Israeli or Palestinian. An exception was one particularly steely-eyed female Israeli guard near the Jordan River who questioned us closely. Oh yeah, and there was the gruff guard who was reluctant to let us into the “Clandestine Immigration and Naval Museum” in Haifa. When he checked my passport and noticed I had been to Morocco, he demanded to know why I went there. He ultimately let us in, though, maybe because I told him I had been in the U.S. Navy, which is not entirely untrue.

Over all, it was a very enlightening trip, but if we’re going to solve things there, Li Wei and I are probably going to have to make another visit some day.