Dr. Yorty's Israel Trip Blog
Members of Westminster and I, along with clergy and members of North Presbyterian Church, Temple Beth Zion, and Congregation Shir Shalom, left for Israel this past Sunday, January 8th, from Toronto. We will be returning on Thursday, January 19
The purpose of our trip is to visit the important Jewish and Christian holy sites, as well as meet with and interview representative persons as we and seek to understand different perspectives on the geo-political issues currently dividing Israel. Our trip will take us from Galilee in the north to Jerusalem and Tel Avivand then the Dead Sea in the south. I will be writing a daily post of our experience that will highlight both the inspiring religious sites and insights from our meetings and conversations with Israeli and Palestinian Muslims, Jews, and Christians.
This dual-focus encounter with the state, the land, and the people of Israel, seen through the lens of our interfaith group from Buffalo, promises to be a rich and deeply rewarding experience. I hope you will find a few minutes to join us each day through the pictures and people I will be reporting about.
After a relatively smooth 12 hour flight which took us over the spectacular Alps and landed in Tel Aviv at 1:30pm Israeli time, we gathered our stalwart Jewish/Christian geo-political tour group, met our excellent guide, Yael (a young mother of three and former Israeli soldier), and took our bus to Joffa -- the southern side of Tel Aviv at the eastern most end of the Mediterranean Sea.
The two photos attached were taken on a 'tel' or hill -- the highest point of Joffa -- created after four thousand years of civilizations building on top of one another. The 'team photo' of our travelers from Westminster, North Presbyterian, Temple Beth Zion and Congregation Shir Shalom was after a walking tour of the narrow streets and alleys of Joffa -- most of it built four hundred years ago by the Ottoman Turks.
Legend says that Joffa was created after the flood and later served as an important port for Jerusalem -- about 35 miles to the east. We visited the house of Simon the tanner who hosted the Apostle Peter who had a vision of a sheet being lowered from heaven and God saying 'take and eat -- nothing I have created is unclean.' This was the first move of the emerging Christian faith away from its Jewish origins and kosher laws and opened Christianity to the gentile world. Consequently, the Church of St. Peter faces not east to Jerusalem as most Christian churches do, but west indicating it was here, where Peter had his dream, that the gospel became available to the outside world.
Tel Aviv on the other hand is a mere 103 years old and a burgeoning metropolis (400,000) that is growing fast. I counted ten overhead cranes on the horizon. It is Israel's most cosmopolitan, secular city. So on day one we witnessed the new and the old side by side which will be the ongoing theme of our trip.
After dinner at our hotel, the Dan Panorama located on the beach at Tel Aviv -- an amazing, pull-out-the-stops affair that felt Iike a reward for our long flight (which ran out of coffee!), we were privileged to hear our first speaker -- an Israeli Air Force Lt. Col. who specializes in strategic affairs and intelligence. He framed the issues we will be discussing and hearing many different voices expound upon as we move around this amazing country.
'Complex' is the take away. When someone asked the colonel what a 'map of a two state' Israel and Palestine would look like he said he was unable from a strategic perspective to imagine one. Not that he was opposed to that proposed solution, but simply that he couldn't, in today's world, imagine a militarily defensible arrangement for a Palestinian state situated side by side with an Israeli one. Yet, he was clearly hopeful that such a plan would come about. One key factor he recognized was the importance of leadership. His ultimate solution -- and he was serious -- to the problems between Israel and Palestine is to elect more women to political office -- "they would sit down and figure out how we could all live together" he said. It was a sobering, intriguing introduction to the next ten days.
Tomorrow: a morning jog along the Mediterranean then exploring Tuesday's theme -- "The Mosaic -- Living together"; we will visit an area rich in the complex narratives of the War of Independence (1948) -- stopping at a Jewish Youth Village, the Damchash Mosque and St. Georege's Church. In the evening we will have dinner and hear our speaker in an Israeli Arab neighborhood.
Join us again tomorrow!
My morning run down the coast before the sun came up took me into a commercial fishing marina as I watched men carry nets and containers of diesel fuel to their boats; when I turned to head back to the hotel the eastern sides of Tel Aviv's skyscrapers were just then illuminated by the rising sun -- a glorious scene. Lots of company on the boardwalk -- mostly joggers, some walkers and about a dozen surfers catching the waves off shore.
After another amazing Israeli meal (breakfast with everything from chocolate croissants to pesto, fish, cheeses, omelets, 'American waffles' and more) we started our trek to Lod -- an ancient small city next door to Tel Aviv -- with a poem by the great, late Israeli poet laureate Yehuda Amichai. The poem seemed an apt follow up to Lt. Col. Reuben Ben Shalom's talk the night before, the last stanza of which I quote here, "And they'll beat swords into plowshares and plowshares into swords,/ and so on and so on, and back and forth./ Perhaps from being beaten thinner/ and thinner, the iron of hatred will vanish, forever." Amichai's poetry, inspired by biblical stories and contemporary events beginning with the War of 1948, provide a poignant start to our days.
Our first stop in Lod was at Ben Shemen Youth Village -- Israel's largest youth home -- ages first grade through high school, plus a program for post graduates until they enter college or the job market. What makes this residential program of interest is its pluralism -- accepting students of any race or creed. Currently there are 450 Jewish, Muslim, and Christian kids in Ben Shemen Village, which will be 90 years old this year. If one or both parents at home are unable to provide adequate care for their children, children are referred there through the Ministry of Welfare. The late Israeli leader Shimon Peres was a graduate of the school; not surprisingly more than a few other current important government and business leaders learned responsibility and leadership skills as Ben Shemen students.
Next we went into the city of Lod which played an important part in the 1948 War of Independence. The War began in November of 1947 when Israel declared independence upon the anticipated conclusion of British rule and announced the new homeland for Jews, following the Holocaust -- a vision inspired by Theodore Herzel.
Historically, Lod was populated mostly by Arabs, until the British were about to leave in 1948 and the United Nations stepped in to draw up boundaries of partition for Lod's Arab and Jewish residents. Disagreements about who deserved which portions of the land immediately broke out and several Jews were murdered causing the remaining Jews to flee. The Israel Defense Forces arrived to secure Lod which provoked five Arab nations to join the fight against the Zionists. Fortunately, the fighting did not last long and the War "concluded" in July of 1948. Israeli Jews will tell you today that the fight for independence has never ceased and continues even now, whenever the legitimacy of the State of Israel is challenged by terrorists or the growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement.
Today Lod is about 55% Arab and 45% Jewish. The attached photo is of the market we visited, where Arabs and Jews are buying from and selling to each other. It is a peaceful, even friendly co-existence. After winding through the market we ventured a few blocks to the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George - slayer of the dragon - and the Damchash Mosque, known in Lod as the "Great Mosque." Notice in the photo the proximity of the cross to the minaret -- they are parts of the same building. Just as we arrived we heard the noontime call to Muslim prayer then entered the Church of St. George. George, you may recall, was a 4th century Roman soldier who converted to Christianity and stood by his faith when soldiers were required to declare their primary allegiance to Caesar. George refused and was executed. His body was brought back to Lod -- his hometown -- and he is buried in a crypt beneath the church. The dragon story involves a girl and a romance, and is worth googling!
The present Church of St. George is the fifth building standing on that spot after its predecessors were razed by Muslims, rebuilt by Crusaders, razed, and built again -- I thought of Amichai's 'iron of hatred vanishing forever' as we toured the church and also when we heard the story of Arab Jewish fighting in 1948, and all the wars since.
Our last stop of the afternoon, after walking an open air arts and crafts market in Tel Aviv easily the size of the Allentown Fair, was the location of the founding of the city. In 1909, Tel Aviv was founded by 66 families who drew lots to receive their portion of what was then desert. The picture of the picture of a crowd of people standing together was taken on that significant day when Herzel's Zionist dream of 'changing the landscape' was but a dream. Today, the monument in front of which that picture is being held marks the spot where the 66 families gathered is in the middle of a thriving, bustling urban metropolis -- a tribute to the success of Herzel's vision and the remarkable courage, dedication, and hard work of the Israeli people.
Finally, we made our way, about seven blocks, back to our hotel. The picture of the bridal couple kissing was taken on a whim as we walked through an alley in Tel Aviv that is under construction and the perfect spot for a hipster photo shoot. The photographer, after recruiting us to be props for his picture, instructed us to cover our eyes with our hands as the nice young couple kissed.
Dinner tonight was at a new 'studio restaurant' owned and operated by a young Jewish chef (trained in France) who located his dining room in what was an industrial center now being 're-purposed' and reminded some of us of the Tri-main Building. The dinner was a culinary event and the chef told us that he was attracted to the spot because it is emerging as a hip location, but he also told us it happens to be in the middle of the neighborhood where Arabs lived before they fled after the 1948 war. Interestingly, the Israeli government considers the land to be still 'owned' by those Arabs under the UN policy of "The Right of Return," and is legally 'holding' the land until the original Arab residents or their descendants can prove with documentation their ownership of the property. The 'Catch 22' is that no documents seem to be able to be found, yet the land remains held 'in escrow.'
Another fascinating day juxtaposing the new and the old -- saturated with stories of conflict and violence, yet marked by the visible, daily mosaic Israel manages to create of Arabs and Jews living together.
Join us again tomorrow!
Yael, our guide, informed us last night we were to report to the bus no later than 7:40am today. All present, we made our way north against the incoming rush hour traffic invading Tel Aviv. Over a million people work in the city each day. The north side of the metro area is the location of Israel's tech industry. Both sides of the six lane highway are lined with attractive, new, high tech industrial parks. Add to that more overhead cranes than I can remember seeing anywhere and solar panels on virtually all residential and business buildings and you get the impression that Israel is enjoying a robust period of smart economic growth which is, in fact, very much the case.
Our itinerary today would take us to the ancient seaside town of Caesarea (where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a home) to visit first century Roman and eleventh century Crusader ruins, further north past Israel's third largest city Netanya (where French Jews represent the greatest number of new Jewish immigrants to Israel--a disturbing trend given that many Jews do not feel safe in France); on to Giv'at Haviva --a renowned center for peace training and dialogue between younger Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews and located on the "Green Line," then to Acre to visit the Arab-Jewish community center and its inspiring founder Dr. Muhamed Fahili. Our last stop, Tiberius, where we will be for two days, is located on the western side of the Sea of Galilee.
The ruins at Caesarea reach back to the reign of King Herod (36BCE - 4CE) -- a brilliant, flamboyant builder of some of Israel's most prized ancient sites, including this seaside city, a tenth of which has been excavated. In addition to his huge palace, which is now mostly underwater at the edge of the shore line where mosaic floor designs are visible just beneath the crashing waves, Herod's seaside estate included an amphitheater in remarkably fine condition, a hippodrome -- scene of chariot races and gladiator contests -- and the surrounding excavated ruins of the city, all in white plaster covering the local sandstone in order to imitate Rome's marble structures. Side by side with Herod's residence and arenas are French Crusader ruins from the late eleventh century, still much intact to reveal the ambition and mission of the Crusaders to rebuild the Holy Land.
Caesarea is important to Christians for at least two reasons: it was here that the Roman officer Cornelius summoned the Apostle Peter to share with Cornelius and his household the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We had just visited Simon the tanner's house in Joffa a few days before, where Peter had a dream that allowed him to carry the Gospel into the household of a gentile. Also, discovered at Caesarea and pictured above, is a plaque that pays tribute to the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate -- confirming the historical existence of this important player in the last week of Jesus' life.
After Caesarea, we spent the rest of the day visiting Israel's West Bank, learning how this geographical region shapes, in part, the ongoing Arab Israeli conflicts. In many ways, today was our most significant encounter with Israel's geo-political challenges. Lydia Aisenberg, a 71 year old British born peace activist met us at Ga'vit Haviva -- a peace center where she has worked for over thirty years. Ga'vit Haviva is named in memory and continues the work of two Eastern European Jewish women who were executed in WWII for helping to save Allied pilots who were shot down behind enemy lines. Ms. Aisenberg, a journalist by training, uses her professional skills to tell the stories of Arab and Jewish communities and individuals whose lives have been profoundly altered by the chronic fighting between these indigenous peoples.
She speaks, as have all of the presenters we have heard so far, with deep passion and conviction that peace is possible. Still, she has no illusions about it being easy or short term. Her four sons earned officer rank in Israel's elite special forces. It was clear that Ms. Aisenberg, like so many Arabs and Jews, has been deeply personally touched by the wars and intifada since 1948 as one of her sons is now "an invalid."
The first part of her presentation used a map to explain how the Green Line (because it was first drawn in green) defines the problems that exist today between Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews. The formal name of the Green Line is the Mandated Line of Partition also referred to as the "Seam Line" or just "boundary" or "divide." It was created in 1949 under the auspices of the UN and the leadership of American diplomat Ralph Bunche, who brought together representatives from the region. Ever since the line was drawn it has been problematic for both sides. In the War of 1967, Israel took back the territory separated by the line (on a map known as Samaria on the northern end and Judea on the souther end). Today the fence of separation follows the Green Line and enables the Israeli government to monitor the coming and going of Palestinian Arabs who live behind the line or in the region known as the West Bank (because it is on the western side of Israel and banks against Jordan to the west). The fence was initially constructed to staunch the rising tide of suicide bombers who were showing up at Israeli shopping center and social events. The irony is that while the fence has been successful in slowing acts of terrorism against Israelis it compounds the festering hostilities between both sides.
Travel back and forth across the line, for Palestinians, occurs through checkpoints at which they must show their papers identifying themselves, their residence, occupation, and other information. If a West Bank Palestinian is found outside of the area where he or she is permitted to travel they can be arrested, fined, and imprisoned. After Ms. Aisenberg's map lecture she led us on a bus tour along the Green line. We stopped and disembarked in the town of West Barta'a -- located in the State of Israel but on the border with the West Bank. Just across the line to the east is East Barta'a. Actually, this town was split in two by a mistake that was made when the line was drawn. Ms. Aisenberg introduced us to a Palestinian cab driver from East Barta'a who showed us his papers that gave him permission to be in West Barta'a. She then took us to the rooftop of a building in West Barta'a so that we could see into East Barta'a and other parts of the West Bank. With us was a fruit vendor who lives deep in the West Bank in the town of Jenin -- he told us, through her translation, of the challenges he faces each day getting to and from work.
In the northern end of the West Bank are several Jewish settlements -- three just outside the Green Line and several just inside. These settlements present an obstacle to the "two state" solution -- creating an Israeli state and a Palestinian state -- since it is assumed Jews inside the West Bank would not want to live under the rule of a Palestinian government. Other settlements have been or are being built further south in the southern end of the West Bank and in East Jerusalem.
Before we dropped Ms. Aisenberg off she told us a story of a bus carrying Jews that was bombed by a Palestinian terrorist killing thirty people. She was actually on the other side of the road from where the bombing took place that day, and has resolved to work as long as she was able for peace, lest the bomber be victorious in establishing permanent separation and hostility. This resolve to work for a "better day" in the face of violence was expressed by many of our presenters.
Our last stop was in the town of Acre to the Arab Jewish Youth Center. Dr. Muhumed Fahili, the founder, told us his story of being displaced by the 1948 war and his family moved to this town while their former home was confiscated by the Israeli government. "Fahili," as he likes to be called since there are so many "Mohameds," told us his life was changed when a Jewish businessman offered him an opportunity to work, and another Jewish businessman brought him to the US for employment. When he left the US to come home, his one, primary vision and goal was to "give back"--not just to Arab children, but to Jewish kids as well. Twenty five years ago he founded his center which today serves over 600 children per week from first grade through high school. Fahili's solution is simple -- educate children, give them opportunities to explore the arts, sports and to do so in the mixed company of Arabs and Jews and they will discover that they are each human, each like many of the same things, and each experience the same feelings, hopes, and dreams. His assistant told us she came nine years ago to help administer the program and thought she would give one year, but was so inspired by Fahili's vision and work that she decided to stay.
There is something about all of the people we met and talked with that conveys a deep sense of calling. They do what they do not as a job or as work but because, I believe, they could not, not do what they are doing. When someone in the group asked Fahili about progress he said "We are still a young nation, Israel needs time to figure things out. Look at the United States and the issues you have dealt with--like racism. It didn't get solved over night. It took time." We all shook our heads in agreement. A reasonable point, we agreed. I just hope there is time to 'figure things out' before the conditions on the ground reach some dark point of no return.
But then that's why we need each other -- to lift each other up when one of us falls down, to keep hope alive. Rabbi Alex Lazarus Klein offered his own poem this morning after reading one by Yehuda Amichai. "There is an answer to the problem/that you face/it's easy/Just walk to the end of the room/you are in/Open the door/Travel to the nearest port/Go across the sea/To another continent/And there find a city or a town or/a small village/Your answer lies/So tantalizingly close/The people there will know/I promise/It's something they've always/known/An it turns out the solution is/easy/You just have to observe, watch,/Listen/You'll wonder why no one was able to solve it before/And the amazing thing is that this/ would be true/no matter when you are living/or where you are/In the entirety of the/ world."
Tomorrow we venture in the region surrounding the Sea of Galilee -- where the Sermon on the Mount was preached and modern faces its northern neighbor, Lebanon, now ruled by the terrorist group Hezbollah.
If you ever come to Israel I encourage you to begin each day with Yehuda Amichai, the great Israeli poet laureate. His voice captures the land, the people, and the struggle of this place; his words and images have a way, if not always of making sense, then of coming to terms, as a human being, with the stark opposites and persistent ambiguities of Israel.
Today, Pastor Bill Hennessy chose to read to us Amichai's poem "My Child Wafts Peace." My child wafts peace./When I lean over him./It is not just the smell of soap./All the people were children wafting peace./(And in the whole land, not even one/Millstone remained that still turned./Oh, the land torn like clothes/That can't be mended./Hard, lonely fathers even in the cave of the/Makhpela*/Childless silence./My child wafts peace./His mother's womb promised him/What God cannot/Promise us. *burial place in Hebron of Abraham and other Patriarchs and Matriarchs of Israel.
Since we arrived last night after dark when we could not see much, the view this morning of The Galilee -- the lake and surrounding hills -- was the best possible greeting we could have asked for. Our first stop was to the regional Galilee museum that holds the famous 2000 year old Galilee boat that was recovered just several years ago. We saw a movie of the discovery, reclamation from the mud shallows of the lake, and the restoring of the boat. It was a remarkable account of how two local fishermen found the haunting structure, once so common on the waters of Galilee.
We then went on to the Franciscan Church of the Beatitudes located on the northern end of the lake, on the side of a hill overlooking this beautiful body of water. Before entering the church -- a 20th century structure -- Bill Hennessy and I talked with our group about seeing and interpreting such holy sites. We discussed historical criticism -- a method of analyzing the biblical text developed in the 19th century. This approach does not offer a literal interpretation of the events of Jesus' life (several of which we were going to see today) but it reads the Bible (and therefore the physical location of where the stories of the Bible take place) as a human document, which was written for specific reasons, to a specific audience, a generation after Jesus' resurrection. It uses the methods of science -- dating, literary and textual analysis -- to evaluate the biblical document. Yet, while this way of interpretation can "strip" the text of literal, pre-conceived notions it can also unlock the transforming relevance and power of stories like the Sermon on the Mount or the Feeding of the 5,000.
Alice Joseffer talked eloquently about the meaning of the story of the feeding of the 5,000. For her it is a parable of God's abundance and our willingness to give of what we have. She also reminded us that these stories are not commonly known by most people even though they are familiar to some of us.
Our next visit was to the church of Tabgha, or the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes. Just as with all the other churches located on the alleged places where Jesus preached or performed a miracle, the point is not so much 'this is the exact location where Jesus did this or said that' as much as it is a representative location where Jesus did his teaching and healing. One of the major values of visiting Israel and the holy sites is to gauge the physical size and location of Jesus' ministry and be better able to envision what it must have been like to encounter him in this land.
Our last visit of the day to an ancient site was to a second century synagogue in Capernaum - Jesus' 'headquarters' in the Galilee. The restored synagogue is constructed over the foundation of the first century synagogue Jesus would very likely have entered. Though Jesus did not visit this second century structure we were gathered in, he no doubt spent time in and around the synagogue and its gardens in its first century form. Also located nearby are the ruins of the house of Peter's mother in law, over which a modern church is constructed so that it appears to be floating over the ruins themselves. Inside you can see through a glass floor into the excavated site. Capernaum is an important New Testament location given the many important references to Jesus' activity in and around the town and is often thought of as his "headquarters."
After lunch at a nearby eatery that featured "St. Peter's" fish -- a main source of fresh water farming in this lake -- we made our way north to the Misgav Am Kibbutz. The drive is a winding ascent into the mountains that border Israel and Lebanon and rise above the northern most reaches of Israel, including the Hula Valley (also known as 'the finger of Galilee.') On the way into the mountains we could see across the valley floor the foothills and massive, snow capped Mt. Hermon. It is a spectacular site covered with snow and rising into the clouded horizon. The snows of Mt. Hermon are the primary source of water for Israel -- the snow melts and descends above and underground through limestone to form the mouth of the Jordan River that ultimately feeds the Sea of Galilee and flows south to the Dead Sea.
Our destination -- Misgav Am Kibbutz -- was the location for our visit and geo-political lecture of the day. Once atop the mountain, we were met at an electronic gate by a kibbutz member who rode with us and guided the bus into the kibbutz to their lookout post perched at the tip of the property just yards away from a barbed wire fence that marked the border of Lebanon. To the east and quite visible was Syria and the Golan Heights and on a clear day even the Mediterranean is visible in the distant west.
This kibbutz high in the mountains of northern most Israel serves as a lookout post for the Israeli army and is equipped with a detachment of armed military to protect the government assets for looking and listening to Israel's neighbors. The soldiers are not there to protect the Kibbutz. That is a task the members of Misgav Am are quite capable of, as many of them are Israeli Defense Forces combat veterans and armed with their own weapons. In fact, the kibbutz has been attacked and invaded on two occasions in recent history by Hezbollah commandos from Lebanon. Hezbollah rules Lebanon much the way the Taliban seeks to rule Afghanistan. One such raid was for the purpose of kidnapping a kindergarten class on the kibbutz. After a two day standoff the attempted kidnapping was foiled and the invaders turned away.
Our host, Aryeh Ben Yaakov, was, like many of the other Israelis we met and talked with, an immigrant to Israel. Aryeh (meaning lion) was born in Cleveland, Ohio and bore a close resemblance with beard and hat to Theodore Bekel's Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. Aryeh is no song and dance man. He is a serious defender of Israel. He minced no words telling us what it was like living on 'our mountain,' as he referred to it. He has little time for a two state solution and was all about keeping and defending the present borders of Israel. He was colorful and not politically correct in his presentation -- offering such observations as "This is Texas here, we have weapons, we know how to use them, and we will." He explained that the kubbutzim today in Israel are not the socialist communities that formed Israel after the 1948 war but are secular, self-sustaining communities. Misgav Am has several revenue sources including a thriving chicken raising farm, a fishery that raises tilapia, crops of cotton, wheat, tomatoes, and avocados, and a winery. Misgav Am also houses -- in the homes of members of the kibbutz -- liberal arts university students from a Haifa University satellite campus. The university does not have dormitories because, its close proximity to Lebanon would make large student buildings an easy target for Hezbollah rocket attacks. The kibbutz provides and pays for room and board for about 130 students.
Aryeh talked about the region in its pre-UN determined, pre-state condition, when it was the Levant occupied by four tribes: Turks, Egyptians, Persians, and Jews. The attempts of the US and UN to prop up the unsustainable boundaries that the people within them have no commitment to keeping are futile, Aryeh told us. He then shared his personal story and said, "You don't have to hate someone to kill them. Israelis don't hate anyone, but we are not victims or passive sheep either. We have a right to exist just like everyone else; and now that we have a home after thousands of years, we will fight to the death to defend our home. Israel has no enemies," he said, "People have made us their enemy."
Aryeh's worldview was completely understandable given his experience and living conditions. He was proud to be an Israeli and to have served in one of the best armies in the world. When we asked him how his "Jewishness" affected or influenced his day to day life, he talked about being a believer but not too good with ritual. "I talk to the big guy every morning," he said, "I am grateful every day for what I have. I would not be here if God did not want me to be here. I've been in too many life threatening situations. I live my faith every day -- here, doing what I do, as an Israeli and Jew.".
Once more the morning poem came to mind: "And in the whole land, not even one/Millstone remained that still turned/Oh, the land torn like clothes/That can't be mended."
Tomorrow -- Nazareth and Jerusalem -- big day! Yael, our fearless, charming guide tells us to be in our seats on the bus at 8:15am! Join us for the day and evening Shabbat services at Kehilat Kol Haneshama in the Holy City.
It was my turn today to share an Amichai poem and because our day's destination was Jerusalem, I chose Amichai's long poem, "Jerusalem, 1967." Stanza 5 seemed apt for our journey--not just on this day, but from the beginning of our trip as we have been learning about the tensions, conflicts, and war in Israel's last hundred years.
In the poem, the poet tells us it is Yom Kippur -- the holiest of Jewish religious days (also known as the Day of Atonement) when worshippers confess their failings and seek God's mercy, forgiveness, and healing. He tells us he is on his way into the Old City and stops in front of the shop of an Arab tailor. The window is filled with fabric, colorful threads and buttons. He reflects that his father was also a tailor with a shop much like this one. He writes, "I told him in my heart about all the decades/and the causes and the events, why I am now here/and my father's shop was burned there and he is buried here." Amichai's parents lived through the pre-Independence pogroms and oppression. Amichai himself fought in the War of Independence in 1948. The poet seeks to make amends with his neighbor and ask God's forgiveness.
Our first stop today was Nazareth, the home of Mary and Joseph where Jesus grew up and learned his father's carpentry trade. Nazareth, a town of 40,000 was, not long ago, 80% Christian and 20% Arab. Today those numbers are reversed largely due to high birth rates in the Arab community and low birth rates in the Christian community. In fact, Jewish birth rates in Israel are about the same as those of Christian households, which means that the Arab population in Israel is rapidly out-growing the Jewish population. We also learned from our first presenter, Father Gabriel Naddaf, at his ministry center in Nazareth that there is currently wide spread persecution and killing of Christians throughout the Middle East -- a fact I have been aware of but knew little about -- the consequence of which is that Christians are fleeing virtually every Mid-East nation except Israel. Syria was home to 2 million Christians until 2010, 200,000 today; Iraq: 4 million Christians until 2012, 300,000 today; Bethlehem: 20% Christian until 1995, 2% today. Naddaf believes the persecution of Christians qualifies as genocide.
Father Naddaf said that some extremist Muslim groups replace Jesus' Jewish name, "Yeshua," with an acronym that is a negative term, and that Jesus' Jewishness is also being denied. They claim he was a Palestinian and not a Jew. On our way to the bus from the Church of the Nativity we came across some homemade signs in a narrow street that admonished the reader to use Jesus' Jewish name, Yeshua and to reject other names with no biblical or Jewish basis.
Father Naddaf spoke, like all the others we have heard so far, as a man with a mission driven by passion and principle. His work advocating Christian involvement in the State of Israel from serving in the military, to taking an active role in strengthening their communities earned him recognition last year by Prime Minister Netanyahu.
Naddaf offered an analysis of the Christian worldview as Christians face the violence that he is so deeply concerned about. "Christianity is a religion of love and peace," he said. "Islam is a religion seeking hegemony and control over as much of the Middle East as possible, including Israel." He clearly holds Muslims responsible for starting a religious war against Christians and Jews. He made little distinction between moderate and extremist Muslims. He seemed to have a uniformly negative view of Islam and Muslims. In this regard, he had much in common with our presenter yesterday, Aryeh Ben Yaakov, in the northern mountains of Israel. When some of us challenged Father Naddaf on his views of Muslims and suggested that there were economic and political causes for extremism and violence in the Middle East he defended his view that the violence and hatred is driven primarily by the Muslim religion.
Yet, when one of our group asked him about proselytizing non-Christians he described his church's approach to reaching out to those who have no religion with plenty of insight and grace. His analysis of young people searching for deeper meaning and stability was sophisticated, and his approach to winning them over to a more productive and abundant life was respectful of individual differences and the freedom to choose one's own path in life. "We say to them" Naddaf told us, "come as you are: body piercings, tattoos, hair style, and dress."
It has been our conversations with people like this Greek Orthodox priest that have had a profound effect on my understanding and views of Israel and its diverse people. Our geo-political tour is not so much in providing new information, as it is enabling me to hear stories about the people and circumstances I thought I was relatively well informed about. I find myself empathizing with people like Father Naddaf and Aryeh Ben Yaakov; understanding, even sympathizing with their opinions and actions even though I do not agree with everything they say. I realize I am newly unsettled about Israel and its future, its strategies, and its treatment of its Arab population. It will take time and distance as well as more conversation and reading to see where I come down on many of the issues I thought I had resolved in my own mind. My hunch is that more than a few others on our tour are also experiencing similar 'confusion,' wonderment, and questions that they, like I, did not bring with them.
Next, we visited the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. The 20th century structure is built over the alleged home of Mary and Joseph where Mary received word from the angel Gabriel that she was to give birth to the son of God. Our wonderful guide, Yael, explained much about the location, the building, and the symbolism it contained before we entered the sanctuary. We also agreed to have Pastor Bill Hennessy and me discuss, at a later time, the meaning of the incarnation and Rabbi Alex Lazarus-Klein talk about sin and redemption that does not require 'a God-incarnate savior' in the Jewish tradition.
Upon leaving the church one of the most startling and poignant moments of our trip occurred when we witnessed a public Muslim prayer service that takes place every Friday at noon in a park that abuts one end of the church -- literally on the same parcel of land. The Muslims gather there in protest against the Christians who lobbied against the building of a mosque at that location. After the resounding call to prayer over the loudspeaker of a nearby minaret about two hundred men gathered at the park and were seated listening intently to a robed imam preaching an incendiary message against the State of Israel and the Christian faith. As the preacher's voice rose the bells of the church started ringing relentless peels, also getting louder. It seemed to us that the bells were attempting to drown out he angry sermon.
Yael brought us here to see for ourselves in this small city of mixed religious population how the tensions between two religions plays out on a regular basis. It was, as well, a remarkable demonstration of freedom of speech in Israel. When I stopped to consider what other Mid-East nation would permit such a public display of anger toward and denunciation of the state I could not name one. Israel is the only democracy in the Mid-East. Its Jewishness sometimes trumps its democratic values and freedoms. Indeed, this is an issue increasingly raised by critics inside and outside of Israel -- most recently Secretary of State John Kerry in his speech last month. But what I and many in our group are coming to realize is how extraordinarily difficult it is to keep a democracy in a nation with a significant and growing portion of the population that sees itself in opposition to the core policies and practices of the nation, let alone their claim to sovereignty over much of the land within Israel's borders. And, as we know, Hammas, the political party in control of the Gaza territory, as well as the terrorist organization Hezbollah immediately across the northern border that runs Lebanon and Iran, ruled by Muslims just to the east, all are dedicated to the eradication of the State of Israel.
As we made our way to Jerusalem we passed through what is called "the neck" -- the narrowest part of Israel, 9 miles from the Mediterranean to the Jordan border -- and saw one of the first sections of the security fence that contains an Arab community from which came more suicide bombers than any community at that time. It is not easily visible in this picture taken from our bus but you can just make out the top of the wall with barbed wire. Beyond it is a sprawling community of homes and prayer towers.
We started the day with a poem of making amends and seeking forgiveness with the neighbor. What else will bring the peace that most, if not all Muslims, Jews, and Christians long for? On the way to our bus in Nazareth to head to Jerusalem we passed a shoe store with "Jesus sandals" for sale. It occurred to me all of us need to walk a little more frequently in those sandals, Jesus' sandals, and see this troubled world from his point of view.
Tomorrow we go through a check point in the security fence to Bethlehem, the Church of the Nativity -- a Palestinian territory. Come along!
We had the morning "free" until our 11:30am check-in at the bus. It was nice, I must say, to ease into the day. We have been going at a good pace physically and mentally, taking in Holy Land sites and geo-political visits and lectures each day. The opportunity to 'sleep in,' go for a run, and have a leisurely breakfast was most welcome.
My morning run through Jerusalem took me from our hotel, to the western side of the Old City, then west from there in a big loop back to the hotel. Jerusalem is built on many sharp and steep hills, so the run was invigorating -- and, like Tel Aviv, there were lots of joggers out in the city.
The building code of Jerusalem requires all buildings to be constructed in what is known as "Jerusalem stone" -- a white stone that gives the city a beautiful, luminous appearance. Other than the tall buildings, of which there are not many, the architecture is quite uniform. Lots tend to be small and close together, so looking out on the city, with buildings covering the many slopes, hills, and valleys, you get the feeling of a densely populated urban area. Prayer towers, "minarets," and domes dot the landscape; the wall surrounding the Old City and the stone construction reveal that this is a metropolis with deep roots in antiquity.
The Mount of Olives, the next hill east of the Old City, is where Jesus entered Jerusalem on "Palm Sunday" and later that week, on the night of his arrest, Thursday, it is where he prayed in a quiet place that God would "take this cup from me." As he looked west, Solomon's Temple would have stood prominently before him at the western and southern edge, just inside the wall. The Temple was built on Mt. Moriah -- the place where it is said Abraham bound Isaac to sacrifice him as he was commanded by God to do as a test of his faith; yet God intervened by providing a ram. This is also the rock on which Muslims believe that Mohammed ascended into heaven, and it is the rock, legend says, that God used as the foundation of the earth at the time of creation. The iconic golden dome that identifies Jerusalem is built over this rock. Look in almost any direction of this panoramic city and there is a biblical story waiting to be told.
Before 1967, Jordan was in control of the Old City and most of Jerusalem to the south and east, so Israel built everything the eye can see west of the Old City wall. It is a tribute to the remarkable force and presence of the Israeli people that they constructed virtually an entire other city in a relatively short period of time. But for a few high rises, the construction of the entire city could be from the same century. After the War of 1967, Israel took over what was controlled by Jordan with portions of Arab, Armenian, Christian control in the Old City and Palestinian control in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. Our guide, Yael, refers to this mix of history, controlling parties, and present day borders and boundaries so typical of Israel and Jerusalem as a 'mish-mash.'
Once on the bus we observed our morning ritual: Yael gave us an overview of the day's agenda, then Rabbi Alex offered two poems. He shared a winsome poem by Amichai about tourists and then read a poem he had just written that morning that was perfect for what we had seen the day before in Nazareth: "And there they were/Church above/Mosque below/Sometimes reversed/Back and forth like a see saw/Now it is the church's turn/She stand beautiful and proud,/No reason to worry/Ah, but there is the matter of the/permit/And the Muslims gathered on the/square/They chant prayers loud and then/louder,/As if the prayers themselves were/bricks Climbing ever higher/So naturally the church responds/with her bells,/And now what do I hear there is a/possibility of a synagogue as well/Jews don't need walls to prayer, a/small speck of land to fame East,/But it is only a matter of time until/they, until all three of them,/begin their dance/One floor at a time/Until they've reached all the way to/Babel,/Somewhere above where god/supposedly is perched in the sky."
As we traveled in the bus just outside of Jerusalem along the "Seam" communities facing Bethlehem we could see the "security fence" or "wall of separation" in various sizes ranging from chain link fences with barbed wire tops to towering concrete walls. A word about the terms used to define this dividing line -- "security fence" is a neutral term describing what it is -- a fence, sometimes a big wall, providing security for Israel by enabling the monitoring of who enters and exits the Arab communities behind the fence; "wall or fence of separation" is equally descriptive but it adds the consequence of the wall -- separation. Some Israelis regard it as a pejorative term blaming Israelis who would not have built the wall had terrorists from the communities behind the various fences and walls not sent suicide bombers to public markets and transportation, schools, and religious services. Our guide uses both terms but seems, not surprisingly, to prefer the more neutral "security fence." The words and language used to describe day to day life in Israel are often charged for one side or the other and are always critical to the ongoing Israeli/Palestinian relationship.
When we got to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem we entered through a door cut out of a massive stone wall that had been used as a portal in various sizes and shapes from the 4th century to the time of the medieval Crusades. Half the church -- or one side -- is controlled by Orthodox Christians, the other half by Roman Catholics -- a typical arrangement for many of Israel's Christian holy sites. As the lines were quickly gathering we made our way to see the crypt containing the "exact spot" where Jesus was born as well as what was alleged to be his manger. The line snaked down into the crypt below the sanctuary altar over well worn marble steps. With candles burning and incense wafting down into the tunnel, each of us got our 30 seconds in front of the place of the birth. A silver star is embedded in the stone floor near the stone manger. Both were lit by candles and adorned with icons all around. Pilgrims knelt and prayed for their 'moment' at the holy site.
From the church we made our way to the Holy Land Trust through the streets of Bethlehem, but not before being ushered by our Bethlehem guide into a 'high end' souvenir shop. The shop featured olive wood carvings, ceramic plates, and Bethlehem paraphernalia. Outside the shop on our way to our geo-political lecture we were met by solo souvenir salesmen offering their wares for "only a dollar." Everyone, it seems, in Bethlehem is trying to make a living. Downtown Bethlehem is lined with shops and the streets packed with cars. It is a very busy place, tourists visit from around the world, and locals make the most of their primary revenue source -- travelers.
Holy Land Trust is a visionary project founded by a Palestinian Lutheran Christian by the name of Sami Awad. Sami told us his story and how HLT was founded. He reiterated what we had been told from several presenters -- the Christian presence in the Israel has dwindled to about 1.2% of the population. This is due in part to the low birth rates but also to the lack of economic opportunity for Arab and Palestinian Christians who often move to other parts of the world to find jobs. Sami said that we often think of Israel and Jerusalem and other Israeli regions as irrevocably separate and fragmented by religious animosity. But it wasn't too long ago, he said, when all three faith traditions co-existed in many neighborhoods. As a child he recalled his mother telling him on the Jewish Shabbat to go next door and turn off the lights in various rooms of their neighbor's home because their neighbors were Orthodox and observed the command not to work.
Yet, after the War of 1967, "direct military occupation" of the Arab territories was implemented. That occupation still exists today, but has lessened to a great extent. While many of the rights and freedoms were restored, nevertheless, life remains significantly restricted by the terms and conditions of Israeli control. When Sami came back to Bethlehem in the 1990s it was a period of optimism following the Oslo peace treaty. It seemed, for a time, that the territories would eventually be handed over to Palestinian and Arab governance and most if not all of the restrictions removed. But then the second intifada or uprising against Israel -- lasting nearly five years (from 2000 to 2004) precipitated greater restrictions. At this time, Jewish settlers earnestly built homes and communities in the territories which they regarded as rightfully belonging to Israel. The increasing presence of settlers (10% today of Israel's population) in virtually all of the territories has deepened the hostilities and complicated, if not stalled, the peace process.
Enter Holy Land Trust. Sami explained the non-violent methodology of HLT in dealing with what seems intractable hostility. He told us how they have evolved a process of changing orientation to 'the other, the enemy' first by recognizing the religious players in the Israel/Palestinian conflicts. To date, the peace process has been focused on traditional strategies of land swaps, rights, and freedoms. But the driver of much of the hostility, which is based upon deeply seated fear, is hate. And the hatred is directed toward enemies that either side has rarely, if ever, taken the time to engage, with the goal not necessarily of finding agreement, but of reaching understanding. This hatred is focused on Jewish religious settlers and Muslims willing to sacrifice their lives for Allah.
Equipped with this insight Holy Land Trust has a mission of bringing 'enemies' together for the purpose of listening, peeling back the layers of stereotypes and fear, and discovering the human being behind all that. They have had success in bringing together all three Abrahamic faith traditions. Indeed, in some of the meetings of settlers with Palestinians living in the occupied territories, significant progress has been made toward mutual understanding, which has increased the capacity for non-violent resolution. The hope is that by hearing the deep stories of one another's fears, the standoffs between these groups can be dissipated, healing can begin, and peaceful co-existence with full rights and freedoms for all can be realized.
Our goal, Sami said, is to free one another from our past. "I am not interested in political solutions if the underlying causes of our conflicts are not dealt with. If we deal with those, we will find political solutions that will work." I came way from the offices of the Holy Land Trust, where we met with Sami, convinced his analysis was correct. Yet, the work his healing and transformation requires is perhaps unrealistic on a scale large enough to bring about peace for all Israelis and Palestinians. Then Bill Hennessy and I remembered Rosa Parks and Dr. King's non-violent training and Civil Rights movement. We concluded if such a process is engaged, the results will follow in their own time; a timetable which we do not have access to or can measure or predict. But the work of going deeper, facing the source of hatred and violence was, I concluded, one of the most promising "answers" we had heard on this trip.
Our day had two more important components:a visit to the Baraka Presbyterian Church and then to homes of Palestinian Christians for dinner. The day kept getting richer and richer. The Reverend Danny Awad (no relation to Sami Awad) met us at the driveway entrance to the only Presbyterian Church in a Palestinian territory. Danny's father -- the Rev. George Awad and Mrs. Awad were there as well. Danny took over the pastorate of the church from his father and today oversees a program with three locations including an early childhood school that employs five teachers for 25 students -- many of them Muslim, because their parents know their children will be in a safe environment with competent care; a congregation of 45, and a third outreach ministry to the community providing necessary items in a kind of food pantry or clothing store. The tiny church in which we met was simple, clean, and equipped with a piano, electric keyboard, bongo drums, and a guitar. We heard how this congregation was started by Presbyterian missionaries when Rev. George was a boy and then led by George when he was ordained. Danny asked for our prayers and extended the invitation to visit again, bring groups, and even engage in a partnership in ministry.
From Baraka Presbyterian we went in groups of four and five into Palestinian homes in Bethlehem. This was a rare opportunity to break bread with residents of this occupied territory and hear how they feel about day to day life, the restrictions they live with, and the struggle to survive. In the home I visited we enjoyed a dinner of rice, chicken, something like collard greens (that was delicious!), and Turkish coffee. The conversation quickly got to our own families, sharing pictures on our phones, and talking about to the kind of concerns all parents and many couples live with: the balance of work and home, the need for rest and renewal, the question of stretching money to cover higher education, household expenses, and hopefully having enough left for a vacation.
On the bus ride back, representatives from each of the dinner groups shared the experiences we had in the homes of these lovely, generous people who let us into their lives for a very special evening.
Tomorrow: worship at the Church of Scotland and a walking tour of the Old City of Jerusalem. Don't miss it!
We walked to the Church of Scotland for Sunday worship this morning, and so did not observe our usual ritual of agenda overview and poem. I share here the poem I selected for today, but will offer tomorrow when we are back on the bus. It is stanza 7 from Amichai's "Jerusalem, 1967:" In this summer of wide-open-eyed hatred/and blind love, I'm beginning to believe again/in all he little things that will fill/the holes left by the shells: soil, a bit of grass,/perhaps, after the rains, small insects of every kind./I think of children growing up half in the ethics of their fathers/and half in the science of war./The tears now penetrate into my eyes from the outside/and my ears invent, every day, the footsteps of/the messenger of good tidings."
Amichai's relevance to the 21st century is always gripping, and it is uncanny how this poem connects with this evening's compelling presentation dealing with, among other things, the plight of children under the rule of the PLO. More about that later.
The service at the Scots Church of Jerusalem was lovely. We were warmly received and our number quickly outnumbered those in the community who were in attendance. This is a small church that serves primarily visiting Presbyterians, Reformed Christians and anyone who walks through the doors, looking for a church in Jerusalem. The existing congregation is quite small but a committed, hearty group. The preacher was, coincidentally, a United Church of Christ pastor who serves as the 'Global Minister' for the UCC Church in New York State. Her sermon wove themes of justice and equal rights for Palestinians -- she is staying in a Muslim neighborhood in the East Jerusalem -- invoking Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on this weekend celebrating his birthday. The hymns and prayers reinforced the theme of justice, inclusivity, and harmony among all people. Pastor Bill read the Psalm, Rabbi Alex read, in Hebrew, the selection from Isaiah and we introduced ourselves and said a few words about our group and its mission in Israel.
As uplifting and inspiring as the Shabbat service was on Friday night, this Presbyterian service with communion -- sensitively presented to our mixed group -- was for many of us equally powerful, in that it addressed many of the human and theological issues that are important to our visit.
The rest of the day was devoted to the Old City. On our list of stops was the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Via Dolarosa, the Western Wall where prayers are offered (as well as the portion of the Wall that has been uncovered underground and is the larger section of the Wall), and the Arab Shuk.
We entered the Church of the Holy Sepulcher from the Ethiopian section of the church -- the church was "given" to several religious bodies in the 19th century by the Ottoman Empire, when Jerusalem was Ottoman territory. The Ottomans were in decline and eager to raise funds so they negotiated deals with the Greek Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Ethiopians, and the Armenians. Each church received different sections of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher which is visible today by the manner in which these parts of the church are maintained with liturgical design and altar art and accessories.
The Greeks have the most prestigious sites in the building, and often the groups will disagree and dispute matters related to upkeep and 'rights' to the building. The irony, I am sure, is not lost on any who are aware of this petty infighting or Jesus himself. Nevertheless, the sites attract millions of people, and even here in January on a 'slow' day pilgrims from all over the world were present in abundance to see and pray and kneel and kiss -- the place where Jesus was nailed to the cross, the place where the cross was raised and stood in the ground, the place where he was taken down and prepared for burial, and of course the tomb where he was buried.
Like the Western Wall, where not only Jews but religious and non-religious people from around the world come to pray, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher has an aura of importance, transcendence, and reverence. Even those who have no faith tradition come here and are moved. Our guide Yael spoke of taking two couples through the Old City, neither of whom were religious in any way, and when they got to this church and to the site of the raising of the cross they wept. This is not to say everyone is moved, there are those who are merely curious, and those who are simply seeking -- for what they may not know -- but the importance of this site seems to offer something bigger and beyond us, and so is a place that may hold some deep answer to the mysteries of life.
After making our way through the Church's treasured sites we walked the Via Dolarosa -- and saw the twelve stations of the cross. This trek recounts the drama of Jesus' final hours after his trial, beginning with his being given a crown of thorns and flagellated. At several of these 'stops' along the way -- where he fell the first time, where Mary saw him, where Veronica wiped his brow and so on -- there are exquisite small chapels, usually empty, but open for prayer and tourists. Bill Hennessy and I agreed that the legend surrounding the Via Dolarosa has less to do with the Bible and more to do with a kind of "Midrash" or legend and color commentary on the event of his trial and carrying the cross to Calvary. We don't 'know for sure' if he made all of those stops or if the people who are remembered in them were historical figures. We do know that there was a trial, that he likely carried a cross, and that the events remembered in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher took place, if not where they are trusted to have occurred, then somewhere near by in the Old City that looks today much like it did then.
The Western Wall is more "factual," in the sense that we do know that it was the western foundation for the vast platform upon which King Herod (contemporary to Jesus) built the Second Temple of Jerusalem. Our first stop at the wall was actually underground, with a guide who told us the story of the Wall with a DVD, plaster of Paris model, and a walking tour. It is hard to imagine the engineering triumph that the Wall is without seeing it. The stones of which it and all four sides of the temple foundation are made are mammoth. One we stopped to see is 45' long and weighs 570 tons. How did the ancient builders cut and move this stone? It is an intriguing question with some very good answers. I encourage you to check it out online. The point is, the Wall was built by Herod and later covered by the Muslims, A portion of the wall was opened up by later generations, and is where prayers have been said by Jews for centuries. The new underground continuation of the wall was excavated and recently revealed as the city expanded.
The attraction to this Wall is its proximity to Mt. Moriah and the rock upon which Isaac was nearly sacrificed by Abraham, the rock that also served, legend says, as the foundation of the world at the time of creation. Jews who come to say prayers here believe that it is the best place on earth to pray since it is the closest place on earth to God -- who laid the foundation of the earth at the beginning of time. The other three walls of the Temple Mount foundation are further from this holy of holies site above the rock. It is the Western Wall which is physically the closest to the the rock, and therefore to the presence of God. The mid point of the Wall, accessible since the unearthing of the entire Western Wall, is the closest point to the holy of holies available. Therefore, just as pilgrims can be seen praying at the Wall "outside" the Temple Mount, pilgrims can also be seen praying inside or "underground" at the mid point of the Wall.
Our group exited the Western Wall tunnel into the Arab Quarter and soon found ourselves in the Arab Shuk or shopping bazaar. Tiny, hole in the wall shops line both sides of the very narrow streets. Anything from poultry to rugs to fruit to ceramics to t-shirts can be found in these shops where the vendors sit outside watching the people go by and shouting out to tourists to come in and consider buying their wares. Note in the picture of t-shirts the second one in the second row from the top -- it picture an "all-Palestinian state of Israel." Our guide told us these t-shirts are a good barometer as to what is a current hot topic in Israel. Bill Hennessy suggested that they are themselves a form of freedom of speech. The Arab Shuk Is an exotic scene and the dealers are always ready to 'make a deal'.
From the Arab Shuk we found a falafel shop in the Jewish Quarter and then made our way back to the Western Wall outside the Temple Mount where there are men's and women's sections for prayer. The Conservative Jewish movement has been successful in winning approval for an 'egalitarian' section of the Wall which has been highly controversial and in the international news. The Ultra Orthodox Jews object to mixing the men's and women's sections but the courts have allowed the mixed section to be implemented which it has been on a few occasions but not without resistance, another of the unfortunate ironies of religious life and practice we witnessed here.
Our group, however, was not interested in resisting anyone so we went each to his or her own section of the Wall to observe, to pray, to absorb this remarkable place where hundreds of thousands, millions of prayers are said every day. Many of those praying are Hasidic Jews dressed in big black hats, long black coats, white shirts, and long beards. They often rock back and forth, prayer book in hand, working their way through the texts, nearly in self induced trances. Anyone can pray, and so many in our group did. Bill Gray opined that anticipating being at the Wall caused him to search for the most important prayer he wanted to make. I also experienced myself sorting through the most vexing or concerning matters about which I wanted to pray. It is customary to write your prayer on a tiny slip of paper and squeeze it into a cranny or crack in the wall. Once up close, you can see thousands of these tiny paper prayers stuck into the Wall or littering the ground beneath it. Not confining myself to one -- considering that my Orthodox Jewish brothers were there some of them praying for long stretches of time -- I wrote down five prayers, stuck them in the wall, and stood in silence, before saying in a low voice the petitions that I carried with me. It was a deeply cathartic experience. As I walked back to our group, which gathered well outside the perimeter of the Wall, I felt a profound sense of calm.
By this time we were close to the dinner hour and some walked, some rode the bus back to the hotel to enjoy what is a typical Israeli dinner buffet, consisting of endless choices of vegetables, meats, salad makings and desserts. At 7 we met in a conference room with the evening speaker.
David Bedein was born in Philadelphia, went to the same high school as Rabbi Alex, and came to Israel in 1970, and today lives in a Jewish settlement, where he has remained ever since. He trained as a social worker and community organizer under the tutelage of Saul Alinsky. He founded and has run for 29 years, The Center for Near East Policy Research Ltd.-- an organization that digs for facts related to pressing issues in Israel's life as a nation. Mr. Bedein's work over the years has taken him to interview and conduct research on everything from the PLO and Yassar Arafat, to the United Nations Relief Works Agency that has been integrally involved in the "Right of Return" policy advocating the return of Palestinians to the homes they left in 1948 in the wake of the War of Independence. His story is somewhat complex and it took a period of "q and a" to find out what a current project he told us about seeks to accomplish. Essentially, what we learned was that schools under the PLO territorial authority have designed a curriculum that indoctrinates children to an anti-Israel, anti-Jew world view. Mr. Bedein has researched the curriculum (in fact, he was one of the first people to have possession of the newly revised version.) The 'right of return' policy prevents Palestinians from living full and productive lives: if they choose not to remain in their refugee camps and move elsewhere they sacrifice their right to return. If they stay, their children are indoctrinated in hatred toward Israel and Jews. Because these programs are being funded by the United Nations and the United States Mr. Bedein is seeking to urge the US Congress to revoke it's support for life negating, hatred based politics.
Fortuitously, Brian Higgins, our WNY representative in Congress, serves on the Sub Committee on the Near East with whom Mr. Bedein will meet in a few weeks to make his case. He urged us to write letters to this committee and to support his proposals to withdraw support for these programs that sew violence.
While we found generally more confusion, or at least questioning of opinions we arrived here with, we did hear in Mr. Bedein's presentation a proposal we might consider supporting as way of coming home from our trip with some specific contribution for peace in Israel. We'll talk more, but I think all of us feel more deeply the impact of hostility in this land with so many different religions, ethnicities, and races living and working so closely together in such a small country.
Tomorrow we go to Vad Yeshem -- the Jewish Holocaust Memorial. It will be a fitting conclusion to our geo political tour -- reminding us of the origins of Israel and the on-going threats to its existence, while also underscoring why democracy in this land and MIddle East region is so important.
Come with us in tomorrow's post!
Back on the bus for a day that included a guided tour of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust History Museum, and a study session at the Shalom Hartman Institute. But first, Bill Hennessy read the Amichai poem for the day, "Before" -- an excellent 'meditation' for our visit to Yad Vashem. "Before the gate has been closed,/before the last question posed,/before I am transposed./Before the weeds fill the gardens,/before there are no more pardons,/before the concrete hardens. Before all the flute-holes are covered,/before things are locked in the cupboard,/before the rules are discovered./Before the conclusion is planned,/before God closes his hand,/before we have nowhere to stand."
On our way to the Holocaust memorial we passed several local landmarks, including the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) and Hebrew Union University. Yad Vashem was founded in the early fifties, but the new Holocaust History Museum was built only in the last decade. It is a remarkable structure in a remarkable park and campus. The main building is a long triangular shaped 'tube' or tunnel that appears to be driven like a nail into the side of a hill. Some have said this represents the Holocaust as a huge spike driven into the heart of the earth, or the heart of creation. A skylight runs the entire length of the roofline, the purpose of which is to remind us that the atrocities of the Holocaust took place under broad daylight. The building is entered on the hillside and brings the visitor face to face with a large video of a Jewish festival celebration in Eastern Europe in the 1920s. Jewish men, women, and children are dancing and singing, until the visitor turns his or her back to the video and enters the great hall of exhibits -- suggesting that the world turned its back on those Jews as the Holocaust got underway.
The feeling looking down the hall is somewhat claustrophobic because the walls seem to be leaning in on the visitor. It is impossible for one to make a straight path to the end of the building, because exhibits in the main hallway block access. The visitor must walk through exhibits to get to the end of the museum. There is no easy way in or out of understanding the Holocaust.
Our guide told us about her grandmother, who was a survivor of the holocaust. Our fearless Yael told us that she found out, through the Yad Vashem website, that several of her relatives were also Holocaust victims. With over six million Jews murdered chances are pretty fair that most Jews will have a family member who was lost to the Nazi atrocities. The museum's exhibits alternate between macro/theoretical, and micro/personal in their telling of the Holocaust story. We started by learning how the Jews were systematically singled out, judged to have evil in their physical makeup, and finally reduced to the subhuman. These assertions were shrewdly made in popular art and major speeches and communication by academics, politicians, and clergy. This kind of racism -- reducing the other to subhuman status -- is common to all forms of racist ideology. The conclusion of the Nazis, therefore, and their unrelenting message to the people was that the Jews must be expelled from the face of the earth and the human race.
Our guide told us the story and showed us charts of where, when, and how the Holocaust started and was sustained. Records were kept, and methods were evaluated and designed to be more and more efficient so that the Nazi's could make a profit off of their killing machine. Nothing was wasted. Even the hair of the victims at Auschwitz was shaved off and saved to stuff mattresses and furniture. When the Nazi's realized that the shooting pits were not making progress fast enough, the Germans shifted to what the museum docents call "The Industrialization" of racism and killing. The process shifted from using thousands of shooting pits to six camps that killed the Jews with the frightening efficiency and productivity of a modern assembly line.
Photographs and film footage of the victims -- including children -- fill the walls and kiosks at Yad Vashem. Short videos tell the story of the round ups, and ghettoization of the Jewish people. Like much of our visit to Israel in general, the Holocaust presents its own confounding, perplexing, and unimaginable questions and problems with no answers. The exhibits alternate from the general to the specific and personal -- one of the most important missions of the museum is to identify the victims and register their names in the archives of Yad Vashem. This work is a very real recovering of the victims from the horror and injustice of the Holocaust.
As you work your way through the museum, images portray emaciated, gaunt, diseased people. These include images of children, unattended by adults, wandering or lying on city sidewalks, often naked, dazed and lethargic, and in pain and confusion. Statistics of how many Jews were killed--and how many Jews were left to kill--in all of Europe and Russia were some of the most carefully kept records during the war. The abiding, burning question is: how such a thing could happen in the 20th century, among one of the most civilized nations on the earth. The German culture that had produced the pinnacle of Western art, music, science, and literature also produced the darkness that fell over Europe for more than a generation.
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The exhibit ends out of doors, on a porch overlooking the thriving metropolis of Jerusalem -- and so the Jews fight back against the Nazi nightmare with the growing, thriving reality of a Jewish state, going about its business in the normalcy of a free democratic state.
I left the museum for the lunch area and bookstore with a heaviness that reminded me of the last time I visited here. The residual feeling was not that the Holocaust was something that "they did to the Jews," but something "we did to the Jews." The sense that this very human problem could come back to haunt us all over again never leaves one who has witnessed the Holocaust nightmare. That is the point of this brave museum: never forget, and always to be vigilant against the rise of such evil whenever it appears.
Our early afternoon visit to the Hartman Institute was designed to be a follow up to the morning visit to the Holocaust Museum. David Hartman was an American rabbi and son of Shalom Hartman, for whom the museum is named. Rabbi Hartman fulfilled his calling by establishing this institute to do research on, and create multi-cultural experiences for Jews in relation to all faith traditions.
The Hartman Institute has created public school curricula, researches religious issues, bigotry and violence, and hosts interfaith groups for dialogue from around the world. Our host was Rabbi Leon Morris, who presented a document that had two speeches. One was the address of the Israeli chief of staff for the military, and the other was a paper by Hartman himself on the question of the purpose of the state of Israel. We gathered in a large circle in their newly restored conference room.
The military general was very clear and concise: now that Israel has a homeland it also has a right to defend this homeland. In preparing to do this, Israel has built one of the most powerful and efficient armies in the world. Hartman's essay on the purpose of Israel advocates using the Jewish tradition to create an ethically responsible and morally cohesive nation, rather than imposing any particular religious practice on the people.
It was good to have this forum after visiting the national memorial museum. I find myself more confused about the best path forward for Israel's future. If you come here and have exposure to the range and variety of voices we have been lucky to have, the picture tends to blur rather than gain sharper focus. Given Israel's size and the presence of a huge population of Palestinians (whose leaders are dedicated to the eradication of Israel, but, as Palestinians live in highly restricted conditions) it is hard to say what any government should do.
Today, the front page news announced that the Paris meeting of UN leaders officially voted in support of a two state solution in Israel. Their smiling faces posing for a team photo disguised the complex, intractable problem of any system other than the present one being able to work. It is hard for me to imagine a two state solution within the present borders of Israel. That's not to say that there shouldn't be two states. It's just not clear where they would go without posing an unacceptable threat to Israel.
The penultimate day! It's hard to believe that we'll be at the Ben Gurion airport tomorrow evening, boarding a flight for Toronto! The days have been full and rich. Alas, all good things must come to an end -- so more good things can begin.
Today we drove south in the West Bank, to Qumran and then to Masada -- two of Israel's biggest southern attractions. After Yael reviewed the daily agenda and identified landmarks as we drove out of Jerusalem it was my turn to read the poem. I chose "From the Book of Esther I Filtered the Sediment." From the Book of Esther I filtered the sediment/of vulgar joy, and from the Book of Jeremiah/the howl of pain in the guts. And from/the Song of Songs the endless/search for love, and from Genesis the dreams/and Cain, and from Ecclesiastes/the despair, and from the Book of Job: Job./And with what was left, I pasted myself a new Bible. Now I live censored and pasted and limited and in peace. A woman asked me last night on the dark street/how another woman was/who'd already died. Before her time--and not/in anyone else's time either./Out of a great weariness I answered,/"She's fine, she's fine."
The landscape on the road south of Jerusalem is 'rolling desert.' Referred to as the "Jerusalem Desert," it is very brown and very desolate. Bedouins herding sheep can be seen on either side of the road, their small communities quite primitive. This is the road where the Psalmist prayed for safety, "If I lift up my eyes unto the Hills, from whence cometh my help? My help cometh from the Lord...." God neither slumbers nor sleeps, but watches over our coming and going. This person is making his pilgrimage to the Holy City through the 'bad lands' of the very hills we were driving through, where bandits and wild beasts lurked. In fact, this is the setting for the most famous of Jesus' parables, the Good Samaritan. When a rich ruler who follows the Law "to the T" asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus says "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself." The rich man asks, "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus tells the parable which defines the person in need, even the stranger as our neighbor.
On our southern trek, the hills turn into windswept plains and distant mountains, where nothing grows and not even sheep can graze. Visible from the bus are random 'holes' in the sides of the mountains. In 1948, it was in one of these caves that a shepherd boy discovered stone jars containing the Dead Sea Scrolls -- one of the greatest archeological finds of the 20th century. The Scrolls were written by the Qumran community, thought to possibly be the Essenes -- a radical, splinter group from the more traditional Jewish communities in Jerusalem. The Essenes chose to live in the desert as a statement against the corrupt culture and religious practice of which they did not want to take part. One of the rituals they practiced was a cleansing bath for new initiates to the community. It is also believed that John the Baptist was a member of this community and used the Essene cleansing bath to identify and mark those from the city who followed him and devoted themselves to his mission of rejecting the ways of the world.
We first saw the vast expanse of the Dead Sea from high above on the bus, as the road descended along the shore. The Dead Sea, at 450 meters below sea level, is the lowest point on earth. Just like going up a mountain, descending to this point can be felt as pressure in the ears makes hearing difficult. The Sea today is much smaller than even a decade ago -- it loses water because of the thriving agriculture industry that surrounds the northwest portion of the lake. Israel also siphons excess water that used to feed the Dead Sea, given the national water shortage. The Sea is still quite large and beautiful, with no development or water crafts. The sun illuminated the gray/blue/green surface of the sea, that kept the horizon miles in the distance.
Our next stop was Masada, the ancient desert fortress built by King Herod. Herod was known for his vast building projects (he would have made Robert Moses seem a slacker!) This fortress is located high on a mountain that is detached from the mountain chain that surrounds it, thus making it strategically perfect for a paranoid king worried about being attacked. A cable car took us to the mountain top -- a flat mesa with significant excavation sites -- some of which remained in excellent condition, given the non-corrosive environment. Much of the mosaics, tile floors, colors of walls, and columns of the synagogue were still intact. From Masada you can see the plain and sea below. On this weather perfect day, with a mild cool breeze blowing, there was calm until hordes of school children from Israel and the United States arrived.
The other distinguishing feature of Masada is that it was used for the last stand of the Jews against the Romans in the 70 CE Maccabean rebellion. Possibly a thousand people -- men, women, and children -- lived on Masada when the Romans invaded the mountain fortress. From their camp below, they built a ramp and bridge out of dirt, that took three years to finish. To the Romans' surprise all of the rebels had taken their own lives. Rather than their children becoming Roman slaves, the women being subject to abuse, and the men tortured and killed, they all took their own lives. A letter by Josephus Flavius details the events and the last speech of the leader of the community, yet this document and Josephus' version of the story has been questioned by many scholars. Nevertheless, the general outline of the story -- besieged Jews who took their own lives to avoid capture and death at the hand of the Romans is accurate.
From Masada we drove further south to a Dead Sea hotel, spa and resort. It was a favorite of Russian Jews living in Israel, since many of the signs were in the Cyrillic language. After lunch overlooking the hotel's beach, we donned our swim suits, went in for a dip, then liberally applied Dead Sea mud to our entire bodies. The rabbi and two pastors had fun in the mud. This is the local ritual: after the mud dries you go back into the water and float (you can't swim -- the water with 30% minerals would be nearly lethal if ingested) peacefully, effortlessly, ears submerged, blue sky above -- peering into the heavens from the lowest point on the planet. Once the mud is washed off there is a tingling, renewing feeling. It is quite extraordinary -- outdoor showers help remove the mud, then indoor hot showers are the final coup de grace -- energy seemed to have seeped into every pore. I leapt up the steps and talked as if I'd had an eight hour night's rest.
Back on the bus we made our way to the Holy City. Before everyone fell asleep Bill, Alex, Ellen Goldstein, Bill Gray and I took turns making a few comments about the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction) movement. This worldwide effort to influence Israel to remove the security fence and grant more freedoms to the Palestinians has gained much traction on college campuses and among some religious communities. Most of our group was unaware of BDS, even Yael our tour guide knew of it but had few details, which she said is typical of most Israelis. In my opinion the BDS movement is an inappropriate response to the concerns their supporters have for the Palestinians. The movement implicitly compares Israel to South African Apartheid -- for which the BDS strategy was devised. Israel is not South Africa. Black South Africans did not systematically harbor and train terrorists and terror organizations devoted to the eradication of the South African State. Given the limits of our venue -- the bus -- and the hour of the day we agreed to talk more about BDS at a later date.
Back in town, several of the group got dropped off at the Israel Museum, and the rest went back to our hotel. The museum goers came back in awe of this world-class museum. Most of them spent time in the archeological section and looking at the actual Dead Sea Scrolls -- a fitting conclusion to the day.
Tomorrow: the world famous Jerusalem market and a visit with Brother Olivier of the Benedictine monastery in Jerusalem, to discuss the geo-political themes we have been exploring. Finally, our farewell, wrap up dinner, and Ben Gurion Airport. Join in to listen to the perceptions, comments, and feedback of the group, learn about this 'super' open air market, and hear our Benedictine monk's view of the Israeli/Palestinian troubles.
Our final day. Yael generously granted us the morning off, though we had to pack our bags, checkout, and start saying our goodbyes to Jerusalem and Israel. The relaxed start to the day allowed time for another run through the city - during which I saw Marc and Alice Joseffer on their way to the Joffa Gate of the Old City. They later told us they witnessed a huge, colorful parade forming and preparing to enter the city on the occasion of Armenian Christmas.
Everyone was ready in the lobby by the appointed hour and eager for this last day of touring, learning, and experiencing the old and the new - so often side by side - in this amazing city. Our first visit was to the famous Machne Yehuda Market. This is the market where Alex shopped when he was a student in Jerusalem, and where Yael and her husband come when they have time for a breakfast date and to restock their shelves. It is easy to see why this market is famous - it is a warren of narrow streets and walks packed with people of all ages - teenagers, Arabs, Jews, tourists, senior citizens, middle-aged, and families with small children. Both Yael and Alex told us that not long ago the market was not the hipster attraction it is today, and that in many shops, the prices have risen with the popularity. The products are simply beautiful and beautifully displayed.
Yael had arranged for us to visit a spice vendor, a cheese vendor, and a pastry vendor. Each had samples and took time to explain what it was we were happily consuming. You can find lots of things in the Machne Yehuda Market - the kippa shop was as impressive with its inventory as the selection at the fish or cheese vendors.
Lunch was on our own. Bill and I found a falafel shop that also had swarma - turkey, chicken, lamb or beef skewered and slowly turning in front of an oven. The meat is shaved off the 3 foot skewer as it turns and then, sometimes cooked briefly in a skillet and put in a pita or just on a plate along with hummus, eggplant, cucumber, coleslaw, or any number of other options.
After lunch we found our bus and made our way to the French Hill neighborhood, where Yael lives. French Hill is a 'seam' neighborhood as it runs adjacent to the Issaweeya neighborhood - an Arab-Muslim community that has a reputation for being dangerous. We drove along the seam before pulling off to stop and hear Yael describe the view before us. We noticed about a dozen specialist Israeli police, members of a unit that enters Arab neighborhoods and territories. Yael said something was amiss since these police are not a daily presence in the community. As we sat listening to Yael we saw two police walk around to the back of the building which was immediately in front of our bus. They were heavily armed, one with a tear gas gun and vest filled with canisters. He kneeled, took aim, and fired into a box about 30 yards away - apparently siting his weapon.
Yael told me living next to this neighborhood comes with some risks and sacrifices. When the 40 day Gaza War took place in 2014, armed police lined the road that runs along the seam to prevent any Issaweeya residents from entering the French Hill community. Issaweeya had fires and explosions throughout the war, they blocked the street entrances to their community to prevent police from entering, and they burned a gas station at the bottom of the hill that serves both communities. In fact, Yael's husband was getting gas one day with their three children in the car and a gang emerged from Issaweeya and started throwing stones at the car. The windows were smashed and the car damaged. It is not uncommon for Yael and her husband to wake the children in the middle of the night at the sound of the air raid and take them to the family bomb shelter.
We often hear reports and talk about the plight of the Palestinians - many undeniably do suffer hardship in the territories. But there is also the plight of the Israelis who suffer everything from rocket attacks, to opportunistic street violence, to guerrilla tactics in time of war. Nevertheless, Yael and her husband are steadfast in remaining residents of the community. Should they move, she says, it would mean victory for the terrorists. She keeps her resolve strong by reminding herself that there are Muslim mothers in Issaweeya who want the same things for their children as she does for hers: peace and safety.
We then drove from French Hill to a nearby Muslim neighborhood, Abu Gosh, where a French Crusader chapel and monastery, run by the Benedictines, are located. Brother Olivier met us and told us how he experienced a call to the monastic life at the age of 18 and then after realizing so much of the Bible is based in, and refers to, Palestine and Jerusalem he felt a deep calling to commit his monastic life to this remarkable city. When his abbot in France, who knew of Olivier's passion to go to Jerusalem, learned that a position was open at the St. Mary of the Resurrection Abbey in Abu Gosh, he gave Olivier permission to transfer to Jerusalem. That was forty years ago.
Brother Olivier told us how he welcomed Laura Bush at the Abbey when she was the First Lady. He also talked about the occasions he has had, as a Christian monk, in a Muslim neighborhood, to sing and pray with Jews and Muslims. He often welcomes young Israelis who are preparing for their entrance into the IDF - each new class of draftees spends time touring and learning about the land which they are then going into the military to defend. Yael was about to go into basic training nearly 20 years ago when she first met Brother Olivier. After hearing him tell of working with Muslims and Jews as a Christian her hope for Israel, and her desire to strive for a pluralistic Israel was deepened.
Brother Olivier, we all agreed, was the perfect finale to our wonderful trip. He took us to three locations in the Crusader church: first a garden, then to the main nave, and finally into the crypt. At each location he sang and told a personal story of multi-faith cooperation. We applauded his message and ministry, and thanked Yael for scheduling this important visit for our last geo-political stop.
Finally, we boarded the bus for our wrap-up dinner and celebration. The meal took place in a private room in a Muslim owned restaurant. Before dinner we took time to hear Alex read two poems he wrote recently and selected for our last night.
How easy the stories/fold/One onto the other/The characters hanging/Heroically/on the seams/Sometimes falling through/Holes/In the fabric/Later thehy will be bunched/Into small bags/To be sold in the market place/To ladies/Who will wear them/On their shoulders/As they transport/wares back to their homes/Later in the day.
Did you turn back/When the traffic tightened/When the path grew steep/Did you turn back/When the road became uneven,/When it bent in all directions/Did you turn back/When darkness fell/When the shadows lengthened/Did you turn back/When the city turned to ice/When the animals descended into/their holes/Did you turn back/At all,/Even for a moment,/To notice me/Your compatriot/Your brother/I was the one out of breath at your/heals,/Who struggled through that/Same path you navigated so/easily,/Who tried to o avail to get your/attention,/Who coughed and wheezed,/Bent over in exhaustion/Ah, but I was also the one who/noticed/The part you missed/Your lost possession/I was the one who could have/prevented/The pain that will seep in/Long after you've left this place/It was I who might have lightened/your burdens/If only you'd have noticed/If only you'd have been able to/Turn back/To see.
We then shared, as the spirit moved, our response to two questions: what were your major take away experiences, and if you could change one thing about the trip what would it be. The conversation was profound, touching, and humorous, as members of our four congregations spoke to one another from their hearts. We had grown close to one another on this pilgrimage to the holy sites and modern challenges of Israel. For many of us, our pre-conceived notions of what we would find geo-politically were sorely inadequate and shallow. We now realized the complexity and beauty of this land in a way that would have been impossible to grasp had we not seen and heard it with our own eyes.
For me, on my third visit to Israel, I felt like I connected with and grasped the pulse of this land and people in a way that I did not on my previous two visits. Those trips were focused on ancient history and holy sites - reason enough to visit this multifaceted nation. But it was learning about the struggle to make peace and not war, it was hearing the passion of those who had made aliyah to Eretz Yisrael, it was witnessing the daily interaction of Israeli Jews and Arabs, Palestinians, Muslims and Christians that inspired me with their courage and hope, and ignited my own love for this land. There is really no place like it. Or, you could also say, every place, every community, every nation shares in different ways - the same struggle to live together.
We raised a glass to our tour guide, Yael, bus driver, Kfir, and Yael's mother and father, Yaffa and Menachem - the founders of SY Travel; all of whom by now were our dear friends.
We agreed at our dinner that we would reconvene at home for a pot luck supper and conversation about ways to share our experience with the Jewish Federation and our congregations—each of which generously supported our tour. Our group became a family for ten days, and we don't intend to let those friendships go. We'd experienced a deep connection with Israel and a deep connection with one another.