Sunday, October 16, 2011

From Bethlehem, October 2011

As I write this on Saturday evening, the sun setting over the western hills surrounding Bethlehem, I am listening to the call to prayer (5:10 pm) echoing from hill to hill. Several mosques—some live, some recorded. Different styles, melodies, some more like chanting, some with more melody.

Bethlehem is a town of hills--nothing is level, a lot like Pittsburgh, where I grew up. Roads curve and wind up and down, the apartheid wall cutting into the old pathways, making travel even more difficult. Especially around Rachel’s Tomb, near the entrance to Bethlehem. Walls, walls and more walls, isolating stores, homes with laundry out to dry and the tourist shops that are at the heart of Bethlehem’s economy.

Earlier today we were in Hebron, where the violence of the fanatical settlers spills over into the city—bleach poured down on the merchandise in the old suq, Palestinian children stoned on their way to school. After our visit to the Mosque of Ibrihim at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, we were walking back to our bus through the modern market street (the old one having been closed by Israeli soldiers). Near the bus, one shopkeeper asked where we were from. I smiled and said brightly, “America!” He shook his head and replied “enemy....enemy....enemy.” So hard to explain. What could I say? Because he is right.

When we got back to the hotel I took a walk along the Israeli separation wall near our hotel—where the wall runs around Rachel’s Tomb near the entrance to the city. The wall curves and dips, climbs and winds through a neighborhood of homes with garden courtyards and what used to be tourist shops, where the tour buses stopped on their way into and out of Bethlehem. Now the shops are shuttered with the traditional turquoise steel doors, locked and bolted shut. The wall hovers menacingly over olive trees, jacaranda bushes, rhododendrons and laundry blowing in the evening breeze on the balcony. The gun-turret watchtowers rise high above the 24-foot-high wall. The graffiti on the wall is testimony to the longing for peace and freedom of the Palestinian people of Bethlehem, testimony to the international support for Palestinian freedom and testimony to the creativity of the Palestinians who always manage to make something beautiful out of their misery and oppression. Also hard to explain, but I am grateful tonight for this gift.

Saturday, October 15, 2011


Beit Ummar today.
Two soldiers at the tower.
The wall marches on.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Pending prisoner release

When we landed in Israel yesterday we were greeted with the news that 1000 Palestinian prisoners may be released in exchange for Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured in 2006 by Hamas militants at a border crossing between Gaza and Israel. He has been held since then, without access to Red Cross observers, so it is a good thing that he may be reunited with his family.

.......but (as of August) there are more than 5000 Palestinians in Israeli prisons - most are held in connection with supposed terrorist activities, which can include writing in support of Palestinian nationalism and freedom from occupation. One of these prisoners is Marwan Barghouti, who many Palestinians would like to see as their president - a man Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery has referred to as the "Palestinian Mandela." It is unlikely that Barghouti will be part of the exchange.

Of the 5000 Palestinian prisoners currently in Israeli prisons,
  • 4164 are serving sentences
  • 272 are administrative detainees - held without being charged with a crime, only deemed a "security risk" to the State of Israel
  • most of the other prisoners are in process of being tried
Marwan Barghouti has recently written a book, which Mazin Qumsiyeh reviews on his blog:

So not everything that seems like good news really is....

Friday, October 7, 2011

A Day of Repentance, Return and Restoring Relationships

This evening marks the beginning of Yom Kippur. Today on his blog, Tikkun, Rabbi Michael Lerner writes for all of us. Isaiah 58 is read on this morning of the holy day. Yom Kippur is about repentance or return, about restoring broken relationships. It is a joyous day, an opportunity to begin again.

Tonight at Occupy Wall Street, a Yom Kippur service, Kol Nidre, will be held. A good time for us to ponder Isaiah’s words in our own context—the widening gap between the poor and the rich, the oppression of dictators and occupying powers, the problems with our health care system in the US……and I’m sure you can think of many more.

Rabbi Lerner writes:

The prophet Isaiah stood outside the ancient Israelite Temple and denounced those fasting on Yom Kippur, who nevertheless were participating in an immoral society. Said Isaiah (in a statement that is now read in synagogues around the world on Yom Kippur morning though its message mostly ignored when it applies to some Jews' participation in some of the most exploitative practices of Western capitalism or in support for the current right-wing government of Israel even as it engages in oppression of Palestinians):

Look! On the very day you fast you keep scrabbling for wealth;
On the very day you fast you keep oppressing all your workers.
Look! You fast in strife and contention.
You strike with a wicked fist.
You are not fasting today in such a way
As to make your voices heard on high.
Is that the kind of fast that I desire?
Is that really a day for people to "press down their egos"?
Am I commanding you to droop your heads like bulrushes
And lie around in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast day,
The kind of day that the God of the Burning Bush would wish?
No! This is the kind of fast that I desire:
Unlock the hand-cuffs put on by wicked power!
Untie the ropes of the yoke! Let the oppressed go free,
And break off every yoke!
Share your bread with the hungry.
Bring the poor, the outcasts, to your house.
When you see them naked, clothe them;
They are your flesh and blood;
Don't hide yourself from them!
Then your light will burst through like the dawn;
Then when you need healing it will spring up quickly;
Then your own righteousness will march ahead to guard you.
And a radiance from YHWH will reach out behind to guard you.
Then, when you cry out, YHWH will answer;
Then, when you call, God will say: "Here I am!"
If you banish the yoke from your midst,
If you rid yourself of scornful finger-pointing
And words of contempt;
If you open up your life-experience to the hungry
And soothe the life that has been trampled underfoot,
Then even in darkness your light will shine out
And your moments of gloom turn bright as noonday.
Then the Breath of Life will always be your guide,
Will soothe your own life in your own times of dryness
And strengthen your bones when they are weary.
Then you shall be like a garden given water,
Like a wellspring whose waters never fail.
Those who spring from you shall rebuild the ancient ruins
And you shall lay foundations for the coming generation.
You shall be called "Those who mend torn places,"
You shall be called "Those who build lanes to live in."
If you refrain from trampling my Renewal-time (lit.: Shabbat)
And from being busy-busy on My holy day;
If you will not only call Renewal-time* delightful
But also turn far from your usual way
And set aside your business and your chatter
To be yourselves the rays by which God's Holiness
Can turn this world into a radiant joy ---
Then indeed you will find delight in YHWH.
For then --- when you have joined the lowly ---
I will set you all with Me, Astride the heights of earth.
Then --- when you feed others --- I will let you eat your fill
From what is truly due you as the heirs of Jacob.
Now! For this word comes from the Mouth that Breathes all life.

-------translation by Arthur Waskow

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Lessons Learned?

I've been doing some reading to prepare for my first visit down the Nile to the Valley of the Kings and Queens - we leave in a week! Last night I was reading about the succession of Egyptian empires - specifically a description of the period after 1100 BCE, when "Egypt's role as a great political power approached its end. Racked by internal dissension, the nation broke apart at its traditional geographic seam, and weak successors of the mighty pharaohs took over a land that henceforth would be frequently divided." It reminded me of the US - and our inability to form and act on a coherent foreign policy based on democratic principles of justice and equality. We, too, are breaking apart at our seams.

In a week, I will be heading back to Palestine and Israel, with a group of pilgrims - to visit the holy sites, the ancient stones, and learn about the realities of life for the "living stones" of the land--the people living in the land today.

Much has changed since my last trip a year ago--the "Arab Spring" promises new life and possibilities for many in the region, but for the Lutheran Palestinians we will be visiting in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, life goes on much the same. President Mahmoud Abbas has submitted Palestine's application for statehood to the UN, and they are doing what they have been doing for 63 years--waiting.

"Five Lessons Learned from Palestinian UN Bid"

There have been many analyses of the Palestinian bid for statehood, but one of the most complete was this one from al-Jezeera:

The first lesson, "Washington is Broken" is especially heart-rending because it is so true and it does not affect simply our role in peacemaking in the Middle East. It is at the heart of our struggle to survive as a nation and our ability to be a leader pointing the way toward freedom, equality and justice for all. I commend it to your reading: AlJezeera: Five Lessons