Saturday, September 4, 2010

Rachel's Tomb

Of the many disturbing aspects of the occupation, I am perhaps most disturbed by the attempt by Israeli policies and practices to excise history.

There is the practice, most often successful, to take land in expropriation as though the people who’ve been living there for years either are not important or didn’t even exist.

There is the practice of rewriting history, as though there hadn’t been a plan to cleanse whole tracts of land of the people, families and villages which had been living, farming and existing for generations.

And then, there is the practice of pretending as though another religion (or, other religions) don’t justifiable exist. Policies are in place to make it difficult for Christians from Bethlehem to come to the city of Jerusalem, specifically the Old City, during the holy days of Holy Week for worship and family gatherings. There is the policy that restrict the number of people who can receive permits to go from the Bethlehem side to the Jerusalem side of the Separation Barrier for worship on Fridays at al-Aqsa mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem.

However, after weeks of living in Bethlehem, with one of the ugliest “facts on the ground”, I think the most egregious practice of excising history is the de jure practice which is turning into de facto belief that Rachel, one of the wives of Jacob (who was renamed Israel), is not an ancestor to all of the children of Abraham.

Once upon a time, Jacob, the grandson of Abraham whose oldest son was Ishmael and whose second son was Isaac, was owned many flock of sheep and goats and was married to two sisters. Between the sisters and their handmaids, Jacob had 11 sons and one daughter.

The beloved wife, Rachel, was pregnant and giving birth to the 13th child and died in childbirth. The boy lived to be Benjamin, but Rachel was buried there alongside the path, for these were nomadic people. The village they happened to be by was Bethlehem. After Jacob buried Rachel, he set up a pillar at her grave – a place that has been known as Rachel’s Tomb ever since (Genesis 35:18-20).

The people of Bethlehem cared for Rachel’s Tomb for many years -- as Canaanites, as Israelites, as Jews, under Roman occupation, as Christians, as Muslims, under Ottoman occupation, under Jordanian occupation, as Palestinians. For the people in Bethlehem, regardless of their religious affiliation, regarded Rachel as one of their own. She is understood to be one of their ancestors; she is a matriarch in the faith.

For years, the grave, though cared for, was exposed to the weather. A tomb was built over it. Then, when many in the area were Muslim, a mosque enclosed Rachel’s Tomb to both protect her grave and honor her memory. Around Rachel’s Tomb, a Muslim burial ground was established. To this day, this is one of the cemeteries in town that is used as a final resting place for Bethlehemites who are Muslim.

Yet, Rachel’s Tomb is cut off from Bethlehem and from her people by the Separation Barrier (in the form of a 27 foot wall). The wall creates a de facto border line between Bethlehem (part of the West Bank) and the expanded municipality of Jerusalem, which now includes Rachel’s Tomb and an access road (which used to be part of the Jerusalem-Hebron road). While in other parts of Bethlehem, the wall roughly (though by no means exactly) delineates the urban area of town, it snakes a kilometer or more into the city to excise the tomb area. In the process, residents in the area have experienced a dramatic change in their economic opportunities (the wall has blocked the Jerusalem-Hebron road in three places), and ease of access to homes (more than one house is now down an alley, where before they were on a main road).

Most importantly, however, the fact of this barrier has removed the opportunity for faithful Christians and Muslims to honor and pay respect to one of the Mothers in the Faith.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Presentation, presentation, presentation

I returned to the US from Palestine on June 15, 2010. The last month was busy with activity and writing (yes, I do plan to sit down and write about all of those things on this blog in the next month or two). When I got back, I spent some time visiting with family, and then began a presentation tour with 15 "shows" in 15 different locations across the United States. After 6000 miles, 14 states, and 20 days of traveling, I ended up back in the Pacific Northwest.

I gave presentations in churches and in homes to people who were well versed in the situation and to folks for whom this was mostly new information. Over and over again, I people were surprised, shocked and dismayed when they learned of the injustice, the oppression, and the violence done to Palestinians whose stories I shared. Many were also unaware of the long history of occupation in the region (not just Israel occupying the land, but before them the Jordanians, the British and the Ottomans).

Many thanks to the people who hosted the presentations (and me) and who came to hear the stories and see the pictures!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Dreaming of a stronger community

Seven Palestinian women from a village in the West Bank gathered together for their weekly English class. Afterwards, they spoke about their ideas and dreams for strengthening and improving their village and their life together. Khadija articulated the basic and powerful idea that these women had when she exclaimed, “I can do simple things and encourage others to do the same.”

Khadija happened to be talking about garbage at that moment; her simple action would be to take the wrapper of whatever snack food she’d just bought at the store and choose to throw the wrapper in a garbage can, even if that meant carrying the wrapper to her home. Layla echoed those sentiments and exhorted the families of the village to take care of their garbage by coming together to create a dedicated place for the garbage and then take it al there.

Mariam reminded all of us gathered that it’s not only up to the municipalities or village councils to solve problems; the people in an area can, and should, also work together to come up with and implement solutions. For example, in her part of the village, a very steep dirt road would turn muddy and slick during the winter months of rain. The road always became dangerous during the winter months and people would fall. However, the residents along the street got together and had the road paved. While the pitch of the hill remains the same, the asphalt has minimized the danger and the mess of the road.

The ideas continued to flow about creating a community library, an after school program and a community playground. The women, feeling empowered by the encouragement they receive from their women’s center convener Jihan and the interactions with international women who come to visit them, were interrupting each other in their excitement to share their ideas and plans for their village: home and community.

Yet, the women also know limitations. Not only are there naysayers about their ideas about garbage, parks and libraries, they know first hand the restrictions of a traditional village structure. Even though more and more girls and women are continuing their education into the universities, and, on the whole, there are fewer restrictions for women to travel into the city of Bethlehem, the patriarchal system of father, brothers and/or husband giving permission for the women to express their ideas publicly, visit their neighbors, or work to effect change is a firm reality for these creative and articulate women.

The ideas and possibilities are still present and they still ring out in the room where the women’s group meets for learning and conversation, regardless of limitations or naysayers. As Amani declared, “we are used to the restrictions, but we have learned to stand despite them, and to be strong!” The dreams for a stronger and healthier community are still alive and well in the hearts, minds and lives of these women.

Creative resistance to the occupation and the occupiers

Near Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem (and therefore, near the Wall), the Sumud story house, run by Pax Christi International, gathers together Palestinian women and children for stories, conversation, encouragement, spiritual growth and laughter. Ranja, the manager and host of the house, welcomes you into the main room which is decorated as though it were the inside of a traditional bedouin tent.

Lining the tent room are sign boards with stories of creative resistance to the occupation of Palestine and to the occupiers from Israel. Here is one of those stories:

As happened more than once during the time of the (first) Intifada, Israeli soldiers were beating up a man in a crowded street. From all sides people rushed to the scene. Suddenly a woman with a baby came forward to the man and shouted: “Why is it always you who makes problems and goes to demonstrations! I am fed up! Take this baby of yours! I don’t want to see you ever again.” She laid the baby in the hands of the man, and ran away. The soldiers left the scene in confusion. When quiet came, the man returned the baby to the woman. They had never seen each other before. Described by Mounir Fasheh (1998).

You are invited to follow this link to read other stories from Sumud story house:

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


"A country is not just what it does -- it is what it tolerates." (Kurt Tucholsky, German essayist of Jewish origin)

The real irony of this quote is that it is written on one of the walls of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. While Tucholsky was writing these words, the people of Germany of the early 20th century was tolerating less and less tolerance by her government and leaders.

I also found it ironic that the central and main hall of the Yad Vashem museum complex was constructed out of concrete walls and that the path taken by the museum goers was through various cuts in those walls which are of the same width as the concrete walls of the separation Wall that is being built around Palestine (and mostly on Palestinian land). The ones who experienced terrible intolerance and imprisonment are now exacting the same intolerance and imprisonment on another people.

Monday, May 10, 2010

God's "Sumud"

Psalm 62:5-12; 1 Timothy 2:1-6; John 16:23-33

When, if ever, are we alone?

As I've been with Palestinians in their homes, as they wait in the checkpoint lines, as they go to school or work and as we talk in conversations, a theme that often shows up is sumud, an Arabic word that means (approximately) "steadfastness", or "perseverance". The people who use it generally mean that they are steadfast and patient; they persevere as they wait for the occupation to end somehow, someday.

Today, our psalm and even our Gospel text speak of sumud. Except, in these verses, the sumud is God's: "Steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord" (Ps. 62:12a); "Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me." (John 16:32b)

The world may shift and change, the mountains may shake (even if it just feels like it, as one woman said about the arrival of the army at 2:00 am at her house), the seas may roar, the soldiers may come in the middle of the night, the bulldozers may come to take down a house or a grove of trees, the settlers may burn field , one may feel abandoned and alone in the midst of the occupation, but God's steadfast love is always with us, because "steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord."

Sometimes we forget to turn to God, to trust God or to ask God for help, but as Jesus reminds all of his disciples, his Abba is always there and listening. Jesus instructs the followers to ask (as they haven't done before) and their joy will be complete.

I believe our joy will be complete because we are turning toward and trusting God, and being in relationship with God. That will be the source and the fulfillment of our joy.

Do we, can we, remember sumud? God's sumud is the promise made and the beginning of creation and the promise made throughout the people's lives in the stories of scripture. God's sumud was made incarnate in the life and life-giving love of Jesus, the Christ. God's sumud was promised to you in your baptism and is renewed in the Supper, in your cabbage soup and in your daily life. God's sumud is renewed in you even on, especially on, the days when you feel most alone and abandoned.

I know that it can be difficult to remember this. I know that the darkness of loneliness and despair can work to block out God's steadfastness and God's promise. I know.

It may even feel, at times, that you've gone too far away or that you may think your wrongs are too egregious for God to contemplate forgiving. You may feel that God has left you -- and for good reasons. After all, if any one of us were waiting for friends or relying upon them and they were way too late or negligent of us, they we would leave and walk away -- usually in a huff. Far too often we think of God in our own image; so if we would leave, then surely God would as well, right?

But, steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord.

And, upon God rests my redemption, my honor, my refuge and my hope because God's promise of sumud is not contingent upon anything we say or do (or don't say or do). God's sumud is there as the promise of steadfast love and grace for you and you and you and you. Amen

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Life next to a settlement

Mahmoud has lived on this land for years and before him, his father and grandfather (and maybe more) have lived in that spot. The view from the hillside is beautiful -- your eye skims over the valley and up to the next hillside which is covered with houses, with terraces and with groves of olive trees.

If you look closer, you'll see a pile of rubble in the foreground of your scan. As you turn on the knoll of the hill, you'll see another pile of rubble. Finally, as you turn 180 degrees from the view of the groves of trees on the far hillside, you'll see the fence, buildings and towers that are an Israeli settlement.

Mahmoud's land abuts the land that the settlers have claimed and built upon. For the most part, they have been good neighbors with Mahmoud (and he counts the mayor of the settlement as one of his friends), but there has been trouble spanning the past 25 years regarding the land.

First, one of the houses on the property was demolished by the Israeli government (the reason given? He didn't have a permit -- a thing that is close to impossible to get nowadays and wasn't necessary in the past), then a second house was demolished (explaining the two piles of rubble). Several times, Mahmoud's sheep have been poisoned. The most recent of these incidents was 2 years ago when 19 sheep were poisoned to death and another 20 fetuses aborted because of the same poison. Lest you doubt the story, Mahmoud has documentation of all three incidents -- two from the International Committee of the Red Cross and the other from a veterinarian.

Next, invaders came onto Mahmoud's property and into his house (a very simple two room home that houses a large family). The invaders roused Mahmoud from his sleep (he was enjoying the night air by sleeping on the patio) and took him aside while the entered the house, damaged the television and radio, then cut the telephone line.

And, in growing desperation to make life so distasteful and awful for Mahmoud and his family that they would rather leave than stay, one night three men (two who spoke only Hebrew and one who also spoke Arabic) came to the house, took Mahmoud out far away from the house and offered him a suitcase full of money (American dollars that probably totaled in the millions) in exchange for him abandoning the house and his claim to the land. This offer has been made several times, and each time Mahmoud refuses to make the deal. The men who come at night have also offered to send Mahmoud and his family to the United States where they would have "a better life."

But, Mahmoud has refused to leave. His life is here -- on the land, with the crops, trees and amongst the flock of sheep. He continues to farm (wheat, olives, sheep) and to live, to feast and to welcome guests, to trust and to be friends with his neighbors of the settlement. His needs are quite simple and he sees no reason, incentive, nor legal justification to leave his land.

This is his home. These are his roots. This is where he will live and where his sons and daughters-in-law will raise their families. Mahmoud's resistance is heard loud and clear when he says, "I just want to build a home for my family. I don't want anything fancy. I just want to build something simple on my land."