It’s loud at our lodging tonight as I write this. Children are running around, yelling joyfully, riding on scooters and playing with each other as parents mill about, sipping on wine.
Toto, we aren’t in Palestine anymore.
Tonight is our first evening in Israel, as we are staying in Galilee to see the places where Jesus grew up and where most of his ministry occurred, and the differences are profound. We can drink the water from tap, there isn’t the constant tension felt by armed soldiers everywhere, and it feels very much like a middle class culture.
It is easy to see why so many Israelis aren’t invested in what is happening in Palestine. Out of sight, out of mind. Living in completely different world.
We left the West Bank and headed north. Going through checkpoints is not a problem for us, as we passed through the wall. We have a yellow license plate on our bus. That means that we are able to drive anywhere we want — that we are able to be in Israeli territory.
Yesterday I heard that some women aren’t able to enter Jerusalem until they are 40 and men until they are 55 because they need a permit before that age to leave the West Bank. Hardly anyone is permitted to drive a car (100 permits for the whole of the West Bank can drive in Jerusalem.) Most will never travel north and see the beauty of Galilee.
Along the way, we passed by Haifa, a port city, which our guide, Tareq, told us was the best example of positive relationships between Jews, Muslims and Christians in Israel. The city is 70 percent Jewish, 30 percent Palestinian, and they get along. They speak each other’s language, the city has a nightlife, there is no conflict, and they live as a community.
I asked why this was the case. Tareq said it was because their relationship wasn’t about who was a Muslim and who was a Jew. If you take the focus on religion out of it, people get along. It felt good to see at least one beacon of hope here. The future of this land is focusing on the people, not isolating them by religion and ethnicity.
Prior to today, I was wondering about the “land of milk and honey” that Abraham was promised — Jerusalem has a desert on one side, and it really felt like one large place of rocks and hills.
But here in Galilee, it is lush and green. The farms are productive, and the beauty of the rolling hills and mountains makes it clear why people fought for this land and didn’t want to give it up as their home.
I also learned the milk was the olive trees and the honey was the figs.
Our first stop was the Sea of Galilee. As we walked up to it, it was apparent the lake was much smaller than it used to be. It needs to rise 15 feet to get back to the size it once was — a product of the lack of rain caused by climate change. It’s shrinking has also increased the water shortage, since it can’t be drained to be used as a water source.
Once there, we boarded “The Jesus Boat.” It was a large wooden boat, reminiscent of the kind that Jesus and his disciples would have used. It was a still day on the Sea of Galilee, with no movement whatsoever.
I noticed there were cross winds, with the way the hills and mountains broke, so that surface waves could rise in both directions in a hurry. Surface waves swamp boats. The whole story of Jesus in the storm made a lot more sense.
The hourlong cruise was peaceful and serene — except when they played the “Star Spangled Banner” and hoisted an American flag on the boat since we were all U.S. citizens. That I found a little weird, but given the rampant nationalism of Israel, it made sense that they promoted it with all of the tourists.
Once the U.S. flag was raised (I decided not to confuse them by asking for equal time for “O Canada”), the remainder of the cruise was reflective. We read the story of Jesus in the storm and we looked out at the calm waters.
As a water person who loves boats and has been caught in more than a few storms, I felt very connected to Jesus.
While at this same sight, we were able to see the Ancient Boat that was found in 1986, which is the oldest freshwater boat in the world.
The boat has been dated to between the First Century B.C.E> and C.E., which means that even though no one knows if this was a boat that Jesus used, he would have used one very much like it. Seeing it, like the Sea of Galilee, gave me a deeper appreciation for the Word, as I saw how low it was and how waves could easily fill it with water to sink it.
Our next stop was the Tabgha or Heptapegon, the site of the Church of the Multiplication, with its unique mosaic floors. This was the spot where Jesus multiplied the loaves and the fishes — a reminder of God’s power to work miracles if we first offer up what we have to give.
That, by the way, is the reason I am blogging so faithfully. To offer what I have to give in order to do what I can ameliorate a horrible situation.
Speaking of which, this church also fell victim to an arson attack in June 2015, from radical, anti-Christian Jews in Israel. It was a reminder that the violence isn’t just against Muslims. Christians face it, too, and the source is always extremist, regardless of the religion.
From there, we went to my favorite place associated with Jesus on the entire trip, the Primacy of Peter, also known as the Mensa Christus (The Table of Christ.) This was the place where Jesus made a breakfast on the beach for the disciples after his Resurrection and where he told Peter to feed and tend his sheep.
It is also where they say that Jesus told the disciples to cast their nets out after a fruitless night fishing and when they did, they hauled in 153 fish — which was the exact number identified fish in the region at that time. A reminder that Jesus’ came to include everyone in his kingdom.
As luck would have it, we arrived between tour groups, so we had the beach essentially to ourselves. At first, a number of people went down. I took off my sandals and tried walking on water, Not surprisingly without success.
But then, all but one other person left, and for a quarter of an hour, I had a chance to be “in my zone,” by the water, praying, reflecting and letting tears flow at the power of a God who forgave an imperfect Peter on that beach, as he called him to serve Jesus with his whole life. For that same Jesus called a very imperfect Paula, too.
One of the amazing things about being there was visualizing the story in a new way. Though we don’t know for sure this was the site, if it was in the area, it was likely that the shoreline was rocky and not sand beach.
That means that when Peter leaped out of the boat after catching the fish and swam to Jesus, when he reached the shallow area he was on rocky ground, which is painful to run on. But Peter was focused on Jesus, not his pain, and that focus led him to his place by Jesus.
If I can keep my eyes on Jesus, then I, too, can traverse rocky paths to keep moving forward in mission, obstacles be damned.
From there we arrived at our lodging — an international youth hostel on the Sea of Galilee.
We had some down time before dinner, so I took a long walk on the shore. Going away to a lonely place to pray.
When I came back, I greeted a woman on the beach. She responded in Hebrew and when I told her I didn’t speak Hebrew, she responded in perfect English. Carol was a Chicago native.
We started to talk and in a short time, I was not only sitting in a chair next to her, I was also sharing her wine cup, as we split a bottle of very good red wine.
It was fascinating to talk to her. She came to Israel in the 1970s with a dream of being part of a new nation, and she stayed because it was a good fit.
Yet, she knew about the struggles and challenges. Carol was far left in her politics, supporting the political party that believed in Palestinian rights. She saw the wall for what it was — a source of oppression for the Palestinians and the dangers posed by the settlers in Hebron. She recognized what extremist views did to distort the possibilities of peace in the country.
However, she also had a sense of helplessness. She hated what the settlers were doing in Hebron, but what could she do. She saw the inequities, felt sorry for what people who lived in the West Bank had to experience and knew it was wrong. But she also believed in the vision of Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people.
When I called the residents Palestinians and not Arabs she did a double take, but to her credit, she reflected on that as well. She said, “I guess you’re right. They are Palestinians.” This was coming from a very liberal person who had lived in Israel for over 40 years. They do only hear one story.
One of the most fascinating things she told me was how the extremists were working to get their way by Judaizing the country and making it a religious state.
She said they have schools where they offer free education for the Sephardic Jews, largely from North Africa, who are poor.
They use the schools to indoctrinate the children to hate Palestinians. The children who follow Palestinians or Orthodox Christian priests in Old Jerusalem to spit on them and call them names are products of this indoctrination. We heard firsthand stories of this happening, and now I know why.
There is a passage in Proverbs that says, “Train up a child in the way you want them to go and when they are old they will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6).
The extreme Orthodox Jews of Israel glommed onto that verse and are training up a generation to be filled with hate, seeking a final solution of a nation void of Palestinians.
Carol told me a friend of hers summed up what she felt. “This isn’t the country or the dream we envisioned when we came here in the 1970s. But what can we do but remain here and keep working on that dream.”
The more I learn, the more complex this situation is. But one thing is becoming clear. Extremism in all its form leads to more division and destruction. The only way forward for peace is to recognize a shared humanity.
There are religious extremists of all stripes here at the birthplace of three religions. Muslims, Christians, and Jews. And as long as people focus on tribe and what divides us, there won’t be peace.
It is only when we see our shared humanity that we are able to find a way forward in this incredibly divided world — here in Israel and back home in America, where the divide isn’t as deep or as long, but where the rift is ever expanding.
Wherever we are, whoever we are, we need to keep working on that dream of human rights for everyone in this world we share together.