PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — The Holy Land, Day 3

Although over the years I have read articles and books about the situation in Palestine and Israel, today as we drove through the West Bank and East Jerusalem on a tour led by Jeff Halper, the founder of the Israeli Committee Against Housing Demolitions, a nonprofit, direct action group dedicated to opposing and resisting the demolition of Palestinian homes, it came alive for me in a new way.

For those of you who follow my blogs, this one will be filled with a lot of statistics and history, but I think that it may be helpful to give those who are not fully versed in the struggle between Palestine and Israel a better understanding of what is going on. Although Jeff is a leader of a group with a very definite political agenda, I made certain to verify this information with others who are connected with the ministry of the Lutheran Church in the Holy Land.

It started 100 years ago, when the British Foreign Minister Balfour declared that the United Kingdom would look favorably on a national homeland for Jews in Palestine, recognizing the Zionist movement. It was, put simply, a classic case of colonialism, where one nation promises another nation its right to a third nation.

Fast forward to 1947, when after the Holocaust and diaspora of the surviving Jews, the United Nations came up with a plan to divide Palestine into two states, to provide the Jews with a homeland. Approximately one-third of the population would be Jews, mostly newcomers, who would receive 56 percent of the land and the remaining two-thirds would be the Palestinians, who traced their ancestral homes back thousands of years and who would receive 44 percent of the land. Approximately 2 percent of those totals would be Jerusalem and Bethlehem, which would be International cities.

The Palestinians rejected this as a takeover of their homeland and after the ensuing war in 1948,  Israel triumphed and came out with 78 percent of the land.

That remained the status quo until 1967, when during the 7 Day War, Israel conquered the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip and Palestine became on occupied territory, controlled by Israel.

In 1988, the Palestine Liberation Organization declared independence and accepted the idea that there could be two separate states. The Palestinians were willing to give up claims to the 78 percent of the country they had owned prior to 1948 if they could have control of the 22 percent where they were now living, but Israel refused and tensions mounted during the First Intifada as Palestinians revolted for over five years.

The Oslo Accord in 1993 was a declaration of principle that although Israel did not agree to a two-state solution, it was willing to negotiate with the PLO, and the world community had a vision of two states, Palestine and Israel, co-existing together, within five years. In preparation for that, the Palestinian Authority was formed, and there were to be three withdrawals by the Israelis — of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Whether this would have happened or not is unknown, but the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by an extreme right-wing Zionist in November 1995 put an end to any hope for peace through the Oslo Accord. Bibi Netanyahu was elected on an anti-Oslo ticket, and Israeli withdrawals from the occupied territories ceased.

Even as the Israelis are building settlements on Palestinian land, there is a housing crisis in both the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The Israeli’s want more space for their settlements (communities of up to 120,000 people) and Palestinians want to be able to provide upkeep on their homes, have additions to their space and perhaps add an extra bathroom.

There is a lot of land available in East Jerusalem to build houses for Palestinians, who need an additional 25,000 housing units to provide adequate housing. But they can’t build on it for two reasons.

One is that they often lack the funds. Seventy percent of Palestinians live below the poverty line. Because the housing market is so tight, the prices are high. In addition, because foreign workers have been brought in to do jobs that Palestinians previously did, because you can pay foreign workers (from East Asia, Africa, etc) below the minimum wage, there is trouble finding employment.

In addition, all of East Jerusalem has been zoned as open green space. That allows Palestinians to own land but they can’t build on it. If they wish to build, they first must apply for a permit to rezone, which costs at least $20,000, which is hard when you are living on $1,200 a month. In addition, it is next to impossible to get a permit, since the commission that makes the decisions is entirely Israeli. Last year, for the 250,000 Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, 18 permits were awarded for any kind of addition or change to a house, no matter how minor.

However, if you don’t get a permit and you make a change to your house, or if you leave the area to work elsewhere, like the West Bank, because there are no jobs, or if the zoning commission finds something wrong with your house when they inspect it, it can schedule your house for demolition.

Since 1967,  50,000 Palestinian houses have been demolished in the occupied territories. Once they are demolished, the Israelis take hold of the land the house was on, rezone it immediately, place an Israeli flag on it and build a new home for an Israeli. As a result, Israel has been able to build massive settlements while Palestinians are not even allowed to add a story to their homes or make a change in their bathrooms.

In addition, the disparities between the Israeli and Palestinian parts of the occupied territories are vast. Palestinians in East Jerusalem are 37 percent of the people, they pay over 50 percent of the taxes and when you look at municipal ledgers, they receive 8 percent of the service — services like sidewalks, adequate water, electricity, regular garbage pick up and paved roads.

Garbage pickup is spotty in areas of East Jerusalem occupied by Palestinians.
Garbage pickup is spotty in areas of East Jerusalem occupied by Palestinians.

The difference between driving through the settlements and the Palestinian areas was profound and readily apparent. One area looked like an upscale suburban neighborhood, and as we drove along, we literally saw “where the sidewalk ends.”  The streets narrow and some aren’t paved. There are no streetlights, and it goes from finely manicured public landscaping to literally nothing. It is clear the garbage trucks haven’t been there for a long time. It is the same municipality and tax base, but they clearly have two tiers of services and infrastructure. In a matter of feet, it turns from suburbia to third world public space.

Water usage in the West Bank is a clear example of the disparity. Eight hundred thousand Israelis live in the West Bank and 2.5 million Palestinians. However, the Israelis receive 85 percent of the water resources. Palestinians have barrels on their roofs that water trucks have to fill to preserve water when there are water shortages or no water flows. Israelis have no barrels on their roofs because that never happens to them.

I will write another day about the wall and what that means, as well as reflections on the inequity, but the piece that impacted me so profoundly today was how easy it is for these Palestinians to lose their homes and how unfair the system is.  As someone who is about to sign papers to purchase my first home, I am filled with pride that I will at long last be a homeowner. I can’t imagine the feelings that the Palestinians who have lived in the same place for hundreds if not thousands of years experience when they look out the window one day and see that the bulldozers have shown up.

They live with this fear because currently there are thousands of homes slated for demolition, but the authorities do them randomly, without prior notice, keeping people off guard and uncertain. The bulldozers just show up one day and the house is gone. I talked to church leaders who knew of men who literally died of strokes or heart attacks as the demolition occurred and even more who have lost their will to live. It is truly devastating.

Jeff, our Israeli guide for this tour of the inequities between areas, is committed to getting the word out about how this system of home demolition works and how unfair the system is because when he talked to Palestinians, they repeatedly said home demolition was the most demoralizing aspect of their lives.

Sadly, most Israelis are unaware of what is going on. The lives of the Israelis and Palestinians are kept separate, and when you are in a settlement, it is easy to see how you could be unaware of the struggles of a group you have been taught to hate and fear.

My commitment is to share facts that I heard, sights that I saw and stories that are true to help others understand more about the struggles the people living in the occupied territories face. It was a heavy morning, and I know this blog reads like a history lesson, but it is history I learned and feel compelled to share, as I seek to live in solidarity with a people that are clearly oppressed.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — The Holy Land, Day 2

Our group is staying at the Lutheran World Federation Guesthouse, which is located at the top of the Mount of Olives. The land was given to Kaiser Wilhelm when he visited Jerusalem in 1898, and the compound was named for his wife, Augusta Victoria. Since my grandfather fought in the Boxer Rebellion for the Kaiser’s army and my middle name is Victoria, I felt an immediate connection to the place.

Initially, the compound focused on building a guesthouse for German pilgrims visiting Jerusalem as well as a German Protestant Church to match the one we visited yesterday, Resurrection Lutheran. Since this is located on the mount where Jesus ascended, the church is known as Ascension Lutheran.

Painting of Jesus on Palm Sunday.
Painting of Jesus on Palm Sunday.

The highlight of the church visit for me was seeing an old painting of Jesus on a donkey coming down from the Mount of Olives on Palm Sunday. I recognized it immediately from Sunday School book covers I saw when in grade school. The painting is in desperate need of restoration, but it reminded me that “the old, old story,” even with an ethnically white Jesus, which is so so wrong historically, still warmed a place in my heart.

This was a reminder of the challenges of ministry during a time that we need to balance what draws out our spiritual heritage or memory with cultural sensitivity.

I am not tied to a white Jesus by any means — in fact I love and celebrate the fact that Jesus was a person of color. But that picture is part of a tradition of my faith from childhood, and I love it for that, even if it is wrong.

How do we balance that? I question worth pondering at a later date, but an idea sparked in me as I toured the church.  But I digress …

We had a chance to hear from the LWF representative at Augusta Victoria Hospital, Mark Brown. A remarkable man, he shared with us the history of the hospital, which was transformed from its original purpose as a guesthouse — our guesthouse was built much later — to become a hospital.

In the aftermath of 1948, when Israel became a state and 800,000 Palestinians had their land and homes taken from them and they became refugees, this became the primary hospital caring for the refugees who lived in Jerusalem. Later, when the Israel invaded area that was not included in its original agreement for territory with the United Nations, the Palestinians who were uprooted fled to this area for sanctuary.

After the Oslo Accord in 1993, which allowed for an independent Palestinian State within five years, the Palestinian Authority formed, and so health care options expanded and the focus of the hospital changed to become a specialty care location for Palestinians with cancer and kidney issues.

Although the hope of the Oslo Accord never materialized and the Palestinians are still an occupied people, they continue with expanding their focus as a hospital.

It was astounding to see the good work these people do on a limited budget and with scarce resources — one PET scan and 1½ radiation units for 4.5 million Palestinians. It is a wonderful example of what the dollars used by USAID and Lutheran World Relief provide — hope and help for a people who have few resources and fewer freedoms. When the U.S. talks about cutting foreign aid and help for Palestinians, places like this are on the line — a place of healing in a broken world.

Old LWF signage.
Old LWF signage.

From there, our “Lutheran pride tour” took us to this amazing LWF Vocational Training Center, where high school students have a chance to learn a skill that will translate into a job for them.

Lutherans are known for their outstanding educational institutions in a place where there are 2,000 fewer classrooms than needed for Palestinian students, and this place was no exception. It was incredible to see the students who were in the classes, working on metal shop, carpentry and auto maintenance, to see the beautiful pottery they made — I bought some — and to taste the fantastic food prepared for us by women in the culinary class.

The women, in particular, face challenges — both in areas where they are allowed to be educated and in finding a vocation because women are not encouraged to work. They face rules and restrictions from the controlling Israeli regulations as well as their own culture. It is a hard place to be a woman in Palestine.

It was a place of hope and promise, as the students not only learn a technical skill, but they also learn life skills, are trained in learning their own human rights and standing up for them and develop team-building skills through sports and cooperative activities. Once they graduate or complete their courses, they return to their homes to become leaven in their communities.

Our meal was also a chance to get to know the director of the school, Yousef, a Palestinian Christian who entered the school as a student and years later has gone on to be its director — representing it around the world as a model of community empowerment and development.

The view from the top of the Mount of Olives.
The view from the top of the Mount of Olives.

Following dinner, we headed up to the Mount of Olives and had the most incredible view of the Kidron Valley. We weren’t far from Bethany, where Jesus was anointed by Mary and where Lazarus was raised, and it was the point from which he descended into Jerusalem for the Triumphant entry. Although in the midst of the city now, at the time, it was a distance away and allowed time for the crowd to grow as he headed to the gates. It is also the area where Jesus ascended. Seeing it was deeply moving.

On the way down, we passed cemeteries, including ones where the prophets were said to have been laid to rest, and we came to the spot where Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem, looking at their erring ways and wishing he could gather them together like a mother gathers her chicks.

My reaction to this church was the opposite to that of the Holy Sepulchre — it felt holy and sacred. Perhaps because it wasn’t full of people taking selfies. I loved the design, including the cross in the clear window that lined up the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the location of Golgotha.

The grounds around it also carried a sense of serenity and grace that I can’t really describe. I felt peace, even with the heaviness of the world — through the tears of Jesus and his action we found hope beyond tears and light beyond darkness. It is a place to which I hope to one day return.

The road continued down to the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed while his disciples slept and where Judas betrayed him. The olive tree garden was cordoned off, but it gave me a good picture of where the disciples would have slept, and the rocks around and in the church gave me an image of where he would have prayed until his tears became drops of blood, saying, “Not my will, but thine.”

Message at the entrance of the church — no tour guide explanations.
Message at the entrance of the church — no tour guide explanations.

The church itself had a sign that said, “No explanations in the church,” meaning tourist guides couldn’t talk. It was a place of silence, and that made a difference.  I felt the power and force of the struggle and sacrifice of Jesus.

Our guide, a Muslim man, made a connection I had never considered. He talked about the Mount of Transfiguration, where Jesus was most connected with his divine self, and the Garden of Gethsemane, where he was his most human. One was on a mountain, the other in the valley, one was in the morning and the other at night. Truly the dark night of his soul. Food for thought.

We left the Garden and for dinner had a grand feast with some of the Lutheran Young Adults in Global Mission at a local restaurant. I can’t describe all we ate except that the salads are astounding, the appetizers spectacular, the main dish filling and the dessert sublime. Middle Eastern food and spices are my favorite.

And the company — young adults who are giving a year of their life in accompaniment to our global partners in the Lutheran Church — was even better than the meal. I ended the day proud to be a Lutheran, for what we are doing in the world and who is representing us in the global community.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — The Holy Land, Day 1

After a typical Middle Eastern breakfast of pita, cheese, vegetables, an egg and hummus, our group, a mixture laypeople and clergy from the New England Synod on a Companion Synod Pilgrimage to visit the places and people connected with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, went off for our first stop.

We arrived at the Dome of the Rock, which is one of the holiest places for three world religions. Not only does this area — also known as Temple Mount — house the site of the Temple, where the Ten Commandments and the Holy of Holies were located, and where the curtain was ripped in two during the Crucifixion, the mosque situated there is the third-most holy site in the Islamic world.

It is also one of the most contentious places in the struggle between the Palestinian State and Israel. Because this is a gathering place on days of prayer, sadly, this is also a place where tensions are high and it is prone to violence.

After being screened by Israeli guards once we entered, a Muslim guard told me to cover my bare arms. I didn’t have my jacket because it had a cross on it, and religious symbols of that type are banned there, but fortunately had a head scarf I wrapped around me.

As luck would have it, our tour guide’s cousin, Mohammed, was on guard duty that day, and he had been a key part of a recent incident at the Dome of the Rock.

In July, two Israeli guards were shot at an entrance, and so the Israeli police entered this area, which is normally forbidden for Jews — both because it is under administrative control of Jordan and because there are tombs there, which makes it an area that is ritually unclean.

The Israelis desperately want to take control of this area to limit Muslim autonomy, and after the shooting, they ransacked the whole area, saying they were looking for co-conspirators in the shooting. But a group of guards, including Mohammed, entered the area when the Israelis were there and refused to leave. Because of their tenacity but also their peaceful approach, the Israelis left after two weeks, and the tension abated. But the fire keg that lies all around this area seems ready to be lit.

We explored this magnificent site, although all buildings are closed to the general public, as well seeing the place where Jesus was tried by Pilate. Although that site is far beneath the surface of the ground now, it was powerful to see the space and walk the same grounds where Jesus walked, even as the tensions that existed between forces of power and religions haven’t changed a whole lot in 2,000 years.

From there, we walked the Via Dolorosa, the Way of the Cross where Jesus carried his cross. I always envisioned it as a straight shot, but it was up and down narrow streets, complete with twists and turns. Clearly the way of the cross is not an easy walk.

Along the way, we saw St. Anne’s Church, where the Virgin Mary was born, complete with its incredible acoustics. Our group sang The Doxology. The group after us sang the chorus of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” an interesting choice for a group of Christians we discerned was from the Philippines. As I left, I heard a chorus of “Amazing Grace” that made me shudder at how many badly sung versions of that this space has had to endure.

Our next stop was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Golgotha, the place where Jesus was crucified, and the Tomb of the Resurrection were less than 100 feet apart.

I would be a liar if I didn’t say I was disappointed. It is controlled by six different churches, working peaceably together, but nonetheless, it felt like a market, and I related to how Jesus must have felt with the money changers, even though no one was selling anything. People were everywhere, with different levels of reverence, and taking selfies in front of the place where the cross stood.

After climbing up to Golgotha, I stood in front of the cross and apologized to Jesus. It didn’t feel reverent or holy. It felt like a tourist stop. That was hard.

We didn’t see the tomb, as the line was well over two hours long, but I did check out the “tomb next door” that Joseph of Arimathea would have used. They later explained that they had to build strong buildings around these holy sites because of the level of danger posed to the new church in protecting it. They needed a fortress — so it isn’t an open area. It is enclosed, and I felt entrapped. Not like I envisioned the place at all.

Thankfully, this was followed by lunch with the bishop of ELCJHL, who after 20 years of ministry, is retiring at the end of this year. He and almost all of the Christians in Palestine trace their heritage as Christians back to the time of Christ.

Palestinian Christians are lumped in with the Muslims as Arabs in the world of Israel. The bishop told the story of how his father wanted to see the house he was raised in, which was stolen when Israel became a nation in 1948, and the gruff woman answering the door refused him entrance saying, “I didn’t take it from you. The government took it from me.”

Imagine having lived in the same house for generations, on the same land for centuries, and one day it is just taken from you, and you are forced into a refugee camp. That is what happened to Palestinian Muslims and Christians. But both the woman at the house and the bishop’s father had their own realities. And for them, the story was true. That, I think, is one of the biggest problems we have in the world today: our own reality and our refusal to see another’s perspective.

The Lutheran Church has focused its ministry in the Holy Land on education and is known for its excellent schools. Lutherans educate Muslims as well as Christians and seek to be a place promote peace.

The bishop shared stories of their oppression. For example, a Lutheran pastor who lived in the West Bank married a woman who lived in Jerusalem. Because where they can live is limited, she would lose her Jerusalem identity if she moved to the West Bank, along with health care benefits and ability to move freely. Their child, who is 4 months old, can’t get a birth certificate because there is a dispute over whether the child should have the freedom and benefits that are refused to any Arab living in the West Bank. If the child doesn’t get this, he can’t get a passport, and he could remain essentially a prisoner in the West Bank, unable to ever leave.

I asked the bishop what he wanted me to tell people about Lutherans in Palestine. He said to say that they are a peaceful, moderating force and that there is no conflict between Arab Muslims and Christians in Palestine. They live in peace. The conflict is between Israel and Palestine over land and water. The Palestinians wish to share the land and Israel does not, so we need to advocate for the two-state solution.

It was moving to see a man of such humility who witnesses to a heritage that goes back further than any of ours and to think of the oppression they face in witness to the social gospel.

After lunch, many of us walked the 178 steps to the top of the bell tour at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, for which we were rewarded with a spectacular view of Jerusalem.

Our tour continued with a walk through the Old City, which included the Armenian Quarter and the Jewish Quarter, ending at the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall, where Jews go to pray. It is the only part of the Second Temple where Jews can go to pray, since they are forbidden to go to the Temple Mount, where the Dome of the Rock is because as I said before it is not ritually unclean.

Divided between men and women, I went to the women’s side, wrote my note to leave there, touched it and prayed. I prayed for peace in a land where male and female soldiers sport AK 47’s with the ease that we carry backpacks and where the tension between warring sides is palpable. In our own nation, which is becoming increasingly tribal, it was a stark and powerful reminder of how important it is not to demonize those with whom you don’t agree.

The day ended with a gathering at the Stone House that is part of the Lutheran World Federation’s ministry in Jerusalem, as part of the Wednesday potlucks that happen weekly as a place of community and support for Lutheran expats in Jerusalem,

As I wind down, I reflect on Day 1 with a sense of exhaustion and amazement. I walked the way of the Cross, where Jesus walked, on stones he may have walked on, and I saw the Way of the Cross that is continually born by people living in a land that is seen as holy, but where the way of violence is too often the path that is followed. May God have mercy, and may I be an instrument of peace.