Last November a group of us from Tucson, Arizona, went on a trip to Israel/Palestine. For the last four years I have been a member of a local Tikkun discussion group. Before that I had not known much about Zionism or the foundation of Israel, or the condition of the Palestinians. I became impressed with people who were assertively Jewish, but equally passionate about questioning the policies of the state of Israel. And so I became invested in learning about the Israel/Palestine situation, and when the occasion presented itself, I decided to undertake this trip, which brought together participants in the Jewish-Muslim Peace Walk of Tucson, members of the International Center for Peace and Justice, and our Tikkun discussion group.
The ancient religious aura of Jerusalem and the rest of “The Holy Land” can be felt everywhere. To enter the Holy Sepulcher which encloses Golgotha, the mountain where Jesus is said to have been crucified, and which was founded by Emperor Constantine in the fourth century, or to gaze at the magnificent Dome of the Rock, or to watch Orthodox Jews praying so fervently at the West Wall is to witness a place where people strive to touch the immaterial, where, perhaps, they long for immortality.
My own birth religion is Russian Orthodox, but although I still carry inside me the incomparable liturgical chants that cradled my childhood, I am now most comfortable among Unitarian Universalists. As a member of the Russian émigré diaspora I grew up on four continents, and the denomination’s focus on personal quest rather than any particular dogma seems to fit my composite and open-ended identity. Thus the word “holy land” reflects not so much a geographical place to me, but an inner place of being we try to safeguard or achieve in the way we live.
And the “pilgrimage” my Tucsonan friends, made up of American Jews, Muslims and Christians, undertook was to test what we thought we knew, and to discover what we did not. We spent some two weeks in Israel and Palestine. Our peacenik Israeli guide had warned us to “act like tourists” and not to mention “peace” or “Palestine.” Thus forewarned, we traveled all over – except in Gaza. I had heard about the Wall, the checkpoints, the demolitions, the protests, the settlers, and the suicide bombers and rockets. The land we traveled through reflected these tensions: It was a collage of sprawling developments and stony hills, of sea resorts and Bedouin encampments, of fast highways and ubiquitous walls.
What did the Israelis and Palestinians think of their situation? We met Israeli Palestinians on the verge of eviction in East Jerusalem. Our host explained that he had gone all the way to Ankara in Turkey to get hold of papers that proved the validity of his claim to his house. To no avail. We met Bedouin tribesmen in the Negev: They bear arms for the Israeli military, but may not stay on their ancestral lands. We also met Israeli Ethiopians and Israeli Russians who felt discriminated against. A young woman who identified herself as Mizrahi felt the same. Her family had come from Morocco and she explained that her non-European cultural identity was not respected. She said that she felt more solidarity with the condition of the Palestinians than with her Ashkenazi fellow Jews. We met Sudanese refugees in Tel Aviv who have no legal status at all.
All these encounters reflected a society in flux, not unlike what we ourselves experience in the United States in our African American urban centers, our immigration problems on the border with Mexico, or on our Native American reservations. What really surprised me, however, was our encounter with a young Israeli man in East Jerusalem. He occupies a house initially owned by Palestinians, and which now displays a towering Israeli flag. He took us to the rooftop of this house, and made us face the Dome of the Rock. With much patient and erudite referral to sacred text, he proceeded to “demonstrate” that the Dome of the Rock stood where, according to prophecy, the destroyed Jewish Temple must rise again. The young man did not say in so many words that the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome had “to go,” but what other conclusion could we draw?
Our education continued in the West Bank, where we visited some Israeli settlements. In contrast to crowded, not-so-clean and very busy Palestinian towns, the Settlement of Shiloh is built on a mountain top. Its streets are well paved, the houses are neat – with plenty of room for schools and playgrounds and health clinics. All this is facilitated through government subsidies.
Another young man, who shared with the young man in Jerusalem a kind of inspired eloquence, took us to the temple of Shiloh. He explained that it strove to replicate in every detail an ancient temple which had stood on this very mountain top – some 3,000 years ago. So now, in order to recreate the exact replica of that ancient temple, they had to solve a number of problems. The ancient roof temple had been made of animal skins. Well, after much controversy, they reached a compromise. They did build a real roof, but from the inside they used carpets to make it look like the uneven ceiling of skins. And then there was the issue of lights. There were obviously no electrical lights 3,000 years ago… And then there was the story of the two poles standing on either side of the Tabernacle. In ancient days there was the practice of animal sacrifice, and it was important that the ritually slaughtered animals’ blood flow freely from those poles. The young man assured us that they reached general agreement not to slaughter animals in the Temple, but that the two poles were erected as a symbol of those ritual sacrifices.
So the question here is, do all those ancient imperatives and people’s obvious emotional investment in them obliterate the fact that the Dome of the Rock is sacred to millions of Muslims around the world, or that Shiloh and its Temple are built on ancient olive groves used to supply the livelihood of surrounding Palestinian villages?
This young man was Chicago-born, and our third encounter was with a woman called Sherri Mandell from the Settlement of Tekoa. She too was American born. She told us how she was raised without much focus on her family’s Jewish antecedents, how she went to an elite college and dated mostly non-Jewish boys. She wrote poetry, joined the feminist movement for a time, and traveled, among other places, to Israel. This proved fateful. It was in Israel that she came to feel that she had finally found her true destination. She married a rabbi, they moved out into a Settlement in the West Bank, and she gave birth to four children.
And then tragedy struck. Her oldest boy Koby and a friend of his, Josef, failed to come home from school one day. They were eventually found stoned to death in a cave nearby. This happened during the Second Intifada. Sherri Mandell wrote a book about her plight: The Blessing of a Broken Heart. Sherri is a gifted writer, and her grief comes across more powerfully for being dignified and understated. She and her husband formed a support group for grieving parents. But when we asked her whether her support group welcomed grieving Palestinian parents, she looked surprised. The answer was negative.
In her book there is also a passing reference to the fact that she never was much “into politics.” But isn’t her very personal tragedy the result of the conflation of an extreme form of religion and an extreme form of politics? How could she be so blind to the danger – not to mention the injustice – of settling her family on land that belonged to others?
Clearly the question of whom the land belongs to is far from settled. In the United States most are familiar with the Jewish narrative. The Torah is the Hebrew Bible of our own foundational religion, and Israel is a democracy like ours. Many of the Arabs, on the other hand, are Muslims: We don’t, after all, teach the Qur’an in our Sunday schools. Moreover, Europeans and Americans both carry the guilt of millennial persecution against the Jews, ending in the horror of the Holocaust under the Nazi regime in Germany.
So why should not the Jews return to the land of their ancestors, as the Zionist movement advocates?
Theodore Herzl, the founder of Zionism, was the product of nineteenth century European ideas of nationalism. In reaction to the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, the German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder formulated the concept of ethnicity and cultural identity rooted in native soil. If the Germans and Italians and Slavs argued for ethnic identity and a place of their own free from alien incursions, why couldn’t the Jews make the same claim? A number of places were suggested, but Zion, referring both to a specific place in Jerusalem – the Temple Mount – and to a spiritual World to Come, became the defining symbol of their aspirations. Little by little, a number of Jewish immigrants began to establish themselves in what was still Palestine. World War II and the Holocaust precipitated that movement, resulting in the formal foundation of the state of Israel in 1948.
The twentieth century witnessed a number of parallel movements of self-determination. French, British, and Soviet empires had to relinquish their conquests. But when the British Mandate was duly ended in Palestine in 1922, the successor state was not the predominantly Palestinian native population, but a group of Jewish European immigrants, predominantly secular, whose ways seemed to duplicate what a nascent Palestinian identity experienced as alien and neo-colonial. Thus the establishment of the Israeli state was viewed as the Nakba, or disaster, by the Palestinians.
So who are the Palestinians and what is their narrative? They are the various populations, including some Jews, who had remained in Palestine after the second Diaspora of the Jews in 70 CE. When the Roman Empire became a convert to Christianity, and its Eastern sequel, the Byzantine Empire, continued to dominate the region, Christianity became the majority religion. But the rise of Islam among the tribes of Arabia launched a new phase of conquests. Caliph Muawiyah I was crowned in Jerusalem in 619, and built the Dome of the Rock on the hill where the Jewish Temple had once stood. The majority of the population converted to Islam. Various Muslim rulers fought for dominance over the Middle East, followed by an interlude of Western European Christians in the twelfth century – the Crusaders – followed by a succession of Turkish empires. Much blood was shed during these territorial struggles under the banner of one religion or another.
The British occupied Palestine after World War I. They knew that the Zionist claim on Palestine – that it was “a land without people for a people without a land” – had no foundation in reality. So the Palestinians revolted in 1920, 1929, 1936, and they revolted again in 1947. But the Israelis were prepared, and some 700,000 Palestinians were expelled or sought refuge in Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt. Those countries declared war on Israel, and this resulted in Palestine being divided between Israel, Jordan, and Egypt. In 1967 Israel attacked Egypt and Syria, with Jordan entering the conflict later. It lasted seven days, and resulted in the occupation of the rest of the West Bank and Jerusalem, formerly under Jordanian rule, as well as parts of the Egyptian Sinai and the Syrian Golan Heights. In 1973 Egypt and Syria attacked Israel to regain these territories. The ensuing treaty did not address the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Left to their own devices, the Palestinians resisted with uprisings. The First Intifada lasted from 1987 to 1993. The Second Intifada, triggered by Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Aqsa Mosque, occurred in 2000. These events escalated a cycle of violence on both sides of the conflict: Stones and suicide attacks against tanks, house demolitions and the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. In 2004 the Israeli withdrew from the Gaza strip, but blockaded the area, so that its 1,300,000 inhabitants became prisoners on their own land. In response to rockets launched into Israel from Gaza, the Operation Cast Lead of 2008 retaliated with mass bombings. Some 1,400 Gazans were killed, 500 injured, and the rest are still left without resources.
And yet, throughout this whole period, none of the many peace negotiations achieved equitable results. As in the old days, the influence of powerful empires plays a decisive role in local affairs. The involvement of the United States in the region is defining: We clearly take sides. We offer Israel unconditional support in subsidies and armaments. And whenever issues of international law or human rights are raised in the United Nations, we always exercise our veto power in the Security Council in Israel’s favor.
There are both internal and strategic reasons for this. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is well organized and well funded. Christians United for Israel (CUI), spearheaded by televangelist John Hagee, has also developed a powerful network. These groups are active in the media, and promote the persuasive argument that Israel and the U.S. share common values. The Arabs, on the other hand, are terrorists: The traumatic events of September 11 clinched these beliefs for good.
But not all Muslims are Arabs and not all Arabs are Muslims, and they don’t all think alike. To the Muslims who matter to the U.S. government because of their oil, the Saudis, the Palestinians are much too secular. Similarly, the support of Iran for Hezbollah militates in the same direction – only for the Shia version of Islam. As to general trends in the Muslim world, we need to acknowledge the cumulative effect on them of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now the drone activities in Yemen, Sudan, and Pakistan. After the hopeful outbreak of “Arab Springs” in Egypt and elsewhere, the actual result seems to go toward an increased Islamization of these countries. And if the new order of the day is to recreate a confessional Ummah or Islamic community which transcends national borders, whether under Saudi or Iranian instigation, or the interests of the more moderate Muslim states, the future lies with Hamas rather than Palestinian nationalism.
Nor is this trend likely to make the Israelis feel safe – hence the increased pressure to attack Iran. And where does all this leave the minority Christian population in Palestine? Their desire to live in peace and dignity runs counter to the views of militant American Christians, who support Israel. This leaves both Palestinians and Israelis little choice but to look forward to the End of Times.
Luckily, we also met Israelis dedicated to peace and justice. We spoke to Rabbis for Human Rights, who fight the evictions in Jerusalem and the destruction of the olive groves in the West Bank. A Meretz member of the Jerusalem City Council recounted his struggles to obtain funds for the neglected education and healthcare of Israeli Palestinians in Jerusalem. At the Gush Shalom Center in Tel Aviv we heard how the current political environment militates against their efforts to forge a civil society. But they struggle on, and it would seem that young people in ever greater numbers, both in Israel as well as in the Diaspora, begin to question the failures of their elders to create a livable future for them.
We did not, admittedly, meet any members of the Palestinian Authority or Hamas. But we met plenty of Palestinians willing to stake their future on non-violent resistance. We met Christian Palestinians in Bethlehem who practice the ancient mediating tradition of Sulha, and we met Sufi Muslims in Nazareth who rely on their own mystical traditions to work for peace. We visited Israeli-Palestinian women’s cooperatives. We were hosted overnight in the Palestinian village of Duma. The people there were down to earth and quietly determined to stay on their land and take care of their olive trees as they had always done. The Five Broken Cameras documentary shows that this is not easy.
These were the people, Israeli and Palestinian both, who gave us hope. It would seem that active engagement leaves little time for despair. In contrast, we seem stuck in our comfortable lives, and reluctant to step out of our comfort zone. Maybe it’s because our own country seems vast and open still, and we don’t know yet that we belong to the same human family as everyone else. Or is it that our mind-boggling weapons of mass destruction bolster our delusional sense of exceptionalism? But Israel and Palestine are small and on top of each other, and the madness of it all can be seen at a glance: The aerial view of the territory, all cut up into twisted enclaves, looks like it has been designed by the remote judges of Kafka’s The Trial.
But the way out is the very way we will not take. Israel too trusts in its Big American Brother’s smart weapons. It’s the way of the world. So let’s be foolish instead, and hold hands like children across all boundaries, and all the way to Israel and Palestine. Let us be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. This is what we brought home from our pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
If you are interested in joining/forming a Tikkun discussion group like the one with which the author traveled to Israel/Palestine, please visit www.tikkun.org/join and join the Tikkun Community/Network of Spiritual Progressives!
Galina L. De Roeck was born in Bihach, Bosnia, of Russian parents. Her childhood was divided between camps in Germany, then Morocco and Australia. She arrived in the United States in 1961, has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, and has taught at several universities.