THE BLOG
01/22/2016 03:13 pm ET Updated Jan 21, 2017

Okies in Israel- A Secular Eye in the Holy Land

Israel

When my wife and I told people we were going to Israel, they were concerned that we'd travel to such a dangerous part of the world. At tines, we wondered as well why we just didn't go to say, Italy. I consoled myself, and told people that I live in American and work in a school, so I should be fine. In truth, we went on a whim. We got a catalog from our daughter's alma mater, St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN advertising the trip. Our daughter spoke highly of St. Olaf's recently retired chaplain, Bruce Benson, who was leading the trip.

As the trip grew near we began getting emails from the state department warning places to avoid. These were followed by reassuring notes from Bruce, which in themselves slowly grew tinged by anxiety as clashes between Palistinians and Israelis increased. A week before the trip there was some question that it might be canceled. It wasn't and we went.

Thus began a truly surprising experience. The first surprise was when we encountered a crossed a kind of border in Philedelphia instead of where we expected it to be in Tel Aviv. We arrived early for our flight to meet a guard who told us to come back in a couple of hours. We when did the gate had been transformed to a security checkpoint with a wall between the concourse. When we crossed through it, we entered Israel.

We observed and felt a palpable warmth among the passengers, many of whom, were greeting one another as old friends. There was a palpable excitement among people who felt they were returning to a beloved homeland. We realized we were really in a different world when, in the early hours of the morning, people began donning ritual garments and praying in the aisles.

We left America at nine in the evening. The world turning as it does, we arrived in Tel Aviv at three in the afternoon. As the plane approached I cracked the window to the sight of a wide expanse of blue sky and brown, barren land. Directly after leaving the airport the harsh political realities of the region became apparent with the site of a razor wire enclosure on one side of the road and a wall on the other. I asked our driver what they were. He told me that beyond the wall was the West Bank while beyond the razor wire was a settlement. When I inquired about a large scary compound he told me that it was a small prison.

After delivering us this unsettling information he assured us that everyone would treat us really well and that we would have a really good time. Then, he dropped us off at the Holy Land Hotel, a Christian establishment in Muslim east Jerusalem.

Travel is broadening because when you leave your home and all your assumptions about life is, you realize that in some places life really is different. America revolves around and axis of individual identity. We are known by our occupations and our interests. In Israel, identity is a matter of ethnicity. You are either a Jew, Muslim, or Christian whether you believe any of the precepts of your religious identity or not. We left America as Americans. We arrived in Israel as American Christians.

The Jewish people are possessed by a compelling narrative that stretches back to the earliest recesses of recorded history. The identity involves the belief that they are a chosen people who endured slavery, exile, and a return to the promised land. The European presence was marked by brutal prejudice and exclusion topped off by the absolute horror of the Holocaust. They suffer a sense of existential threat and they come by it honestly.

Palestine
While the Jews have been conspicuously visible in their persecution and suffering, the Palestinians have been conspicuously invisible in theirs. They first came to my consciousness with the horrific terrorist attack at the Munich Olympics. For years after that, all I knew of Palestine was that and the singularly foreign, threatening face of Yasser Arafat, who, for decades, constituted the the public persona of the Palestinian people, not the greatest press.

The Palestinian people have their own very difficult history and a difficult present leaves them with a sense of existential threat that has an equal urgency to that of the Jews. American/Israeli activist Daniel Seideman sums up the relationship when he says: "the Israelis are in denial while the Palestinians are in despair." I suspect that the root of Israeli denial lies is the belief that God promised Israel to the Jews and that wishful thought that Israel was a land without a people for a people without a land. Golda Meir made the argument that since there had never been a Palestinian state there couldn't be a Palestinian people. This certainly came as a shock to the people who place for the last two thousand years.

The Palestinians we met were nothing like the Palestinians of my imagination and the very unlike what the I imagined from the news. We may have expected rioting in the streets but we people who treated us with great warmth, courtesy and respect.

Our most intimate exposure was with our Palestinian Christian guide, Samer Abu Hadeed who earned a universal respect from our group by virtue of his erudition, intelligence and the kind civility which seems to be his default, and only, setting. I speak from experience because he didn't laugh in my face when I showed the depth of my ignorance when I asked how it was that Palestinians came to be Christian. He kindly explained it as the indigenous religion. Samer is fluent in English, Hebrew, and Arabic. We often saw him switch from one to another with ease. Over the ten days we spent with him he helped fill the void that was my knowledge of Palestinian history.

One doesn't often hear endorsements of the British empire. I've heard two. The first came from an Indian bar tender lamenting the restrictions under which he traveled because he had an Indian rather than a British passport and the second was from Samer who told us that Palestine languished under 400 years of Ottoman rule, to a point that life expectancy had dropped to a level lower than it had in during Biblical times. Palestine flourished under British rule with improvements in educational opportunity and life expectancy.

The Jewish return to Palestine is, from the Israeli point of view, an heroic tale. From the Palestinian perspective, it is a tragic story of dispossession. The story that we heard over and over again was of families driven from their home and parents broken from the loss.

One of the cliches that I took to Israel was a belief that there is not been an alternative to violent Palestinian resistance. Before we visited the offices of Sabeel, a Palestinian Christian organization devoted to non-violence, I was unaware that there such an organization existed. We had the good fortune to meet the founding father of Palestinian Liberation Theology, Naim Ateek, author of A Palestinia Christian Cry for Reconciliation.

In its opening pages Dr. Ateek tells his story of a day when Palestinians were allowed to move around without permits on Israel's Independence Day in 1958. His father rented a truck so his family visited the home that he had built for them. "It must have been very difficult for my father to see our home occupied now by a Jewish immigrant family from North Africa while he, the rightful owner, was prevented from even entering. A few days after this traumatic experience, my father suffered a stroke from which he never truly recovered."

Toward the end of our visit, in late October, I noticed a mural at a bus stand that I thought might be a Halloween picture of a witch holding a crystal ball in her hands as she stood next to some spooky looking trees. When I asked Samer about this and he actually did laugh. He told me it was a picture of a Palestinian woman holding the memory of her village. The trees, he explained, were olive trees and there was a message in Arabic saying that her life was rooted in the land like the roots of the olive trees. In America, land is real estate that exists for profit. Palestinians who have lived there for thousands of years have a different, deeper relationship to the land.

Daniel Seideman told us that one of the big issues for Palestinians is the right of return. There are people who have been living in refugee camps since 1947 because, under the UN rules, should they move they will lose the right of return to their homes. This, he feels, is not a realistic hope. It does provide some insight into what observers see as an unreasonable Palestinian intransigence. Many of them want what their old homes and they can't have them.

Cedar Duaybis, an 80 year old Palestinian woman spoke to us of the despair she felt with the birthing of Israel and her aspirations for an inclusive society. She like many of the Palestinians we met, carried herself with a stoic dignity that I rarely notice in Americans. In a moment of exasperation she outlined the absurdity of the situation as she saw it when she said that. "Even the 85% of Israelis who don't believe in God say that they God they don't believe in gave them this land."

Religion

When I grew up back in the 50s and 60s, religion was a matter of private conviction rather than public record. My liberal, secular family was something of an Oklahoma oddity. My mother told me that Oklahoma was the "buckle of the Bible belt," but she never bothered to flesh out the details. We attended church only on rare occasions and I don't recall any conversations about God or Jesus. Religion absent from my life until I emerged from the hippie bubble of the 70s and began working with people who held actual religions beliefs.

It understating the obvious to say that religion is a really big deal in Jerusalem's old city. As the holiest of places for the Abrahamic faiths, it is a magnet for the most fervent Christians, Jews, and Muslims.

Lacking an actual theological foundation for my encounter with the place, I could only fall back on the writings of that great religious philosopher, Dr. Seuss. The old city's winding labyrinth of passageways dotted with people dressed up in outrageous, distinctive costumes, ignoring and snubbing one another over, to my eyes imperceptible doctrinal distinctions, gave me a new appreciation for the depth of his genius. Were it not for the heavy military presence and the occasional deadly violence, the place would be really funny.

You see Christians carrying crosses along the half mile of the Via Delorosa, which passes by the entrance to the Al Aksa mosque. You turn left at where it dead ends and head south to a metal detector that takes you the Western Wall, popularly known as the Wailing Wall. If you continue walking just a few meters south, you turn around to pass through another security gate to cross the bridge that takes you to by the Wailing Wall to the Temple Mount, where Jesus threw out the money changers, now the site of the Al Aqsa mosque, the third most holy site in Islam.

Incredibly, the old city is also an actual neighborhood where people buy food and clothing and live normal human lives. Within each neighborhood is a distinct feeling of warmth and safety. Shortly after passing a Muslim woman who was walking alone in the Muslim quarter I realized I'd made a wrong turn and turned to follow her, a move that would excite considerable alarm in America. She never bothered to turn back to look at me at all. When you think of the Wailing Wall, you might think of people wailing, but it is a very comfortable, familial and even festive place where people hold Bar Mitzvahs and conduct weddings. We also experienced a pretty convivial atmosphere on the grounds of the Al Aqsa mosque, once everyone met the dress code. There is an ease and friendliness within each area that is quite at odds with the tension and distrust between the faiths. Looking like a tourist is a real benefit in Jerusalem. You aren't a combatant and you might spend money.

And then there are the soldiers, who are, for the most part, just kids who are hanging around smoking, talking, and playing on their cell phones. The are handsome boys and pretty girls. Daniel Siedeman considers most of the violence to be suicide by soldier. A desperate young Palestinian man, or woman, attacks someone obviously Jewish and is shot by the young soldiers- kids who will have to live with it for the rest of their lives. A few days after we left there was a confrontation and shooting at the Damascus Gate which is perhaps 200 meters directly north of the Wailing Wall.

Mitri Raheb, pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Bethlehem told us the country suffers from "too much religion and too little faith." The one Muslim cleric with whom we met, Prof. Mustafa Abu Sway, echoed those sentiments remarking that "We've lost any sense of our common humanity." His comment underscored the great value of this particular trip. I'm old enough to recall a America confident in its capacity to solve social issues. The American dream of a melting pot is falling away as we fail to grapple what seem to be intractable political, religious, and class divisions. We've yet to build walls or hide behind razor wire but we've made the threat.

We learned lessons in faith from almost everyone we met. Daniel Seideman and Rabbi David Rosen are working hard to build bridges instead of walls. Palestinian. The Palestinians we met carried themselves with an unexpected poise and dignity in very difficult circumstances, Our amazing guide Samer, who acquainted us with the difficult history as well as the painful present without ever betraying any bitterness. We had the great opportunity to visit the Augusta Victoria Hospital in east Jerusalem. It serves the very desperate population of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank under the direction of Walid Namour. We were profoundly impressed with the the representatives of Sabeel. And we were all touched on a very personal level by service rendered by the staff of the Holy Land Hotel. The kitchen and desk staff were, I believe, all Christians. The maids were Muslim. They were uniformly kind and friendly.

One of our final, and most amazing visits began with a drive up a winding road to the Samaritan Village on the peak of Mt. Gerizim where we met with the patriarch of this very tiny minority of 850 or so. Every Dr. Seuss story features a friendly, sane guy who pulls everything together and this is here it happened for us. This tall, bearded man in a fez and a long robe, invited us into his gaudily decorated living room and proceeded to charm us with a long off the cuff exposition the significance of female menstrual cycles. He went on to explain that he represented a line from Adam going back some 864 generations. Everything he said sounded so loopy but he was is so sweet and friendly, and so at ease in his own skin that he radiated sanity. He told us that Samaritans pray daily for peace between Israelis and Palestinians because he said, "If there is no peace there, then there won't be peace anywhere."

But, he radiated peace and the great surprise of our visit to the Holy Land was meeting so many people who did as well.