‘This Is Israel’

Letter from the Holy Land
A worker with Catholic Relief Services talks to a man as he stands amid the rubble of his home destroyed during the Gaza-Israeli conflict in 2014. (CNS photo/Shareef Sarhan, for Catholic Relief Services)

Visitors to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem experience numerous chilling moments. You’re confronted with evidence of the evil efficiency of gas chambers, and staring eyes in photographs make it clear that the mass murder of six million Jews is no abstraction. Watches, shoes, rings, and the personal voices audible in letters humanize the slaughter brought on by an inconceivable machinery of death. But what I kept returning to in my mind as I pushed on with a recent tour were exhibits of an earlier time—long before the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Treblinka—documenting how the words and images depicting Jews as subhuman became the cultural kindling for the concentration camps: caricatures of Jews with hook noses, hooves, and tails, or portrayed as vermin. This meticulous process of dehumanization shaped an extreme version of “othering” that in many ways we are still confronting today during an era of rising anti-Semitism, white nationalism, and Islamophobia.

As part of a recent visit to Israel, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange, I spent a week in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Ramallah exploring questions about “the other,” and the complicated nature of identity, with a group of journalists who write about Christianity. I had been to the region once before, in 2000, when Pope John Paul II made a historic five-day visit to the Holy Land—but that trip was a frenetic whirlwind. I was eager to slow down, to spend more time listening to and learning from Israelis and Palestinians. To say that this history-haunted patch of contested earth is complicated would be an understatement. A place where three great world religions coexist and clash, where disputes can be as fierce among your own people as they are with your perceived opponent, resists easy characterization.

In Jerusalem, I listened to a Muslim appeals court judge, Iyad Zahalka, explain the values undergirding Sharia law. “This is a part of Israel,” he said. “I’m a proud Muslim and a proud Israeli.” In Bethlehem, I met a folksy evangelical Baptist pastor preaching salvation in Jesus, surrounded by his largely Muslim neighbors. Christians are an increasingly shrinking share of the population in the West Bank town, and more than a dozen families left the congregation after the Second Intifada, a period of increased violence between Israeli military forces and Palestinians. “I don’t preach about politics,” the pastor said—incongruous in a place where nearly everything is infused by the political. His church sits across the street from a section of the barrier fence between Israel and the West Bank, itself a daily reminder that debates about democracy, self-determination, and human rights take on a physical reality here.

Individual acts of kindness and Midnight Mass won’t bring an end to the structural cycles of violence, animosity, and retribution.

Even in a tinderbox, kids go to school, families work to put food on the table, people fall in love. The rhythms of daily life are universal. Yet the subtext to almost every encounter and conversation is the bitter dispute between Israelis and Palestinians over land and identity. This mood was heightened even more during my visit, which took place less than a month before the Israeli election. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces corruption charges and a stiff challenge from Benny Gantz, a former chief of staff with the Israeli Defense Forces. “Conflict has been the most permanent resident in this region,” said Oded Revivi, the mayor of Efrat, a large Israeli settlement south of Jerusalem surrounded by several Arab villages. There is no physical barrier separating the Jews from their Arab neighbors here. While there is tension, Revivi and Muslim leaders in the area have open dialogue. “We believe in building bridges, not fences,” Revivi said during a discussion with our delegation of journalists over lunch in the settlement. But much of that cooperation has to be done carefully behind closed doors, he noted; when there are public expressions of goodwill and common ground, what Revivi described as “a small, loud, and sometimes violent minority” on both sides denounce them as betrayals.

Part of the challenge in creating a context for dialogue, according to Rabbi David Rosen, the Jerusalem-based director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, is that Israeli society is structured in a way that doesn’t easily facilitate interactions between different groups. “People live generally segregated lives here and that’s exacerbated by the educational system,” Rosen said. Ultra-orthodox (Haredi) Jews and modern Orthodox Jews have separate educational systems. Arabs are part of the mainstream secular system of education in Israel, but because ethnic and religious communities voluntarily self-segregate, there are few if any interreligious or even religious-secular encounters. In addition, all marriages in Israel are under the purview of religious authorities, and there is no state-recognized intermarriage. If you’re a Jew and want to marry a Christian or Muslim, you have to travel outside of the country. Rosen, who founded Rabbis for Human Rights three decades ago, has played a leading role in spurring interreligious efforts here and abroad. “We have to resist the zero-sum game where anything that is bad for the Palestinians is good for Israelis, and anything that is bad for Israelis is good for the Palestinians,” he said.

In Ramallah, I found reasons to be both sanguine and doubtful about whether that kind of breakthrough is possible. Home base for Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organization until Arafat’s death in 2004, this historically Arab Christian town in the central West Bank is now ostensibly led by Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority. Abbas, elected after Arafat’s death, is deeply unpopular and viewed as an authoritarian figure leading a corrupt government where there is no free press and the judiciary doesn’t function, according to a briefing we received from Khalil Shikaki, a professor of political science and director of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. In a recent poll the center found that 60 percent of Palestinians want Abbas to resign as leader of the Palestinian Authority. Abbas is also regarded by many as an impediment to a united Palestine, given his tense relationship with Gaza, controlled by Hamas, a terrorist group that also functions as a political party. These divisions are exacerbated by the economic and humanitarian fallout from the Trump administration’s ending of assistance to Palestinians. The decision to terminate American funding to a United Nations agency that supports millions of Palestinian refugees is also a component of the administration’s plan to achieve what Trump has boasted will be the “deal of the century”—a peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians. His son-in-law Jared Kushner is spearheading that effort, and pushing Palestinian leaders to drop demands for the right of refugees to return to Israeli-controlled land.

American cuts in aid also threaten essential programs that help non-governmental organizations develop ties between Israelis and Palestinians, people-to-people exchanges that can change hearts and minds—the lynchpin of any lasting peace. U.S. policy decisions, and the state of relations between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas-controlled Gaza, make it hard to feel hopeful about positive change.

A visit to a high-tech firm in Ramallah buoyed my spirits some. It pointed to the prospect of how a new generation of Palestinians and Israelis, tired of the status quo, could shift the narrative. In a glass-enclosed conference room I met Tareq Maayah, the CEO of EXALT Technologies, a software-development center specializing in web services and mobile apps. Most of the firm’s clients are in Israel, though the startup also has major clients in the United States. “On the human level things work,” Maayah said, referencing how ordinary Palestinians and Israelis want to get along. The shared language of technology and business is helping to break down some barriers, but challenges remain. The Israeli government polices what kind of technology Palestinians can import. Maayah also expresses frustration with the hardline politics of Prime Minister Netanyahu, which he believes have made peace prospects and normalization more challenging. EXALT has been a part of the Israeli-Palestinian Chamber of Commerce, launched in 2008 as a nonprofit by Israeli business leaders and economic organizations that work to enhance bilateral trade and investments between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Along with a bottom-line profit motive, the goal is to create social networks and mutual trust among people. “It’s the politics that are difficult,” Maayah acknowledged. “The problem is when you’re living in crisis you think in terms of survival and you don’t see the big picture or the long term.”

What you can do is aspire to dignity and fairness. I like to say I believe in the possibility of the presently unimaginable.

At dinner in Jerusalem with an Israeli who has been involved with high-level peace-negotiation efforts over the years, I gained new appreciation for how history weighs on this region. “You’re taking about trying to create dialogue between two traumatized people,” said the official, who requested anonymity. A sense that conflict is natural and inevitable, he said, has shaped the identities and psychologies of Israelis and Palestinians. Some are even “addicted” (his word) to perpetual conflict. At times, the negotiator sounded like the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr when he expressed skepticism in the potential of self-interested people and governments. Even the concept of achieving definitive “justice,” he argued, can become an obstacle to peacemaking. “In a situation like this, where everything is in dispute, this isn’t a simple victim-villain story,” he said. “Both people have been victim and villains to the other. The Hebrew Bible talks about justice and peacemaking as something that should be pursued, but we shouldn’t be so arrogant that you think you can achieve it. That becomes messianic. What you can do is aspire to dignity and fairness. I like to say I believe in the possibility of the presently unimaginable.”

Rocket launches from Gaza into Tel Aviv prevented our scheduled travel into Gaza. But sometimes the unexpected takes you to the place your soul needs to sit. Not long after hearing the news about the slaughter of fifty Muslims in a New Zealand mosque, I left a hotel on the grounds of a former kibbutz outside Jerusalem for a 12th-century church in the Muslim village of Abu Ghosh. We were greeted warmly by Brother Olivier, a Benedictine monk with a face radiating the kind of holy joy you notice immediately because it’s so rare a countenance to find. He arrived at the monastery three decades ago, the son of secular parents from Normandy, France. Olivier grew up listening to The Who and the Rolling Stones until a deeper spiritual craving couldn’t be ignored. At nineteen, he broke the news to his girlfriend that he wanted to be a monk (“It’s not you, it’s me,” he told her). Muslims in the village taught him Hebrew. “I’m a Christian monk who reads the Psalms in Hebrew with a French accent in the center of a Muslim village,” he said with a grin. “This is Israel!” He was sitting inside the Church of the Resurrection, built by Crusaders, its stunning frescos preserved from that era. The monks here attend festivals hosted by their Muslim neighbors. Every year on Christmas Eve, hundreds of Christians, Jews, and Muslims gather inside this ancient space, incense heavy in the air, to experience the beauty of a liturgy.

“We have to meet one another,” the monk tells us, demonstrating what Pope Francis calls a culture of encounter. “If you don’t, then we build walls in our hearts.” You could dismiss this as a simplistic formula given the political, ethnic, and religious wounds continuously reopened here. Individual acts of kindness and Midnight Mass won’t bring an end to the structural cycles of violence, animosity, and retribution. But history also teaches that it’s ordinary people like Brother Olivier, often dismissed as naïve dreamers, and social movements underestimated by the powerful, that shake the ground under politicians’ feet. People who expand the imagination of what is possible and refuse the comfort of cynicism show us a path forward. We dismiss their moral courage at our own risk.

John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington, and a former associate director for media relations at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is author of The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) and a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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