On March 8, I returned from a two-week pilgrimage to Israel and occupied Palestine (i.e., the West Bank and East Jerusalem), my third trip to the area. It was emotionally devastating.
I travelled in the company of some thirty Northern California members of Sabeel, an ecumenical Palestinian Christian liberation theology group based in Jerusalem (www.fosna.org) that is headed by The Rev. Naim Ateek, an Episcopal priest and graduate of CDSP.
Our trip was a little different from the average Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The average pilgrim flies into Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport, gets on an Israeli bus, drives up the coast to the Galilee, across the Galilee to Nazareth and Capernum, down the ethnically-cleansed Jordan Valley, and up through the Judean Wilderness to Jerusalem. Such pilgrims see lots of sacred sites, but meet not a single Palestinian, and return with the same one-sided view of Israel/Palestine he or she left with.
Ours, however, was a pilgrimage to experience the truth of the current situation in Israel/Palestine and to witness to it.
To that end, we travelled from Mount Hermon on the occupied Golan Heights, where we met with Druze villagers cut off from their families in Syria, to the Negev desert in Israel's south where Bedouin villagers are struggling to save their homes from demolition.
And across the West Bank we experienced pain at every turn – the shuttered shops in Hebron, the empty ones in Bethlehem, the farmers in Qalqilya and Jayous cut off from their fields, the sullen streets of the refugee camps, the still-open wound of a decade-old massacre in Jenin, the stench of tear gas in Bilin. And, everywhere, the gleaming white hilltop colonies, home to half a million "settlers;" the myriad checkpoints; and the looming obscenity of a 30-foot high wall.
The pain was perhaps most pronounced in East Jerusalem's neighborhoods where we met with Palestinians whose homes were being demolished in Silwan and, in Sheikh Jarrah, where elderly Palestinians were living in a tent beside their home now occupied by young Israeli religious extremists. Even the dead, we learned, were being dispossessed. In the Muslim cemetery of Mamilla - across the street from the American Consulate – graves were being desecrated to make room for an American-financed "Museum of Tolerance."
My sense of profound sadness and moral outrage was blessedly tempered by our encounters with young Palestinians and Israelis. Among the former – from our young host in Arbour refugee camp to the exuberant actors in Jenin's Freedom Theater to dear Lubna, a future leader of a truly free Palestine – the hope they drew from the Arab Awakening now sweeping the Middle East was downright contagious. So, too, was the hope I found in young Israelis unwilling to trade their souls for land or patriotic myth – the high school senior facing imprisonment for resisting the draft; the Jewish kids from Solidarity Sheikh Jarrah putting on a puppet show for dispossessed Palestinian toddlers; and Michal, who, asked on a bus in the Negev about the appropriateness of the term "apartheid," replied "It's time to call it what is."
Yes, it's time.
This first appeared on Episcopal News Service March 30, 2011