The Not-so-Holy Land

As our guides pointed out, the land of the Holy One is full of both ancient and living stones. The ancient stones tell vivid tales of village and city life in a distant past; they reveal the presence of Roman Emperors, Persian Sultans and other foreign powers who ruled in former days; they witness to the spiritual origins of Judaism and Christianity, and they testify to the arrival of Islam and the establishment of its holy sites. While the ancient stones take us back to the past, with remarkable power to explain us to ourselves today, the “living stones” refer to the present political and social challenges between Israelis and Palestinians.

On this day, the eve of Holy Week, in which we will recall our Saviour’s passion and death, my heart recalls the encounters with the “living stones.” It was not easy or pleasant, far from it. Seeing the Wall of Separation running right through Bethlehem, the birthplace of the Prince of Peace, was disturbing. Seeing young (and I mean young!) Israeli soldiers with semi-automatic weapons patrolling the Damascus Gate leading into the Old City was intimidating. Visiting a Palestinian refugee camp and a Jewish settlement one after the other was disheartening — two contrasting realities existing side by side with little friendship, communication and even understanding between the two. Driving through checkpoints with military surveillance and having our passports checked felt unsettling; local residents undergo this on a daily basis. Even visiting the Yad Vashem/Holocaust Museum raised more disturbing questions than gave answers concerning the current political impasse in this Holy/Not-So-Holy Land.

In this spiritual and cultural epicenter of the world, where civilizations and religions converge, the quest for real peace and justice seems shockingly elusive. I have wondered why God chose this region, of all places in the world, for his Son Jesus to be born into, until I  remembered Jesus’ own words as recorded in Mark’s Gospel: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17) The length to which our God will go is beyond what is humanly considered reasonable…

Of all people in the world, the Jewish people know firsthand about living in exile for centuries, to be dispossessed from a homeland that is safe, stable and promising a flourishing future for their children’s children. Despite these centuries of displacement and persecution, however, the Jewish people remain God’s chosen people. As a chosen people of God it is their mission to be a light to the nations (Isaiah 49:6) especially in its dealings with orphans and the poor, widows and strangers (Deut. 10:28). For being chosen by God is not an end in itself, to lead to superiority and self-glorification, but is intended as a model witness in a world of pain and despair. Therefore the bar is high to embody God’s own mercy and compassion, justice and peace, reconciliation and healing.

Given this holy calling from the Most High God, acknowledged by the Church at its highest level, and the responsibility to live this calling with integrity and generosity, humility and joy, it is therefore doubly shocking to learn of the Israeli government’s treatment of the Palestinian people, a sizeable number of which are our Christian sisters and brothers. How can this current policy towards the people who dwelt in this land before 1948 be a light to the nations?

Investigating further, it appears that Israel claims to be a Jewish state based on the secular values of justice, peace and liberty. However, despite a written commitment to uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of religion, race, or sex; guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, education and culture; safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and loyally uphold the principles of the United Nations Charter’ strong religious dynamics continue to fuel Israel’s almost aggressive justification for existing. The Jewish rabbi who addressed our group was clear: the Jewish people have a Biblical right to the land, and that right supersedes all other reasons and justifies all means. And he is not alone; so much for the secular claims. Moreover, despite the 1948 declaration to “loyally uphold the principles of the United Nations Charter” Israel continues to oppress and restrict freedom of movement for its Palestinian citizens, with Gaza being the blight on Israel’s existence, build a Wall of Separation condemned by the United Nations, and disrespect the borders established in 1948. Is it surprising that such actions breed violent responses? Somehow justice, peace and liberty do not apply to the Palestinian people.

The current situation is profoundly heartbreaking, heart-wrenching and puzzling. Having looked in the faces of our Palestinian brothers and sisters now, having seen and heard their plight, I came home with a restless heart. I searched hard for understanding and for answers. It was thus that I stumbled upon Paul Levy’s poignant reflection about the collective trauma inflicted by the Holocaust. Unsettling and disturbing, Levy’s analysis resonated deeply and seems to explain a lot without excusing it:

In Gaza, a role reversal has taken place – the Jewish people, the victim of unresolved trauma that they suffered not only during the Second World War, but throughout their history, have now become the perpetrators. … Israel, to the extent it hasn’t dealt with its own trauma, has split-off from and at the same time internalized the abuser, while unconsciously identifying with its original aggression, which is a common characteristic of the traumatized soul. … In an appalling reversal of the golden rule, Israel is doing unto others what was done unto it.

In an interview with Professor Dory Laub on the Yad Vashem website itself I read: What strikes me is that there is so much awareness of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, yet there is no awareness of PTSD in Israel, the country in which it should be a daily acceptance. I continued to research about the phenomenon of collective trauma and PTSD. Lights went on in my mind, providing disturbing answers to my puzzlement about Israel’s harsh treatment of their Palestinian sisters and brothers. At the same time a daunting, comprehensive, challenging road ahead emerged towards healing and reconciliation:

In order to heal … Jews in Israel and elsewhere need to overcome fear conditioning that has been reinstated for ages and transferred from one generation to the next. Furthermore, instead of educating children to fear and hate Palestinians, Israelis must integrate Palestinian children into the education system.

Jews must abandon notions of segregation and reach out to neighboring communities throughout the world and in the Middle East, with the goal of extinguishing fear of the other by creating solidarity and collaborative relationships. Only then can Jews embrace Judaism as one of many equal human collectives that strive for freedom, justice and a global community free of trauma. (excerpt from Collective Trauma article)

Are the Jewish people, God’s chosen people, living out of unresolved collective trauma? For centuries, Jewish people themselves have been the forgotten, oppressed and even annihilated orphans and poor, widows and strangers; now the shoe is on the other foot. Is  peace and justice in a social, religious and political climate of unresolved trauma even achievable?

There is something profoundly human and divine about connecting on a personal heart-level, but such a connection comes at an emotional cost. I now see the faces of our Palestinian sisters and brothers and call them by name, a reality that my heart cannot forget. The heart-connection is costly, as I can no longer remain indifferent or complacent. In Christ we are one another’s keepers, called to be instruments of healing, peace and friendship, in the name of God who cared so much about our well-being that He gave himself to us in Christ Jesus our Lord. The “living stones” in the Not-So-Holy land will mark my observance of Holy Week in an indelible way this year. Lord, have mercy and heal our hatred.

* The Jerusalem Declaration condemns Christian Zionism

* Sabeel is an ecumenical grassroots liberation theology movement among Palestinian Christians.

* Tikkun is a news and opinion site under the leadership of Rabbi Michael Lerner. Best Path to Peace is a recent exchange of opinions on how the Israeli/Palestinian conflict could be resolved.

* Not all hope is lost. Small groups are swimming against the tide with supernatural endurance and courage. One of those is Kids4Peace.

Prairie Encounters

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