Thursday, November 19, 2009

Jerusalem and Bethlehem

Just a brief word on the Messianic Jewish rabbi whose daughter was being “courted.” On the ship, I was reading Hannah Rosin’s book, “God’s Harvard.” It’s about religious rightwing kids who are homeschooled. They go to college at a place called Patrick Henry College, in D.C. Fundamentalist homeschooled children don’t date. They court. When the guy whose table I left was talking about courtship, it caught my attention, because I was reading about this very thing. You can’t ask a girl out, in this milieu. If your intentions are towards marriage, you have to ask the girl’s father for permission to “court” her. It seems demeaning from my perspective. A daughter is a piece of property who can’t make her own decisions, she is passed like chattel from father to husband.

After spending the morning in Jerusalem, we went to Bethlehem, in the West Bank. We passed through a border fence. This might have been a bigger deal for people who don’t live in southern California. Just south of San Diego, we have this environmentally disastrous border wall. Everywhere you drive you are stopped at check points by the Border Patrol to make sure you are not traveling with immigrants. In Israel, they have built a border wall. The Palestinians are treated the same way America treats immigrants from Mexico. The rhetoric is the same. In both cases, there is a wall that ruins the environment and causes needless hardship. The borders are defended with guns. I don’t have any answers about the immigration debate in this country. I agree with Thom Hartman that the problem is not illegal immigrants but illegal employers. The situation is not completely analogous in Israel.

In Bethlehem we visited the Church of the Nativity. Of all the churches we visited, I found this the most interesting. It was the oldest. The Eastern Orthodox sanctuary dates from the 5th century C.E. There are old mosaics on the floor. This church, unlike so many others, wasn’t destroyed in the Muslim conquest or the Crusades. Arab invaders understood that the church honored the wise men, who were from the East. The soldiers respected the Christians’ tribute to the Magi, who were from Persia.

The door to the Orthodox sanctuary was so low that you had to bend to get in (even someone as short as me!). This was either to prevent soldiers from riding their horses inside the church during wars, or alternately, to make sure people bowed upon entering a holy place. There were icons on the walls, and the church was lit by numerous hanging lanterns and candles. Our guide was a Palestinian Christian.
The Catholic sanctuary was next to the old Orthodox church, and was built over the grotto of St. Jerome. Jerome translated the Bible into Latin, working in a cave. He felt holier working close to the place where Jesus may have been born. We didn’t see the actually grotto where Jesus was born: the line was too long. The “Jerusalem Syndrome” is when people go crazy in the Holy Land. Well, the woman from Mexico who had a tantrum because the bus wouldn’t stop for her to shop, had a complete breakdown when our guide said there wasn’t time to visit the grotto of Jesus’ birth. She claimed to be devout, but had no qualms about interrupting worshippers in the Orthodox sanctuary with her screaming and crying. I haven’t seen a tantrum like that since my nieces were 5. I was glad that she wasn’t American, but her episode was conducted in English as well as Spanish, so the distinction between American and Mexican was probably lost on the worshippers staring at her.

The two days in Israel passed quickly. I’ve been told that in Israel, things are more sane in Tel Aviv, a large, secular city on the Mediterranean coast. I was put off by the racism of our first guide. I was discouraged by the disparity of living standards between Israelis and Palestinians. I can’t believe that Palestinians are dirty, lazy, and violent, any more than I believe those things to be true about Mexicans. I don’t think anyone is safer when a wall blocks people’s access to their crops. I was uncomfortable with the hyper-religiosity in Israel. But what did I expect? It is a country for religious pilgrims.

The right wing in Israel, which is in control with Netanyahu, uses the same anti-Arab, anti-Muslim rhetoric used by George Bush. Bush’s use of terms like “crusade” didn’t help American-Muslim relations. In both Israel and America, the right combines religion and politics. Israel is full of Catholic churches, and there are a lot of monks and nuns. Veneration, prayer and study are noble goals for any individual, but they are of little help to the larger society. I wonder if things would be different in Israel if the churches turned in to schools or hospitals. Could the Catholic church broker peaceful relations between Israelis and Palestinians?

We humans are genetically wired to be tribal. For 250,000 years,we lived in small hunter-gatherer bands. We believe our society, our family, our religion is the best. This has been necessary for the survival of the species. We have fought for our little groups. But this tribal chauvinism no longer serves human society. We have to find the discipline and self-control to keep from being parochial. We can no longer act like our religion or our nation is better than anyone else’s. For the past 15,000 years, we have responded to conflict with violence. It doesn’t work. Violence begets more violence. In Israel, as in America, it is past time to try a new way of dealing with others. This is the era when good will and tolerance must prevail, or our species will self-destruct, and destroy the planet with us.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

More about Israel-- Jerusalem

The first day in Israel had been disturbing. The right wing talk of the guide was less than helpful. Sadly, what made Israel, at least this day, seem so much like southern California was the feeling that I’d inadvertently turned on American talk radio. The guide’s anti- Palestinian rhetoric was delivered in the international language of hate. It was obvious to any observer that the Palestinians don’t enjoy the same standard of living as the Israelis. Most Israelis have had the opportunity to travel, and have benefited from Western secular education. They are heavily subsidized by American relatives and sympathizers. There is no AIPAC for Palestinians. In some cases, Palestinian communities have no access to electric power or clean water. It was hard to see the Israelis as the underdogs.

I’m sure the guide had reasons for hating Palestinians. They aren’t all saints and victims. The Goldstone report, which I read as objective reality, accuses Palestinians in Gaza of war crimes. After this first day in Israel, I was pessimistic about the country. I am not a Middle East expert. I am not qualified to pass judgment. I can only say what I saw. If a lot of Israelis are as racist as our guide, and if many Palestinians are as well, then there is no hope for peace in Israel.

The next day in Jerusalem was better. For one thing, we had a different guide. It was through the same agency, Patra, that the cruise ship contracted with. Both tours seemed geared toward devout Catholics. I encourage anyone who plans on travelling to Israel to do better research than I did, and find a tour geared towards particular interests. It is possible that most people who visit Israel want a religiously-directed tour.

Jerusalem was lovely. We stopped on the Mount of Olives, and had a panoramic view of the Old City. It was a wash of golden brown. It’s easy to why someone called it “Jerusalem the Golden.” We stopped at the Church of the Agony, also called the Church of the Twelve Nations. Twelve countries financed its construction, built on Gethsemane, the spot where Jesus was betrayed. We saw the old Jewish Cemetery, where rabbis and holy men of the ages are buried. From there we went to the walled city. Our first visit was to the Wailing Wall.

The Western Wall, or the Wailing Wall, is the sole remnant of Herod’s temple. The devout believe it is the closest place on earth to the Divine Presence. Men and women go to different areas to pray; you wrote down prayer requests on a scroll of paper and push it between the bricks. It was very moving. Anything more I say about it will sound trite or maudlin.

We walked through the narrow walls of the city, past numerous cramped market stalls. Catholics have the Stations of the Cross, a tradition not shared by the Eastern Orthodox or Protestants. We passed stations five through twelve, and went to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It was built outside the city walls, over the site where Jesus was crucified by the Romans. The church is broken up into chapels, each of which is owned by a different Christian sect. There is the rock where tradition says Jesus’ body was prepared for burial, and a grotto some believe was Jesus’ tomb.

The reverential aura was broken by a loud mouth woman from Mexico who kept asking, “Is this a church or a mosque?” There were crosses and pictures of Jesus everywhere, and she thought it was a mosque? The various priests and clergy of the various sects apparently get in to fist fights over access to the chapels, our guide told us. They show these tussles on Israeli television: it’s Israel’s version of reality TV. In fact, there is so much acrimony between the Catholics and Orthodox and Protestants and Coptics, the keys to the building are kept by a Muslim family.

This same Mexican woman kept demanding our guide stop so she could shop. The itinerary was full, and we were slated for shopping in Bethlehem. This gal was not amused by being told to wait. We ate lunch at Pavilion, a great big buffet diner. There was more great Israeli food, more yummy brisket and roasted chicken.

People write about the “Jerusalem syndrome.” Each year, a given number of tourists who visit Israel have a breakdown, and believe they are the Messiah or a prophet. As lovely as Jerusalem is, the air is heavy with religiosity. At the first table where I sat in the cafeteria, I was accosted by a Messianic rabbi. He was telling folks that the problem with Israel was the same as the problem with America: the left wing. Lefties, according to this jerk, have deliberately sabotaged both Israel and America by allowing immigrants in. I took my plate and moved on. Before I walked off, he was talking about his daughter’s courtship.

(to be continued)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Impressions of Israel Part 2

Mid-day we stopped at the Jordan River. The water was green, from the flora in the water. There was a tourist shop, and people had the opportunity to wade in the Jordan, or, if they had pre-arranged it, to be baptized. Many people were being baptized: they wore white robes, and a pastor or priest dunked them backwards in the river.

We ate lunch that first day in a kibbutz. The kibbutz movement in Israel, this experiment in social communism, is on the wane. Israeli politics are veering more and more to the right. The few remaining kibbutzim are inhabited by older people--- folks my age. The food was delicious: I had the best brisket I’ve ever eaten. I sat across from a lovely young woman from Panama. She was thoroughly enjoying herself. I was trying to stay optimistic, although I was getting weary of seeing churches every five feet, and tired from the guide’s endless happy talk. It was becoming clear our young guide was a right winger. He said that the only politicians in Israel that were really able to accomplish peace were on the right. God help us.

The Panamanian woman smiled and said to me, “You have to be Christian to really appreciate Israel.” A piece of cucumber salad fell from my open mouth, and before I could stop myself, I added, “Or Jewish or Muslim.” It seemed to me that Muslims and Jews had as good a claim on Israel as the Christians. The woman stopped speaking to me.

Although the weather was warm, the air felt like winter. It was about two in the afternoon, and the wind picked up. It was beautiful at the kibbutz, flowers were still blooming. We drove on to Nazareth, to see, surprise, another church. There are two Churches of the Annunciation. The Orthodox disagree with the Catholics about the precise location where Gabriel visited Mary. The churches are about a block apart. Although Nazareth is under Palestinian control, we didn’t pass through any check points. The guide was quick to alert us to a pile of trash on the sidewalk; “See how dirty the Palestinians are?” he said.

The Catholic church of the Annunciation was built in the 1960’s, and there are murals on the outer wall from all the countries that donated money for its construction. The focal point of the church is a cave where Mary is supposed to have lived. I bit my lip, and didn’t ask how they could be sure Mary lived there, especially since the Orthodox thought she lived across the street. A few yards from this church, there was the Church of St. Joseph, built over Joseph’s carpentry shop. Modern scholars believe “carpenter” is a mistranslation, that Joseph was either a stone mason or day laborer. Of course, since they’ve spent all this money building a church, it would be a shame to acknowledge this mistake. At this point, after this visit to the umpteenth crowded, modern church, my mother, the clergyman’s wife whispered to me, “If I see one more church today, I’m going to become an atheist.”

The ride back to the ship was long and disappointing. Our Israeli guide launched into an anti-Palestinian tirade. He assured the group that Arab Muslims were dirty, lazy, and violent. His hate-filled rhetoric was very similar to the rants of anti-immigrant groups in America like the Minutemen. His tirade was so similar to that of any rightwing Republican in America: change “Mexican” for “Arab,” and it’s exactly the same. Even more disturbing was the reaction of my fellow travelers: they loved this kind of talk.

One problem with hate and racism is that once you’ve opened it up, you can’t channel it. Our guide found himself the target of racism. A Japanese woman asked him why Jews were so “standoffish.” She worked with a Jewish man who was very unpleasant. Why were Jews like that, she wondered. That gave the guide pause, but he quickly recovered.
(to be continued)

Impressions of Israel Part 1

I’d always wanted to visit Israel. As the son of a clergyman, religion has always been a part of my life. Half of my ancestry is Jewish. I grew up with Bible stories. I had mental pictures of Moses in Sinai, Jerusalem, Nazareth, and Jesus on the Mount of Olives. I wasn’t certain what to expect when seeing these places. Would I be disappointed with the reality? Was Israel dangerous? How did politics and religion mesh in Israel? I was anxious to find out, and fortunate to have the opportunity to visit Israel. I wasn’t sure what I could learn in a two-day visit.

We anchored in Haifa, a Mediterranean port in northern Israel. Israel is a small country, about the size of New Jersey. In early November, the weather was sunny and warm, in the mid 70’s F. Haifa looked crowded and a bit polluted, very modern. We had come from Turkey, which is exotic and beautiful. Israel reminded me a lot of southern California, or even Florida. The climate and topography reminded me of home in San Diego. My group boarded a bus bounded for Nazareth and Galilee. Most of my fellow travelers weren’t American: we had Filipinos, Japanese, Mexicans, and Canadians in our group of about thirty.

Our guide was a young Israeli who spoke English well. His voice was loud and projected, but he still used a microphone--- to make sure we didn’t miss a syllable, I guess. It was about an hour ride from Haifa to the Galilee, a large, lovely lake. The guide bombarded us with facts about Israel, and pointed out various things on the landscape. Much of the agricultural land was drained, it had previously been swamp. There weren’t a lot of trees, and Jewish groups around the world plant trees in Israel. There were gently rolling hills, and everything was new. There were signs of construction everywhere, maybe another reason it reminded me of southern California.

Our first stop was the Church of the Beatitudes. It was on a hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee, supposedly built on the exact spot where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount. I was skeptical: how do they know, all these years later, exactly where Jesus may have preached? I kept my doubts to myself, as my fellow travelers seemed to be a devout lot. The church was built in the 1930’s, commissioned by Mussolini. Now that’s a guy who exemplified the gospel of peace… The church was crowded and small, and there were a lot of traditionally dressed nuns from the nearby convent.

Next we visited the ruins of Capernaum. That was more interesting. There was, of course, a church, but we couldn’t enter the Church of St. Peter because of an ongoing service. This church dated from the mid-twentieth century as well. There were ruins of a synagogue where Jesus may have preached. Our guide was talking a mile a minute, and it was grating. He was from Patra tours, and I figure that must be the Israeli version of the Chamber of Commerce. Everything was wonderful, beautiful, amazing, and gee, aren’t we Israelis swell? A military plane flew by overhead, and the guide told us that like a lot of military machinery, it had been provided by the U.S. government. Great. I was feeling so religious: churches built by Mussolini and U.S. weapons.

The guide and fellow travelers color perceptions of a country. What did I know of Israel, really, before I visited? Yes, I’d read Aaron David Miller and Jeff Goldberg. I follow the news, but I’m confused. Americans are expected to side with Israel in its Palestinian conflict, but that isn’t always easy to do. The Goldstone report came out over the summer, detailing Israeli (and Palestinian) war crimes during the war in Gaza. The U.S. objected to this report at the U.N. Goldstone is, however, unimpeachable. He investigated the Serbo-Croatian war, and the ethnic cleansing in Rwanda. He has an excellent reputation. In addition, he is a Jew and a self-proclaimed Zionist. That hardly makes him biased against Israel.
(Stay tuned for Israel part 2)