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.

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