Journey to Palestine – November 30 – December 7, 2016
We engaged in a historic and incredible journey just as Advent began. Reverends Lewis Tait, Jr., Anthony Moore, Patricia Fears, Wanda Thompson, Louise Green, Raymond Bell, Rosa Frias, Madison Shockley/his wife Gayle, and myself journeyed into Palestine to witness the changing and challenging realities. What you will discover on the entries that follow are clergy speaking from their hearts of what their eyes had seen. This journey to Palestine is a story that needs to be told because there is so much will to silence the Palestinians and their cause and those who support them. But silence is not an option when your eyes have seen and your heart is filled with historical memories of Jim Crow, apartheid, discrimination, and human beings inhumanity to other human beings.
We traveled extensively and our travels took us to meet the Prime Minister as well as speak to those living in Bedouin villages under the threat of more land loss, and the discriminatory polices and practices that do not recognize the people, their history or their culture. We met with Mayors of towns like in Bethlehem and Hebron. These political leaders where full of hope but also looking forward to that day when there would be real freedom and people will be able to move around in the land that they were born. The Mayor of Hebron warned us that the Old City had all but been lost to armed settlers. The few shops left operating in the old city of Hebron is under pressure of daily harassment, threats, and violence. Indeed while we were there we witnessed settlers armed with assault weapons and other automatic weapons walking to and from the synagogue. They were usually followed by Israeli military safeguarding them. They and the military were rude to the Palestinians living and working in the environs as if those Palestinians had no reason to exist – particularly in a city like Hebron.
It was extremely painful to see the encroaching and strategically placed settlements creeping onto Palestinian villages and eventually forcing them off the land. It was painful and angering to watch people who could not and would not see the other. This was the same scenario in Jerusalem where Zionist settlers felt that Palestinian – whether Muslim, Christian, Atheist or Agnostic had no right to be in Jerusalem or even on the West Bank and the occupied territories solely because they were Palestinian.
We met along our journey with leaders of the Palestinian Authority, Mayors of Cities and Towns, Theologians, Church leaders and Bishops. It was just about every sector of the society that we encountered. Having dinner in a restaurant we found out our waiter was well known because of his sacrifice in the Second Intifada, he was shot seven times by Israeli forces, and then after he healed was jailed, and yet with gentleness and dignity he served us our meals. We were thankful for all of the encounters and experiences.
There is a refugee camp, Aida, which is located in Bethlehem. We also went to this camp to dedicate a monument to the memory of Abd al-Rahman Obeidallah, age 12, and Tamir Rice age 13 killed by Israeli and Cleveland authorities. Children and parents gathered for the event and particularly the parents of Abd al-Rahman were there. We are indebted to Playgrounds for Palestine for working to erect the monument and coordinating with leaders in Aida to make certain that the dedication was a success. If you want to read more about Playgrounds for Palestine you can click this link.
I am thankful for the ministers who accompanied me on this trip, and I invite you to read their entries as they speak from their hearts and attempt to touch our souls.
December 3, 2016
Today our delegation of pastors from the United States of America traveled to the Bedouins in Southern Hebron. We also traveled to Hebron and the old city of Hebron, where the Tomb of the Patriarchs (Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah – Rachel’s Tomb is near Bethlehem) is located. It was a intense day that did not end until approximately 10:20 pm after the lighting of the Christmas Tree in Bethlehem, meeting with Mayor Vera Baboun, the first female leader of Bethlehem, the Palestinian city believed to be the birthplace of Jesus. Then, our delegation had dinner with the mayor, along with council members. There is far too much for me to write about from what I experienced today. So, let me write briefly about what shocked me, overwhelmed me and made me angry.
Today, for the first time I understood what the “Jewish Settlements” and “Occupation by Israelis” mean to Palestinian life. As were entered the Bedouins in Southern Hebron, it took the bus driver awhile to find this living area, because the original name of the street had been removed by the Israeli government. So, this makes their home area very difficult to find and it devalues the Bedouins because there is no recognition that they exist at all. At this same location, “Jewish Settlements” have been built and there are a series of gates that separate “Jewish Settlements” from the Bedouins’ land. The “Jewish Settlements” have come about by the illegal confiscation of Palestinian land by the Israeli government. The people living in “Jewish Settlements” are protected by the Israeli military, they have subsidized housing, they have running water, they are able to freely travel and many other advantages unearned.
The Palestinians don’t have the same rights as Israelis including those Israelis who are illegally living in the “Jewish Settlements.” The Palestinians don’t have the right to move freely in their own country, they are harassed by the Israeli military daily by detaining or picking them up for anything without cause or due process. This is a violation of human rights! This is not something I read about, but I saw with my own eyes today. There were three “settlers” (persons who live in Jewish Settlements), who were out doing some shopping in a public area in Hebron and there were at least 15-20 military soldiers with semi-automatic rifles guarding them. They would not let the Palestinians pass, nor would they let us pass. Then, they told the Palestinians in a unfriendly tone to go around another way. The Israeli military also, detained a photographer that was with our delegation without cause, I guess because he was taking pictures of them in order to record how Palestinians are being bullied and harassed by the military. This made feel as if I was living in an Apartheid state or living in the deep South in the United States when “Black Codes” and “Jim Crow” was the order the day, even racial profiling as it relates to “stop and frisk” laws as well. I felt humiliated and devalued as a person, but now I had a real sense of what the Palestinian people are going through on a daily basis.
This injustice towards the Palestinian people at the hands of the Israeli government must stop and there has to be a two state solution that becomes a reality. There is no neutral position! The United States of America needs to take serious action to bring an end to the occupation of Palestine by the Israeli government. The Palestinians want to live in peace and they want to share the land by being a State that has all the rights and privileges that is afforded to Israel.
The Palestinian Christians are a remarkable people, who are determined to live for God in the face of being “occupied” and oppressed by Israel’s policies. They chose to love, as well as fight for their full liberation while recognizing the dignity and worth of the Jewish people, even while their value as humans is like that of African Americans in the not so distant past, 3/5th’s human (which is no human at all). I’m encouraged because of the courage and the tenacity of the Palestinian people to never give up!
First the incredible Hisham’s Palace restoration. The painstaking care and commitment to the restoration of Caliph Hisham bin Abd el-Malik 743 A.D. winter resort was joy to behold. The pride and thorough understanding of this archeological prize was confide by our Palestinian guide as we walked among the vast 30x30m great bath with 38 colorful mosaic carpet. Then riding pass lust green row of date palms, wine grapes vines, banana and citrus tree we could discern the richness of the land. But we also learned this was confiscated land by Zionists settlers. On the other hand the Palestinians rummaged through dry, stoned and debris filled land. The water sources beneath the ground can not be accessed by these farmers without permits from the Israelis who choose not to grant them. They monitor by plane the occupied territory and demolish homes of any Palestinian trying to “illegally” provide water to their family. Over a 1000 people where living with limited access to water for daily use. Each settler has daily access to the amount of water given to an Palestinian in a year. Let me say
that again, Each settler gets daily as much water as a Palestinian gets in a year! Essentially the water was taken taken by the settlers and now they charge the Palestinians three times the price to have access to their confiscated water. Just a reminder Jericho is in a desert range!
December 5, 2016
Allow me to say in the outset of this blog, that I have been offered on more than one occasion to travel to Israel to tour the Holy Land where a lot of what I preach about happened. Even though I had been given these opportunities, I was never compelled or spirit lead to take the sponsors up on their offers. However, when broached with the possibility of being given an opportunity to visit Palestine and see the narrative and plight of the Palestinians, I jumped at the opportunity without hesitation.
As a result of my being here on today, I had the unique privilege to travel to the City of Jericho which is 846ft below sea level and is located near the Jordan River in the West Bank. Unlike other terrains I visited over the last 3 days, Jericho was full of the color green with many Palm Trees. Once in Jericho, our first stop was to Hisham’s Palace, where it is believed that it was built by Caliph Hisham bin Abd el-Malik, in 724 AD, as a winter resort. Shortly after being erected, the palace was destroyed by an earthquake.
I and the delegation of Pastors then traveled to the Mountain of Temptation by cable car to the cliff hanging monastery, the place where it is believed to be where Jesus was tempted by the devil during His 40 day fast. I was fascinated by the ability of Jesus to be able to climb this steep mountain after having fasted for 40 days. After reaching the monastery, it offered us a panoramic view of the City of Jericho. Upon completing our tour of the Mount of Temptation, we then made our way to the Jordan River, the place of Christ’s Baptism. We were met by a guide who informed us of the minefield that covers 136 acres that literally surrounds 7 church’s where Christ was baptized.
Though I had taken in many wonderful spiritual and historical sites, I could not help but be stuck in my visit to the camp village where the Palestinians have been denied basic rights and resources. The Palestinians have been denied dignity and respect for the land that is being confiscated right before their very eyes of which they have ownership to. I am stuck on how a people who call themselves God’s chosen people and yet, treat their fellow brothers and sisters with such disdain and lack of human rights. I’m stuck on how the Israelis can’t name the name of God and yet violate one of the Ten Commandments and steal land by creating policies and agreements that give unto the Palestinians no opportunities to have their rights protected and to maintain rightful ownership of their property. I’m stuck and blown away with how the Israelis have created a system using “occupation” and “settlement activity” to bulldoze the Palestinians and create a wall to keep them from moving freely with check points that have soldiers who are armed with assault weapons; a wall that is designed to cut them off from family, land, resources, and economics. I am stuck on how Israelis soldiers can literally kill the children of the Palestinians without any form of justice – mass incarceration of the young males.
I’m stuck on how the United States could have an Israel supported agenda that violates the human rights of another group of people and children. What is clear to me is that there is a system in place that is designed to oppress and obliterate the Palestinians of their dignity and ability to sustain themselves. By definition, this is called Apartheid. For those of you who questioned our analysis of this oppressive system, allow me to define Apartheid. Apartheid is a policy that is developed to segregate and discriminate economically and politically oppressed a group of people. The system/agreements has no accountability. We know that what is currently going on with the Palestinians is against International Law; it’s against US Policy and yet all we do is continue to fund and support without holding the Israeli government accountable. The United States has allowed lobbying groups to become powerful, creating an era where we turn away and refuse to acknowledge or see the wrong being perpetuated upon the Palestinians all at the expense of being politically correct while surviving politically. Why can’t we be both Pro-Palestinians and Pro-Israelis? Why can’t we as the United States put conditions on our alliances and hold countries accountable to not violate human rights? Why can’t we condemn all forms of racism, whether religious or ethnic, including anti-Semitism and Islamophobia?
We in the United States have to stop the principle of double standards and insist on the international resolutions regarding the Palestinians and the Israelis. I employ us to see the need for the establishment of a sovereign new state allowing our Palestinian brothers and sisters to live with basic human rights, dignity and respect, water, freedom of movement, and economic access.
It is also obvious that our current strategy is not working. It has only caused more pain and confusion. Therefore, we must rise above our political agendas and dwell together in love, lest we all perish as fools all because of greed! We must see the face of God in each one of God’s creatures and overcome the barriers of fear or race in order to establish a constructive dialogue and not remain within the cycle of never ending pain that aims to keep the situation as it is. The voices of those of us who live in the United States should speak up to our lawmakers and demand a common vision for the Israelis and the Palestinians that’s built on equality and sharing; not on superiority or negation of the other, but that we are all created in God’s image. We must fight for our Brother and Sisters.
December 6, 2016
So, as I stand here where people are being baptized, I am reminded of the need for the
renewing of our minds. It is the Palestinian Christians who maintain and celebrate all our holy sites. They are the keepers of the holy places. They do not deserve to be demeaned. Some may want to “explode” as I say this but this is one of the mine fields I describe. It is time for the message of the Palestinian people to get out – a desire for justice and peace and recognition of their State. The illegal occupation must end. The divisions of the forceful occupation and the denial of basic human rights must come to the world’s attention. We all need to learn to co-exist. Isn’t that the message of Jesus – to love one another as He loves us? I don’t have all the words I need to tell you about the human rights issues here. But I know what I have seen and heard. Everyone needs to come, experience, and see for themselves.
December 6, 2016
“Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.”
Paul writes to his brothers and sisters in Rome. Paul is disturbed that his Jewish brothers are misdirected. So much so that he tells them that his deepest desire is for them to be saved. Now that is a stunning statement to those who believe that they need no saving because they were chosen by God. Paul gives three reasons for their blindness to salvation, 1.) One that their zeal is based on a lack of knowledge; 2) that they don’t know the righteousness of God and 3) they set out to make their own righteousness. And finally, their blindness causes them not to submit to the righteousness of God.
The word “righteousness” means justice. Righteousness is “the character or quality of being right or just” according to Vine’s Expository Dictionary. So when you read the text with the better understanding you discover fresh meaning. Reading and hearing these words in the context of Palestine I have come into a central discovery through my experiences this week.
Before I came here I had a very different understanding of Israel. I thought they were “the Chosen” and that they had a right to the land that was promised them in the Bible by God. But this week I can testify that my understanding had flaws. This week I can bear witness of some of the worst treatment of humanity I have ever seen. It is with sadness I have to report what I have seen.
On day 1 we were greeted by two very beautiful Palestinian women at the airport who welcomed us to their country. I was immediately thrown back. At first I thought they were Israelis because they said “welcome to our Country.” I thought I was in Israel. I was, but these women identified themselves as the original people of the land and they did it with unassuming confidence. At that point I knew I was about to experience something different than what I had expected. They took us to Bethlehem where I thought I would see Jews. But again the keepers of Bethlehem were not Jews but rather Palestinians. On the top of the roofs of every house were water tanks. They are used to capture water because the Israelis control the amount per day each Palestinians gets. One Palestinian told me that they relied on God for water. However, I still did not fully understand the plight of these people until the next day.
Day 2, I began to witness the cruelty of the wall and settlers in the land of Jesus. We first visited the Shepherd’s Field. The Shepherd’s Field is the place where the shepherds first saw the North Star telling them that something grand had happened. I discovered that the land was full of caves, hills and mountains. I also discovered that this field was not far from Bethlehem.
We then went to the Kairos Palestine Center where we met Dr. Rifant Qassis who discussed the Kairos Document. It is there we heard about a most unusual theology called the Theology of Hope. It literary blew my mind. It is a theology born out of the Palestinian experience of living in a land occupied by a foreign government that is hostile to their existence and yet called upon to love their neighbors. Loving their neighbors is uncompromising. But how do you live with someone who antagonizes you to hate them? The answer is through faith, hope, and love. But his idea of Hope intrigued me. It is hope that leads one to co-exist with the expectation that things will change. However, this expectation is not passive. It requires one to engage in non-violent resistance. The idea here is that hope comes with action. And no love or faith is vibrant or valuable without action.
Later we went to The Separation Wall and refugee camp called Aida where we dedicated a monument to young boys unjustly killed by authorities in their reactive countries, Palestine and the United States. The walls were most intimidating. They stood there as a living testament of racism and paranoia at its highest level. The walls are testimonies of guilt and cruelty projected on the vulnerable and frustrated. The walls are used to remind the Palestinians of their non-existence as a person. I was ashamed to be called a human being when I saw those walls and understood how they have disrupted the lives of people.
We met the Bedouins and heard their story. I was totally amazed at seeing across the fence from the Bedouin village where settlers were living in nice warm heated and air conditioned homes. The Bedouins however did not have heat or water to support their basic needs. They were living on rocks and in tents. And, they were afraid the Israelis were going to take their land. When I asked why is the ground full of rocks they replied, “This is the way Palestine is. It is full of rocks, hills, and caves.”
Day three, we went to Hebron and were astonished at the living conditions of human beings. We met the Mayor of Hebron and heard the same story we had been hearing throughout the week; that they were an oppressed people longing to be free and to control their own destiny.
Later we observed a Christmas tree lighting and show. It was amazing. We then met with the Mayor of Bethlehem and ate a banquet dinner as guest of the Prime Minister. The Mayor was passionate about her freedom and discussed openly her hope that one day she can live in true freedom.
Day four, we went to Jericho and visited two museums, the Hisham Palace and the Monastery of the Temptation in Mountain as well the site where Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River. It is here I realized that the people were consistent in their story. No matter whom we met whether they were dignitaries or ordinary people the message was the same; we are frustrated but not discouraged because we believe in a God of justice.
Day five, we went to Ramallah and met with the Prime Minister of Palestine and Muslim and Christian clergy. The Prime Minister as well as the Ambassador to the United Stated was gracious in meeting with us. They again expressed their plight and hopes. The Prime Minister, Dr. Riyad Al Malik, was passionate about telling us about the degradation of his people and their existence. He explained to us that Palestine is the only occupied land in the 21st century today. He drove the indignity of not be able to travel in your land without permission. He emphasized the insanity of a sixteen year old Israeli soldier with a machine gun having power over a grown man in Palestine. He explained to us that war is not viable. His primary way of dealing with the issues was to go directly to the people of the USA. He called upon us to help with the peace effort. I acknowledged that we understood his plight. We as African-Americans can spot racism when we see it and know discrimination when we feel it. We appreciated the Prime Minister’s call for non-violent resistance to bring peace to the region. And we explained to him that we understand his position because we have been there.
This led me to ask a final question: Which side are we going to take? Are we going to stand with those who do not know the justice of God and seek to establish their own flawed justice, or do we stand with God’s Justice? Do we stand for what is right or do we sit on the sidelines and watch people suffer? We do not wish for any harm to come to the Israelis. And yet we see injustice running astray. We call upon our brothers and sisters to save themselves and the humanity of others. We call upon our brothers and sisters to act justly and not let fear and paranoia lead them to cruelty and distrust. I know these are decade’s long problems but they can be solved.
I have been thoroughly convinced this week that something has to change and can change. I discovered that helping the oppressed is more honorable than helping the oppressor. I also discovered that by helping the oppressed I am helping the oppressor. I help the oppressor to become more lovable and trustworthy. I help him to understand how his policies are hurting him more than his opponent because it costs a lot of money, time, and effort to be mean. Salvation comes in not only freeing one from sin, but also it comes in freeing one from injustice. As Paul heart desire is for Israel so is mine. I desire upon Israel to be saved, but I also I pray and desire for Palestine to be made whole.
December 7, 2016
For the sixth day we have heard the heartbreak of the Palestinian people. We see the litany of restrictions, imposition of near total control on all aspects of daily life. The astonishing differences in neighborhoods as soon as we pass through the dividing wall. The two West Bank Palestinian guides from our trip who do not have permits to enter East Jerusalem, and so must stay behind. The difficulty in coordination of access which keeps us from a planned visit to the Al Aqsa Mosque. The pending Knesset legislation which would retroactively legalize hundreds of colonizing homes, in violation of international law and Israeli Supreme Court rulings. Even an outrageous proposed law to ban the most sacred community call to prayer for Muslims as a noise violation!
The brave Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb reminds us tonight that Jesus also faced Empire, one which dictated life and death as well. Dr. Raheb’s theological work on the Bible through Palestinian eyes, development of an arts and culture university, and the cultivation of young Palestinian leaders, is all inspiration. We are invited to further develop interfaith and cultural ties, nascent relationships for urgently needed organizing.
The challenge will be great. There is ubiquitous anxiety about the next U.S. administration and no illusions about where support will lie. A particular time is upon us, both in Palestine and the United States, when stakes are high and any proposed neutrality is to side with the oppressor. A stark violation of dignity is clear to see in Palestine: The miles and miles of ugly concrete partition walls. Widespread withholding of basic right to water. Constant violent apprehension of young boys and men. Bold occupation of Palestinian personal homes and private land. The countless restrictions on travel, commerce, family life and religion.
Now that we have heard, and understood, our highest human and religious values compel us to respond. There is an unmistakable parallel to solidarity with movements in the U.S.: Black Lives Matter; Standing Rock resistance; against increasingly anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim rhetoric and action. I know to be Euro-American white is to benefit from multiple systems of white supremacy, at plain work in Israel, and on the rise in our own nation. Therefore to work against this dominant culture is to stand firmly against injustice, wherever I witness it, and certainly so when directly told anguished stories of decades of suffering.
We have heard the heartbreak of the Palestinian people, yes, and witnessed so much more. Experienced the warm hospitality of many meals, as even the most impoverished offered coffee, tea, and bread to us as honored guests. Heard the rich tradition of religious tolerance and inclusion expressed by all with whom we met. Seen a stunningly beautiful museum created to honor the memory of great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Marveled at a new state-of-the-art Istishari Arab Hospital with dedicated staff creating a culture of excellence. Had our hearts moved by the energy and talent of young people confined to refugee housing for their entire lives, and their parents’ lifetimes as well.
The poetic theology of the Palestinian Kairos Document, powerful voice of many Christian peoples, is calling us to listen, pray, and act. In addition, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said words in 1965 in Alabama that challenge us greatly today: “We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.”
In Israel and Palestine today, there cannot be peace without a fundamental reordering of life towards justice. The current untenable situation here degrades Israelis and creates vast suffering for Palestinian people. And in the United States, there cannot be true peace until systems cease which consistently value black and brown bodies less than white ones. The current untenable situation there stunts the moral understanding of white people, and inflicts widespread pain on people of color.
Neither society, and none of us, can live with clear conscience unless we are doing all we can do to bring change, in the urgency of these times. And just as we pledge to “stay woke” in our home communities, we must stay awake to the increasing oppression of the Palestinian people. Justice demands this vigilance. Most importantly, so does our calling as clergy who would be faithful, followers of Jesus who challenged Empire long ago in this very land.
As we continue to share the information we have come to understand we also realize that there are a host of organizations doing powerful and positive things in Palestine. One of those groups are Playgrounds for Palestine. It is a group that is worthy of your support.
Playgrounds for Palestine