Monday, July 28, 2008

Bethlehem: the things that made me cry [the stonecutter's family]

A faded tattoo dots her chin. Blue. The color of air and water. Life and pain.

The soldiers do not see her garden. Do not recognize her mint. The cups of tea she gives to all her guests. The Bedouin coffee in small mugs. Just a taste of cardamon. A welcome gift.

Her husband speaks softly in his throat. Hobbles on two legs, mismatched (only one is flesh). Coos softly to his doves. His baby sheep. His goats. His gazelle with the soft brown eyes. Calls them his children. Watches them grow.

He builds with his hands. Cuts stone and polishes wood. Erects a house. Piece by piece by piece. Lovingly, he creates beauty from the dust. The ashes.

He knows the guards will come again. Tomorrow. The next day. Or the next. The soldiers with the bulldozers and the trucks. The settlers with their guns. Tear his life apart. The furniture, carved and polished with his gnarled fingers. The paintings on the walls. Of a different Palestine; a peaceful Palestine. Will crush the stones beneath their feet -- machine and human. Will leave nothing but rubble. Where her dishes used to hang. Her cupboards. Her tea.

They know it will happen, because it has always happened before. Three times they have rebuilt. Three times he has cut rocks for his walls. Three times he has polished wood for his bed. But still he does not despair. Still he builds for beauty. They can tear our homes apart, he says, but not our souls. Never our souls.

She speaks with tears in her eyes. Of her life. Of her family. Talks of her sons. Every mother, she says, loves her children. Wants to see them grow old. Survive her. Know happiness and joy. Already she has watched one die. Another lives in an Israeli prison. His sentence: five-hundred years, and to never see his son -- never kiss his cheeks in greeting, never scare the monsters from beneath his bed. Her last child sleeps in the adjoining room. Gone for years -- just released. They are building him a home attached to theirs. They want to never let him go.

This woman with her mint, this man with his soft voice -- they are the enemy. Because he worked for the PLO; believed in a free Palestine. Because her sons threw stones.

And yet they testify to hope. To humanity. To perseverance and the creation of beauty. He says they live, waiting for God to come.

Our guide introduced him as a man with a powerful spirit. As a friend.

We left them amid their stones.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Father Joe: a look at war and peace, love and hate

My older brother (giver of good books) recently entrusted me with a copy of Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul -- one of his favorite texts. The book recounts a powerful journey of faith, but most of all, it demonstrates the awesome, subtle, and transforming power of love.

About halfway through the book, Tony Hendra (the author) and Father Joe discuss militarism and the destructive power of hate. Hendra is a teenager at the time, and filled with a teenager's black-and-white conviction. I think I hear myself (a little too much) in his anger and his judgment:
"Father Joe, I believe that war is not just some neutral thing that happens, like the weather. War is sin committed by certain people. A certain kind of person will always try to find ways around the Fifth Commandment because of their terrible need to kill. These men are called 'soldiers.' They exist in any tribe, nation, empire, or superpower, and wherever they're found, they're the same murderous parasites. People whose lives can only be fulfilled by crushing the life out of another. They call themselves heroes but they're actually diabolical lunatics who arrogate to themselves the power that belongs to God alone -- the power to end life."

"You could be right, Tony dear, about military men and their motives. But you must remember: military men too are children of God, loved by God, candidates for salvation. Even mass murderers, if they want forgiveness and reach out for it, can be forgiven."

"They don't want forgiveness, Father Joe. They hate forgiveness. It prevents war. They're a brotherhood that cuts across all beliefs, all causes, all interests, all politics, all patriotisms. Their greatest enemy is not, as they argue, another nation's military, for it is another nation's miliary that gives them their raison d'etre. Their true enemy is us, people of peace, like this boy called Piggy in The Lord of the Flies who resists death and embraces life, who doesn't want to murder or to die. And whom the soldiers of the tribe therefore murder . . ."

"Tony, dear, you sound angry. Very angry. Like a military man speaking with hate of his enemy. War involves terrible sins, and it arises more often than not from hate. But you can't conquer one sin with another, hate with more hate. It only makes hate stronger. Love alone can conquer hate."

He took my hand between his. The usual warmth flowed into me, and as I relaxed I realized how pumped up I'd been, how cold and hard and alien I had made myself to get my point across. How in some way I could not discern, dishonest.

". . . Remember: God's grief at the unspeakable things we do to one another is beyond measuring, but so is his mercy. It might seem a terrible thing to say to people who've lost and suffered so much at the hands of hatred and violence. But true courage is not to hate our enemy, any more than to fight and kill him. To love him, to love in the teeth of his hate -- that is real bravery. That ought to earn people m-m-medals."

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Schindler's List

I put my hand over my mouth.
I tremble in silence

for the absence; for the ash
for the scalding, burning,
grief of remembrance

I put my hand over my mouth.

* * *

"The list is an absolute good. The list is life. All around its margins lies the gulf."

I watched it again today: Schindler's List. It's very possibly the most powerful movie -- the most powerful story -- I've ever encountered.

And it's true.

I'm overwhelmed by the weight again. The horror. Who am I to say this is wrong, or this is right? Who am I to say anything at all?

The furnaces. The ghetto. The children. And a man crying for one more life. Just one more.

May God forgive me for my arrogance.

"He who saves a single life, saves the world entire."


Jesus wept. (John 11:35)

Tears on a Sunday

Risen unbidden
For those left behind

A steady stream of out of focus faces

Bathed in them, immersed in them
Scorched by them
Scorned by them
As by the Ghibhilli Wind raging beyond the window

Each tear drop contains an image
A twain-ness of opposites
OF what IS and what still MIGHT BE

Christ, too, weeps within and behind me
His hands secured to wood cannot reach them.

But mine can in His name.

-Rev. Maria Shepherdson
From Both Sides Now: Auschwitz to Palestine

As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city,
he wept over it. (Luke 19:41)

(the church built to commemorate Christ's weeping)

Monday, July 14, 2008

Bethlehem: the things that made me cry [the Intercontinental]

The hotel sits empty. White stone and glowing candle light.

Survivor of two world wars and a hundred years of human history, it contains an elegance that only age can bring. A grace earned by living. By surviving.

Inside, the night smells of jasmine. Running water. Bright hibiscus. Beauty within walls. In the face of perseverance.

The ceilings are high. Chandeliers and Arab glass. Art and carved stone.

Each table setting is ready. Waiting. Blue goblets, elegant silver, fine china.

But there is only silence.

How does one carry on? Keep waiting, day after day.

Is it through faith? Or hope? Or love?

What grants this kind of courage? To maintain beauty in the midst of nothingness? To prepare each table every night, when no guests come?

For who would want the hassle? Six hours in line to come to the West Bank, when it is so easy, so simple, to stay on the Israeli side. To see only what the soldiers tell you to. Want you to. To know nothing of Palestinian courage. Of beauty that defies violence.

If Christ can be manifest in a building, he was there that night, at the Intercontinental. There in the relentless clinging to hope -- the rejection of despair. There in the waiting and the faith.

Bethlehem: the things that made me cry [the woman and her plums]

A woman selling plums. Sitting in the dirt, with her beautiful Palestinian brocade. The traditional garment of a loving, laughing, people.

Our guide calls her 'haji' -- a term of respect. A recognition of her age. Of her dignity.

He asks her where she's from. She tells him the name of her village. A village cut off by the wall. She shows us her plums. Picked that day from her trees. Her beloved trees, growing on land that was always hers. Now separated by concrete and guards.

She had so many once. Trees growing strong and tall. Now there are only two.

She stood in line for hours. To exit the gate. To pick her fruit. To return and sell them here, in the dirt. She does it every day, she says. It's a long process; a hard fight. But what is she to do? The trees are all she has.

Like children, they are loved for being hers. For existing.

We turn to leave. She presses the dark plums into our palms, like a blessing.

Or a prayer.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Exclusion and Embrace: the Mechanics of Oppression

This poem is a somewhat-companion to my last post. Though rather flawed, the element that really struck me when I first read it -- and that continues to strike me -- is the theme of distance. And how distance breeds hate and violence. Without human contact, it's easy to stop believing in the humanity of the other. And when the other is not human, or at least not as fully human as you believe yourself to be, oppression ceases to be difficult.

It is for this reason that the separation barrier is so terrifying.

Another note: Shepherdson states "Faceless voices make demands/ Travellers scarce could hear." We found this VERY true, and very odd, on our recent trip to Jerusalem and Bethlehem. At checkpoints, guards sit in glass boxes, far removed from the traveler, and it is almost impossible to hear their instructions. We pondered the reason for this on our trip, but couldn't seem to understand. It's inefficient and extremely frustrating. However, it does serve one purpose: it separates the Israeli from the Palestinian, and keeps contact and communication to a bare minimum.

As one (Arab?) proverb states: what we do not know, we fear; what we fear, we hate.


Concrete-clad confinement cells
Iron rails and turn styles
Sheds and bars and wire and rocks
Line the lonely mile

Faceless voices make demands
Travellers scarce could hear
Distance, planned, enforces space
No human contact near.

Compassion, bred from guarding eyes
Purely duty calls.

Withdraw the contact of the eyes
In airport hanger halls
And men become a processed part.

Without this window on human hearts
It's easier to number us
Than face, the hurt, the pain, the loss of those who
mirror now the past
To those descended from Holocaust

Yet surely some must wonder
As they rend Arab homes asunder
Why they comply in genocide
Of Palestinian hearts and mind.
And surely some who've heard the tales of apartheid
And Robyn Island jails
Must question in their silent hearts
Why scraggy donkeys pull decrepit carts
On dusty roads and potholed 'mac
The poor, who break their ragged backs, and
Cling to Gaza's desert tracks, their homeland?

And surely we must question why
This land turns into nibbled cheese
And check points fear and barricades
And mortar fire and bullet littered streets
Are all their lives entail
In Gaza's cramped and foetid jail.

-Rev. Maria Shepherdson
From Both Sides Now

Crossing the border into the West Bank

Bethlehem. What to say about Bethlehem?

It took us six hours to cross the border. Six hours. Because we told them -- the guards behind their glass walls -- that we wanted to see Bethlehem.

There was no bathroom at the checkpoint. Hundreds of Palestinians, waiting in long lines, and no bathroom. Crying babies. Crying mothers. Crying children -- too old to use diapers, too young to understand.

Israel is one of the most advanced nations in the world. It's wealthy. It's efficient. And yet, it took the soldiers hours to process a single family. After each individual was questioned, and prodded, and finally given the okay, the guards would take a break, and leave the others waiting.

A man in the line next to ours asked: Do you see? This is what we go through. Every day. Because we are Palestinian.

It was hard not to get angry. Not for myself. After all, this is not my life. I am not trapped in this hell of lines and questions and guards. I will spend my few days in their country, and then I will leave. But angry for the people around me. For the pointless chaos, and hassle, and tears. For the degradation of begging your enemy for the dignity of a toilet.

The woman behind us -- with her blue Chicago Cubs baseball hat, and crying baby girl -- was American. Palestinian-American, but still American. But they do not care here. It is not the color of your passport that concerns them, but the color of your blood. The ethnicity you can't hide.

I want to yell at the guards who come near us. Want to slap their faces. Want to shake them out of their complicity. Don't you see? -- I want to yell -- don't you see they're human?

But so are the soldiers. With their young-scared-children faces. With their strawberry colored hair and new uniforms.

It's our first day, one girl says, shaking her head apologetically. She looks so lost. I want to tell her it's alright. That I understand she can't help us. But I don't. Because won't that be aiding and abetting the enemy?

So I say nothing. Show my stony-faced disapproval.

And so doing, separate my humanity just a little more from hers. Add to the war of "us" versus "them." Of dehumanization and separation. Of walls and glass prisons.

I fail to extend love. I fail to be Christ.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Jews who will not celebrate Israel's anniversary

On Wednesday April 30th, 2008, this letter, written and signed by U.K. Jews (some who were once Israeli citizens) was published in The Guardian. It details why some Jews will not, cannot, celebrate Israel's anniversary.

We're not celebrating Israel's anniversary --

In May, Jewish organisations will be celebrating the 60th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel. This is understandable in the context of centuries of persecution culminating in the Holocaust. Nevertheless, we are Jews who will not be celebrating. Surely it is now time to acknowledge the narrative of the other, the price paid by another people for European anti-semitism and Hitler's genocidal policies. As Edward Said emphasised, what the Holocaust is to the Jews, the Naqba is to the Palestinians.

In April 1948, the same month as the infamous massacre at Deir Yassin and the mortar attack on Palestinian civilians in Haifa's market square, Plan Dalet was put into operation. This authorised the destruction of Palestinian villages and the expulsion of the indigenous population outside the borders of the state. We will not be celebrating.

In July 1948, 70,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes in Lydda and Ramleh in the heat of the summer with no food or water. Hundreds died. It was known as the Death March. We will not be celebrating.

In all, 750,000 Palestinians became refugees. Some 400 villages were wiped off the map. That did not end the ethnic cleansing. Thousands of Palestinians (Israeli citizens) were expelled from the Galilee in 1956. Many thousands more when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza. Under international law and sanctioned by UN resolution 194, refugees from war have a right to return or compensation. Israel has never accepted that right. We will not be celebrating.

We cannot celebrate the birthday of a state founded on terrorism, massacres and the dispossession of another people from their land. We cannot celebrate the birthday of a state that even now engages in ethnic cleansing, that violates international law, that is inflicting a monstrous collective punishment on the civilian population of Gaza and that continues to deny to Palestinians their human rights and national aspirations.

We will celebrate when Arab and Jew live as equals in a peaceful Middle East.

To see the article in its original context, and view the names of those who signed, go here.

To view the article in a different context, and read more about Israel's 60th anniversary, visit Jewish Peace News (the specific article is about halfway down the page, dated May 1st).