Why I Don’t Like Writing About Israel

israel vs the muslim worldLast week I wrote an impassioned post about the decision of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to divest from three companies (Caterpillar, Motorola and Hewlett-Packard) that this Church believes are profiting from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. In this post, I addressed separate messages to Jews (let’s try to hear the Presbyterian action as a call for peace and an offer to help) and to Christians (divestment is a sure avenue for Jewish-Christian misunderstanding). I received mostly polite praise from my readers. Elsewhere, my effort to state my point of view did not go as well. I should know better. Israel is a difficult topic for Jewish-Christian dialogue.

When I was growing up in the 1960s, I remember my Aunt telling us about how her some of her Christian friends had visited Israel, and came back with glowing descriptions of their visit to the “Holy Land.” “You mean, you visited Israel,” my Aunt would reply testily. “Yes,” her Christian friends would gush, “the Holy Land!” The talk of “Holy Land” was like fingernails down a blackboard for my Aunt. “Why can’t they call it ‘Israel’?” she’d ask. Even today, when I hear someone use the expression “Holy Land,” I assume either that they are Christians, or that they’re Jews who think they’re talking to Christians, and I’m never sure that they’re talking about the same place I call “Israel.”

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Divestment

imagesLet’s take a break from the heavy topic of early Christian anti-Judaism, and focus instead on the equally heavy topic of divestment from Israel.

“Divestment” (or “disinvestment”) refers to the strategy of refusing to invest (or selling existing investments) in a government, industry or company for ethical or political reasons. It’s a kind of economic boycott, often based on the idea that money should be invested in a socially responsible way. Divestment is sometimes designed to pressure its target to change its policies; for example, divestment from South Africa was designed to end apartheid. In other cases, divestment is a form of protest or punishment: against Sudan, for example, for its involvement in the genocide in Darfur.

These days, the primary target for divestment is Israel, as a result (so it is said) of Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinian territories. Divestment is a hot topic for the moment, because last week the general convention of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted in favor of a measure to divest church funds from three corporations (Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions) that the church believes are profiting from the Israeli occupation. The Presbyterian measure also reaffirmed Israel’s right to exist, endorsed a “two state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, called for interfaith dialogue, and recommended “positive investment” in endeavors that advance peace in the region.

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Israel Matters

why-israel-mattersI have just concluded a multi-post series about our February trip to Israel. I don’t even want to count the number of posts. It started as a “Greetings from the Holy Land” postcard kind of thing, and it just snowballed.

You might wonder why I took nearly two months of my blog time to describe a vacation. What do a couple of weeks of tourism have to do with the Jewish-Christian intersection, with interfaith dialogue? The simplest answer is this: Israel matters. Israel matters to a Christian understanding of Jews and Judaism. Israel is territory, both actual and figurative, that Jews and Christians share with each other and with Islam. We share an interest in Israel, and a responsibility for its well-being. Moreover, the founding and continued survival of the State of Israel has shaped our dialogue. Israel has made the dialogue possible.

This is a lot to chew upon. So I’ll start slowly.

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The Banks of the West Bank (Part 5 of Our Adventures in the Palestinian Territories)

(In part 1 of this series, I detail how my wife and I end up in the old Hyundai of Assaf (not his real name), a well-meaning Palestinian guide, for a tour of Jericho and the West Bank. In part 2, we enter Area “A”, the area of the West Bank under Palestinian control, and pass a failed hotel and casino project that symbolizes the short-lived hope of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation following the 1993 Oslo Accords. In part 3 and part 4, we enter Jericho and visit the ruins of Hisham’s Palace and the walls of Jericho, and I learn that Assaf is willing to detour to visit a church but not a synagogue.)

8452423151_06ffd039cbWe return to Jericho less than three hours after we left. The setting sun adds a redder appearance to the red signs of warning placed by the Israelis on the Jericho border, but the warning itself remains clear: entrance into Jericho is “dangerous to our lives.” It was bad enough to have encountered these signs once, at mid-morning, when we first came into Jericho as part of the tour schedule. Our second visit to Jericho is unscheduled. I feel like visiting Jericho twice, in one day or one lifetime, may count as one time too many.

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The Malls of Jericho (Part 4 of Our Adventures in the Palestinian Territories)

(In part 1 of this series, I detail how my wife and I end up in the old Hyundai of Assaf (not his real name), a well-meaning Palestinian guide, for a tour of Jericho and the West Bank. In part 2, we enter Area “A”, the area of the West Bank under Palestinian control, and pass a failed hotel and casino project that symbolizes the short-lived hope of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation following the 1993 Oslo Accords. In part 3, we enter Jericho and visit the ruins of Hisham’s Palace, where we see how Palestine struggles and fails to protect its historical legacy, while we hear the sound of its security forces being trained somewhere close by.)

download (1)As we leave Hisham’s Palace, our Romanian companions Dorin and Gabi (not their real names) mention to Assaf that they’ll need to visit an ATM before the tour is over. “No problem,” Assaf assures them. I guess that like me, Dorin and Gabi weren’t expecting Assaf to pay our tour site entry fees, and they’re also worried that they might not have enough cash to repay Assaf at day’s end. I figure, it wouldn’t hurt to piggpiggyback on their request, and withdraw a few hundred extra Israeli shekels when our little tour stops at an ATM.

We retake our seats in Assaf’s Hyundai, and Assaf drives us around the outskirts of Jericho. He points out the Quarantine Monastery, built into the side of one of the mountains that separates Jericho from Jerusalem. This mountain is reputed to be the Mount of Temptation, where Christians believe Jesus fasted for 40 days and was “tempted” by Satan. The Palestinian Authority (PA) has built a cable car up to the monastery; we can see cars travelling up and down the cable, all empty.

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Palace Guard (Part 3 of Our Adventures in the Palestinian Territories)

(In part 1 of this series, I detailed how my wife and I ended up in the old Hyundai of a well-meaning Palestinian tour guide, driving towards the ancient town of Jericho. We have passed the red signs on the road, containing the Israeli warning that we are entering territory “dangerous to your lives.” In part 2, I talk about the hotel and casino project lying along the Jericho road, a project that marks the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian joint venture following the 1993 Oslo Accords.)

As we drive into Jericho, the scenery turns greener. Jericho is an oasis, fed by ancient underground springs. Water from these springs is Jericho’s most precious resource – this is easy to understand, given that the region receives only about 5 inches of rain a year.  The principal spring in Jericho is named ‘Ein es-Sultan in Turkish, or Elisha’s Fountain in English. This spring is legendary; in the Bible, the prophet Elisha purified this spring with salt, making it fit to drink. There are smaller springs throughout Jericho, and these springs have been tapped for irrigation, turning Jericho into a town of small farms. We can see water for irrigation running down culverts on the sides of many roads as we tour through the town. But less water flows today than in the past, a result of decreasing rainfall and deep-well drilling in nearby Israeli settlements.

Our guide Assaf (not his real name) stresses that Jericho is a small town. Wikipedia confirms this, giving Jericho a population of less than 20,000. Even if we look at the entire Jericho Governorate – a region of the Palestinian Territories that includes Jericho along with much of Palestine’s Jordan River border, we’re still looking at a population of roughly 30,000 people. This is tiny by the standards of towns we consider small in America – towns like Boulder, Colorado, or Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Jericho’s fluctuating size is part of its modern story. Jericho used to be even smaller – in 1945, its population was closer to 3,000. But in the aftermath of Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, Jericho became home for some 100,000 Palestinian refugees who had fled  (or were forced to leave) Israel. At the end of the war, the West Bank (along with Jericho) was annexed by the new nation of Jordan, and perhaps the Jordanians reasoned that Jericho’s water resources made it a logical place to locate refugee camps. When Israel invaded the West Bank during the Six Day War in 1967, most of these refugees fled (or were forced) across the Jordan River. There are only 7,000 Palestinian refugees remaining in Jericho today – most of them children or grandchildren of the original 1948 refugees – but even with these reduced numbers, roughly half of Jericho’s current population lives in refugee camps.

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Heartbreak Hotel (Part 2 of Our Adventures in the Palestinian Territories)

image3136151x(In part 1 of this series, I detailed how my wife and I ended up in the old Hyundai of a well-meaning Palestinian tour guide, driving towards the ancient town of Jericho. Jericho is in Area “A” of the Palestinian territories, under the control of the Palestinian Authority. We have passed the red signs on the road, containing the Israeli warning that we are entering territory “dangerous to your lives.”)

Shortly past the red signs on the road to Jericho is a twelve-story Intercontinental Hotel, rising improbably from our bleak desert surroundings. The hotel is the tallest building for miles around. From the tour company’s web site, I understood that the hotel would be a featured talking point on the tour, but Assaf merely points out the hotel as we drive by. So it falls to me to talk about it here.

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Area Codes (Part 1 of Our Adventures in the Palestinian Territories)

2011-05-25_19-15-28My wife and I begin our last Sunday in Israel outside of the Jerusalem YMCA, a magnificent structure that in terms of grandeur rivals anything built in the Jerusalem of the 1930s. The “Y” is where we are supposed to meet our tour to Jericho and the Dead Sea, but when we arrive, we see no tour bus parked outside, and no congregation of waiting fellow tourists. We wander aimlessly around the “Y”, asking ourselves if the tour has been cancelled. We finally locate a young woman with a briefcase open on the sidewalk outside of the “Y.” She hands us a tour brochure and points to a waiting taxi. “He will take you to your tour guide, at the checkpoint,” she explains. Checkpoint? I feel like I’m in a John le Carré novel. When I hesitate, the representative gestures back to the taxi. “The rest of your tour is waiting.” “The rest of our tour” is a young couple from Bucharest, sitting in the back seat of the taxi.

Our “alternative” tour of the Palestinian-controlled West Bank has begun.

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Highway 443 Revisited

Now the rovin’ gambler he was very bored

He was tryin’ to create a next world war

He found a promoter who nearly fell off the floor

He said I never engaged in this kind of thing before

But yes I think it can be very easily done

We’ll just put some bleachers out in the sun

And have it on Highway 61

Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited, Copyright © 1965 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1993 by Special Rider Music

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It is possible for a tourist to spend two weeks in Israel, seeing the sights and living the good life, without any realization of the problems people face here. It is also possible to encounter some of these problems in a single day, without meaning to. Evidently, all that is required for such an encounter is GPS.

Last Tuesday my wife and I said goodbye to Tel Aviv and made the trip southeast to Jerusalem, where we will spend the final week of our vacation in Israel. My younger brother is Israeli, and he volunteered to drive us from one place to the other. He arrived in Tel Aviv, and once we were safely packed into his minivan, he hit a few buttons on his smartphone. “Ever use Waze?” he asked me. “It will navigate us to Jerusalem, and even check how bad traffic is while it plots the route.” I was happy to use my brother’s iPhone as our guide. I figured that an iPhone app has to understand Israeli geography better than I do.

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Postcard From Tel Aviv

The “Thermometer House” Tel Aviv

Greetings from the heart of Tel Aviv. I am in Israel on vacation, visiting family and working on my book. I thought it might be nice to take a break from my never-ending review of Anthony Le Donne’s The Wife of Jesus to send you a note telling you how I am.

I am fine.

Life here is … normal. Most Israelis are not living in minute-by-minute proximity to the issues that dominate U.S. media coverage of the Middle East, or the books we read about Israel, or even what I hear about Israel in synagogue. The most obvious sign here of Israeli – Palestinian strife is the security presence. Bags are x-rayed at the train stations and shopping malls; street fairs are marked at start and end by checks of purses and backpacks. But even when conducted in Hebrew, a language I cannot understand, the security here feels relaxed and confident. “We know what we’re doing,” the security officials seem to proclaim, and the people being screened pay it no mind. There is none of the anxiety here that is so palpable during the screening process at any American airport. No one is screaming here to remove shoes or empty pockets of every last gum wrapper.

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