Until 2010, I had never been to the Holy Land. Despite a career spent studying the Hebrew Scriptures, I had never seen the hills and valleys and deserts and lakes of the land where many of these texts were written. That year, for the first time, I took this pilgrimage, together with students from the seminary and Christians from the Pittsburgh area, as part of PTS’s World Mission Initiative. It was a life-changing experience. I returned with another group last year, and plan to go again in 2015.
As a Bible scholar, to stand at Qumran and look out at the caves where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered,
and to sit in the ruins there in the room that Roland de Vaux called the Scriptorium, where many scholars believe those ancient manuscripts were copied,
was for me an indescribable experience!
To stand on the mountaintop at Masada and look down on the outlines of the Roman camps and the still-visible remnant of Titus’ massive siege ramp (top right in the picture above) sent chills down my spine. And of course, no Christian can look on the stones of the old Roman street that runs past Caiaphas’ house from Gethsemane into Jerusalem, a road that Jesus certainly trod,
or follow the Via Dolorosa through the Old City
from Pilate’s palace to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, without being profoundly moved.
Yet on each visit, it has been the people who have moved me most, not the places. Our trips, organized in cooperation with the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, have as their express purpose not only to encounter the land of David and of Jesus, but also to offer support for the struggling church in Israel and Palestine. The hospitality of Palestinian Christians, who opened their homes to us and worshipped with us; the laughter and smiles of children, the commitment of young people determined to remain in their homeland despite enormous political and economic pressure to leave—all were inspiring.
But when I tell this story to people here at home, I am often met with puzzlement. Many American Christians do not seem aware that the church has survived in the land of its birth for two thousand years. It is a surprise to them even to hear the phrase “Palestinian Christian”: the word they expect to hear after “Palestinian” is “terrorist.” They are surprised to learn that we felt in no danger walking the streets of Bethlehem, or indeed anyplace we visited in the West Bank. Many friends, Christians and Jews alike, seemed not only surprised but even offended by my critical statements concerning Israeli policy, particularly the separation wall that now snakes around and well into the West Bank,
the numerous checkpoints barring travel through as well as into and out of the West Bank, and the Jewish settlements that sprout like mushrooms, swallowing up ever more and more land.
After all, isn’t this the land that God promised to the Jewish people? Aren’t the Arabs—the so-called “Palestinians”—really interlopers, with no real claim on the land? Don’t the Jews have a right to defend themselves, by whatever means prove necessary?
These questions have been posed for me forcefully in this past week from several directions. First, I saw this disturbing picture of Israeli soldiers surrounding the Stone of Anointing in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre:
This picture reminded me of stories I had heard from Arab Christians, of being denied access to Christian holy sites. Friends asked me if it were not possible that these soldiers were there to protect Christians, and I acknowledge that this may be the case (though in that case, I wonder why they were blocking access to the 13th Station of the Cross).
Then I learned that, once again this year, many Christians from the West Bank were denied permission to enter Jerusalem for Holy Week or Easter. According to the Catholic News Service, “the Israeli government said it rejected only 192 of the 19,000 requests it had received — because of security reasons.” But many Christian parishes in the West Bank reported that only 30-40% of their requests for passes were honored this year. Ashraf Khatib, who took part in the Palm Sunday procession this year and last year, observed a significant decline: “Last year we had buses from all the parishes, around 17 to 18. This year only eight buses came. Some places, like Jenin, did not get any permits and while we had four buses last year from Bethlehem, there was only one this year.” Further complicating matters for Palestinian Christians longing to celebrate Holy Week and Easter in Jerusalem, Khatib claimed, is the policy of issuing permits to some family members but not to others, so that a family cannot make the pilgrimage together.
I read this article after seeing a comment on an earlier blog from Rick, who asked, “Can you provide a historical background for the current land claims of the different groups: Jew, Christian & Muslim?” So–it became clear to me that this is a topic that I must address.
Please understand from the outset that I do not in any way question the right of Israel to exist, disparage the enormous accomplishments of this modern nation, or question the right of Jewish people to a homeland of their own, where they can live in security. Nor do I claim that two trips and less than a month total in Israel/Palestine have made me any kind of expert on the current crisis. But I do know a bit about the Bible, and it is from that perspective that I intend, in my next blog (or two, perhaps) to address the issue of this land that three faiths call Holy, and to whom it belongs. Pray for me, and with me, please.