The Holy Land?

October 16, 2014

As most of you know, there is little chance of getting any real sleep in the “economy seats” of an international airline. So I am still coming to terms with the time zone of Brisbane after three weeks in the Middle East. This makes it difficult to make sense of all that Heather and I experienced during this period of Study Leave. We toured Jordan and visited significant places of both Jewish and Christian history. We visited many important places in Israel, including the Dead Sea, the Jordan River, Jericho, Mt Nebo and Capernaum and sacred sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

While each place offered insights into my understanding of the biblical narratives they also confronted us with the complexity of the current political and religious realities of this place so many call “The Holy Land”. I want to offer some initial thoughts that might change on further reflection and more sleep.

In the book of Exodus we read the long and complex story of Moses leading the Hebrews out of oppression in Egypt towards the “Promised Land” of Canaan. Following the death of Moses, Joshua and Caleb led those who left Egypt into the land of Canaan, bravely conquering those who had been living there. Because we stand in the Judeo-Christian tradition we rejoice with the people of Israel and give very little thought to those who were displaced.

I suspect that many of us have the same emotional response to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. While many around the world celebrated the creation of the State of Israel following WWii because it provided a homeland for the Jewish people who had been displaced since 70AD, little thought was spared for the Palestinians who lost their homes. The international desire to address the terrible injustices experienced by Jewish people over centuries and then the absolute horror of the German holocaust made us minimise the impact on another people. However this new state displaced hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Christians and Muslims.

The Ayda Refugee Camp in Bethlehem is home to thousands of Palestinian refugees who have lived there for three and four generations. Our tour guide in Jordan grew up in a refugee camp outside Amman, but still holds onto his Palestinian citizenship in the hope that one day he may be able to return to the country of his birth.

Several times we encountered the confrontation between disgruntled Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim, who antagonized the Israeli Army who quelled their protests with tear gas. While we felt rather intimidated, locals we spoke with brushed it aside as an everyday occurrence that has been played out for years.

I felt great compassion for each of these groups of people who bear deep scars of suffering and injustice. I can understand the fear that the Israeli’s have that unless they keep tight control of their territory they may find themselves oppressed again. I felt sad for Christian Palestinians who have lived in Jerusalem for thousands of years who see their family and friends leaving the Holy Land because of the constant harassment by the Israeli army. I was also in awe of the Palestinian Muslims and Christians who persist with their lives even though their land is taken from them for more Israeli settlements that are illegal according to the International agreements signed by both Israel and Palestine.

The everyday Jews, Christians and Muslims want to simply get on with their lives, co-operating and supporting one another, yet feel powerless in the face of political leaders who pursue their own agendas. The international media reports of conflict has resulted in an 80% decline in tourism which is the source of income for so many in Jordan and Israel.

In the middle of these political battles there are thousands of devout believers in the God of Abraham who pray and work for peace. All the people we spoke with, Jews, Christians and Muslims asked us to support them and pray for peace in this special place on earth.

While I found I could walk on water at Galilee, I don’t have an answer to these deep seated protracted problems. Everyone we spoke with seemed convinced that the “two state solution” was the only way forward. There is widespread international agreement about two states, but there are regular breaches of these agreements makes its implementation impossible. Australia can help by urging both sides to abide by their agreements and speak out when breaches occur by either side. While Israel is allowed to regularly acquire more Palestinian land to build new settlements and build more walls of division peace will remain unachievable.

I look forward to sharing more of my learning’s with you over the weeks ahead. It is good to be home in a country that has found peaceful ways to address our differences with one another.