Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Second Dispatch: From Jerusalem and the West Bank

Today was a day of confusing contradictions and contradictory emotions. This morning our group visited the newly redone Yad Vashem holocaust museum. To say that it was moving would be to understate the matter in the extreme. The media savvy and interactive displays would capture the heart of all but the most committed anti-semites. Many in our group were reduced to tears at the power of the display. All agreed that it was significantly more gripping than the previous Yad Vashem.

This afternoon our group went through the somewhat harrowing experience of crossing the border from Israel to the West Bank to visit Bethlehem. Our Jewish hosts were unable to accompany us because it violates Israeli law. We heard earfulls about the problems with suicide bombers and the justifiable need for a fence (aka "the wall") to protect Israel's security as they left us off at the wall separating Israel from the West Bank.

The crossing involves navigating several security checks, fenced in passages, and through a door in a very imposing cement wall. The eerily cheerful sign on the Israeli side, posted courtesy of the Ministry of Tourism, wished us peace. The opposite opinion was expressed by murals on the Palestinian side calling Zionists the hypocritical oppressors of all free peoples (or there abouts).

Once on the Bethlehem side of the wall we met our Christian Palestinian hosts who were respectful, unctuous, and generally quite helpful. On the ride to Shepherd's Field (YMCA version) our driver filled us in on the political unrest. Yes, the populous was just as shocked by the Hamas landslide as we had been in the west. Indeed, as a Christian minority in Bethlehem (down from a once dominating 80% of the population just a few years ago), fears are rife that Hamas will impose Sharia law on the Christian community as well as the Muslim one. Our driver hoped that the fear will not drive more Christians out of Bethlehem.

After seeing Shepherd's Field and the Church of the Nativity (with Jerome's Grotto), we did the obligatory shopping trip in one of the local olive wood stores. There we heard even more of the angst of the Christian community, clearly suffering under the aftermath of the second intifada which drove away tourists in droves for more than four years, and the more recent relations with Israel over security issues.

Before you jump to the conclusion trendy with some socially conscious evangelicals that the issue is a simple one of Israeli oppression, you should have walked Ben Yehuda Street with some of us tonight. We went on a shopping expedition for Judaica souvenirs to take home in this spot popular with Israeli locals and tourists alike. In one store we saw the detritus of a suicide bombing: several ordinary metal nuts used as shrapnel in a war of terror on the population of Jerusalem. The store displayed the unlikely weapons intended to kill and maim. They were part of a blast that had blown out their window and scattered metal nuts like hand grenade fragments throughout their jewelry shop.

What side does one take? Do we stand up for the oppressed minorities in the territories, suffering grievously under the economic isolation created by Israel's sealing off of the borders? Or, do we understand Israel's justifiable right to exist and to defend itself in a dangerous world where some of its neighbors, even the heads of state, do not believe in their right to exist?

Our entourage of pastors keenly felt the pain of our Christian brothers in Bethlehem. Quite simply, they continue to exist only as we keep patronizing their shops and businesses. Yet, after experiencing afresh the horror of evil in the form of anti-semitism in its ugliest form, we also empathized with the need for Israel to seal its borders in order to reduce suicide bombings.

May an all wise and most merciful God preserve our sisters and brothers in the West Bank AND grant peace to Jerusalem.

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