Vis­it­ing the ‘liv­ing stones’

The Church of England - - FRONT PAGE - By Mark Ire­land For more in­for­ma­tion about plan­ning an eth­i­cal pil­grim­age to Is­rael, visit http://www.chur­chofeng­­ter­na­tional-af­fairs/eth­i­cal-pilgri mages. aspx The Rev Mark Ire­land is Vicar of All Saints Welling­ton with Ey­ton, and an

A few days ago I was stand­ing in Pedu’ el, an Is­raeli set­tle­ment close to the bi­b­li­cal site of Shiloh, talk­ing to a Jewish set­tler, who had em­i­grated from the USA four years be­fore. He pointed to the sky­scrapers of Tel Aviv, clearly vis­i­ble on the coast, and said: “Now you can see why we can never let go of this place, which is part of Judea-Sa­maria, which God gave to my an­ces­tors.”

Two days later I was sit­ting across a ta­ble from one the PLO’s ne­go­tia­tors in their head­quar­ters at Ra­mal­lah. He pointed to a map and lamented that the con­tin­ued pol­icy of build­ing Jewish set­tle­ments in the oc­cu­pied ter­ri­to­ries, in con­tra­ven­tion of the Fourth Geneva Con­ven­tion, was stran­gling any hope of the two-state so­lu­tion en­vis­aged in the Oslo Peace Ac­cords signed 20 years ago. Both meet­ings were part of a re­mark­able study tour of Is­rael and Pales­tine ar­ranged by the Coun­cil of Chris­tians and Jews.

I had been to Is­rael be­fore, but this tour gave me a com­pletely fresh per­spec­tive, which will en­rich my preach­ing and my prayers. Our visit to Shiloh (home of the ark of the covenant for longer than it was in Jerusalem) re­minded me how many im­por­tant bi­b­li­cal sites are sit­u­ated in the West Bank, and rarely vis­ited by pil­grims. Ra­mal­lah is the place where Mary and Joseph re­alised they had lost the boy Je­sus, and is next to Bethel, one of the two shrines of the north­ern king­dom.

Meet­ing Pales­tinian Chris­tians was a high­light of our visit, and un­der­lined for me the im­por­tance of mak­ing sure that any pil­grim­age group doesn’t just visit the his­toric sites but meets the ‘liv­ing stones’ who have kept Chris­tian wor­ship and wit­ness alive for 2,000 years in the land of Je­sus’ birth.

Chris­tians in the oc­cu­pied ter­ri­to­ries feel very iso­lated, and any con­tact – even just an email – from Chris­tians over­seas is highly trea­sured. Vis­it­ing Beth­le­hem and Ra­mal­lah felt quite safe, with good in­fra­struc­ture and ho­tels. If each par­ish pil­grim­age chose to use Pales­tinian as well as Is­raeli ho­tels and guides it would give a mas­sive boost to the Pales­tinian econ­omy, and make it eas­ier to meet lo­cal Chris­tians, whose num­bers are fast de­clin­ing.

When I asked a Pales­tinian priest whether this emi­gra­tion was caused by the ef­fects of liv­ing un­der oc­cu­pa­tion or fear of Is­lamic rad­i­cals, he blamed the oc­cu­pa­tion, telling us what it was like to have one’s move­ment within the West Bank re­stricted by con­stant check­points, and by roads des­ig­nated for Is­raelis only.

Meet­ing the pro­fes­sor of mid­dle east­ern stud­ies at Tel Aviv univer­sity brought home to us that the state of Is­rael is a very tense so­ci­ety, with di­ver­gent views be­tween sec­u­lar and re­li­gious, be­tween the ul­tra­ortho­dox and other de­nom­i­na­tions, be­tween dif­fer­ent lan­guages. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, many re­alise the need for Is­rael to make friends quickly and to un­der­stand the cul­ture of its neigh­bours, and the univer­sity is pro­mot­ing the learn­ing of Ara­bic. How­ever the govern­ment is re­sis­tant to people in Is­rael learn­ing Ara­bic, even those who set­tle in the West Bank.

Our visit to one of the few re­main­ing tra­di­tional kib­butzim showed that in­di­vid­u­al­ism is in­creas­ingly a fea­ture of Is­raeli (as well as Bri­tish) so­ci­ety. Our host told us that most kib­butzim have been pri­va­tised, no longer shar­ing com­mon meals, pool­ing salaries or wel­com­ing vol­un­teers. In­ter­est­ingly, it is only those with a strong re­li­gious foun­da­tion which have man­aged to re­tain the tra­di­tional so­cial­ist com­mu­nity ethos.

A sear­ing morn­ing at the Holo­caust me­mo­rial at Yad Vashem helped me un­der­stand the deep-rooted in­se­cu­rity felt by Is­raelis – as did the Is­raeli on the Gaza bor­der cross­ing who pointed to his fore­arm and said. ‘Never will I al­low any­one to tat­too a num­ber there.’ And yet peace re­quires jus­tice. One of our tour group was a priest who has served in the Bri­tish army and is an ex­pert in hu­man rights law. He helped us to see the les­son from North­ern Ire­land - that both sides need to make huge com­pro­mises for peace, and also to con­front the dark side of their own his­tory.

Is­raelis have a deep fear of ter­ror­ism, yet acts of ter­ror were part of the birth pangs of the mod­ern state of Is­rael. Un­til hope is given to the des­per­ate people of Gaza it is un­likely that the long-suf­fer­ing res­i­dents of Shderot, on the Is­raeli side of the bor­der, will be able to face a fu­ture with­out the fear of rocket at­tacks.

As our un­for­get­table tour drew to a close, my mind went back to a bid­ding writ­ten at the en­trance to St Ge­orge’s Cathe­dral in Jerusalem: ‘Pray not for Arab or Jew, for Pales­tinian or Is­raeli, but pray rather for our­selves, that we may not di­vide them in our prayers but keep them both to­gether in our hearts.’

I had been to Is­rael be­fore, but this gave me a fresh per­spec­tive


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