Rich­mond group re­turns home days be­fore blood­shed in Gaza

Sem­i­nary vis­ited Holy Land at ‘tense and volatile time’

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - NATION & WORLD 2 - BY MICHAEL O’CON­NOR mo­con­nor@timesdis­ (804) 649-6254

Union Pres­by­te­rian Sem­i­nary stu­dent Linda Kurtz was walk­ing the streets of Jerusalem last week when she heard what sounded like the call-and-re­sponse shout­ing of a protest.

Kurtz came upon hun­dreds of Is­raeli chil­dren in sim­i­lar shirts wav­ing flags in cel­e­bra­tion of the 70th an­niver­sary of Is­rael’s found­ing. She was struck by how in­vested these school-aged chil­dren were in the le­git­i­macy of their coun­try.

“There was such a charged emo­tion in that,” said Kurtz, who was in Is­rael with other stu­dents on a study abroad trip.

Union Pres­by­te­rian Sem­i­nary has been ex­plor­ing the con­tem­po­rary ten­sions of the Mid­dle East and its an­cient re­li­gious sig­nif­i­cance for decades with bi­en­nial trips that bring stu­dents, pro­fes­sors and alumni to the Holy Land. But this year’s del­e­ga­tion saw more than its share of strain over the course of three weeks lead­ing up to the worst one-day to­tal of ca­su­al­ties since the 2014 Gaza war.

The Union group re­turned state­side Fri­day. On Mon­day, about 60 peo­ple were killed and more than 2,000 were wounded when Is­raeli se­cu­rity forces opened fire on Pales­tinian pro­test­ers in Gaza.

“We were over there at a par­tic­u­larly tense and volatile time,” said Union Pres­by­te­rian pro­fes­sor Sa­muel L. Adams, who first vis­ited Is­rael in the 1990s when there was op­ti­mism the Oslo Ac­cords would bring peace. “It’s true that the con­flict is long-stand­ing, but I think we sensed more frus­tra­tion than we had in pre­vi­ous trips on the part of those we met on the ground.”

The group went to Is­rael, the West Bank and Jor­dan over the course of the visit, which was de­signed to teach par­tic­i­pants about the geog­ra­phy and his­tor­i­cal con­text of an­cient Is­rael and the places where Je­sus is be­lieved to have lived and had his pub­lic min­istry. The groups also study the con­tem­po­rary com­plex­i­ties of the Mid­dle East in all its beauty and peril, Adams said.

The is­sues fu­el­ing re­cent vi­o­lence were hard for the Union Pres­by­te­rian Sem­i­nary vis­i­tors to ig­nore.

There were the signs in Is­rael cel­e­brat­ing the United States’ con­tro­ver­sial re­lo­ca­tion of its em­bassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, emails from U.S. of­fi­cials ad­vis­ing in­creased cau­tion in the wake of a rocket fire ex­change be­tween Is­rael and Iran, and the news that Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump pulled Amer­ica out of the Iran nu­clear agree­ment.

At the street level, Pales­tini­ans and Is­raelis hoped for calmer times even as they ap­peared less likely to be com­ing.

“One of the re­frains we heard from both Is­raeli Jews and Pales­tini­ans was real doubt that the mov­ing of the em­bassy is go­ing to pro­mote peace and safety,” Adams said. “One of the re­frains we heard is that it will ex­ac­er­bate ex­ist­ing ten­sions.”

The Union Pres­by­te­rian Sem­i­nary group didn’t visit Gaza be­cause it was too dan­ger­ous, and in gen­eral, there’s less free­dom of move­ment than the West Bank, Adams said.

The U.S. State Depart­ment is­sued a travel ad­vi­sory in Jan­uary ask­ing peo­ple not to visit Gaza due to “ter­ror­ism, civil un­rest and armed con­flict,” and to re­con­sider trav­el­ing to the West Bank for sim­i­lar rea­sons.

Adams said the group heard poignant and can­did as­sess­ments of the re­gion from a Chris­tian Pales­tinian, a rabbi who lives in a West Bank set­tle­ment and a Pales­tinian from Beth­le­hem.

“There’s a real de­sire for con­nec­tion at the lo­cal level in many com­mu­ni­ties, and yet the bar­ri­ers of sep­a­ra­tion and the po­lit­i­cal and re­li­gious di­vi­sions of­ten get in the way of mu­tual un­der­stand­ing,” Adams said.

Adams said what doesn’t come across in me­dia cov­er­age of the Mid­dle East are the dif­fi­cul­ties many Pales­tini­ans face when it comes to move­ment, job op­por­tu­ni­ties and re­stric­tions on their free­dom. He said it also was im­por­tant to note that many Is­raelis still live in fear of sud­den vi­o­lence.

Union do­nates to groups in the West Bank and Jerusalem in hopes of bol­ster­ing those re­la­tion­ships.

“It’s not just ed­u­ca­tion,” Adams said. “It’s also build­ing part­ner­ships.”


A stu­dent at Union Pres­by­te­rian Sem­i­nary in Rich­mond took this photo of a check­point in Beth­le­hem that was built in 2004.



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