Richmond group returns home days before bloodshed in Gaza
Seminary visited Holy Land at ‘tense and volatile time’
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.