by Johnny Zokovitch
Director of Communications, Pax Christi USA
I arrived in Israel two days ago, flying into Tel Aviv after a short layover in Istanbul. I’m here as a member of a Pax Christi International delegation, one of thirty in my subgroup, but, altogether, over 150 representatives from approximately 50 countries. I’ll be here for the next two weeks and anticipate that when I have time to write, my posts will address some of what I am learning and witnessing while here. A good portion of my time will be spent with people from Muslim, Christian and Jewish backgrounds who are working together toward reconciliation and peace.
For the next 7-8 days, my time will be spent in the Occupied Territories, primarily in and round Bethlehem in the West Bank, which is also where I am staying. Today was my first full day and it was equally divided between visiting sites of religious and historical significance and meeting with local Palestinians to hear their stories of life under occupation.
Our guide this morning made an interesting connection between Joseph, the father of Jesus, and Palestinians living in the 21st century. The backdrop for his remarks was a visit to the Shepherds’ Field in Beit Sahour, the site traditionally associated with the biblical story of Jesus’ birth where shepherds were first alerted to the good news.
Our guide admitted to an affinity for Joseph and recounted some of the traditions, biblical and extra-biblical, which are attached to him. He noted that while Joseph was born in Bethlehem, the city of his family and his ancestry, he was forced to leave it at some point and make the move to Nazareth. People didn’t leave their family and place of birth very often; to do so meant losing much that gives you a sense of identity and security. He suggested that Joseph left for a reason that resonates with many people struggling today in Palestine: the search for work.
He further asked us to consider Joseph’s courage, how he took to himself a wife who was not carrying his child, protecting her from the prescribed punishment for adultery: death by stoning. He noted how such a choice circumvented the rules of society and religion, rules which Joseph grew up with and in which he would have been deeply indoctrinated. Yet he goes against those rules to protect Mary and the child she bears.
When Joseph has to make the return trip to Bethlehem, coerced because of the random policies of an unsympathetic empire, our guide implied that the reason Joseph takes shelter with his pregnant wife in a grotto, a cave, a stable for animals, is because his family has rejected him because of his choice to remain betrothed to a woman who is pregnant with a child not his own. The scandal of Mary’s pregnancy and then Joseph’s decision to remain with her–in addition to his leaving his hometown years before–would have been too much for a respectable family to understand or accommodate. So turned out from his family’s care and their ancestral residence, he takes refuge in the stable with Mary, on the verge of giving birth.
Shortly after Jesus’ birth, Joseph will lead his family into exile, fleeing the wrath of a king’s power, and then have to uproot his family again in several years and return to Jerusalem. Such journeys would have meant days of walking, relative insecurity and great risk.
As our guide is relating all of this to us, I am remembering too that in all that Joseph had to face– throughout our scriptural stories–he never speaks, facing all of these hardships with a silent stoicism oriented only toward the protection of his family.
As the day continues, I return to our guide’s assertion that the story of Joseph resonates with the plight of Palestinians today, especially those whose ancestral religion is Christianity. We heard from students at Bethlehem University—Muslim and Christian young people—who shared stories of the daily indignities faced living under occupation: from the constraints on movement (checkpoints, a separation wall, laws and policies restricting travel) to the monitoring of their communication for subversive speech (on social media like Facebook for instance) to high unemployment and economic hardship from both lack of opportunity and lack of control over their own natural resources (like water).
Joseph had to live with the capricious decisions and oppressive actions of powers far greater than himself. The stories we heard from ordinary Palestinians—like the young woman at Bethlehem University who is the third generation of her family to be raised in a refugee camp or the curator of a new museum highlighting the contributions of Palestinians throughout history—show deep similarities to what life must have been like for the biblical Joseph and his young family. The people we met today live on the same land as Joseph did, and they know first-hand how little is different for them today, two millennia later.