by Judy Coode
Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns
Our first week in the Holy Land has whooshed by. We’ve talked with Palestinians (and a couple Israelis); processed along the separation wall; visited a hilltop of resistance (Tent of Nations) and a hilltop of community (Neve Shalom); prayed at the sites of Jesus’ birth, miracles, passion and death; and eaten a lifetime’s worth of hummus. We spent four days with friends and colleagues from Pax Christi sections around the world, learning about and discussing creative ways to fortify our shared work for peace.
Today (Monday, May 18) was spent almost entirely in Jerusalem, just across the separation wall from Bethlehem. We visited Jerusalem yesterday too, going to the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane. This morning, unlike yesterday, we had a long wait at the checkpoint in order to leave the Occupied Territories; both times, however, two heavily armed Israeli soldiers entered our tour bus and did a swift assessment down the aisle.
Yacoub, our tour guide, had encouraged an early rise in order to get in line to enter the Temple Mount compound before the crowds. After arriving at the site, we passed through a strict security check and crossed over a wooden bridge to enter the space sacred to Jews and Muslims.
The Dome of the Rock, one of Islam’s holy sites, is located at the spot where Jews believe Solomon’s temple stood; it’s one of several places where it’s believed Abraham took Isaac to be sacrificed. Solomon’s temple (where Jesus overturned the moneychangers’ tables) was destroyed in the year 66 AD; only the western retaining wall (“Wailing Wall”) remains, where Jews pray 24 hours a day. Past the western wall, on the Temple Mount, the Dome of Rock was built in the seventh century; the al-Aqsa mosque sits nearby.
The amount of sacred spaces, historical sites and famous landmarks that we have seen in the past week is almost overwhelming. The mind races – the gospels are alive. To know that this is exactly where Jesus and the disciples and all the holy women and men who we’ve read about all our lives walked and laughed and ate fills the heart.
What breaks the heart is that Jesus’ message of peace is still so hard to grasp in this space where he walked and preached. During our time at Temple Mount, a small group of Jews were walking around – which technically they’re not supposed to do, as they believe that the area is where the holy of holies resides and only the high priest can enter – and a swarm of Muslim men, women and children, circled them, shouting loudly while they shook their fists, “Allah akbar!” Israeli soldiers strolled next to the crowd.
This was just one of the small moments of tension, at a bit of a distance, which we have experienced this past week.
Today we also were able to see the pools of Bethesda, where, on the Sabbath, Jesus cured the lame man who picked up his mat and walked. The compound leading to the pools are filled with a beautiful garden and St. Anne’s church, which legend holds is the site of Mary’s birth.
At the ancient pools, Yacoub assured us, “This is an authentic site, guys, authentic site.” (He’s only said this about the Garden of Gethsemane and the Bethesda pools.) A Christian Palestinian who lives in Jerusalem, Yacoub (and our bus driver) has moved us around the West Bank and Jerusalem with ease; he’s read selected bible passages to enrich our understanding of what we are observing. Shepherding a group of almost 30 adults at different levels of physical endurance (with some who veer off into shopping at inopportune moments) is a taxing job, and he’s done it with humor.
After the pools, we walked up the Via Dolorosa, which is pretty strenuous even without carrying a cross, visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (the site of Jesus’ death) and then enjoyed lunch in the Armenian section of the old city.
After seeing the ancient sites, we met with Ruth, a young activist with the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. She gave us a fervent talk on the ongoing human rights abuses committed by the state of Israel against its Arab/Palestinian residents and strongly encouraged support of the BDS (boycott-divestment-sanctions) campaign. (Even though the U.S. “has the worst foreign policy,” she told us, she’d love to live in the U.S. “It’s really 50 different countries, isn’t it?” she said. “No one ever explains that.”)
Our visit with Ruth was followed by one last meeting, with Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann with Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR). Founded in 1988, RHR attempts to educate the Israeli public about human rights violations committed by the state and “gives expression to the traditional Jewish responsibility for the safety and welfare of the stranger, the different and the weak, the convert, the widow and the orphan.” Rabbi Grenimann spoke with us for over an hour, explaining his personal zionism (“Small z, not big”) and his hope that the country he loves can live up to the democracy that it claims to promote.
To be honest, this week has been exhausting. We’ve seen more than we imagined, heard more information than we can process, and walked for miles. But it’s been a tremendous blessing to be present in this land, in this space, and we know the spirit has accompanied us.