Jerusalem – a City of 3 Faiths and 2 Peoples.

Some of the most memorable conversations I have had here in Israel Palestine, have been at times when I really didn’t expect them. One of them was today.

I had arranged a meeting at a certain prominent museum in Jerusalem, (excuse me avoiding names – I don’t want to embarrass anyone). Many years ago I had conducted a funeral and been asked by the chief mourner to look after a bible he didn’t know what to do with – but felt it should be preserved. It was the bible General Allenby carried into Jerusalem in 1917. I said I would look after it and try to find a suitable place for it. In addition a friend of Mary’s when clearing out her home before moving into a smaller property had come across two old photo albums – taken by her husband while serving in the Roayal Air Force in Palestine in 1926 and 1927. The photos were fascinating- not the least those of the earthquake in 1927.

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The Golden Gate Jerusalem.

So this morning I took them to an Israeli museum in Jerusalem that I thought would value them. They were very enthusiastic and delighted with them. So much so that the person I first met with called another person to come and examine these items. We were left waiting for a quarter of an hour for the second person to come and we got talking. “What are you doing here?” So I described my work and where I lived and she was very interested. She indicated how the museum recieves funding from a British supporter that enables it to remain indipendent. She began to speak about how difficult archaeology is in Jerusalem – as a result of the right wing in Israel wanting to describe a history of Jerusalem that is entirely focused upon its Jewish history. I spoke about a lecture I had attended about the politicisation of archaeology in Israel. We discussed the issue and found total agreement between us, I hadn’t expected that! She then made the comment about the Israeli flag that flew over the museum, and how many of the staff were very unhappy about it, they wanted either a number of flags, or none at all!

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The Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem

Once again I was reminded of how easy it is for those of us working closely with Palestinians to forget that many people in Israel are very unhappy with the direction the right wing governments of Israel have been taking the country now for some twenty years. I remember Mary and I encountering a person at another Israeli museum who within a few moments of meeting us was saying “many of us in Israel despair at what our government is doing.”

I am left feeling very conflicted. On one side it was a great encouragement to hear an Israeli in a respected position being so candid about her views. On the other it leaves me feeling – if there are so many in Israel who are unhappy about the direction the country is going in – why doesn’t an effective opposition materialise in Israeli politics? As they would say in Palestine Inshalla!

 

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Inside the Dome of the Rock.

Though I have been onto the Temple Mount, Harem esh-Sharif, on many occasions, I have never before been inside the Al Aqsa Mosque or the Dome of the Rock buildings. The chance was given to me this morning. It was wonderful to see these amazing buildings but at the same time it also made it even more clear to me why this small part of Jerusalem is so sensative and why it has all the dangers of being the place where further terrible violece might break out as it did in 2,000 when the Second Interfada began here when the Israeli Prime Minister forcibly came here and many Muslims died.

Our guide told us that the whole Harem esh-Sharif area was in fact the Al Aqua Mosque as in the Koran the whole area was walked on by angels on the night when Mohamed visited Jerusalem and visited all the seven heavens in the one night. That visit and the presence of the angels makes this such an important site for Muslims. Muslims believe that the Rock beneath the Dome of the Rock, is the nearest point to heaven and that it was at this point that Mohamed ascended to the heavens.

The Dome of the Rock building is magnificent inside and out. The following is a slide show of it – including a photo of the rock itself.

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We then walked over to the building I have always called the Al Aqsa Mosque. There are apparently many names for it but the normal one is the Mosque of four walls. (Don’t ask me why!). The whole Haram esh-Sharif area remains under the control of Jordainian sovereignty, (though Israeli soldiers were very evident during our visit), and apparently there was open invitation for all to visit both the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque until and Israel extremist (posing as a priest in a visiting group) planted a bomb in the Al Aqsa Mosque. We were shown where the bomb had been placed. (I didn’t question this – I don’t think that Jews were openly allowed in). This was also the place where the a previous King of Jordan was assassinated.

Again a slide show of the mosque.

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As we left the mosque we saw heavily armed Israeli Soldiers clearing the area in front of the mosque. Soon it was evident why – a group of Israeli settlers were coming onto the Temptl Mount, with much security all around them. Our Palestinian guides suggested we kept well away in case of trouble.

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Two of the soldiers guarding the settlers.

 

 

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Group of Israeli settlers on the Temple Mount, heavily guarded.

It was a wonderful visit but also a start reminder of the sensitivity of the site.

 

Khan Al Ahman. Interfaith in action.

 

Khan Al Ahman is a Bedouin village alongside “route 1” from Jerusalem to Jericho. In the village is the world famous “Tyre School” where 160 Bedouin children are educated. For months now Khan Al Ahman has been at the centre of the complex politics of Israel Palestine. It’s location makes it a crucial battleground for those who wish to destroy any prospect of a Two State Solution to the Israel Palestine Conflict. The nearby (ileagal) Israeli settlements want to expand, but even if you accept the plans for their expansion (which I don’t), there is no need for these intended demolitions. The site for the additional units being planned is well away from this village and school.

At the Centre of this battle – which has been going on for years in the courts, and is now at a head as there is the prospect of demolition as soon as the courts have finished their deliberations – (the latest date for which is 10th August), are the 170 people who live in the village and 160 children who attend the school.

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The village of Khan Al Ahman in the Judean Desert.
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Bedouin Children and a volunteer at the Tyre School.

While the legal battles go on – there is a remarkable piece of Interfaith Co-Operation taking place. Friday prayers are a part of Muslim practice. They are now taking place in the village with hundreds of Muslims coming to pray in the village, but in solidarity with them there are a few Christians attending led by Father Abdullah (Gurion Bronella) Melkite Parish Priest in Ramallah. John McCulloch the minister at the Church of Scotland was there on Friday 27th July and I was there yesterday 3rd August.

The Iman leading the prayers is Sheikh Rajab Bayyud Tamimi who is a widely respected Muslim leader in the West Bank.

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Sheikh Rajab Bayyud Tamimi and Father Abdullah (Gurion Bronella) together before the prayers.

There were no translations available for what was being said, so I had to do my best with my limited Arabic to understand the address the Sheikh gave at the prayers. He invited Father Abdullah to sit by his side, and there was clearly very good relations between them. Then he spoke about the strategic significance of Khan Al Ahman and how it’s defence was crucial to the future of Jerusalem as a shared City of Jews Christians and Muslims. He made repeated references to the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and – as far as my Arabic allowed me – seemed to be saying that Netanyahu was only interested in a Jerusalem for Jews and wanted to exclude all other faiths, I think that he also made reference to the recently passed Jewish Nation State Bill that left non Jewish residents of Israel clearly as second class citizens. It was a rousing speech with many interruptions for applause. He clearly had the respect and agreement of his audience.

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The Key, the symbol of the “right of return” with Muslim medallions attached.

Before the prayers began (starting an hour and a half later than the announced time), I sat next to a Muslim man who was praying and reading the Koran. He held in his hand the key pictured above.

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The prayers in progress.

What the future is for Khan Al Ahman is very unsure, but the significance of this event with Christians and Muslims standing together in support of the Bedouin Palestinians is considerable.

We pray for Justice and Peace.

Changing images on the Wall.

The amount of interest there is about the Wall in Bethlehem and in particular the “Graffiti” on it means that now every day you seen many internationals photographing the images there. Some of the “graffiti” is in reality art work of considerable quality. Other items are crude and little more than visible impetuous rage.

I thought that I might illustrate this blog with some of the more recent art.

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The key – the symbol of the “right to return” is entangled with poppies, …remember.

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Ahed Tamini, this is one of the pieces of “Graffiti” that is really a work of art – whatever you think of the subject of the painting. It is a recent addition to the Wall and I hope that it won’t be defaced – it is beautifully executed. Ahed is most famous for the video in which she slapped an Israeli Soldier in the face after her cousin had been shot in the head. She comes from the West Bank town of Nani Salah.

The painting was done by two Italian artists who were arrested – given 72 hours to leave and given a ten year ban from Israel. This is one of the few occasions anyone has been apprehended for painting on the Wall (which is after all itself illegal under international law).

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Razan was the volunteer medical worker shot dead by Israeli soldiers in the Gazan demonstrations known as “The Great March of Return,” in May. She – and Ahed, have become symbols of the younger generation of Palestinians and their distinctive ways of resisting the ocupation. Razan was shot dead and three of her colleagues were also shot and injured in the same incident as they tried to give medical assistance to an injured demonstrator. The Israeli army has described the shooting as a “mistake.”

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This image is right alongside the picture of Ahed. I interpret the image as being of Ahed – represented as an angel, impriosoned, blindfolded and injured in her prison cell. Many in Israel will understand Ahed in a very different way to this.

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I am taking a risk with this image as I can’t be sure what the arabic says. I was told that it says “Peace,” but not reading arabic I can’t be sure. The image below the writing shows “idilic Palestine,” the prickly pear cactus is seen in almost every Palestinian village and in the fields it is used for hedging. Above the writing there is the red of fire, and destruction.

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Phrases like “We refuse to die” and “From the river to the sea Palestine will be free,” are understood very differently on the opposite sides of the Wall. Many Palestinians percieve the Israeli strategy as seeking the death of the Palestinian people as a people or national grouping. Some would go so far as to see the Israeli policy as one of gradually killing any Palestinians who resist their place as second class citizens of the land. Most Israelis would deny that there is any such policy, and see such a slogan as irrelevant and insulting.

The phrase  “From the river to the sea Palestine will be free,” Is seen in the West Bank as a rallying call for all who live in the land of Israel Palestine to have their human rights respected. Many have always resisted the idea of a “Two State Solution,” as it leaves (in their opinion) Palestinian citizens of the State of Israel as second class citizens. In Israel the phrase “From the river to the sea Palestine will be free,” is seen as a rallying call by Palestinians to destroy the whole State of Israel. The phrase is understood to be a denial of the right of Israel to exist.

Life is never dull by the Wall!

The Red Moon – in Palestine.

Last night there was an eclipse of the moon. Many parts of the world were able to see it – but Palestine was – apparently one of the best places for it! I joined about 400 Palestinians out in the desert to the east of Bethlehem to see it.

The event was organised by Astrologers for Palestine, a group representing people from across the West Bank who were keen on star gazing, and many joined them (like me) who were interested but ignorant on the subject. We gathered in a facility out in the desert, that is developing rather into a conference centre (though it has a way to go to get there as yet)! It is used for barbecues, for quiet days and for other group events. The numbers there on this occasion was probably the largest they had ever coped with.

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My colleague Kristen at the venue.

It was a great location for it – wonderful desert scenery and miles away from light pollution, though sadly the organisation didn’t best use the setting to its best – as they left on lights at the venue that weren’t needed and reduced our capacity to star gaze.

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The evening began with a series of lectures, in arabic, so I was at something of a disadvantage, though we did have a very kind translator who did her best. They had a projector rigged up and some of the slides and videos had English titles and that was a help. I did learn quite a bit from the lectures, probably illustrating how little I knew of the moon before!

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As the sun fell in the sky the light was fantastic. The photo above gives some idea of it. One of the things that I found fascinating about the evening was reflecting upon the context. Here were hundreds of, mostly young, Palestinians out watching an eclipse. It could have been people from Britain, America or for that matter Israel. Indeed SKYPE calls were made to other groups of people moon gazing elsewhere in the world. The image of young Palestinians doing this was so far removed from the constant media picture that still seems to present Palestinians, and especially young Palestinians, as terrorists. Oh that there could have been a meeting of people here that might have bridged the gap between so divided people. The context made it impossible – Israelis would have had to come into areas of the West Bank Israeli law doesn’t permit them to, or Palestinians would have needed permits. The system here keeps people apart.

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I reflected that this was one of the very few times that I had been to an event in Palestine and the occupation played no part. Something bigger was drawing us together – perhaps though it did play a part – as without the occupation this gathering might well have been Palestinians and Israelis together and might have worked towards a reconciliation.

The eclipse was magnificent, and the red moon great to see. Slide show of moon following!

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Haifa -Israel at its best?

I decided to take a day away and visit Hiafa. I’ve been there quite a few times before and have always liked it. It’s setting by the Mediterranean, under the heights of Mount Carmel, the splendid natural harbour. But also its people – of the cities of Israel I have visited (and that is most of them), Haifa is more diverse, more open, at the same time secular and intensely religious.

Four relgions, at least, make up its population. Jews, Drews, Muslims, Christians and to add further diversity the World Bahai Centre is located there. Yet in the shopping malls there are many fewer people dressed in “religious” clothing than in Jesualem. Churches, Mosques, Synagogues and temples stand alongside each other – and where as Mosques and churches are attacked in much of Israel – I have never heard of it in Haifa.

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The gardens of the World Bahai Centre.

I spent some time just walking the streets, it was hot but they all felt very safe. I caught a couple of busses to get to Stella Marris and see again the view I have enjoyed before.

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The view over Haifa from Stella Marris.

The World centre of the Carmalites is also there at Stella Marris and the church is a wonderful one>

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I walked down the cliff to Elijah’s cave – sacred to Muslims, Jews and Christians and was rather surprised to find it set out now as a synagogue, I visited it some years ago perhaps six or seven – and I don’t remember it set out in this way, men one side women the other.

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It’s a great city – a good day – Israel at its best!

Israel – A Jewish State?

For quite some time the Israeli Government has been discussing introducing a bill which would make Israel formally a Jewish State. While it has some way to go as yet, it has been in the news today here in Israel/Palestine as it has been voted for in the Kennesset by a narrow majority. There are a number of implications of the bill, Arabic would no longer be the second language of Israel, Jewish Holidays would become Israeli Holidays (at present those not wanting to celebrate the holiday for whatever reasons, are usually able to work, this would no longer be the case). More widely and less well defined – though probably more worrying is that all those who are not religious Jews would in various ways be disadvantaged, this would apply to the two million “Israeli Arabs” – as Palestinians citizens of the State of Israel are often called – as well as secular, often more left wing Israelis. Perhaps even more concerning is that the West Bank Settlements are refered to as “developments” and the act assumes an annexing of the West Bank – or at least some part of it (I am not clear on precisely how this would work, but it is clearly not envisaging a “Two State Solution).

From time to time I like to remind myself of the Israeli Declaration of Indipendence. It is increasingly difficult to see how the present Government of Israel can possibly say that it adheres to the principals of the Declaration. “It (The State of Israel) will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based upon freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”

It is so sad that Israel – that could have been a means for the enrichment of the whole Middle East has now for at least twenty years headed in a direction that leaves its Israeli Arabs as second class citizens, inspires other religions of the area to see Judaism as a threat to them, and destabilises the whole region of the Middle East. Of course Israel isn’t solely to blame, in part they have reacted to others, who then have reacted to them. We are in an increasingly vicious circle.

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Archbishop Elias Shacour with myself and a group from Queens Theological College.

Elias Shacour, pictured above is an Israeli Arab, has lived in Israel ever since the creation of the State and has dedicated his life to harmony between Jews and Arabs. His book “Blood Brothers” is a great read. I was with him recently and he described sadly, how much he is now a second class citizen of the country he calls home. This bill, and the pressure from the Israeli right to go further and further in this direction  he sees as a very sad indication of where the future at present seems to lie.

At its heart the problem lies thousands of miles away in the White House. The pressures have been here for years, but previous inhabitants of the White House have all placed a restraining hand upon the Israeli Governments that have wanted to make Israel an exclusively Jewish State, where other citizens are marginalised. President Trump has given a green light to the worst excesses taking place here, the killing of unarmed protesters, the speeding up of the expansion of settlements, the marginalising of Palestinians in Israel and the dehumanising of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

In articles, in this blog and in personal discussions I have argued before that religious states have no place in the twenty first century. For many years it has been clear that Muslim states discriminate against those who are not Muslim. Often they discriminate against people who from a different part of Islam. One of the major issues I found on my visit to Syria last autumn – was the question of the future of the Christian minority in Syria. Only the Assad regime shows any willingness to defend the Christians there. One of the major losers in Iraq after the fall of Salam Hussain was the Christian Community. I am equally opposed to a Jewish State as to an Islamic one. Having returned from Syria where I saw Christian icons defaced by ISIS I went a week later to Bet Jamal, near Bet Shemesh. There I saw stain glass windows in St Stephen’s Church, defaced in just the way ISIS had done to icons in Syria, but there is was extremist ultra Orthodox Jews who had caused the damage.