My prayer

•January 21, 2010 • Leave a Comment

There are many things I would like to add regarding our trip to Israel/Palestine, but I will add them when I return and have time that is not being devoted to being present to this place.  I would like to add for now, my parting prayer that comes from Christian Aid.

Let us pray not for Arab or Jew,

Nor for Palestinian or Israeli.

But let us pray for ourselves,

That we may not divide them in our prayers

but keep them both together in our hearts.

Sarah Brown


Final Words

•January 20, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Notice that my title is not “Final Thoughts” or “Final Reflections,” because it is not going to be possible to stop thinking about this land and reflecting about its people any time soon. I think I’m going to need at least two or three days to be able to start articulating what actually happened to me while being here. Body, spirit, head and heart are filled to the brink and over it, trying mechanically to sort out what goes where and how to make sense of a human and political situation that no one has yet been able to figure out. Though only three weeks were spent here, it feels more like three months, with three years worth of experience with all the various viewpoints we attended. Because many of our days went ten to twelve hours long of being on program, all the time that the brain psychologically needs to process will have to be taken at home, replaying what I saw, thought, and felt. So if you see me enter the country in a catatonic state of blankness, please know that I am not in a coma–I am merely trying to somehow sort this phenomenon called Israel somehow into a newly nuanced mental and theological framework.

There are so many deeply impressed moments that come like flashbacks: placing a written prayer between the stones at the Western Wall on Shabbat; listening to a Machsum Watch representative (Israeli women who monitor checkpoints) pour her heart out in her failing quest for hope; getting permission to get up onto al-Aqsa/Temple Mount and into the Dome of the Rock; praying at Shepherd’s Field, where the angels spoke to the shepherds about the coming of the Lord; looking out at Jerusalem from the roof of the Holy Sepulcher (the site of the empty tomb of Christ); shaking the hands of both a Grand Mufti Sheik muslim and an Eastern Orthodox Patriarch christian; seeing the desert cliffs and burning my eyes in the Dead Sea; meeting and conversing with Avram Burg; giving up my bus seat for an older Arab woman (I always wanted to do that); Keas (who’s a self-avowed pacifist) looking at the Israeli soldier checking our passports and telling her, “Nice gun.”; walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee and picking age-old shattered potshards out of the beach; choking on the stale tension of the hatred and poor quality of life in Hebron; conversing in Spanish to an Italian pilgrim named Luigi at the Church of the Nativity (where Jesus was born) because it was the only language I knew close enough to Italian; countless sensemaking debriefs along the way with Professor Charry; sharing fresh orange juice in Ronny and Epiphany’s shop in Bethlehem; hardcore haggling with a pushy cab driver named Adli; witnessing how obtrusively the separation barrier/wall interrupts the lives of the Palestinians; and living this whole experience with some very amazing and diversely minded classmates. 

I am not coming home with a definitive solution about the Arab-Israeli conflict, religious relations, or peace on earth. I came to the Holy Land with an open mind to receive whatever lesson the land had to teach me. What happened was a wild ride into the finest moments of hope and faith, but also into the darkest shadows of hatred and despair. I come back home with experiences of humanity and emotions, not facts and arguments. Ultimately, the only way to understand these abstractions is to witness this land for yourself. If you can’t do that, please do the human beings who live in Palestine and Israel the justice of hearing our testimony as we return home as ambassadors for them. Many of them cannot speak for themselves, and ignorance to the situation here is one of their biggest obstacles to peace. The Middle East is a microcosm of humanity–how we come out here will be the story of our time.

I part with two images: the first is a special kind of black bird at the Masada wilderness which would fly up to you, and then jovilly “hang out” with you just outside of your personal space, bouncing around unintrusively yet playfully. The second is a crow I saw attacking another crow on a vacant field. The first image reminded me of how God’s creatures could live together and enjoy each other’s beauty, while leaving each other in peace, respecting each other’s space. The second reminded me of how humanity over here is constantly devising new strategies to rip each other to pieces. While in Israel, we witnessed both phenomena. Neither Jews, Muslims, nor Christians have any monopoly on one or the other.     

~Ryan Landino

A Pilgrimage (of Many Sorts)

•January 18, 2010 • Leave a Comment

(Disclaimer: This entry was written for my personal blog. The views here are not those of Princeton Seminary, but of one of its students.)

I’ve come to the Holy Land with two goals. First, to experience the story of Jesus in a whole new way by walking in his footsteps. Second, to delve deeper into the Israeli/Palestinian conflict by seeing it for myself. What I’m discovering, however, is that these two goals are more inextricably woven together than I had previously thought.

Thousands of people pilgrimage every day to Bethlehem where Jesus was born. The same is true for Galilee, where he performed miracles, and Jerusalem, where he was crucified. Yet to truly walk in the footsteps of Jesus means more than simply visiting the places he lived. It means walking in the way of Jesus – living the way he did and being about what he was about. Following the Via Dolorosa must include appropriating Jesus’ concern and passion for justice to our own times…and that’s why I find it impossible to stand by and do nothing while Palestinians are being oppressed.

The history of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is highly complex and complicated. Both sides have committed injustices against the other and both are responsible for much bloodshed. Yet there’s no skirting the fact that the creation of Israel in 1948 went hand in hand with the destruction of more than 400 Palestinian villages. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced to become refugees and exiled from their land, never to return.

In the aftermath of the 1967 War, Israel grabbed even more land. Their expansion continues today through Israeli settlers taking over more Palestinian territory despite this being against international laws. In a meeting in 1998, then Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon gave his fellow Israelis this advice: “Everybody has to move, run and grab as many hilltops as they can to enlarge the settlements because everything we take now will stay ours. Everything we don’t grab will go to them.”

It’s quite obvious after being here that Israel is trying to create a situation on the ground (i.e., the 149 Israeli settlements and 100 outposts) that makes it impossible for a future Palestinian state to be formed.

We Need Bridges, Not Walls

I’ve sat with Palestinian refugees and listened to their stories. I’ve shared meals in their homes and heard what it’s like to live under Israeli military occupation. And I’ve seen firsthand the myriad of ways the Israel’s government makes life difficult for the Palestinian people.

Take for example the giant wall – 26 feet high in some places – that Israel built to separate itself from the West Bank. Eighty percent of the wall is built on Palestinian land; it’s simply one more way to grab land. The Israeli government claims the wall is for “security,” yet has nothing to say to the thousands of Palestinians that are now separated from their families and workplaces. It’s no wonder that posters at protests say, “Open your eyes, this is apartheid!”

On this particular day (pictured below), I waited nearly an hour when returning from visiting friends in the West Bank. Every morning, 2,000 Palestinians have to get through this checkpoint in Bethlehem. (There are 46 other checkpoints in Palestinian territory.)

Banksy, a British graffiti artist whose identity remains unknown, has been one of my favorite graffiti artists for a while. His concealed identity is one more reason I like him; it’s the exact opposite of artist-celebrity-stardom like that of Andy Warhol. His paintings are done mainly with stencils and are filled with political satire and social critique.

In 2006, he created a series of nine pieces on the wall separating the West Bank, and I’ve been able to track down most of them while here. These murals are poignant commentary on the ethics of wall-building and the plight of the Palestinians. He later issued this statement on his website: “The segregation wall is a disgrace…The possibility I find exciting is you could turn the world’s most invasive and degrading structure into the world’s longest gallery of free speech and bad art.”

Banksy also offered two snippets of conversations with an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian who happened upon him while he was in the process of creating the graffiti art on the separation wall in Bethlehem.

Soldier: WTF are you doing?

Me: You’ll have to wait til it’s finished

Soldier (to colleagues): Safety’s off

The conversation with the old Palestinian man didn’t go much better.

Old man: You paint the wall, you make it look beautiful.

Me: Thanks

Old man: We don’t want it to be beautiful, we hate this wall, go home.

As my friend Mary Knapp says, “Art cannot make the ugly beautiful, only more interesting or tolerable.”

Collective Responsibility

As Americans, we’re deeply enmeshed in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict whether we want to be or not. Israel’s military – the fourth most powerful in the world – is largely funded by U.S. tax dollars. One quarter of all foreign aid given away each year by the United States goes to Israel, almost all of which is then spent on the nation’s army. We’re fooling ourselves if we think this is just an issue of “those people over there in the Middle East.” Woven into the fabric of this conflict are the stars and stripes of our own flag.

Furthermore, many Christian leaders in America pour fuel on the flames of this strife by giving theological justification for Israel’s unmitigated military might. They grossly misinterpret the promises of the Bible to demand that the Jews be given the land regardless of generations of Palestinians who have been living there. These theologians and preachers fail to realize that Jesus’ mission has to do not with taking over the Holy Land and pushing others out, but with bringing the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. No theology can call itself “Christian” while legitimizing the ethnic cleansing and displacement of people groups.

I have many Jewish friends back home, and I’ve met some wonderful Jews while here. In fact, I had lunch today with two rabbis-in-training. My issue is not with Jews but with the occupation and expansion. As the Palestinian theologian Naim Ateek has said, “I am not pro- this people or that. I am pro-justice, pro-freedom. I am anti-injustice, anti-oppression.”

Anti-Semitism has been called the world’s longest hatred, and it’s still very real today. I have much concern for the Jewish people – and that’s one more reason I must speak out against the Israeli occupation and treatment of the Palestinians. Israel is surrounded by Arab countries, and the more the conflict escalates, the more endangered Israel’s future becomes. Here are the words of Israeli peace activist Gila Svirsky: “We cannot be a light unto the nations while we are still an occupying power. If you really care deeply about Israel, you’ll care about its soul, and it soul is being eaten away by the occupation. So if you want to be a really good friend of Israel, end the occupation.”

As an undergraduate, I studied with the Jewish theologian Marc Ellis. In a recent book on Jewish identity and the State of Israel, he writes, “In the truth of potential mutual destruction are the seeds of possibility and the hope of moving into an engaged struggle on behalf of the history of the Jewish and the Palestinian peoples. To seek to escape such destruction is not weakness, lack of political maturity, or even self-hate; it is a call to use power morally.”

A Toast to the Prophetic King

I felt it fitting to post this entry on the day we celebrate and honor our nation’s greatest public prophet. Martin Luther King, Jr., aroused a whole country’s conscience with his tenacious spirit and acts of civil disobedience. One of the reasons King has been a hero of mine is that his ministry was a combination of resistance and reconciliation. Involved in both the civil rights movement and the peace movement, Dr. King understood that there can be no peace without justice, and no justice without peace.

I think if Dr. King were around today, he would have much to say about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict – and America’s role in all of it – for he believed in the indivisibility of justice, meaning that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice anywhere.” He wouldn’t be able to stay silent as long as Palestinians are deprived of their basic human rights and treated as second-class citizens.

A few days ago I took part in a protest against new Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem. The Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood has been historically an Arab area, but over the last two years the Israeli government has evicted most of the Palestinian families living there and allowed Israeli settlers to take their place. Though the United Nations has condemned these actions, the government refuses to give the Palestinians back their homes.

Toward the beginning of the protest, a reporter from an Italian newspaper asked if she could interview me. She wanted to know why an American was protesting on behalf of Palestinians. I told her that despite the complexity of the conflict, I think it’s clear that there’s an apartheid taking place in this land. Israel has all the power here and needs to be held accountable for how it uses that power, and that’s why I’ve come out today – to have solidarity with my Palestinian sisters and brothers, and to let the Israeli government know that the whole world is watching.

As the protest went on, a large group of Israeli policemen – who looked no different from Israeli soldiers – began to gather across the street. Though our protest was of a nonviolent, peaceful nature, they announced on a megaphone that we had five minutes to disperse before they would start using force. The video below shows what took place a few minutes later.

At their sergeant’s command, the policemen rushed across the street and began arresting protesters and shoving them into a van. In the end, 15 people were arrested, including Hagai Elad, the director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. None of the internationals were arrested. I think Dr. King would be pleased that nonviolent acts of civil disobedience are exposing the unjust and inhumane policies of the Israeli government.

I also want to say a word about the Kairos Palestine Document that was drafted in Bethlehem last month by a group of Palestinian theologians. The twelve-page document deserves to be mentioned in this discussion of King’s legacy, for it resembles in many ways the “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” The Document states boldly that the Israeli occupation is a sin against God. Here is the quote in full:

“We also declare that the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land is a sin against God and humanity because it deprives the Palestinians of their basic human rights, bestowed by God. It distorts the image of God in the Israeli who has become an occupier just as it distorts this image in the Palestinian living under occupation.”

Christians around the globe, not least those in America, would do well to sit down and read slowly through the Kairos Document. Perhaps you’ll send it to your small group and your pastor. I’d encourage you to discuss it with your friends, especially point 6 titled, “Our word to the Churches of the world.” Henry David Thoreau said that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.

Continuing the Pilgrimage

My pilgrimage to the Holy Land has only begun. I plan on continuing to learn from the enduring resilience and faith of the Palestinians long after I’ve returned home. I also want to keep dialogue open with the Israelis I’ve met, and try to see the situation from their perspective. And I hope to create more nonviolent ways to continue protesting, and to develop personal and corporate practices (such as divestment and boycotting Israeli products) that oppose the oppressive occupation.

This is what it means for me to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and carry his message forward. It’s a grave mistake to separate the spiritual and the political when reading the Gospel stories, and it’s equally a mistake to separate the spiritual and the social responsibilities that come with following Jesus today in a world ridden with strife and injustice.

And let me add that this pilgrimage ought to include weeping over Jerusalem as Christ did, weeping both for the pain and misery of the Palestinians and the constant fear that the Israelis live in.

As long as the Israeli government fragments the West Bank (through settlements and discriminatory policies) in a concerted effort to eventually expel all Palestinians from its borders, we must protest, resist, and struggle on behalf of our Palestinian sisters and brothers.   – Keas Keasler

High and Low Places

•January 18, 2010 • Leave a Comment

The last couple of days have taken us to some very, very special places, Masada and Qumran included. However, there are two that were particularly special: one high, one low.

The high place is the holiest site in the world for Jews (and probably for some Christians), and the third holiest site for Muslims. A couple of weeks ago, we visited the Western Wall at the Temple Mount, which is the closest part of site to the Holy of Holies and actual stone from the Second Temple. But…above it was the famous golden Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque of the Temple Mount courtyard, which has been under Muslim control since Saladin took control of Jerusalem in the 12th century. We were allowed into the holy site as Christian theologians. It cannot be understated how rare it is that any non-Muslim can have access to the top of the Temple Mount. The Muslim professor who guided us said he rarely ever had the opportunity to take groups. Even some Jews regard the place as too holy to enter. But under Jordanian official escort, we were given admission. The women had to cover their shoulders, arms, heads, and hair, and we all had to take off our shoes. Our escort moved us along briskly, as we were between prayer times while others were still inside praying. As the Muslims take no issue renovating their holy sites, the Dome of the Rock was under construction inside, but everything else was as prestine as it would have looked in the Middle Ages. Here is precious footage of us visiting the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock.

Our low place is actually the lowest dry land on the face of the planet–the Dead Sea. The reason it’s called the Dead Sea is because nothing can grow there–the expansive sea (actually a sea, unlike the Sea of Galilee), is about 9 times saltier than the ocean. If you can imagine smooth rocky deserts guiding water down into a basin for tens of thousands of years, and then imagine those waters receding (since early 1900’s, about a meter a year), you can get a sense of how salty the water is going to be. The effect is that it is impossible to sink. The thick, oily water makes you bob in the water like a barrel. Of course, I had to go in. How can I describe it? It was like lounging on an inflatable raft, just below the water. You can stretch your arms and legs out as wide as possible and you will lay flat on the water like a dragonfly on a pond. The water will roll you around until you balance out–I had a fun time backstroking with my right arm and freestyling with my left, spinning around and round as I cruised through the water. Unless you want to bob uncontrollably, you swim with either your arms, or your legs, but not both. With 33% salinity compared to the ocean’s 8% (if my math is off it’s because I got it from Wikipedia), you can imagine what it is like to get water in your eyes. This happened to me twice. The first time I dove with my head under. Imagine diving into a vat of olive oil and trying to wipe your eyes. Now, imagine getting shot in the eyeballs with flaming arrows, with nothing can pull them out, and the only fluid available to squelch them out is lamp oil. That’s what it feels like. Add in some sharp rocks on the shore and…well, if you didn’t have a cut going into the water, you certainly felt one coming out. To be honest, my adrenaline was so high from excitement, I didn’t feel the inch-long cut on my big toe until I came out of the water and calmed down a little. It hurt, but not nearly as bad as the eyes. I risked going in with contact lenses and was shocked that they didn’t dry up and fall out. I was even more shocked that I didn’t wake up the next morning blind. Hopefully, this should be one of the more enjoyable vids I’ve posted. Thanks Melisa for taking the camera while I took the plunge. Here is us enjoying the Dead Sea:

~Ryan Landino

Videos from Galilee

•January 16, 2010 • Leave a Comment

-insert edition-

[I previously had a video up of some of us climbing into a decommissioned Jordanian tank at a gas station in completely Israeli Galilee, set aside as a kind of playground. Against my own resistence, I have removed the clip. I have two internal voices screaming at me while I do so. The first is shouting that the clip may be misunderstood as us glorifying violence and making play out of a death machine–gun noises and laughter in the same moment are inappropriate. My other voice (which HATES censure) is begging me to put the clip back up because of how movingly it reveals a world that we just do not understand at home, where tanks painted in Israeli colors are exciting symbols of a new nation and the defense of its people, whereas from the perspective of many, a tank like this one has saved human lives. Somewhere between these two voices was the hope that the raw video clip would show a glimpse of what this land is actually like, where horrifying images to us are simply part of normalcy over here. So, again, with groaning, I am removing this clip with the sense that this might not be the best place for this kind of discussion (my two voices are screaming at each other again). In its proper context, my goal of posting this video might be properly understood. That this is an issue AT ALL is a testiment to how complicated this land really is, and a bunch of peace-loving seminarians willfully climbing into a tank is a microcosmic commentary of that reality. So voice number 1 says, “Please don’t be offended by our behavior in the video. We’ll remove it from the Princeton blog at once.” But voice number 2 says, “Watch it again. If this video made you uncomfortable, then good. That only means that you are still sane.”]   

-edition over-

This video is us climbing Mount “Rocky” Gilboa (the ancient Israelites didn’t give it this nickname, I did), which is in sight of Jordan right at the northern border of the West Bank. To fantasy lit nerds like me, the climb might best be described as Frodo and Sam climbing the stairs of Cirith Ungol. The way was slick and steep, and like the competitive Type-A’s we all are, we of course had to race up it. It usually isn’t this green here but we came during the rainy season, so we got to see some of the rare red and blue flowers that grow in Israel’s high country. In the valley below along the ridgeline is where Saul fought his numerous campaigns against the Philistines. 

This video is a skit that our guide Jared had written showing three different responses that Jews in antiquity had regarding the occupation of the Romans. We did this on a real 2,000 year old theater site at the ancient Roman capital of Israel. The ruins behind us were of a Jewish city that moved long ago to nearby Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee, where we stayed for three days. Super encore to Jen, Brenna, and Rachel for getting into character for us and performing on a stage over two thousands years old.

~Ryan Landino (special thanks to Melisa for helping me get these videos up)

Friday night/Saturday morning in Jerusalem

•January 16, 2010 • Leave a Comment

After visiting the Gethsemane Gardens and the holy sites on the Mount of Olives, Melisa, Denise and I watched the sun set on the Western Wall last night as the Jewish community began their weekly Shabbat.  This morning we transitioned into the “Muslim” Quarter, complete with a tour of the Temple Mount.  We are still in awe of our luck!  So few visitors are able to access the Dome of the Rock and the  Al-Aqsa Mosque these days, but Dr. Charry and her connections made it possible.

~Jen Strickland

Photos from the north

•January 16, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Some photos from our journey up north: Sea of Galilee, Church of the Loaves and Fishes Miracle, a handful of sand from the Galilee shore, view during our hike up Mount Gilboa, a group shot from the summit of Mount Gilboa, and a shot of a Bedouin village on our way back south.

~ Jen Strickland