Text and Photos by: Erin Hempstead
From January 19th through January 31st a group of CTU students, professors, staff, and additional travelers formed a unique group of Christian, Muslim and Jewish participants to make up the Abraham’s Children trip to Israel and Palestine. Together, we explored important holy sites in the Islamic, Jewish and Christian traditions, witnessed many people and groups involved in intra and interfaith dialogue, heard voices of those affected by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and experienced a small taste of the complexity, and richness of the culture, religions and history of this ancient land. The trip made visible the many walls and borders that separate us as people, as well as the potential for transformation when we have the opportunity to cross borders and enter into authentic relationship with the other. We not only observed these bridges being built through dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, but also experienced this dialogue first hand through the relationships formed amidst our group. By participating in this trip we formed rich friendships across many borders and became one through the journey we made together. Below are a few photos from our time together.
Visiting the Western Wall, the holiest site of Judaism, provided us the opportunity to connect and pray with millions of others who have touched the remains of the 2nd Temple’s retaining wall, leaving notes and prayers to God. Throughout the trip we had the chance to touch concrete symbols of each faith’s tradition. Due to the importance of these places to so many people all over the world, however, they are also fraught with tension. We learned that at the Western Wall, for example, an area for prayer once shared by men and women, is now separated by gender. An organization called Women of the Wall, led by Jewish women from around the world, works for women to have the right to wear prayer shawls and read the Torah aloud at the wall in the same way that men are allowed. They engage in action for a pluralistic, integrated section of the wall.
Each day while in the Old City of Jerusalem we walked through the bustling streets and open-air markets, exploding with smells, colors and goods for sale. Meandering through the souk in the Muslim Quarter was a sensory overload entailing delicious freshly pressed pomegranate juice, the chance to eat local dates, and bargaining for items for sale.
The al-Haram al-Sharif is one of the holiest sites in Jerusalem and is an important holy place for all of the Abrahamic traditions. Below the dome lies the rock where tradition holds that Abraham was ready to sacrifice his son. Also, from this rock, during his midnight journey, the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) also ascended into heaven. We had the privilege to tour the al-Haram al-Sharif with Professor Mustafa Abu Sway, a professor of Islamic philosophy from al-Quds University in East Jerusalem.
We visited the tomb of Rabia of Basra, an 8th century, female, Mesopotamian, Islamic Sufi mystic whose life, poetry, and writing continue to inspire many centuries later. Despite being sold into slavery as a young woman, a life, which included physical and sexual abuse, Rabia became a spiritual leader and mystic poet with a deep spiritual connection with God. Her tomb celebrates the gift of her life and the timeless, transcendent works of this strong female spiritual leader.
“When God said, “My hands are yours,
I saw that I could heal any creature in this world;
I saw that the divine beauty in each heart
Is the root of all time and space.” – Rabia of Basra
“And to them will I give in my house and within my walls a memorial and a name (a “yad vashem”)… that shall not be cut off.” Isaiah 56:5
Yad Vashem, a Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, seeks to preserve the names and voices of the millions of victims of the Shoah. Visiting Yad Vashem in Israel is a unique and powerful experience in a place so deeply affected by the horrors, loss and memories of this atrocity. After visiting Yad Vashem, we also had the opportunity to celebrate a Shabbat service at a reform synagogue and afterwards, rabbinical students celebrated a Shabbat dinner with us, leading us in singing and prayer.
Gethsemane contains a grove of olive trees, whose roots likely date back hundreds, if not thousands of years, due to the fact that olive tree roots are extremely resilient and difficult to kill. Their soil is broken and rocky, but they are strong and durable, continuing to give off fruit and new life. The interplay of brokenness and new life in the image of the olive tree, its roots and soil, provided a powerful symbol of the Passion and resurrection of Jesus.
The Israeli- Palestinian conflict was a focus of our trip and the wall a poignant image of the deep and concrete divisions between the Israeli and Palestinian people. The massive concrete wall in the photo above is a section of the separation barrier built by Israel starting in 2002. The wall, planned to extend 430 miles at its completion, does not run along any internationally recognized borders, but rather much of it is built on occupied land. In 2004, the UN International Court of Justice declared that the wall was illegal, but its construction continues. In order to cross the wall to gain access to their land, work, religious sites and healthcare, Palestinians must obtain permits from the Israeli government and pass through checkpoints. The wall also surrounds certain communities, completely isolating them and destroying the social fabric of Palestinian life.
The growing number of Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory in East Jerusalem and the West Bank makes coming to a peace agreement increasingly difficult as the situation on the ground constantly changes even in the midst of peace negotiations. The settlements violate international law and further occupy the land and resources of the Palestinian people.
Students from Bethlehem University spoke to us about their lives, studies, and challenges of living in occupied territory in the West Bank. Bethlehem University, the first University established in the West Bank in 1973, developed as a result of Palestinians expressing their desire to study in their homeland. Today, despite 12 closures due to military orders, the university still provides education to thousands of Palestinians, the majority of whom are Muslim women. Nonetheless, access to quality education for the majority of Palestinians remains an enormous challenge. According to the Israeli non-profit, Ir Amim, in occupied East Jerusalem 84% of Palestinian children live below the national poverty line and of those with access to education, 40% will drop out by 12th grade.
Mahmoud Darwish, an internationally acclaimed Palestinian poet of the 20th century used his poetry to express the beauty and challenge of the Palestinian people and their struggle.
“We have on this earth what makes life worth living:
On this earth, Lady of Earth,
Mother of all beginnings and ends.
She was called Palestine.
Her name later became Palestine.
My Lady, because you are my Lady, I deserve life.”
– Mahmoud Darwish
In Galilee we visited a small town called Karmiel, where the Galilee Foundation for Value Education provides opportunities for Arab and Israeli youth to form relationships of trust and build community together through the arts, including a youth circus. Since circus routines require trust and non-verbal communication, it’s an opportune method for youth to work together. Youth between the ages of 7 and 17 performed for us, and without a doubt, our time with these young people was a highlight of the trip. Their joy, energy and performance put a smile on everyone’s faces and instilled hope for the future in our hearts.
While in Jerusalem and Bethlehem we heard many people tell stories of suffering and loss as a result of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. An Israeli man named Rami from a group called the parents circle, which works to unite Palestinians and Israelis to heal from their common experience of suffering, shared about his 14 year-old daughter who was killed by a suicide bomber. By his side sat a Palestinian woman named Aesha who shared the story of her brother, shot in the heart by an Israeli soldier who later died as a result of the complications. In Bethlehem, Fr. Marwan, a Palestinian Franciscan priest, recounted the murder of his brother, shot and killed by fellow Palestinians while driving from Jerusalem to Bethlehem because he was mistaken for an Israeli. Students at the University of Bethlehem expressed their pain and frustrations of trying to live life in the occupied West Bank, where basic freedoms and human rights elude them, and where they remain separated by a concrete wall and checkpoints. The challenges of working for peaceful resolution and reconciliation amidst this conflict are enormous, but none of the voices we heard would give up all hope. One morning from my bedroom window in Bethlehem, after spending a somewhat sleepless night wrestling with the many stories of pain and loss we heard, I woke up and saw a rainbow stretching over the whole town. The rainbow in the blue sky, rising above the dark clouds, was a message from God for me to bring back home, that even amidst darkness, brokenness and violence, beauty and hope can rise above.
Peace, shalom, salaam.