Our Wednesday began with a visit with Reverend Naim Ateek (above), founder and head of Sabeel, a well-known institute that advocates Palestinian Chrisitian Liberation Theology. As readers of my blog might know, I’ve long been an admirer of Reverend Ateek’s theological writings. In particular, his work has informed and challenged my own thinking about the Jewish conception of the land and the dangers inherent in wedding religion to power. It was a great pleasure to finally meet Reverend Ateek personally and to introduce him to members of my congregation.
To my dismay, Ateek has been unfairly and relentlessly attacked by the American Jewish establishment – largely, I believe, because he does not shrink from illuminating the problems that come with the land-centric nature of Zionist ideology. For myself, I’ve learned much from Ateek’s suggestion that Zionism represents a kind of “Constantinian Judaism” – i.e., a fusing of Judaism with Empire.
Whether or members of the Jewish community agree with him or not, I believe it would greatly behoove us to enter in dialogue with Ateek and others in the Palestinian Christian community – and I told him as much during our meeting. At the very least, it is my sincere hope that there might be Jewish leaders actively participating rather than protesting during the next American Friends of Sabeel conference.
After our visit we were joined by Meirav Zonsztein, (above) an Israeli/American journalist/blogger/activist, who led us on a tour of East Jerusalem. We first stopped at Gilo, a prominent development located east of the Green Line southwest of Jerusalem. Gilo is emblematic of a settlement considered by most Israelis to be part of the Jerusalem municipality, but its ongoing expansion has been severely encroaching upon Palestinian neighborhoods in the area. Gilo is but one of Israel’s many settlement projects that renders a viable, contiguous Palestinian state that much more remote.
We also stopped at Silwan, an Arab neighborhood located alongside the City of David outside the Old City. Silwan is currently the focus of a bitter struggle between Palestinian residents and an Israeli government that seeks to create a greater Jewish presence in East Jerusalem. In this case, the attempt to drive Arabs from their home is occurring under the guise of Israel’s historical “claim” to Biblical Jerusalem.
What makes this situation particularly galling is Israel has handed over the management of the archeological excavations to Elad, a private Jewish organization that seeks to “reclaim” Biblical Jerusalem in order to pave the way for the rebuilding of the Third Temple. Most visitors to the City of David excavations have no idea that their entrance fees to this popular tourist site fund this religiously radical organization.
To make matters worse, the Jerusalem municipality now plans to create an archeological park that will further decimate the Arab population of Silwan. According to a recent article by Israeli academic/activist Alice Shalvi,
The plans call for the demolition of 22 houses in the area, which the city claims were built without the necessary permits. (Ironically, the illegally constructed multi-story Beit Yonatan which towers above the overcrowded hovels of the village has not yet been evacuated and sealed, in defiance of a court order.) Few people are aware that the residents of Silwan, at their own expense, sought professional experts to draw up a plan which would enable them to engage in the kind of urban renewal that has taken place in other hitherto neglected areas of the city…The Jerusalem municipal authorities arbitrarily rejected the plan without even bringing it before the relevant planning forums.
Our group will return to Silwan this Friday to attend a major protest organized by the Sheikh Jarrah solidarity movement.
We then traveled into the West Bank to visit Wadi Fukin, an Arab village just east of the Green Line in the Gush Etzion bloc. In recent years, Wadi Fukin has been threatened by Israel’s planned construction of the Separation Barrier, which would cut off the village’s water source from numerous natural springs that the villagers use to irrigate their fields and orchards.
In a particularly inspiring example of coexistence and solidarity, the residents of Wadi Fukin were joined by residents of the nearby Israeli village of Tzur Hadassah in fighting the planned construction. Through a massive petition drive signed by hundreds of Israelis and Palestinians, Israel has for now forgone its plans to construct the wall – one of the very few success stories of its kind.
In the meantime, however, Wadi Fukin’s future is also being threatened by the expansion of nearby settlement Betar Illit. Ongoing construction of this populous and rapidly growing ultra-orthodox development is literally encircling the village and would likewise dry up Wadi Fukin’s freshwater springs. To add insult to injury, Beitar Illit regularly dumps its sewage into the village’s water supply, despite the repeated protests of village residents.
Despite these horrid hardships, Wadi Fukin is forging on with the help of Friends of the Earth -Middle East, an environmental NGO that has included the village in its “Good Water Neighbors” project. That’s Iyad Aburdeineh below, project co-cordinator of FOE-Middle East Wadi Fukin initiative, who led us on a tour of the village.
While in Wadi Fukin, our group was treated to a delicious lunch cooked for us the staff of the village’s Women’s Center. In all, it was impossible for us to be unmoved by the story of the village, one inspiring success story amidst an increasing dire situation in the Occupied Territories.
From there we traveled to Deheishe, a refugee camp near Bethlehem. Deheishe (below) was established as a refuge for 3,400 Palestinians who were expelled from 45 villages west of Jerusalem and Hebron in 1948. Originally simply a collection of tents, Deheishe is now a densely packed urban labyrinth of over 9,000 residents.
Adminstered by UNRWA, the camp is bordered to the north by the Jewish settlement of Efrat and to the south by Bethlehem. Like many Palestinian refugee camps, Deheishe has nowhere to grow but up – most of the homes have three stories and the camp seems to be in a constant state of vertical expansion.
Upon our arrival we were greeted by Deheishe resident Mazen Faraj, who coordinated our visit and introduced us to our host families. My group of seven was hosted by Nidal and Newarah and their three children, Haya, 18, Moad 17, and Tariq, 12, who opened their recently built home to us and were utterly gracious hosts to our intrepid little crew. They treated us to a delicious – actually sumptuous – dinner and we enjoyed each others’ company talking, sharing and laughing until the wee hours of the morning.
I spoke at length with Moad, who at one point took me out for a long night stroll through the winding alleyways of the camp, introducing me to friend after friend until it felt like I had met virtually the entire teenage population of Deheishe. After coming home, we continued to talk together as neighbors came and went through their home at a dizzying pace.
For right now, I don’t really know how else to describe our visit other than a genuinely delightful evening with wonderful new friends. I’ll share many more thoughts about our Deheishe soujourn in my next post. For now, suffice to say it today was an incredible journey for us all – and it has only been our second full day.
Much more to follow…