Category Archives: Israel

STILL FURTHER THOUGHTS OF A LONE JEW IN JERUSALEM

I am in the waiting area at Ben Gurion airport. My plane leaves in a couple of hours. I don’t want to be on it.

I do miss Mary Ellen and am looking forward to seeing her. However, I feel that I am leaving home and don’t want to leave here.

Earlier today I was at the Kotel, joining in with hundreds of others for midday prayer. Some were definitively ultra-orthodox; others were from different parts of the Jewish (and likely non-Jewish) world. While I will soon be back davening in a familiar shul (and delighted to be able to count towards a minion) it will feel different. We will be praying towards Jerusalem, not joining in prayer in Jerusalem.

I am not sure how productive my meetings to discuss co-op housing were. At a minimum, I was able to provide links to resources they were not necessarily aware of. There is definitely interest in co-op housing but the nature of such housing and where resources to develop co-ops can be founds are still open questions.

Yesterday I was privileged to be given a private tour of the Old City and its environs, a tour arranged by co-op folks in Israel. I hadn’t taken the opportunity to walk into the Arab area outside the Damascus Gate before, but we had to go through a bit of it to get to the Garden Tomb. While not a lot different than where I had visited before, it was a different world, one not only somewhat isolated from the Jewish and mixed areas of Jerusalem but different from the Arab neighbourhoods I had visited in Haifa and Acre and Hebron. Folk seemed a little more watchful of strangers, a little more tense. From the Garden Tomb, we crossed the old city on the Cardo, which follows the Roman main street, to the Zion Gate to visit David’s Tomb. Just outside the tomb itself a few Chassidic Jews had teffilin which they encouraged Jews who had never worn to put on. My guide suggested that I accept their offer and, after donning the teffilin and reciting the proper prayers my hands were grabbed and I was suddenly in a singing circle dance which, when it ended I was told was to welcome me home. I felt overwhelmed. My guide them had me walk through the entire building and pointed out the Christian and Muslim features as well. For him, the site of King David’s tomb—someone honoured by Jews, Christians and Muslims—was a statement of what might be in Jerusalem.

It was only in my final hours in Jerusalem that I noticed a woman in a niqab. While it is common, but not universal, for women from the diverse faith communities in Israel and the West Bank to wear a scarf or other head covering, a sight that has become common in Toronto turned out to be very rare sight here. I saw a few women in military uniform wearing hijabs, which surprised me.

The recent fires in Israel were frightening. I chose to leave Haifa early and return to Jerusalem just a couple of days before the fires broke out. Some were caused by carelessness, others seemed to have a natural cause but many were deliberately set. Where I had most recently stayed was in the area of Haifa that had to be evacuated. The offer, and acceptance, of help from the Palestinian authority to fight the fires was a positive sign that even people in conflict can find ways of joining together to deal with a crisis.

Cats seem to be a common sight in Israel, which some who have seen my pictures have noted. Many are left to fend for themselves; a few seem to find a home with a caring person. It was pointed out to me that there is a population of cats distinguished by a clipped ear. These cats have been captured, neutered, given shots and treated for any health problems and then returned to where they were captured. This is quite controversial as many rabbis have forbidden the practice of neutering animals so it is most common in Christian areas.

Upon return to Canada I’ll start planning my return to Israel. I am aiming for the end of April but that is not firm. But I intend to return. לשנה הבאה בירושלים

FURTHER THOUGHTS OF A LONE JEW IN ISRAEL

I am now back in Haifa looking back on the events of the last few weeks. I’ll be going back to Jerusalem from here where I’ll be based for the rest of this visit to Israel.

Last week, in Tel Aviv, I had a meeting to discuss ways of bringing the Canadian co-op model here. That meeting promises to lead to other meetings before I go. Tel Aviv is far different than Jerusalem, Haifa or Hebron; it feels more European or Quebec than the other places I’ve visited.

Yet Tel Aviv, like every other place I’ve been in Israel, felt like home. And I still don’t understand this. The land is strange; the language different; there are tensions all around. And yet this is home. It is home in a shul where every word I hear is Hebrew and at a store where the clerk asks if I’m entitled to the seniors’ discount and on a walking tour of a divided city and in an upper floor apartment overlooking a busy street.

It is a place where public tears come.

Standing at the Kotel (Western Wall) feeling it is a place that reaches out to me, drawing me in to my spiritual home I cry. The divine presence welcomes me in a way I’ve not experienced before; like the feeling I once had in celebrating the Eucharist but one without a sacrificial essence. My place in creation somehow is linked to this place and to the millions who have mourned and rejoiced in being close to something immanent and transcendent. I felt I was in a sacred place when I visited the Wall while I was a Christian priest. It feels now that I am in my sacred place, a place where as a Jew I am fully welcome. Tears flow here.

Standing in a rebuilt shul in Hebron, one destroyed in anti-Jewish riots in 1929, and touching the Torah scrolls that were saved during the attack and are not only in the Torah Ark but used regularly. These are the words presented to me at Mount Sinai. I get to touch these centuries old scrolls and tears flow.

I see signs of hope at times. I saw a mixed group of Arab and Jewish school children (distinguishable by their head coverings) laughing together while waiting to get on a bus. I stood in line at a coffee shop where Muslims, Jews and Tourists shared the space and waited patiently for their latte or Cappachino while the clerks shifted from Arabic to Hebrew to English.

In Hebron, I talked to a Palestinian woman who showed pictures of flooding of her store last year. She claimed that the flooding occurred on both sides of the divide and it was only stupid men on both sides that prevented solving the common problem. For her, if they could solve the common problems they could then start working on overcoming differences with some hope of success.

I see signs of despair at times. Having to show bags and go through metal detectors to enter a shopping mall; having to have my luggage go through an x-ray machine to take an inter-urban train; people sleeping rough; empty buildings in a place with an affordable housing crisis—lots of signs of the fear of terrorism and lots of signs of poverty and stress.

There is an odd openness in many places and inward looking tensions in others. Acre and Hebron are divided cities in different ways—Hebron due to rules and regulations; Acre due to tradition and distrust. Tel Aviv and Haifa are places where there are tensions but also openness. Jerusalem seems a place of surface openness and fear lurking just under the surface.

Unusual for me, I do spend time in coffee shops just drinking a latte or other caffeinated beverage, and listening to people. One overhears odd conversations. I heard a group of U.S. Republican supporters feeling betrayed by the appointment of an anti-Semite to Trump’s transition team and a group of U.S. Democratic Party supporters feeling betrayed at the effort to appoint an anti-Semite as the head of the Democratic National Committee.

I did video audition in Yiddish (I haven’t heard back yet if I got the part). It was an odd experience. I auditioned for a part in a film where I would play the head of a Yeshiva in Quebec in the post-war period faced with an ethical dilemma. I don’t know the language or culture but I do think I would do a credible job with the role.

The human politics around the wall distress me; humans should not be putting barriers between the sacred and people. I don’t understand why there is so much tension arising over a 3rd section at the Wall. I hear the arguments and appeals to both tradition and inclusivity but don’t get them.

It is a small thing, but I was delighted when I finally made sense of the currency and could pay the exact amount at a check-out. I don’t know the language but I have learned one of the expectations of living here.

I only have about 2 weeks left in Israel (I leave for Toronto on the 1st). While I am greatly looking forward to being with my family again, I am already trying to figure out the practicalities of coming back to Israel. This is home.

INITIAL THOUGHTS OF A LONE JEW IN ISRAEL

It is still an amazing thing to me. This place feels like home. While I’ve not visited everywhere in Israel (and won’t be able to before I leave the first of December) every city I’ve visited seems like a city I could live in; the shuls I’ve visited feel like ones that if I dropped some of my usual defenses would welcome me; even when I have one of my not uncommon panic attacks I surprise myself by quickly getting myself together and knowing whether to have a latte in a café, find a park to sit in for a bit or to return to where I am staying for a little more unfocused time.

It is also a place that is very hard for someone who can’t always cope with crowds. I found myself honouring Yom Kippur at a shul and not at the Wall which was only a 20 minute walk away because I could not bring myself to join in with thousands of others in a public expression of a shared experience. Religious celebrations often bring strangers together to rejoice in their commonality but efforts by me to join in have not proven fruitful.

I have pushed myself to be more publically Jewish, but that isn’t always easy. Wearing a kippah here includes donning the expectation that one speaks fluent Hebrew. As someone who has barely pushed myself through the Aleph level, being expected to know Hebrew is a problem. And yet this is also encouraging. It means that I am accepted as a Jew and it is only my limitations that interfere in my being more fully a part of the Jewish world here and in Toronto.

Like in my previous visits I listen and observe more than talk. I am hearing more European voices than in my previous visits—more Russians and French talking about growing anti-Semitism at home and difficulties with daily life in Israel.

There have been odd and unexpected experiences. While riding the LRT in Jerusalem I noticed that Orthodox women would sit beside me but not beside Orthodox men. With a couple of noticeable exceptions, store owners in the Suq in Jerusalem or the Arab quarter of Haifa seemed subdued. I see lots of women wearing hijabs on transit but few in the stores.

Every urban centre I’ve visited or passed through is having a building boom. There are objections being raised from a number of perspectives that seem familiar—heritage preservation, need to preserve parkland and agricultural land, urban expansion is taking place on other people’s land. And the responses echo those made elsewhere but come down to ‘the population is growing so more housing is needed.’

I am not seeing some of the positive signs I noticed in previous visits, perhaps due to where I am staying. But I’ve not seen pick-up soccer games of Jewish and Arab youth, which I saw in my first visit. Nor have I been invited to, or come across ads for, cross community events which I noticed in my second visit.

I did take an organised tour of sacred sites in Jerusalem, which included sites sacred to followers of Islam, Christians and Jews. The tour guide stressed the wonder and hope that three such diverse and complex faiths have found in Jerusalem sacred space and despite centuries of tensions still are finding way to honour the sacred in different ways in such a small place.

THOUGHTS UPON LEAVING ISRAEL AND RETURNING TO CANADA

The feeling I had last year, stepping off the plane at Ben Gurion Airport is still strong—Israel feels like home.   Leaving here includes planning to come back, the next time to focus on studying Hebrew.   I am feeling quite torn, and the only experience I’ve had that comes close to the same impact was when the (then) most wonderful person in my life left for Greece and I didn’t think I’d ever see her again.

I really don’t know why this particular place on the planet is drawing me so intensely.

This visit, unlike my first, was one where I was not really a tourist.  I did two short term volunteer placements through Skilled Volunteers for Israel.  While primarily focused on helping baby boomers from the Jewish community find a way to contribute to Israel by arranging placements with a range of non-profits, they welcomed my application and worked hard to find suitable placements for me.

My intent to combine volunteering with studying at the Conservative Yeshiva of Jerusalem fell through due to lack of enrolment in the course I wanted to take.

The two placements were very different.   At Israel Elwyn I was primarily a compassionate presence within a programme for intellectually challenged adults. It had been decades since I’ve done work with such vulnerable people.   I had been worried that my many years of working within the co-operative and non-profit world and primarily with well educated, highly skilled individuals would have created barriers that would be hard to overcome.   But that provided to not be the case.  There was mutual comfort with each other.   My role was definitely not that of a therapist but as someone from the broader world who was spending time with those all too often forgotten.   My lack of Hebrew wasn’t a barrier.   My lack of training wasn’t a barrier.   My not being Jewish wasn’t a barrier.   Being a patient person who could smile was sufficient.

IMG_20141113_124427 Brian-at-Elwyn-300x169

Among the things I noticed at Elwyn was that there were a substantive number of followers of Islam on staff.    From women wearing hijab to men at prayer, to an outsider it looked like Israel Elwyn was a place where practical and effective compassion trumped religious and cultural divisions.    It was also the only place where I saw this barrier crossed in any significant way, unlike my last visit where it seemed quite common place and was exemplified by watching young people from the Jewish and Arab communities playing a pick up game of soccer.

photo

The placement with the Jerusalem Centre for Jewish-Christian Relations was a completely different experience.   I specifically focused on trying to get more groups committed to participate in a fair tourism project.   This is an effort to create an on-line catalogue for those organising trips to Israel/Palestine in order to encourages “tourists to engage with multiple narratives, and creates an encounter between visitors and representatives of the local population, both Jews and Arabs.”   This was done primarily via computer.   About 27 groups have agreed to participate so far, with the target being 30.  This is an important initiative in the long term—those going on pilgrimages or group explorations to the middle east need to be encouraged to go beyond their comfort zone to find out more from the diverse voices arising from different communities in a troubled land.

While actually having a longer work week in Israel than I have in my normal life, I did have time to wander about Jerusalem.  The place was far more tense than my last visit.   There was a greater police and military presence even in Jewish neighbourhoods far from the Old City and the Green Line.  Going into shopping centres involved having my backpack searched and going through a metal detector.   In light of the car attacks some schools in Tel Aviv cancelled field trips to Jerusalem.   On a day when I was planning to visit the Temple Mount and specifically the Dome of the Rock I was unable to do so because it was closed due to political tensions and threats of violence.

IMG_20141108_120201 IMG_20141102_132913 IMG_20141108_115532

Even in the commercial heart of the Old City, the suk, there was definite worry brought about by a large drop in visitors and a dramatic drop in sales.   It was my previous experience that many merchants would try hard to get passers by to enter their stores and, with so many tourists about in normal times, most stalls would have possible buyers moving in and out.   One stall owner was a bit more persistent in trying to get me into his store, offering a glass of tea to enjoy while I browsed.    My response was a bit of a surprise to him—I reminded him that I had visited his store with my wife about a year ago.   We had gone  in so she could look at the scarves and came out with a more expensive item.  He laughed and offered  “coffee, not tea, and conversation, not a sales pitch” until a paying customer came by.  I was there over 20 minutes before someone else came by.   He said it had been like that for months; there was a real decline in Israelis visiting the suk and fewer foreign visitors than normal.  This meant a real decline in sales—something worrisome to those selling dry goods and metalwork, but a real crisis to the vendors of fresh meat, fish, fruits, vegetables, baked goods and other perishables.

SAM_2992

Loss of tourism dollars has a ripple effect into various segments of the local service economy.   Areas with already high youth unemployment find the problem growing.   Pressure from the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions movement has resulted in the closing of some factories in the West Bank and having production shift to Israel or other countries, increasing unemployment in an area already having high unemployment.

Increased religious fundamentalism woven into conservative political movements is hardening positions across Israel/Palestine.   Even groups founded  to engage in constructive dialogue have, in some cases, become rigid advocates of either Israeli or Palestinian positions that seem set in stone.  Individuals who have devoted many years to constructive engagement have been marginalised and, in some cases, accused of the crime of wanting to normalise things rather than promote the struggle for a Palestinian state on one side or compromising Israeli security on the other.

Petty harassment of Arabs is very real.  As an example, in various trips involving taxis and going through check points, my Arab drivers were always asked for identification which was not the case with other drivers.   Fear of violence was also very real, but cuts across all divisions.  Even if not directly dealing with police and military security, the at times overwhelming presence of armed people is both a source of deeply felt tension and a reminder of the possibility of violence suddenly erupting on a bus or street corner or a place of worship.SAM_2999

Deliberate provocation by political leaders is a real problem, from Knesset members trying to change the dynamics around access to the temple mount to Palestinian Authority leaders calling those that have engaged in self-directed political violence martyrs to Islam.  Those that are advocating for real and effective engagement are pushed aside or threatened for challenging such positions.

And yet, in the midst of conflict and tension, I kept finding hope.   On a small scale when strangers provided directions or let me know of cultural events that crossed divisions, or on a larger scale such as when Reuven Rivlin, the President of Israel, spoke at a memorial for the victims of an Israeli attack on Arabs at Kafr Qasem, Israel isn’t limited by what might appear to dominate its image in the media.   It is still a nation struggling define itself, a place that is truly a Jewish homeland and a land of Christian and Muslim and Druze and Baha’i and Samaritans and other spiritual traditions.  It is a place with an elected leadership representing a wider political spectrum than many in the west are accustomed to.   The full range of Judaism, from those that oppose the existence of the state of Israel to Messianic Jews, have a shared land where many such differences are open and irresolvable and part of the dialogue.

I am still puzzling out in my own mind what is it about Israel that makes me feel that it is home.  None-the-less, it has become so to me.   I’ll be returning to study Hebrew and returning again as a volunteer or in some other way be in Israel in a sustained and meaningful way.   It is a land of peace and conflict and hope and despair—not unique in that regard—but it is a place that speaks intimately to me.

SOME UNCOMFORTABLE REFLECTIONS IN THE SHADOW OF GAZA AND ISRAEL.

When I stepped off the plane last December at Ben Gurion Airport I had an overwhelming sense of finally being home. The closest experience I’ve ever had to it was my born again moment when, caught on the wire around the Darlington Reactor site I felt enfolded by the divine presence in a way I’m rarely come close to experiencing again and then only in the rare moments when celebrating the Eucharist I find myself transcending the moment into something wonderful and eternal. Having this experience about a place and particularly within a nation I’ve been very critical of over the years still astounds me. And it puts me in a different space than the political world I’ve been a part of for generations. I still oppose the West Bank settlements; I mourn for and grieve over the deaths and injuries and trauma of Gaza today; I think that a two state solution arrived at sooner rather than later is the best option at this time for long term peace. But I would feel emotionally and spiritually devastated if Israel ceased to be, which is what Hamas and Hezbollah and other similar movements are aspiring to achieve.
This perspective means I’d not be welcome at the People’s Climate March in New York this fall. My belief that peaceful coexistence is more important in the short and long term for the people of Israel/Palestine makes me realise I’d be unwelcome at public expression of opposition to the attacks on Gaza as such gathering are all too often not a demand for peace in Gaza but a gathering to support the regime in Gaza. Peace and an end to violence I’ll always support. Taking sides in a violent dispute is, to me, moving away from advocating an end to war. In the past I’ve marched to end the Vietnam War, in opposition to the Somoza regime, against the coup in Chile, against apartheid, against police violence and the list goes on. It took years for me to get to the point where I saw contradictions in what I was after—a peaceful and more just world—while justifying my participating in such efforts as showing support for the objectives and not the means by which the objectives were obtained. I somehow didn’t make the contraction between teaching in non-violence workshops that means and ends could not be separated and taking part in political campaigns where I could separate the two. I do not believe that I can work for peace between the people of Israel and the people of Palestine if I can not call for an immediate end to violence by both sides. But if I am expected to take a side, it would be the side in which my ideals have a better chance of flourishing. They can in Israel. They can not under Hamas.
I’m hoping to hear back this coming week about my exact placement for my month-long volunteer trip to Israel this fall. Assuming it goes well I plan to return the following summer to study Hebrew and do additional volunteer work. My hope is to be involved with human rights or direct service work. There are homeless people in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv; there are refugees struggling to find a voice; there are hungry people wondering where their next meal is coming from; there are people from religious minorities seeking a way to live in harmony and dignity with their neighbours. There is a fledgling credit union movement. There are cat rescue efforts. There is multi-faith dialogue. There is bridge building between conflicting worlds. There is hope and despair. These seems, surprisingly enough, the possibility that there is a place for me in all that.

DECADES OF THOUGHT LATER I’M STILL UNCERTAIN: Thoughts on Israel and Palestine

During the 1979-1980 academic year students at Queen’s University organised a conference on Human Rights and Social Responsibility. While Chile was a major focus of our discussions, there was a panel on Palestine. To the surprise of many present I called for a return to the pre-1948 boundaries of Israel. Many people from the traditional left felt this was an impolitic statement—not something they disagreed with necessarily but a stand not voiced publicly. It was felt to bear more than a hint of anti-Semitism. My comment wasn’t based on solidarity with the Palestinians. I wasn’t really aware of them. But I saw the existence of Israel as a statement of our shared shame. The Jewish people needed to build a homeland because no place else on earth proved to be safe for them. The existence of Israel let us off the hook; we didn’t have to truly confront our own anti-Semitism.

Over the years I learned more about what was going on in the middle east. I read statements calling for the expulsion of the Palestinians. I saw pictures from Sabra and Shatila. I talked to trade unionists and church people who lived and worked in the West Bank.  I also talked to people from Israel. I talked to survivors of Nazi death camps and dissidents from the Soviet Union. I read more about the history of Israel and the liberation struggle of the Jewish nation in Diaspora. I talked with people from the Palestine Liberation Organisation and learned more about the liberation struggle of an fragmented people. I heard similar dreams and aspirations from two claimants to overlapping territories.

Very recently I had the chance to visit Jaffa, Jerusalem and Bethlehem. I had an opportunity to meet with dreamers and practical people seeking ways to sort out the many issues but mostly I came into contact with people just wanting to get on with things.

Going directly from Yad Vashem to Bethlehem, passing through the divisive wall between the West Bank and Israel, was an exposure to two shocking realities. Yad Vashem makes it clear that the holocaust didn’t arise in a vacuum. There were ghettos and restrictions in advance of mass murder. There were pogroms and other violent attacks on the Jewish community. The genocidal attack on the Jews of Europe was a culmination of centuries of hatred. One could leave the museum with a sense of despair. Yet when one leaves the main exhibits at Yad Vashem you exit to gaze out over a wonderful and welcoming land. The promised land is there as a haven in a world of hate.

And yet the promised land isn’t safe. Thousands of rockets have been fired from the south. Suicide bombers have found their way into the safest of community spaces. There is hope in Israel but also fear than this struggle for a safe and secure haven may never end. One can’t help becoming a Zionist after this experience.

And yet a few miles away the world looks different. The promised land isn’t just a haven. There is evil growing on what should be sacred land. People are being forced away from their homes. Humiliating and discriminatory practices abound. Communal punishment is common. What often appears as random outbursts of violence from Israeli authorities and settler communities makes it hard for anyone to know how to guarantee personal and family safety even if one wants to avoid political struggles. It is easy to draw parallels between the experiences in the occupied territories and the experience of the European Jewish community in the lead up to the holocaust. One can’t help becoming a supporter of the national of Palestine after seeing this.

And then I went to spend several days in the old city of Jerusalem.
Imagine a Saturday towards sunset in the square in front of the Wailing/Western Wall. There is the blowing of ram’s horn announcing the end of Sabbath. Woven into this is a Muslim call to prayer. And, as a part of this tapestry, there are church bells. Even in a place of tension, the children of Abraham all have a voice.

Or imagine sitting in a square eating a bagel with cream cheese. The square has seen the murder of the Jewish people by Romans, Christians and Muslims. But around you today are Christians and Jews and Muslims. Cats come up to you looking for a little something. A busker is playing ‘It’s a wonderful world”. There is something a little out of time going on, as if there is a chance for a better world to come to life in Zion.

I don’t have an easy solution to all the problems in the Middle East.
But I don’t think adding yet more nation states is the solution. There are in place across the many boundaries and barriers civil society organizations and visions that exist independently or parallel to major political apparatuses that already find ways to share ideas, resources and visions. Whether found in efforts such as anarchists against the wall or in multifaith dialogue initiatives, common ground is being woven together despite the best efforts of the state. It is from common ground that hope for peace grows.

There is still a real need for Jews to have a homeland. Everyone needs a place where they can feel rooted. And there is a need for those whose ancestors moved into the middle east over the centuries who are not Jewish to feel that their lives aren’t uprooted. Maybe what allowed the Jewish people to survive through the many centuries of the Diaspora—being a nation without a state—contains the best solution for both people of the Palestine and the people of Israel.