We have enjoyed a relatively safe journey thus far but I would be less than honest if I did not confess some apprehension about one of our recent planned cultural encounters. I was probably conditioned by an event that happened earlier when my son and I went outside the Old City Jerusalem walls to see if I could find a remnant of Nehemiah's wall. It was a wild goose chase but as we returned someone threw a soccer ball at us. I was impressed how hard the ball was thrown and you could just sense the anger. Our guide later told me that we were lucky we didn't get robbed or have rocks thrown at us in the part of town I was undertaking my search. We have had a few incidents of anti-American statements but nothing too bad. The news reporters here portray the United States in economic and moral decline so I suppose some feel empowered to make a statement. One vendor of orange juice told us repeatedly that Americans are rude and another had a few choice words about our President. The speeches by President Obama highlighted an old issue here, Israeli settlers within the West Bank and the extreme anger and resentment on both sides of this issue. One side, the Zionist settlers claim this whole land as theirs with rights to settle anywhere. Their opposition, Palestinian Arabs and their supporters believe that the West Bank is their property by law and right. Basically it is the mother of all land disputes fueled by religious and social differences that span over millennia.
One of our planned meetings was with a leader at the Israeli settlement of Efrat. Efrat is not that much different than many of our upscale subdivisions with some major exceptions. Security is as tight as a military base. People are killed here by snipers from adjacent properties and intruders test the security measures on a regular basis. Add to that political pressure from the United States and other nations and you see why I was concerned. Had we not made proper arrangements, we could have been in danger ourselves. In some settlements, visitors have been shot just by showing up unannounced. While visiting a nearby archeological site earlier we heard the steady din of machine gun fire that echoed on the wind and through the valleys near Bethlehem.
I was however curious and I just had to see this settlement first hand. I could not have been more surprised. Our bus driver was Arab and there was initially some concern about his driving us into the settlement but we were met by a lady who directed us to the city hall. There we met with the Deputy Mayor, Josh Adler, a pleasant man about my age who had left Brooklyn at age 17 never to return. He had maintained his English skills but confessed he thought and spoke now only in Hebrew. His ability to switch languages to accommodate our meeting was quite impressive. Deputy Mayor Adler was clear that he had no issue with civil disobedience. He believed with all his being in Israel’s right to possess the homeland. Adler mentioned that Efrat’s leaders had always been sensitive to Arab farmers who farmed land claimed by Efrat. Farmland abuts the settlement and Arab farmers are apparently unmolested in raising their crops. Under the Bush Administration polices it became the rule that any further settlement was forbidden even though streets and utilities are in place.
Efrat had been around for almost 30 years but never accepted by the neighbors. Around 8,000 residents have moved in. Most are immigrants from other countries with many from the United States. Our host carried us to a hillside dotted with mobile homes, some behind concrete barriers, where new families wanting to live in Efrat proper wait on that opportunity. The concrete barriers are necessary to defend against snipers who have used an adjacent school to shoot into mobile homes located on this hillside. Our host’s wife lost a close friend to terrorists recently. Amenities on this hillside were sparse but the privilege of living there with a hope for a better life drives many young families to live in conditions that most at home would not tolerate. The bus stop is a concrete reinforced structure capable of stopping bullets or providing shelter in the event of a shelling.
Deputy Mayor Adler had no problem with tough questions and actually invited them. I was curious about the religious makeup of the community. Adler indicated that ninety percent of Efrat’s residents are religiously observant Modern Orthodox Jews. The dress here is no different than at home but religious observance requires ritual baths which are provided as part of the amenities. There is a strong observance of the Sabbath or Shabbat. Other Israelis had indicated that only about fifteen percent of Israel was religious and that the trend was certainly secular. Adler disagreed and believes that Israel is at least majority religious. My observations here are mixed. Inhabitants at Efrat are radical while being simultaneously courageous and complicated. I did not feel threatened and my apprehension subsided rapidly. Deputy Mayor Adler was not that different from guys I went to high school with or work for back at home. He is clear in his beliefs and notes how he appreciates the support of evangelical Christians for Israel. I think of Adler’s children who have become accustomed to danger and threats that are part of the existence at Afrat. Adler’s daughter recently married and oddly wishes to return to Efrat. The prohibition on expansion has caused his daughter to consider alternatives.
Efrat is very self contained but many do make the short journey to Bethlehem or the longer journey to Jerusalem for work. Each commute brings danger and exposure to these commuters. I would not undertake their lifestyle under any circumstance but at least I understand more than before.
The remainder of our afternoon was to have included a planned visit to Palestinian refugee camp. We were not permitted to visit but we did a “drive by” of the crushing conditions affecting these people. I do not make conclusions without hearing both sides of an issue so the lack of a meeting with the refugees is troubling. This battle between Palestinians and Israelis feels similar to our own Civil Rights Movement, or at least that is how it is portrayed in some circles. The same passions, anger and complexity are certainly present. Our visit to the Arab school outside of Haifa which I wrote about recently gives some perspective but my best perspective came from the Rev. Canon Samir J. Habiby who is the Special Assistant to the Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem. Rev. Habiby lives most of the year in New Hampshire but has close ties to Savannah, Georgia. Rev. Habiby invited us to the Arabic service here in Jerusalem at the St. Georges Cathedral and we obliged him. The night before Rev. Habiby gave one of the most concise and astounding views on the history and political climate of Israel that I have ever heard. Rev. Habiby grew up here so he knows the turf. His speech pattern is definitely British but paradoxically he served in the United States Navy and received the Order of the Purple Heart. He is proud of his military service and tells of his calling into the ministry and how he had to lay down medical school at the virtual point of completion. He is a man of great conviction and I admire his faith based decisions. Rev. Habiby is a fair and intriguing man that speaks well for Arab causes by utilizing his knowledge of the West and our perspectives. I believe if we had more men and women like Rev. Habiby, many problems could be solved here in the Middle East. Rev. Habiby related how he must return home after a couple of months here in Jerusalem. Israel causes “brain drain” he says. “I get too used to check points and automatic weapons.” Rev. Habiby recalls his drive along the eastern seaboard of the United States and the delicious fact that he was never stopped by anyone on the entire journey. I am poignantly reminded about our simple freedoms.
The service at St. Georges was different from those at my Baptist church but I was touched in one portion of the service when the congregation informally went about shaking hands and communicating “Peace be with you.” This is primarily an Arab Christian congregation. The preacher was kind enough to share his message in both English and Arabic. Familiar hymns sung in Arabic had a new beauty and let us know that we share a common belief. Rev. Habiby proudly wore his service ribbons during the service. I began my journey by taking communion in my home church and there was a type of spiritual symmetry by accepting communion here. While I am not in familiar surroundings, I was more than welcomed among fellow Christians. It made no difference that we were from the United States and they were Arabic. We were all God’s children and that is how it should be. God Bless.