Sunday, April 10, 2011

Jewish-Arab Coexistence in the Midst of Conflict

Sunday morning. In Israel, it's the first day of a new week. Just a few minutes ago, I arrived on the campus of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem on Mount Scopus, just a short walk down from the Mount of Olives. Before beginning a day of studying and writing, I went to the cafeteria to buy an orange juice. I greeted with a smile the Arab girl working at the counter, ordered, paid, and then said "shukran" (thank you) in Arabic. I then sat down and read the headlines in the Hebrew daily newspaper "Israel HaYom" (Israel Today). It was a quiet Shabbat in Jerusalem, but not in southern Israel, where thousands of residents were forced to spend the weekend in bomb shelters. Over the weekend, Islamic factions in the Gaza strip fired some 120 rockets and mortars onto the neighboring Israeli communities. The newly deployed "Iron Dome" missile system intercepted about eight Grad rockets that were heading for the civilian populations in the coastal city of Ashkelon and the biblical city of Beer Sheva in the Negev Desert. Last week, an anti-tank missile was fired at a school bus, critically injuring a teen and prompting a harsh Israeli response which led to the killing of several Hamas commanders.

With all the grim headlines and the seemingly endless conflict, I could not help thinking about how different my daily life is. In the last post, I posted a video showing examples of tolerance and kindness in Israeli society towards Arabs. I personally see similar situations every day around me. Earlier this morning I had breakfast at the Christian guest house in the old city where I usually eat, greeting Charlie, the Arab Christian receptionist, with a friendly "sabbah el'kheir" (good morning) in Arabic. In a couple of hours I will go to my Arabic class, continuing my study of literary Arabic along with some 20 enthusiastic Israeli Jewish students. Perhaps after class a group of us will head to the library together to do our homework, as it has become our custom. Last week, as we were all struggling with Arabic verbs, Shoshanat, one of the Israeli students, calls out a passing young female Muslim student friend, gives her a hug, and after a bit of friendly chitchat proceeds to grill her on the correct way to conjugate the verb "to prepare" in Arabic. Another time, it was Elisha, a young kippa-wearing religious Israeli Jew who lives in one of the Jewish settlements in Samaria, who chats, smiles and jokes around in Arabic with the veiled Muslim girl for several minutes as she kindly helps him do his homework.

Despite the undeniable fears and tensions in the country, such beautiful examples of friendly coexistence between Jews and Arabs abound, not only here at Hebrew University, but all over pluralistic and multi-ethnic Israel.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Latest News, Learn Hebrew, and Win a Trip to Israel!

[Apologies for the late posting of this newsletter, sent 10 days ago]

Today, for a change, I have no theological reflection to propose to you.  Instead, I will briefly summarize some of the topics that have recently been of interest to us Christians in the Holy Land, along with some suggested links, and then present to you a special offer from one of our partners to learn Hebrew giving you a chance to win a trip to Israel!
  • Purim: On March 20, Israelis celebrated Purim, a joyful feast remembering the deliverance of the Jewish people from a plot to exterminate them (sound familiar?) while they were living in exile in Persia. The story is told in the book of Esther, read in all synagogues during the feast.  Although this is the only book of the Bible that does not explicitly mention God, believing Jews and Christians see with confidence His guiding hand of protection in the story of how the Lord protected His people from the evil Haman through Queen Esther and her uncle Mordechai. For a good introduction on this feast, see this crash course on Purim.  In Israel, we were blessed with some abundant and well-needed late-winter rain this Purim.
  • Modern-day Hamans: Unfortunately, murderous plots against the Jewish people are not only a thing of the past. Israelis were brutally reminded of this fact in the past weeks, first with the gruesome murder of the Fogel family in the settlement of Itamar on March 12, then the increasing Hamas mortar and rocket attacks on southern Israeli cities,  and then the terrorist bombing here in Jerusalem last Wednesday (March 23) which killed Evangelical Christian and Bible Translator Mary Jane Gardner, and wounded some 40 people.  It was the first major terrorist bombing in Jerusalem since 2004.  Still, things remain otherwise calm in the Holy City which is filling with an increasing stream of Lenten pilgrims as Passover and Easter come nearer.
  • Third Palestinian Intifada?  The modern spirit of Haman also lives on in calls on Facebook for a third  Palestinian Intifada, following in the footsteps of the recent revolutions in neighboring Arab countries that also began via the channels of social media. Thankfully, after receiving massive protests, Facebook decided to shut down the page which had gathered over 300,000 supporters, though other pages are already appearing in its place.  Please act and report to Facebook pages that incite violence!
  • Racism in Israel?  You might think that the recent wave of violence would provoke anti-Arab attitudes of resentment and even racism in Israeli society.  One even often hears the claim that Israel is an "apartheid state", discriminating against Arabs and other non-Jews.  These smear campaigns have little to do with reality.  If you follow only one link in this news report, be sure to watch this  moving video of an Israeli TV show that staged a scene with hidden cameras where an Israeli attendant in a gas station (an actor) refuses to sell coffee to an Arab-Muslim woman (also an actress).  How do you think the other Israelis in the shop reacted to the (staged) anti-Arab discrimination, unaware that they were being filmed?

  • Jesus of Nazareth, Part II: The Holy Father's new book and especially his statement that there is no basis to hold the Jews responsible for the death of Christ caused a sensation in the Israeli media.  Even though informed Catholics and others know that this is nothing new (the same thing was already said almost 50 years ago in the Vatican II declaration Nostra Aetate), it was a needed re-emphasis of a foundational teaching that is still very much misunderstood (or unknown!) by many Jews.  Perhaps of even greater interest is the Pope's remarks on the evangelization of the Jews and ongoing mission of Israel today. Read some interesting commentaries here and here.
  • Finally, one of our goals here at Catholics for Israel is to help Catholics rediscover the Jewish and Hebrew roots of our faith.  As St. Paul tells us, we Gentile Christians are but wild olive branches that were grafted into the natural olive tree of Israel, and we should be grateful towards our roots (cf. Rom 11:17).  Someone once told me: "Jesus was a Jew.  Everything about Him, in his humanity, was Jewish.  Can we therefore really know Jesus without knowing anything about Judaism and about our Hebrew roots?"  One of the best things that I have ever done in this respect was to learn Hebrew - the language that God chose, for some reason, to communicate His Word, the Holy Scriptures to Israel and to us.  Even the New Testament, which was written in Greek, is full of Hebraic and Semitic expressions and ways of thinking. Learning Hebrew is one of the best ways to get to know the Bible in-depth, digging deep into the texts and into the Biblical and Jewish way of thinking that underlies our faith.