Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Shana Tova from Catholics for Israel!

A blessed shana tova u'metuka (a good and sweet new year) to all our friends, supporters and visitors from Catholics for Israel!

Enjoy this joyful Rosh HaShanah musical parody by the Israeli group "Fountainheads" from the Ein Prat Academy, Israel.

Dip Your Apple - Fountainheads Rosh Hashanah

Monday, September 19, 2011

Jerusalem Old City Arabs on the Palestinian State, Conflict and Peace

Just a few days away from the dramatic events that will occur this week in New York, when PA President Mahmoud Abbas will make a formal request at the UN to recognize a Palestinian state, I went out onto the streets of the old city of Jerusalem to hear from some of the local Arab population how they viewed the upcoming events.

I went out not really knowing what to expect. Would they be enthusiastic and hopeful? Would they see this as a step towards a resolution of the conflict and finally attaining peace? Or would they view it, rather, as a hostile action aimed at undermining Israel?

I interviewed a little more than a dozen shopkeepers and bystanders. Even though I spent most of my time in the Christian quarter, most of them turned out to be Muslims, which in itself says a lot about the demographics of the old city.

I first spoke to a young, mild-mannered Muslim shopkeeper named Esmat, sitting in front of his t-shirt and oriental clothing shop.

"Are you for the creation of a state of Palestine," I asked him.

"Yes, of course," he answered. "This will make things better for us. Hopefully there won't be any violence afterwards. Now, business is not so bad, but if there are problems afterwards, business will drop."

And what about Jerusalem? Esmat said he was in favor of dividing Jerusalem so that it would be the capital of both Israel and Palestine, seemingly unconcerned about the impracticability of having some kind of international border with passport control dividing the old city.

Further down the street on Christian Quarter Road, between the various souvenir shops, I had a brief exchange with an elderly Muslim man called Abed.  He also pronounced himself in favor of a Palestinian state, personally preferring the internationalization of Jerusalem rather than its division. Abed said that he often prays for peace. As I thanked him and began to walk away, he called me back and pointed to another man sitting across the alley, saying: "go speak to him, he has lots to say about this." And indeed he did.

The gentleman called Muhammad spoke to me for several minutes in impeccable English (he had lived in England for some time), sitting in his chair in front of a fruit juice stand, with his son sitting next to him, occasionally interjecting some uncalled for comments (such as "Jews are Hitler"). Muhammad believes that the whole business of going to the UN is one big show, and that Abu Mazen (Abbas) is only trying to appear as a strong leader and "hero." He saw nothing positive in the creation of a Palestinian state now because this will create greater obstacles to solving concrete problems such as the refugees: "with a Palestinian state," he said, we will lose the right of return for the refugees, and we will lose East Jerusalem."

So, I said, if all these Palestinian refugees should go back to Israel to live there, what about the Jewish settlers in Palestine? Can they stay there, or must they get out? Muhammad said that they should either get out or accept to live in Palestine, with no weapons and no privileges such as those that they enjoy now, like having their own roads which allows them total freedom of movement and upon which Palestinians are not allowed.

"But what about Hamas and the other terrorist groups?" I asked. Muhammad claimed that Hamas was actually Israel's creation. I found this hard to follow, but I think that his logic went something like this: since Israel doesn't want a Palestinian state, it allowed and even somehow favored the rise of Hamas so that their terrorist attacks against civilians would give Israel a pretext not to move forward with the peace process. I think I was too taken aback by this bizarre claim to come up with an intelligent reply. In addition, said Muhammad, the current Palestinian Authority is actually working for Israel, They have no backbone and really only want to make an impression on the international politics scene. In short, they are the “worst rulers that the Palestinians have ever had.”

I thanked him for his time and walked away, slightly confused, jotting down in my notebook the jist of what he had said.

My next stop was in a shop that I knew was owned by a kind Christian woman that I will call Sandy. When I asked her what she thought about the situation, she sighed and raised her eyes towards heaven, saying that she had no hope that things would improve. Sandy didn't think there would ever be peace in Jerusalem - as long as the Muslims and the Jews are around, because the positions of the two sides are irreconcilable. She then lowered her voice, even though we were alone in the shop at this point, and said that she had overheard her Muslim neighbor say "first, we will kill the Jews, and then we will kill the Christians." It was not the first time that I heard this saying. Sandy had also lived abroad, and she repeated several times how she wished she could leave again. I could not help but feel very sad at her hopelessness. I then asked her if there were any other Christians who I could talk to. She hesitated, and then said "people can't really talk freely here, they are afraid. Christians will not openly tell the truth."

I kept these words in mind as I walked into another Christian shop of archaeological artifacts and souvenirs held by an evangelical Christian. He was standing there chatting with two other young Christian friends in their 20s, one of them nonchalantly playing "Angry Birds" on his iPhone. The shop owner seemed to be the most serious of all, so I asked him for his opinion on things, but I noticed that at almost every question he deferred to his two friends. I immediately thought of the lady in the last shop: "people can't talk freely here." Perhaps I should be interviewing people only when they are alone, I thought, so that they are not under any peer pressure to parrot the things that they are expected to say?

His two friends did not come across to me as being the most devout Christians. "What do you think is the solution to the conflict?" I asked. "Suicide bombings" said the guy playing "Angry Birds," in Arabic, with a sarcastic sneer. Looking uncomfortable, the shop owner translated into English for me, quickly adding that he was only kidding. To my relief, the Angry Birds guy confirmed that he was indeed joking, but that there was no difference between suicide bombings and Israeli F-16s bombing civilians in Gaza. I was tempted to ask if he did not see a moral difference between a suicide bomber who intentionally murders civilians, and a targeted airstrike against known terrorist cells resulting in tragic but unintended civilian casualties - but I didn't feel that the debate would be very fruitful, so I kept my tongue. There followed a long litany of grievances: checkpoints, humiliations, being asked for their I.D. cards by the *expletive* Israeli police 4-5 times a day, and so on. I couldn't help but think to myself how their attitude ironically matched rather well the name of their iPhone game.

At this point it also struck me how little difference there was between the opinions of these guys and their Muslim neighbors, so I asked: "what difference does it make that you are Christian? How does your faith in Christ help you to deal with the conflict?" - wondering whether they actually had any such faith beyond being Christian by name. One of them said: "We are not violent, we don't hurt anyone, and we hope that there will be peace." I thanked them and moved on, walking towards the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, beginning to feel exhausted at hearing so many expressions of frustration and anger, cynicism and pessimism.

Just before I reached the Church, I stopped to talk to another young Muslim man who looked very bored sitting in front of his shop. It was again the similar language: "Palestinians want peace but Israelis don't. We are fed up." In the back of the shop was his father, sitting on a chair, who quickly joined in: "where there is justice, there is peace" he said, inviting me to come in. I stepped in and pursued the conversation with the father. He continued: "we want equal opportunities, there is constant discrimination against us, Israelis destroy the homes of Palestinians; true they are often built without a permit, but then they wait for the homes to be completely built and the furniture moved in and then they destroy everything, economically ruining the families that have built them." I thought that this was indeed a horrible thing to do, and it is no wonder that there is so much frustration if such things happen regularly... but do they?

The conversation with the Muslim gentleman somehow moved towards the issue of 9/11 and global terror. "Bush is so stupid, he just wanted to rule the whole world... what are the Americans doing in Iraq and Afghanistan?" But, I replied, wasn't there as a matter of fact a real problem of global Islamic terrorism? The 9/11 attacks preceded and provoked the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, didn't they? And what about the London, Madrid, Bali bombings, etc...? How do you think the US should have responded after 9/11? Should they have done nothing? He was not able to give me a coherent answer and kept going on his anti-American rant, saying that acts of terror were a distortion of Islam that he did not approve, but that America's politics of power will never bring peace.

After six or seven such conversations, I was beginning to feel dizzy. So Israel and America are at fault for all of the world’s problems, and the Palestinians have been nothing but innocent victims all along. And they really believe this. Trying to listen sympathetically, I could understand how their long list of grievances and sufferings, mixed along with a constant feed of anti-Israeli and anti-American propaganda, and a good dose of Middle Eastern pride rendered them completely incapable of admitting that perhaps the Arabs and Palestinians have also done a few things wrong (such as launching numerous wars of extermination and murderous terrorism campaigns against the Jewish State).

Still, I kept wondering: how true is what they are saying? How much of it is the result of suffering true injustices at the hands of the Israelis, and how much of it is ideological?

The next conversation came almost as an answer to my question, leaving no room for ambiguity. This encounter was now in the Muslim quarter, just on the edge of the Jewish quarter. I began speaking with an elderly man, but because his English was poor, the conversation soon shifted to a young, well built lad sitting across the alley from him, still in his 20s, with intense eyes and speaking fluent English. When I asked him my opening question about what he thought about the possibility of a Palestinian state, he said that he didn't like the way things were going.  Why, I asked?

- "Because I don't like the fact that Abu Mazen will leave half of the land to Israel," he said. "For you see, it is written in the Qur'an that jihad must continue until we have brought the entire land under the dominion of Islam... in fact, not only Palestine but the whole world."

"You see," he continued articulately and quietly, "I have to obey the Qur'an. The whole world must be ruled and judged by Islamic rule. This is not an idea of man but it is Allah's command. Islam is Allah’s system, intended for the whole world"

- "The whole world?" I exclaimed. "Even America and Europe?"

- "Yes," he said.

- "But is this not a recipe for perpetual war?" I replied, acting cool, detached, and mildly interested.

- "Oh no" he reassured me. "Jihad doesn’t mean war all the time. This will only be for a certain time. For when Islam takes over, non-Muslims just have to pay the jizziyeh tax to the Islamic authorities, and then they can live peacefully under Islamic rule.

I thanked him for his candidness and walked away, thinking how he had matter-of-factly confirmed in an instant everything I had read about Islam and jihad as being an absolutely normal and integral part of his religion.

On the way back home, I stopped and had a chat with one last shopkeeper who was more pragmatic and less religiously oriented than the previous one. He summarized well everything that I heard before: he hates the present situation; the Palestinians want peace; Abbas is sold to the US and for Israel; the Israelis are constantly destroying Palestinian houses; Jewish settlers are burning Palestinian trees; Israel is deceiving the Palestinians by constantly speaking about peace but never actually doing anything about it; the Jewish Temple never existed; the separation wall was built as a pretext to grab Palestinian land; he is against suicide bombings, but they are a natural response to Israeli aggression; Palestinians lose their citizenship if they leave the country for two years; they paid huge taxes to the Israeli government but get no services in return, etc, etc…

At this point, a French-Israeli you tour guide who was passing by with his group and had overheard the conversation politely intervened: "well," he said, "at least we are in a country where we are allowed to criticize our government, which might not be the case under another (Palestinian) rule... And remember the pitiful condition of the old city back under Jordanian rule when you didn't even have sewers, and how the Old City and your own condition has improved and developed under Israeli rule..."

I wrapped up my conversation with the shopkeeper who concluded with a thinly-veiled threat: "The Israelis had better give us our state, or we will get it by other means..."  I then caught up with the French-Israeli tour guide and asked if there was anything else he wanted to add. He said: "every time the Palestinians make strategic mistakes, and every time they are the ones who end up losing the most. It seems like this is what they are doing it again. Let's just hope that this will not lead to another regional war, and especially not one involving Iran..."

Mentally and emotionally exhausted, I headed back home, sadly thinking about Sandy's words: "as long as the Jews and Muslims are here there will never be peace..."  In the face of such cynicism and hopelessness, I thought that the most important thing we as Christians can do is to pray and work that the wounded inhabitants of this city and land may encounter Jesus, Messiah and Prince of Peace. Only He may renew their minds and hearts and turn a seemingly hopeless situation into one where true forgiveness, reconciliation and hope become again possible.