Jun 132011
 

[Note – I got out of sync. Hebron was actually day 2. What can I say? I was tired.]

Yad Vashem Holocaust MemorialThe visit to Hebron was a difficult one. Witnessing the effects of Israeli settlements on a Palestinian community was difficult. Seeing some of the ‘propaganda’ used to justify the existence of settlements was frustrating and caused a degree of anger.

But it never takes much in Israel to be reminded that the picture is enormously complex. Not every Jew agrees with what is happening in such places. ‘Settlers’ are not always representative of the wider community and culture. Indeed, they are often the more idealistic ones who have, often, been encouraged to return from other countries to reclaim their ‘birthright’. It is not a simple Jew v Moslem debate.

Added to this mix is the very recent history concerning the way Jews have been treated and how global events have manipulated and influenced the present state of affairs. There are many countries and governments complicit in present, unsatisfactory situation.

Perhaps one of the most emotive events in recent history is the Holocaust and it is a memorial to this event that Yad Vashem stands. The photograph shows the end of the main exhibition hall. Its triangular construction represents the coloured triangular patches of cloth which were sown to garments, in combinations, to represent the ‘crime’ of the wearer. The exhibition hall is just one part of the memorial though. The memorial park itself is huge and houses gardens of remembrance for various groups and ages. There is, for instance, a memorial garden to remember the children who suffered and died in the Holocaust.

There is no doubt that a wander round Yad Vashem is thought-provoking and not a little uncomfortable. The exhibition is exceptionally well done without ever coming across as grisly or voyeuristic. It is, nevertheless, extremely hard-hitting and it’s no wonder that it is a site visited regularly by Israeli conscripts. Near the beginning there is a potted history of anti-Semitism and not just in a Nazi context. It’s a stark reminder of how persecution and hatred of a group can become systemic and unquestioned. Then, only when blatant atrocities are committed are such things questioned. I would hesitate to suggest that such a style of presentation is intended to develop a ‘victim’ complex and to lay a guilt-trip on everyone else, but it certainly leaves a taint in the mind and a bad taste in the mouth.

What is unquestioningly powerful though is the collected testimonies of survivors and victims. Seeing the emotions on the faces of survivors speaking their story to camera and reading the words of diaries and letters and even journals and poems cannot leave anyone unmoved.

Strangely, though, it was not these that had the greatest impact on me, harrowing though they were. There is a room in the exhibition which holds records. The room is cylindrical, maybe 12 metres across and 6 metres high. You walk into a central, raised viewing platform. You are surrounded by box files. These are the records of those who died and were presented at the Nuremberg trials. Seeing millions of lives condensed to plain boxes of paperwork was deeply affecting. It was, in a sense, soul-less. These records are an inadequate witness to the millions of victims. In and of themselves they are just bits of paper – in that sense soul-less. And yet, what they represent is the destruction of human life on an unprecedented scale, made worse by the fact that this was not simply a by-product of war, but a deliberate targeting of and attempt to exterminate specific groups of people (and, of course, not simply Jews). The very soul-lessness of the room and the records was a stark reminder of how dehumanising the treatment of Jews and other targeted groups was. When all someone is is a label, a coloured classification, then a paper record is all they are.

I find this difficult to write about. Words are inadequate to express such outrage and to draw contemporary parallels would be to open a floodgate that would, it seems, be overwhelming. And yet, even in such bleakness, there was hope. Another exhibit room records many of the acts of those who did speak out, who did put themselves in danger to stand up to the oppressors. Many were people of faith; many were great humanitarians; many were simply supporting friends and neighbours.

There is, of course, a supremely contentious lesson to be drawn from such a visit. When you read of Jews being excluded from areas of towns and cities, when they are not allowed to walk in certain areas, when they are treated as something less than human, it is difficult not to draw contemporary parallels. I don’t feel brave enough to dive into them here. Nor do I claim to have any kind of deep understanding of the complexity of issues involved. Yet, in my naivety, or simplicity, I can’t help but wonder…

Maybe it’s best not to go too far down that road, but rather, consider its impact on what our response ought to be. It’s easy to condemn, or point fingers, or play the ‘blame game’. It’s easy to get sucked in taking sides, seeing everything as black and white. I find the work of EAPPI and others of that ilk to be an enormously powerful way forward. They stand in witness to the humanity of all and call for that humanity to be recognised and respected. Unravelling the historical, political, religious and cultural issues surrounding the situation in the middle east is beyond most of us. But acknowledging the humanity and worth of others is eminently within our capabilities. And it is something which doesn’t just have application in places like Israel and Palestine, but can find a place much closer to home too.

Jun 052011
 

Hebron SoukA visit to Hebron was never going to be an easy one. It epitomises, in many respects, the key issues for Israel and Palestine. Hebron is a fair sized city, predominantly Palestinian, about 25 miles south of Jerusalem. It is one of the most densely populated in the west Bank and is divided into two areas, the larger under the control of the Palestinians. But within this zone there are a number of Jewish settlements under military protection. There are approximately 500 settlers, with a military force of between 500 and 2000 soldiers (depending on tension levels). This within an area housing 30000 Palestinians.

The settlement areas highlight the imbalance of power. It is the Palestinians who are prevented from particular areas, including some of the main roads. Access to their houses is through dirt tracks and neighbours gardens. A Palestinian brave enough to take to the main road risks being shot – it is easier to minimise the ‘risk’ by assuming everyone is potentially hostile and to shoot first. There are no questions later – it’s military law in force. In fact, even the Jewish settlers go around openly and well-armed. As we wandered down a deserted street, the Palestinian shops all closed and unoccupied because it is a no-go street for them, we were brought up short by the distant sound of gunfire, followed soon afterwards by the unmistakable sound of an ordnance explosion. Our guide for the day reckoned it was probably from the nearby military barracks as the tension levels were low at the time.

Our walk through that part of Hebron was to take us to the Tomb of the Patriarchs. The site of the tombs of Abraham (and his wife Sarah) and his descendants Isaac and Jacob. As we approached a checkpoint nearby we noted that the road was divided (unevenly) by a concrete barrier. Jews were allowed to use the broader lane, wide enough for cars; Palestinians had to use the narrower side. We opted to walk on the Palestinian side and also chose the mosque side of the Tomb of the Patriarchs. A single building covers the site, but it is split in half – one side a mosque, the other a synagogue. In one sense, completely understandable given the common reverence for the Patriarchs. Yet the irony was not lost on us. Having visited the mosque, where we were made welcome, visiting the synagogue was not an option. Again, we had made our choice.

Our route back to the city centre took us through a souk and the picture above is one part of it. The wire mesh is not a convenience for hanging things from, but an absolute necessity. The buildings above are part of the Jewish settlements and it is common for the settlers to throw their rubbish and rocks down into the souk. Such is their contempt for those who do business there.

Our guide for the morning was a young woman volunteering with EAPPI – a World Council of Churches initiative to help and highlight what is happening around such settlements. The volunteers serve for 3 months and there job is simply to observe the checkpoints. It seems that the Israeli military is somewhat less inclined to be so oppressive when there are international observers with cameras around. It doesn’t mean that EAPPI, and the many similar groups, don’t get harassed themselves, but it does help the overall situation.

IMG_6110.JPGThe afternoon brought us to Bethlehem. If there’s one thing about the Holy Land, it’s that if there is the hint of a ‘holy’ site, there’ll be a place of worship on top of it. But there are also the commercial opportunities to be had. I have to say that Bethlehem seemed to have some of the most tackily named tourist shops we have come across so far. John the Baptist Souvenir Shop or the Christmas Bells restaurant, every opportunity is grasped to link with the relevant site. I can’t help but wonder though if the heavily-pregnant Mary might have found the going easier if there were escalators to hand to get her to the stable room.

May 102011
 

I’m wondering what has happened to the month that has passed since I last posted anything. Once again, it’s not a case of nothing happening; more just a case of lots of little things which eat away at the time and are, in and of themselves, not really worth a blog post. But I suppose that’s a reminder of just how quickly time slips away when there’s constant activity. And that’s a reminder in itself that things come around all too soon and before you know it it’s a bit of a panic to get everything sorted that needs done.

I was speaking with someone recently who was asking what I was up to in the next wee while. By the time I’d rhymed off what was definitely in the diary I realised that a chunk of May had been accounted for, June was a complete goner and July signalled the time for my final report in anticipation of the review in mid-August.

Time, it seems, is not willing to stand still to allow me take stock for a bit. And when I do snatch a moment, I keep thinking in terms of, “But I’ve still to do…” or “I’ve never done…” And, of course, there are all the things that I’m blissfully unaware of that will hit me from out of the blue. But when I snatch a moment and look back at all that I have done, I realise that there has been a lot packed in to what seems a ridiculously short time. And it will soon be time to start dredging it all up and putting it together for a report.

It also came as a shock that I had passed that halfway point and the second half of probation looked an awful lot shorter than the first half. I’m really not convinced that time is constant at all. I think there is some bizarre warp effect that comes into effect the moment you take your eye off the clock to do something. Or maybe time is just downright sneaky.

Anyway – a couple of tangents.

I’ve been reading Eugene Peterson’s,  The Contemplative Pastor and have decided that it should be required reading for all ministers. More to the point, it should be mandatory reading for all vacancy committees.

I’ve also been getting agitated reading recent postings and comments on many of the US-based theology blogs I subscribe to. The issue, of course, is bin Laden. I can’t decide whether to be irritated or saddened by much of the rhetoric that passes for ‘Christian justice’. The, generally, triumphalist attitude is really quite sickening and when respected UK voices are pilloried for daring to question the tone and the actions then I do begin to realise just how vastly different US and European culture actually is. I don’t particularly want to unsubscribe from some of the blogs, because it’s mainly commenters I take issue with, but I see very little response from the bloggers to gainsay them. I’m generally quite happy to read stuff I disagree with, but this recent activity has just left a particularly sour taste.

May 112010
 

I don’t generally blog on politics. It’s not a subject which particularly enthuses me – at least in the traditional sense. I have no particular love of party politics. The confrontational Westminster style is just irritating and the negative campaigning is simply depressing. But this blog entry isn’t about any of those things anyway. Rather, it’s about a train of thought that was triggered by watching a programme from a few days ago.

Continue reading »

Nov 082008
 

One of those irreverent politics sites I mentioned had this photo available for captioning. It’s definitely one of those Kodak moments that you couldn’t stage. It’s also one of those photos that really needs no further comment, so I’ll not.

(click the picture for a bigger version)

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