Friday, December 28, 2012

On the Way
by Fred & Gloria Strickert

We are sitting in the waiting lounge at Ben Gurion airport with a few minutes to catch our breath before our departure as we head on our way.

Catching our breath after another event-filled few weeks commemorating Christmas in the Holy Land, a time also filled with a range of emotions, worshipping in solemn candlelight, celebrating together at joyful Christmas parties, and sad, teary-eyed goodbyes.

Catching our breath after two and a half years of meaningful service accompanying the local Christians and ministering to others who are sojourning here in various capacities from short-term assignments, volunteer work, and study, to pilgrims and tourists who touch down for a brief moment and who then go on their ways.  It seems like we just arrived yesterday, but we hit the ground running and have been sprinting through our days here.  And it's come to an end much too quickly.

We go on our way, not really knowing where we are going nor knowing what comes next in our lives, other than spending some precious time with family in Iowa and North Carolina, and really taking the time to catch our breath.  No deadlines, no expectations, no pressure of "to do" lists, just being on the way.

Today is December 28, Holy Innocents Day on our calendars--the day commemorating the deaths of the children in Bethlehem when self-centered rulers demonstrated their lack of tolerance and their exclusivistic world view, while Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus were forced to flee Bethlehem and to go on their way.

The Evangelist Matthew made a connection with the biblical matriarch Rachel, described as weeping for her children--Rachel who, on the way to Bethlehem, died in childbirth and was buried on the way (how odd that the Genesis writer mentioned twice that she was on the way).

We've had a fascination with the story of Rachel since our mid-nineties year-long sojourn in Bethlehem when we watched Rachel's Tomb being transformed from a memorial for travelers from all religious expressions, all nationalities, and all ethnic groups (pilgrim reports demonstrated that Christians, Muslims, and Jews worshipped there together for nearly two thousand years).  This varied group found a welcome at Rachel's Tomb where they would pause for prayer before they continued on their ways.  Then in the mid-nineties it was being transformed with high walls, watchtowers, and soldier guards into an exclusive fortress for one group of persons, at the expense of others.  If you want to understand the situation here, this is paradigmatic, where security, control, power and land have taken the place of God and where respect for the other is disappearing. 

Fred's 2007 book--Liturgical Press

Martin Luther suggested that Rachel was a paradigm of faith because she was never quite there at her goal, never possessing, never controlling, never fixed to one particular place, but always on her way. That's the essence of the Genesis story:
  • as Rachel is introduced at the well near Haran, the meeting place for people on the way;
  • as Rachel is on the way to marriage;
  • as Rachel is on the way to children;
  • as Rachel is on the way to the land:
  • as Rachel dies on the way to Bethlehem; and
  • as Rachel is buried on the way.
So the real Rachel seems to be the ideal patron saint for the strangers of this world, those on their way, such as her own son Joseph carried unexpectedly off to Egypt, as the exiles heading to Babylon, and to the Holy Family heading to a place of refuge where God's angel would guide them.  Her empathy for the other, whoever that person may be, pours forth in her tears.

So here we are in the early morning hours of December 28 pausing to reflect as we go on our way.

And we find ourselves thinking less about where we are going than about those we leave behind in Bethlehem, Ramallah, and Jerusalem.  Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.  Pray for the Christians who continue steadfast in their faith and witness.

Thank you for sharing with us in our Walk in Jerusalem--even though it did seem more like running.  Thank you for taking time to read our stories about life in this place as we have had the privilege of being in accompaniment with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land. 

And now they're calling our flight.  We're on our way. . .

Fred & Gloria Strickert

Friday, December 21, 2012

We Refuse to be Enemies!

by Fred & Gloria Strickert

Enemy?  Me?  Not going to be one. No way!

Meet Daher Nassar, a member of our Lutheran Congregation in Bethlehem.  He's sitting by the entrance to his family farm on a hillside south of Bethlehem.  Next to him is the equivalent of a welcome mat inscribed in stone in Arabic, English, and German: "We refuse to be enemies!" 

From appearances, you probably are saying to yourself, "He doesn't look like an enemy to me." or "Whose enemy?" 

The problem is that his family owns a coveted piece of real estate.  As long as he claims ownership, he is viewed as enemy by those who would like to move in and take control.  Before going into the details about Daher's situation here at the end of 2012, we'd like to recall a similar episode nearly three millennia ago.

Back then, the Daher of the story was named Naboth and he owned a nice little vineyard next to the palace of King Ahab of Samaria.  Read 1 Kings 21 for details.   King Ahab began by coveting the land of his neighbor, and then did everything under his power--and we mean everything--to take control of land that was not his. But Naboth had other ideas. He was thinking about his kids and grandkids.  The land was entrusted to him for future generations, and he refused the offer of the King, who assumed that all the land was ultimately his by divine right.   Naboth was a loyal, law-abiding citizen, but the king turned him into an enemy, because he wouldn't give up his deed to the land.  It's amazing what greed will do to a person.  Ahab and Jezebel brought phony charges against their enemy Naboth, had him killed, and took possession of the land.  The media sold it, and the public bought it.  Naboth surely must have been a really bad guy, an enemy.

At this point in the story, there was one man who did not buy it,  Elijah the prophet. This man of God confronted Ahab in the vineyard, reminded him of the basic principles of biblical law, and turned advocate on behalf of Naboth's kids and grandkids, the legitimate heirs to the land.

"Is that you, my enemy?" Ahab challenged Elijah. 

What's the world coming to when people are labeled as enemies who defend their own legal rights to land?  What's the world coming to when those who stand up for the Naboths of this world, like Elijah, and who defend the rights of the oppressed, when they are labeled enemies? 

Back to the present day and today's Naboth-- our friend Daher.  On a September visit to the farm, his hospitality showered us with delicious grapes straight off the vine.  Daher's vineyard, however, although located in the West Bank, is surrounded by growing and expanding Israeli settlements.  See the arrow on the map below.

The four closest settlements were first established in 1982, 1983, 1975, and 1987, part of the strategy by Israel to take permanent control of the West Bank by creating facts on the ground.  Already today theses four settlements number 50,000 residents and are expanding rapidly--just one tenth the population of all West Bank settlements.

While the settlements were expanding and taking over other Palestinian properties, the Israeli government in the 1980s was making regular flights over the Nassar farm, photographing and recording patterns of crop production for the day when they could take over this property-- this info was revealed Daher and family decades later in court.

Settlements are illegal under international law because they are built on land confiscated by an occupying power.  They are immoral because their political purpose is to build roadblocks to peace.  Every nation recognizes this illegal maneuver as land grabbing, except the State of Israel, yet it has gone unchecked for nearly four decades and now half a million settlers live on Palestinian property in the West Bank, armed with their own militias, and protected by the Israeli army. Anyone, whether the owner, Israeli human rights groups, the church, or other nations, who question or challenge such confiscation of land, is labeled an enemy like Elijah in the story of Naboth's vineyard.

Only, Daher and family refuse to play that game.  "You may label us enemies.  You may treat us as enemies.  But we refuse to be enemies."

The settlers have often come by force, with weapons in hand to intimidate, to destroy property, to uproot trees, to block their access road, and to sabotage farm equipment, as on this 1999 day when younger brother Tony and niece were working on the farm.  (photo right) Yet the family refuses to recipocate in kind.  "Enemies?  Not going to be one."  The Nassars have pledged that they will only and always respond to violence with non-violence, but they will do everything in their power to hold onto the land entrusted to them.

Daoud, another brother in the family, tells the story of one occasion when armed settlers came demanding to inspect the land.  "No weapons allowed," he told them.  They snubbed their noses and insisted on entering.  So he made another request, "We Palestinians have a custom that whenever we have guests, we drink tea together, and then we do our business.  First, you must accept my gift of tea."  The settlers finally agreed to tea, and started to enter the gate, when Daoud reminded them, "No weapons."  So they ended up leaving their weapons outside with two from their group, and joined Daoud for tea.  After fidgeting while sitting there drinking tea, the settlers stood up, glanced around, and then left.

On another occasion when settlers confronted the Nassars, the family lawyer happened to be present on the land, and pulled out official documentation to demonstrate to the settlers once and for all the family's legitimate ownership. 

One of the settlers countered with his argument, "We have letters from God."

One of the reasons that the settler movement has succeeded in obtaining more and more land for expansion is because many of the Nassar's neighbors could not defend their right to ownership with "acceptable documentation."
Much Palestinian land came into families' hands during times when one's word was more important than a piece of paper and when the testimony of one's neighbors carried weight in court.  So more and more land is confiscated and turned into State Land, which is then sold to settlers, who are in turn subsideized by the government.

The Nassar farm has become problematical for the settlers because it is fully registered and documented. The grandfather of Daher, Tony, and Daoud, also named Daher Nasser, purchased these 100 acres on the picturesque hilltop in 1915, and it was fully registered with the British Mandate in 1924.

The family is reminded of this heritage everyday from these paintings on a central pillar in one of the farm's caves, now carefully carved out as a central meeting area.  Here the elder Daher, on the left, is depicted with his two sons.  Bishara, the current Nassars' father is pictured in the center along with his bachelor brother on the right.  The Palestinian custom is that names skip a generation among the oldest.  So Daher the elder had a son Bishara whose oldest son is the current Daher (of the blue shirt in photo at top) whose son Bishara is now a student in a Masters program in Peace Studies at Eastern Mennonite University in the USA, and this Bishara will pass on the name Daher to his eldest son.  Heritage is important in this culture, and the most honorable family duty is to pass on the land to the younger generations.
Here is another mural of the family to remind them of that heritage.
When they purchased the land in 1915, the uncle of Daher and his brothers was only twenty years old, and volunteered to live on the land and farm full-time.  He carved out an already existing cave to serve as his bachelor pad where he lived the bachelor life until he died at the age of 93.  Bishara Nassar, however, settled in the town of Bethlehem where served as an evangelist, sharing his faith throughout the community.  He married, and had a family of nine children.
The youngest of the children, Tony, (here in photo with wife Nisreen and one of their four children), is Vice-Principal of our Dar al-Kalima Lutheran School, and instructor in religion.  Tony was just four years old when his father Bishara died unexpectedly.

Last March, we joined the family on Land Day, as they planted an olive tree to com- memor- ate the 36th anniversary of Bishara's death in 1976.  Bishara left behind his widow and children who grew to raise their own families dedicated to their community and to the church.
In the photo below Bishara's widow poses with four sons, a daughter, and grandchildren at a recent wedding at the Church of the Nativity.  We value two full decades of friendship with this amazing family who remain a model of Christian faith and life in Bethlehem. 
All those years, family members would head out to the farm, often spending their nights there, assisting with the tasks of planting, watering, weeding, and harvesting.  Under occupation, these chores became more difficult, since Israel limited access to water from the acquifer underneath their own land. 
In 1988, when their bachelor uncle died, they began to lag further and further behind with the farm work.  Three years later in 1991, they learned that the Israeli military government had issued confiscation orders for three quarters of the farm according to Israeli absentee land policies.  It was only by a fortunate encounter with a resident from the nearby Muslim village of Nahilin that they learned about the confiscation order, which had been delivered mistakenly to the village.
Pastor Mitri Raheb, who would include a chapter about "Daher's Vineyard" in his book I am a Palestinian Christian, invited us to accompany him for our first visit to the farm in May 1992.  This would lead to numerous work days for us over the next decade clearing rocks from the fields, planting trees, vines, and annual vegetables, and hauling water to the the fields.  Mitri began to mobilize an international network of support, and explore ways to assist in the defense of the land. One of my former students, took off a year from University of Iowa Law School, to help the family gather legal evidence and obtain legal defense. 
The long story of the family's experience with Israeli courts is explained on their family website,  This included payouts of several hundred thousand dollars in legal expenses to obtain documentation from Ottoman records.  They would receive periodic announcements about scheduled days in court.  Yet they would show up again and again only to learn of postponements.  Finally when their day in court turned to reality, the govenment's evidence was declared insufficient.  Yet that has not brought an end to the quest to take away this family farm.  In the past year, they have received demolition notices for buildings on the farm, which, if they are carried out, will make it more difficult to continue the family presence on the land, and impede their efforts to farm the land.
By prolonging the ordeal for two full decades, the strategy of the settler movement, and the pro-settler government, seems to be aimed at wearing the family down and piling up additional costs for defense.   Yet the family remains steadfast in holding on to the land.

The Nassars recognize that they cannot do this alone.  Visiting church groups often spend an afternoon, or even a whole day, helping with farm work. Young adults from Europe or the States off sign up to volunteer on the farm for three months to a year.

The family runs summer camps for Palestinian children from Bethlehem and neighboring villages.

Daoud meets with visitng groups in one of the cave rooms, sharing with them the family's vision for the land and their future.
 And what is that vision?  Daher answers by pointing to a mural on the wall quoting Psalm 133.
Psalm 133:  "How good and pleasant it is when kindred dwell together in unity."
Another way of saying
 We refuse to be enemies!
by Fred & Gloria Strickert

Monday, December 17, 2012

by Fred & Gloria Strickert

On the third Sunday of Advent, the children of our congregation here in Jerusalem lit the candle of joy in our Advent wreath.

In this season of quiet reflection and patient hope, one Sunday is set aside for joy.  It's like the yin and yang of Christianity.  It the midst of darkness, there is a flicker of light.  In a world of suffering, pain, and injustice, there are words of comfort, acts of healing, and pleas for justice.  In grief and sorrow, there is joy, nevertheless.

While Gloria and I have been reflecting on our experience over the last several years, among the many things that we will miss, are the expressions of joy that spring up every day in Palestinian society, especially among the Palestinian Christian Community.  The laughter we hear on the playgrounds of our Lutheran schools.  The joy in the familiar greetings on the street, Kif Halak?  L'Hamdilla.  The telling of a good joke, as also the amusement in telling a bad one.  The joyous welcoming into a home for a cup of coffee or for a meal. 

And most of all, the joy that takes place at Palestinian weddings:  the laughter, the celebration, the hugging and kissing, the eating, the raising of a glass of Arak to toast better days ahead, inshallah, the music, and the dancing-- the enthusiastic, not-holding-back dancing for everyone present, from grandparents to children just beginning to walk, the graceful hand gestures, to the swaying of the body, the pull of the crowds closer and closer, and then the grasping of hands in a wide circle of community, embracing all with exhilerating shouts of joy.


Dancing that goes deep into the night.

 We will truly miss the joyous weddings.

It might seem strange to see such rejoicing, considering the circumstances of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation.  Yet that is what Advent joy is all about. 

Karl Barth--instrumenal in the formation of the Confessing Church in opposition to Hitler and principal author of the Barmen Confession--wrote that true joy does not come because of our circumstances of health or wealth, of prosperity or success.  Christians do not have joy because of their circumstances, he said, but in spite of them

So it's no accident that of all the Greek words for joy, the New Testament most often employs the word CHARA which is derived from the word for grace, CHARIS.  Thus the common joyful Arabic expression L'Hamdilla -- Thanks be to God.  We have joy in the Lord.

This is Paul's message to the congregation in Philippi, "Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice"-- the Advent 3 epistle.  It's difficult to imagine what such words meant to this community with their memory of Paul and Silas singing hymns in prison until the late hours of the night. And now with Paul writing from a context of another imprisonment in Rome, his repetion of the word joy some dozen times is profound.

Joy, in spite of the circumstances. 

 Joy, nevertheless.

Advent 3 Joy.

by Fred & Gloria Strickert

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Writing on the Wall
by Fred & Gloria Strickert

Photo Credits: from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, & a few from Maannews.                          Final two photos are ours.

A report "Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds," was recently released by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The report sees more hostile divisions within Israeli society between views of openness and exclusion.  It states, "At home Israel faces increasing social and political divisions between those who still cherish a vision" expressed by its 1948 founders versus "the growing demographic weight of the religiously conservative Haredim and settler movement."

While concerns about the influence of fundamentalism and extremism in the Muslim world is a major topic in the Western Media--and of which we are very much aware and concerned--the following are concerns that confront us daily in the local Israeli press, as can be seen in a selection of Haaretz photos below.

It's all in the daily news-- The Writing on the Wall.

Hebrew and Arabic are both official languages of the state of Israel.  Policy dictates that most road signs are written in both languages as also in English. So it is for the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheik Jarrah.
On the West Bank highway 60 north of Jerusalem, settlers have painted over the Arabic name for Jerusalem, not accepting their traditional name for the city "al-Quds" -- The Holy (city).

At another West Bank Junction, all Arabic names have been painted out, with the Hebrew word
 "Revenge" added.

..The Arabic name "Lifta" rubbed out from a commemorative sign, just as the village's Arab residents were expelled in 1948.
The writing on a wall from Lifta.
University of Haifa Logo.
Pre-2012 Logo (Left)        2012 Logo (Right)
What is missing in the newer version?
Sign in West Jerusalem store window: 
"Lehava hires only Jewish Workers" 
Beitar Soccer Riots--fans hold flag of banned racist Kach party at January game against team with Arab players.  Fans take out loss by beating up Arab workers in Malha Mall across the street from Teddy Stadium on March 23, 2012 (lower left).  Israelis (right) in solidarity with Arab workers demonstrate against fans "Jerusalem is for all people"
May 23, 2012 violent demonstration against African Migrants in Tel Aviv.
October 14, 2012 Sudanese demonstration protesting their removal to large tent detention camps in the Negev Desert.  "We are refuges from war!" 
Demonstration:     "The land of Israel for the people of Israel"  Oct. 23, 2012.

From "Please" to "Strictly Forbidden"

"Separate is not equal"     Protests by Israeli women
"No to women exclusion" -- Israeli women protest against a ban against photos of women in advertisements on public transportation.
The Writing on the Wall
Graffiti and "Price tag" attacks carried out in name of Settler Movement
against schools, churches, & mosques  
Mosque attacks -- Price tag Graffiti      derogatory to Muslims and the Prophet Muhammed--at numerous mosques over the last year                 .

Jab'a Mosque fire June 12, 2012  Graffiti "Ulpana War"

Beit Safafa Hand in Hand Bilingual School for Muslims, Christians, and Jews.                          Price Tag Graffiti "Death to the Arabs" --          February 6, 2012.

 Price Tag Graffiti "Death to the Arabs" at bilingual school for Israeli Jews and Muslims in the intentionally integrated village Neve Shalom, with tires of 14 cars slashed on June 8, 2012.

Latrun Monastery Price Tag Attack September 3, 2012 with doors set afire and Graffiti "Jesus is a Monkey"
Monastery of the Cross Price Tag Attack -- February 6, 2012
Price tag attack at Jerusalem Narkis Street Baptist Church with Graffiti "Death to Christianity" & "Mary was a Prostitute" -- February 20, 2012
Price Tag Graffiti on Dormition Church outside Zion Gate,- Old City: "Jesus is a Son of a Bitch"  October 2, 2012
Dec. 12, 2012 Monastery of the Cross -- Graffiti:  "Happy Hanukkah, Price Tag, Victory for the Maccabees, Jesus was a Son of a Bitch."
The Writing on the Wall-- from the Daily News
Below is the writing on our LWF Fence

This is a photo we took when we arrived home after church on Oct. 21, a notice posted on the Lutheran World Federation fence where we live.  It is an announcement from the Jerusalem Municipality that plans are moving ahead to build an eight story IDF War College on land adjacent to LWF property just a few meters from our house.  This is viewed as one more provocation since it will be built in East Jerusalem on land expropriated from Palestinians.
Here are links to a couple of reports at earlier stages here  and here and here
The notice gives people 60 days to express any opposition to the plan--which has of course been done by numerous parties from Israeli human rights groups to NGOs to Church leaders.  With the announcement this week of construction of more illegal settlements in the E-1 corridor on the East Side of LWF property, it does not look promising.
                The Writing on the Wall

Writing on the wall of a house in Hebron 
by Fred & Gloria Strickert