EPF PIN member The Rev’d E. Clifford (Cliff) Cutler traveled in Israel/Palestine last year and wrote this reflection of his time on the ground.
I retired in May 2019 and took a pilgrimage to the Holy Land from Sunday, November 3 to the 16, 2019. It was a time to reflect on “retirement” which is a word that nobody likes to use. I have decided to say with only a trace of humor that I am now a “Freelance Journeyman” in the Episcopal Church. After an apprenticeship of 43 years in ordained parish ministry, I am now qualified to freely pursue the spiritual path of the Master Carpenter from Nazareth. So why not follow in the Carpenter’s steps?
I realize that this pilgrimage is an exercise in unearned privilege. Peggy McIntosh in a classic paper “White Privilege and Male Privilege” (1988) observed that in the United States whiteness is like having an invisible knapsack provisioned with presumptions that one is articulate, possesses leadership, has access to places one wishes to go, and options that one may choose from without considering whether one’s own race would be accepted. As I begin this pilgrimage I enter Israel/Palestine provisioned with the unearned privilege of not being Palestinian. Those of us like me who are white are less aware of this invisible knapsack than those among us who are African-American and our knapsacks are fuller with more presumptions. We are unfairly advantaged. Because of settlements, restricted roads, checkpoints, and the wall, Palestinians have little freedom of movement. Their leadership is questioned (The State of Israel complains, “We have no partner with whom to negotiate.”). All options are freighted with the consideration of race.
Luke’s version of the Beatitudes concludes with four ‘Woe’s. It is as though Jesus wants us to unpack our invisible knapsack of unearned privilege. Woe to those who carry the presumptions to unearned power and unfair advantage yielding riches, fullness, laughter, and acclaim. The way race impacts each of us in the Holy Land and at home, and continues to do so, needs to be unpacked. In the space that is opened up by this unpacking there is emptiness for God to fill. That is why Jesus declares, bereft of unearned privilege, we are surprisingly blessed.
Blessed are you who are poor (with an empty “knapsack”). Why? Because God will mend you with unearned, overflowing grace; and God will use you to be agents of one another’s mending. Blessed are you who hunger, and recognize the hunger of others. God will fill you with the passion to care for those who are in need. Blessed are those who weep. This is the conversion of tears. We see suffering and cannot sit still. We find in God’s power of renewal and healing the energy to hope and laugh. Finally, blessed are you when you are excluded. Why? Because you then discover compassion for the other.
As I begin this pilgrimage, Jesus wants me to shine a spotlight on the invisible knapsack of privilege that I as a non-Palestinian carry in this place so that it is no longer invisible and can be unpacked.
On Monday, my first full day in East Jerusalem, Yumna Patel, the Palestinian correspondent for Mondoweiss, reported that over the weekend a video had leaked from the year prior showing an “Israeli border police officer shooting a Palestinian in the back as the man walked away from the officers, his hands raised in the air.” Stationed at a checkpoint, the officers told the man to turn around and walk away hands still raised before shooting him in the back. It reminded me of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO on August 9, 2014 who according to witnesses put his hands in the air before being shot and killed by a police officer. My friend Susan Landau and Rachael Kamel write “threads of connection exist across issues and geography” (Why Palestine Matters, p. 20). David Brooks in the New York Times wrote on August 14, “As the protests in Ferguson have escalated over the past week, the international community has increasingly turned its attention to the demonstrations stemming from the fatal shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old black man. Surprisingly, the images and videos of the police crackdown on protesters have resulted in shows of sympathy and support coming all the way from Palestinians in Gaza” (quoted in Why Palestine Matters, p. 26). Discovering these threads of connection is called intersectionality that seeks to understand the interaction between connected systems and structures of power. How do we unpack the shooting of an unarmed black man and a Palestinian both of whose hands were raised? A verse from the Daily Office for that day reads: “Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful, for I have taken refuge in you; in the shadow of your wings will I take refuge until this time of trouble has gone by” (Psalm 57: 1).
Black rooftop containers throughout Palestine are used to store water when Israel cuts off the supply. “…Ramallah has more annual rainfall than London. At the same time Israel has denied Palestinians control over their own water resources and successfully controlled all water aquifers in the region, both in Israel and the Palestinian territory…. While the UN’s World Health Organization recommends a daily allotment of 100 liters/day/person, Palestinians are limited to 70 liters/day/person. However, Israelis are given access to 300 liters/day/person” (Why Palestine Matters, p. 18). Three years prior, I participated in a witness with over 500 clergy at Cannon Ball, ND to support of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe protesters against the Dakota Access Pipeline. The tribe argued the oil pipeline could harm drinking water and damage sacred sites. In September, 2016 over 90 signatories of Palestinians from around the world including Tarek Abuata, executive director, Friends of Sabeel North America, sent a statement of solidarity to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. In part, the statement read: “We hereby declare our unqualified and heartfelt solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in their epic struggle to protect what remains of their ancestral lands, waters, and sacred sites.” Here in the right to control one’s water resources is another instance of intersectionality.
A college classmate of mine, a Jew, has Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS). I told him I would pray for him and tuck the prayer into the Western Wall. He replied that would be a blessing. He would die a month later. After praying, young Jews singing preceded me up to the Temple Mount. They went to what Muslims call Elharam Esh Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary) not to pray but to make a statement of dominance. Rather than power over others, I was reminded of a line from Willa Cather’s novel My Antoniá, “The prayers of all good people are good.”
It is Saturday, November 9. This is the anniversary of Kristallnacht that took place in Germany on the night of November 9-10 in 1938, 81 years ago. At www.yadvashem.org, Kristallnacht is described as a “Pogrom (massacre or riot against Jews)… The name Kristallnacht refers to the glass of the shop windows smashed by the rioters…. The Nazi Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, told the other participants that the time had come to strike at the Jews…. Some 30,000 Jews, many of them wealthy and prominent members of their communities, were arrested and deported to the concentration camps at Dachau, Sachsenhausen, and Buchenwald, where they were subjected to inhumane and brutal treatment and many died. During the Pogrom itself, some 90 Jews were murdered.” In Nazareth on the night of November 9, 2019 I joined a Rosary Procession that began at the Church of the Annunciation.
Earlier that day I passed Hanthala, a cartoon creation of Naji al-Ali. He is standing as usual, turned away, hands clasped behind his back. What he is looking at are the results of what Palestinians call the Nakba (Catastrophe). The sign before him reads, on May 15, 1948 more than 780,000 Palestinians were forced out of their homes and land. More than 500 villages were destroyed by Zionist forces. More than 50 civilian massacres were committed, more than 15,000 martyrs.” Cartoonist Al-Ali at the age of 11 was among the 780,000 who were forced from their homes in 1948. Hanthala, the cartoon figure, was never allowed to grow older than 11. Hanthala in hundreds of cartoons is always seen from the back as though we must join the ugly, poor child with spikey hair and patched shirt looking upon some cruelty or hypocrisy. With a child’s eyes, we cannot understand; we can only rage, judge, and in silence know that what we are looking at is broken and wrong.
How is it possible to hold together in one’s heart, at the same time, Kristallnacht and the Nakba ten years later? Perhaps as Christians we can only gather where the deep and embracing compassion of God was embodied among humankind at the Annunciation, and conclude with Mary, God “has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 2:51-52).
Also November 9 is the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Three days later I would be at the Israeli wall in Bethlehem, begun in 2002. In 2004 the International Court ruled that the wall on occupied lands was illegal. The wall when it is finished will extend 435 miles, 85% of which will wander through the West Bank. Part of the strategy of the wall has been to enclose West Bank settlements thus annexing 10% of the occupied land. There is more than a thread of connection between the proposed U.S. wall separating Mexico, and that of Israel. Netanyahu supports Trump’s Mexican Wall, and Trump uses Israeli assurances to push this agenda. One finds a high degree on intersectionality in reliance upon walls. One message painted on the Israeli Wall reads: “Walls don’t work here, and they won’t work in America.”
The day before during lunch I watched video remembering Yasser Arafat’s life on the 15th anniversary of his death. The next morning I learned that Israeli forces had killed a Palestinian man during a yearly West Bank march commemorating Yasser Arafat in the Al-Arroub refugee camp. Entering the camp and reacting to the march, soldiers fired live ammunition, tear gas, and sound or stun grenades. One of the tear gas canisters exploded next to the house of Omar al-Badawi, 22, causing a small fire. When Omar went out with a bottle of water to douse it, a soldier fired hitting him in the abdomen and killing him. I visited the al-Arroub refugee camp in 2008. The Camp was built in 1948 for 40 separate villages whose inhabitants were displaced. The camp covers 1 square kilometer with a population of 10,000. It is one of the most crowded areas in the world. Since the closure of Israel, unemployment here stands at 51%. A high percentage of the population is incarcerated in Israeli prisons, especially among youth 18 to 26 years old.
Also at Bethlehem I visited the Peace Center. Located in Manger Square, it is Bethlehem’s first cultural center whose aim is to promote and enhance the Palestinian yearning for peace. In the Peace Center there was a display of crèches from all over the world. One that caught my eye was a miniature, blue collar, African-American Holy Family from the United States. There was a heart on Jesus’ diaper! While at the Peace Center Israeli forces killed a top Islamic Jihad commander in an air raid on his home in Gaza City. Shortly after the attack, salvos of rockets were launched from Gaza into Israel.
The Oslo Accord in 1995 divided the West Bank into Areas A, B, and C. Area A comprises about 18% of the land in the West Bank. A red warning sign declares this area is under the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA). The road into Area “A” is forbidden to Israeli Citizens and Dangerous to Their Lives, the sign implausibly warns. Area B comprises about 22% of the West Bank encompassing mostly rural regions. Israel retains security control of this area with civil matters handled by the PA. Area C covers 60% of the West Bank. Israel has nearly complete control of this area. “The division into areas was to have been temporary and meant to enable an incremental transfer of authority to the Palestinian Authority.” (Why Palestine Matters, p. 58). Since the Oslo Accord in 1995 however the number of settlers in the West Bank has tripled from 200,000 to 600,000.
The pilgrimage over, I walked along the jet way to our plane at Ben Gurion airport. Signs on either side advertised the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ). While perhaps not strictly a Christian Zionist group they certainly make common cause with them. Of Yechiel Eckstein the organization’s founder, Christian Zionist John Hagee said: “His impact on the state of Israel and on bringing Jews and Christians together will be felt for generations.” Christian Zionists will not accept any peace that would weaken Israel’s hold on the land. They believe there is a divine mandate to support the modern state of Israel, “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse.” Christian Zionism fuses religion with politics, rather than places them in dialogue or in prophetic challenge. The removal of settlers, they argue, is not blessed by God. Any criticism of the State of Israel is not only anti-Semitic but also against God’s will. The fact that 4 million Palestinians under occupation (some of whom are Christian) are suffering losses is inconsequential to Christian Zionism.