Wednesday, May 25, 2011

KINDRED SPIRITS




I’ve had friends ask why Nancy didn’t take more photos of us in Israel. Israel wasn’t about being a tourist. We had no interest in scrawling “Kilroy was here” on the ruins of Caesarea Philippi. Israel is much more than the churches, mosques, ruins, or the archaeology. Israel is the people. Israel is a state of mind and heart.

Where to from here? We’d love to go back. But, travel gets more difficult with each passing year and the T.S.A. isn’t making things any easier.

And Israel? Whither to, Israel?

Archaeologists have found the remains of at least 26 civilizations in Israel. The Egyptians have been there. So have the Philistines, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Crusaders, the Muslims, the Mamluks, the Ottoman Turks, the British, and the Hashemites. Today there are about 14 million Jews in the world, which represents two tenths of one percent of the world’s population. About 6 million live in Israel.

The Jewish people have been through long periods of exile. In the 2nd century, the Roman emperor Hadrian expelled the Jewish population from Judea and renamed the nation Palestina (meaning land of the Philistines). It remained that way until 1948. Since then, Israel has been a bone of international contention. I suspect it will continue to remain that way for at least the remainder of my life.

Will the issues attendant with the Palestinian people and the Jews ever be resolved? I hope so, but I have serious doubts. The political and diplomatic obstacles are formidable enough, but the hatred at the root of the problem has made any solution almost impossible.

More than most Americans, I have some personal knowledge about both sides of the conflict. My sister’s second husband was Palestinian. He was handsome and hard working. He could be very charming. But there were times when all of that would give way to uncontrollable rage. He detested Jews. I learned never to say anything nice about Jewish people in his presence.

In the early nineties I was assigned duties as a mentor for a young Palestinian engineer. He was every bit as charming and handsome as my sister’s husband. He was absolutely brilliant. There were times I wondered why FedEx had me mentoring him. Our friendship grew. He became comfortable enough with me to call me, affectionately, “Bucko.” We often spent our lunchtime talking about our respective faiths. There were significant differences, but we could discuss them as friends. When the subject of Israel came up, though, everything changed. I told him of my hopes for a two state solution, with both sides living in peace within secure borders. He told me, “You Americans need to understand. We don’t want a two state solution. We want to drive the Zionists into the sea. We want them all dead.”

Do my sister’s husband and my young associate constitute the entirety of opinion on Israel? It’s a good question, and it’s not as easy to answer as some might think. Pew research just completed a post-Mubarak public opinion poll in Egypt. Fifty-four percent, an overwhelming plurality, favor rescinding Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. In Lebanon, Hassan Nasrallah and Hezbollah are arming themselves to the teeth with help from Syria and Iran. Their aim is the destruction of Israel. The Iranian mullahs are committed to the obliteration of the “Zionist entity,” as is Hamas in Gaza. Here at home, attitudes are shifting. Christian denominations, including the Presbyterians, some elements of the Methodists, the World Council of Churches have equated Zionism with racism and have mounted boycotts of Israel. A couple of years ago I received some correspondence about the “Palestinian problem.” The solution offered was uniquely American – “Palestine for the Palestinians and the Jews to Texas.” I cut the correspondence off. It sounded too much like a final solution to me.

The people of Israel have a real dilemma. As Bob Dylan once wryly noted, Israel is “surrounded by pacifists who all want peace.”

In 2006 I purchased an Israeli flag and flew it from my front porch flagstaff when Israel went into Lebanon to stop the constant rocket fire from Hezbollah. It was my small gesture of support. I haven’t flown it since, but I suspect I’ll have the opportunity to hoist it again. When I do I’ll see more than just a symbol. I’ll see Amos’s face. I’ll see Menachem Goldberg, an Israeli farmer who has dedicated his life to the just application of the Old Testament law. I’ll see men praying at the Western Wall. I’ll see the shopkeepers and the children. I’ll take a moment to silently utter the old age prayer for the peace of Jerusalem. My neighbors probably won’t even notice and that’s alright. That unfurled flag will be a reminder to me of where I stand and that’s what really matters.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

MENDING THE WORLD



“And one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush in upon you. The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident, in my case my little boy, hardly more than a baby, saying ‘Jewish swine,’ collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose.”
Milton Mayer – “They Thought They Were Free”

Yesterday was Easter Sunday. Our church was packed to overflowing, due in in large part, I think, to the cultural habit of Americans to give the Almighty “his due” a couple of times a year.

It’s Monday and I’m staring out at the Mulberry tree outside my office window. I find myself contemplating the lessons of our recent trip. I’m still determined not to let mission creep rob me of what I’ve learned. It’s difficult. I’m as prone to cultural habits as any American.

It’s odd. I visited a lot of Christian churches while I was in Israel, from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to the Church of the Multiplication. But I didn’t find most of them that meaningful. Maybe I should have, and I’m sure a lot of my fellow Christians could fault me for my lack of insight or vision. I’m not going to mount much of a defense.

Of all the Christian sites I enjoyed the Church of the Multiplication most. It’s a very simple building, erected on the shores of the Sea of Galilee to commemorate Jesus’s miracle feeding of the 5,000. It didn’t take long to tour the interior. When we were done Amos gathered our group together and handed out plastic trash bags and told us that one of the really important outworkings of his Jewish faith was “mending the world.” For a half an hour he got us involved in that work. We walked along the shore, picking up trash that had more than likely been deposited there by other Christian tourists. Thinking back on it, it seems like such a small gesture. I’m sure other Christian tourists will come and carelessly dump more trash at the “holy site,” making our half hour seem to be a futile effort. But Amos’s message still resonates with me – “Mend the world!”

I’ve been home for ten days now. I’m no longer sleep-deprived and I’ve re-adjusted to an American diet. But I’ve come back sensing that I’m caught in an existential trap. America is going one way and I find myself muttering under my breath, “Dammit, let me off, I want no part of what’s going on here.” Peggy Noonan, in an April 21st op-ed expressed what I’m feeling. She describes an America that sends its young men and women around the world to bring the benefits of liberty to the uncivilized, yet finds itself falling apart at its cultural seams. We’re obsessed with Snooki and she and her friends are obsessed with sex. We’ve got five year olds toting guns to school. We’ve got people smacking each other around at McDonald’s, kiddie porn, and “Real Housewives” insulting one another. And, it’s all brought to you by Viagra.

Third world foreigners must look at this and think, “How empty and meaningless.”

As much as I feel I want to get off, I realize I can’t. It’s all spinning too fast.

Amos taught us that our task in life must be “mending the world.” It’s a lesson he’s learned well. His world is no less chaotic than ours. He has enemies surrounding him, bent on his death and the death of his wife and children. Yet, he works for peace in the midst of the chaos around him. How does he do it?

At Yad Vashem he spent a few minutes talking about how well engineered the Holocaust was. Once the ball got rolling, the extermination that followed was a masterpiece of efficiency. There was competitive bidding for the ovens and the best prices for Zyklon-B. There were numerical standards for how many Jews could or should be exterminated on a daily basis. As Amos described the meticulousness of the details I gave thought to Milton Mayer’s powerful words about self-deception. I found a quiet place and broke down, thinking back to my days as a process engineer and the formulas I used every day to increase operational productivity. The number of people required equals work divided by rate divided by span. Some German engineer used the same formula to advance the Final Solution.

Self-deception is a very powerful weapon. We Americans often labor under the burden of fixing everyone else in the world. I can’t help but wonder how much better things might be if we spent more time fixing ourselves before we attempt to civilize the rest of the world.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

THE NEIGHBORHOOD BULLY



One of the questions I’ve most often been asked about our trip to Israel was “Did you feel safe?” The answer is always, “Yes.” I can only recall one time during the 10 days that I felt a bit uncomfortable. We were in Nazareth and a couple of people from our group had gotten separated from the main body. It took a few minutes, but our guide found the wayward pilgrims and re-united them with the rest of us. And, that was that.

The people of Israel live in a very dangerous part of the world. They’re not na├»ve. They don’t have a collective death wish. They understand their position in the world’s geopolitical order. They know they have many enemies. But, they want to live meaningful lives. As I traveled around the country I saw that the people focused on living life. I think the centuries of being labeled “Christ killers,” “money grubbers,” “communists,” or being the objects of the Fuhrer’s “final solution” has contributed to the national sense that life is now for the living.

This national ideal of life is reflected in the land. As we made our way from place to place the olive trees seemed omnipresent. The vineyards stretched as far as our eyes could see. Our daily meals included tomatoes, leeks, garlic, dairy products, humus, fruits, fish, lamb, beef, and a myriad of other staples, all locally grown. Our daily treat consisted of the best ice cream we’ve ever had.

This abundance hasn’t come overnight. It’s been the product of hard work and a great love of the land. As I watched the bounty unfold before me I was amazed at how prescient the Old Testament prophet Isaiah was when he declared “Streams will flow in the wasteland.”

Seeing the plenty, it was very hard for me to understand why this land should be so scarred by hate and terror. There’s more than enough for everyone, Jew, Christian, Druze, Baha’i, or Palestinian. Almost everyone recognizes this…almost everyone. And therein lies the problem. Almost everyone is light years away from being everyone.

For a significant number of people, from Palestinians to “peacemakers,” Israel is occupied territory and the Jewish people are thieves who should be driven into the sea. Bob Dylan expressed this jaded notion of Israel as the “neighborhood bully” lyrically:

“Well, the neighborhood bully, he’s just one man

His enemies say he’s on their land

They got him outnumbered about a million to one

He got no place to escape to, no place to run

He’s the neighborhood bully.”

Dylan’s words aren’t hyperbole. Hezbollah, one of the most virulent terrorist organizations in the world has expressed its hatred for the Jewish people in charter form: “Our primary assumption in our fight against Israel states that the Zionist entity is aggressive from its inception, and built on lands wrested from their owners, at the expense of the rights of the Muslim people. Therefore our struggle will end only when this entity is obliterated. We recognize no treaty with it, no cease fire, and no peace agreements, whether separate or consolidated.” In the Gaza Strip, Hamas is committed to the destruction of Israel and any attempts to make peace between Palestinians and Jews are tantamount to blasphemy: “[Peace] initiatives, the so-called peaceful solutions, and the international conferences to resolve the Palestinian problem, are all contrary to the beliefs of the Islamic Resistance Movement.” The Iranian mullahs believe that the total destruction of Israel will bring the “twelfth imam” and world justice. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has expressed the insane notion that the Holocaust is Jewish fiction created to garner world sympathy.

Philosophical expressions and charters are one thing. Action is another. And this is where the rhetoric becomes terror’s backbone. About a week before we left for Israel two young Palestinian men broke into the house of Ehud and Ruth Fogel, who lived in the Israeli settlement of Itamar. They first stabbed the Fogel’s two sons, 11 year old Yoav and 4 year old Elad, to death. They then murdered Ehud and Ruth. They thought they were done and left. As they did they heard the Fogel’s daughter, 3 month old Hadas, crying in her crib. They re-entered the home and stabbed her to death for good measure. They went home and, with the help of family, burned their bloody clothing and hid the weapons.

I didn’t find Israel to be dangerous, but I don’t live on a kibbutz or a settlement. I don’t have to find some way to live a meaningful life when a four month old child becomes the target of the terrorist’s blade. How can the road to peace be found in the face of such evil? This is the Jewish dilemma.

THE PLACE THAT DRIVES MEN MAD


Nancy and I have been gone for a couple of weeks, on a pilgrimage of sorts. It appears that some things haven’t changed in America during our absence. We’re at a stalemate in Libya, the debt is mounting, and government is every bit as partisan as it was when we left. But, there are some hopeful signs. Lilacs are blooming by the southeast corner of our front porch and lettuce and broccoli are springing up in our raised beds out back. It’s comforting to know that some things are beyond the reach of government.

As our flight from Tel Aviv made its final approach into Newark this past Thursday I found myself daydreaming of the many times I’ve come back to America over the years. There was 1966, when I returned home from Vietnam. I kissed the ground. In 1969 it was thoughts of civilian life and an honorable discharge as the plane landed in Charleston, South Carolina. In the nineties it was usually business, flying the jumpseat on a FedEx cargo plane. During our sunset years we’ve found ourselves preoccupied with the customs declarations and whether or not anything we were carrying was animal, vegetable, or mineral.

I’m always glad to return home. I’m thoroughly American. My eyes get moist when I hear “I’m Proud to Be an American” on the Fourth of July. But, there was something different about this homecoming. I love my country, but I also came back with a deep bond of affection for Israel and its people.

This was my third trip to Israel. I came home from the first two trying to put the historical pieces together, rehearsing the words of the tour guides. “This is Beth Shean, where the Philistines nailed Saul’s body to the city wall.” “This is Megiddo and the Jezreel Valley, where many believe mankind’s final battle will take place.” “This is Masada, where 900 or so Jewish patriots chose death as free people to a life of slavery under the Romans.” “This is Jerusalem, the city of which the psalmist said, “If I ever forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.” “This is Yad Vashem, where the memories of the Shoah are enshrined.”

If one is seeking just facts, Israel can be infuriating. As filmmaker Ridley Scott observed, “Jerusalem is the place that drives men mad.” One can ascend the temple mount and wonder what treasures lie beneath the Dome of the Rock. Is it the place where Abraham brought Isaac to sacrifice? Or was it Ishmael? And, what of the Christian sites? Was this church the place of the last supper? Or, was it here? Is this the real Golgatha? Or, is it here?

I came home this time sensing something quite different. It was a feeling that there’s much more to Israel than the “facts.” German theologians have two words to describe history. There is “history,” which is a litany of the facts. Then there is “high history,” the history that is being written by an “unseen hand.” It was the “high history” that captured my attention this time.

It’s said of Abraham, the father of the Hebrew nation, that he was looking for a city whose builder and maker was God. That search called for an eye which valued the unseen more than the material. It’s an eye that’s quite foreign to us Americans. We value the material. As Madonna put it so aptly, “We live in a material world and I am a material girl.”

I see now that a change of focus changes both the questions and the answers. The material me asks whether or not the retirement and social security checks will get deposited. The material me thinks about tomorrow’s meals. The material me seems to be at the mercy of the powerful. “What will I do if the government takes this away from me…or that?” “Will I cease to be a free man?”

I think there’s a great lesson in focusing on the unseen. Abraham was a pilgrim and Israel is a nation on a great pilgrimage. In that sense I’m a pilgrim too. Hence, their task is my task - seeking that city being built by “unseen hands.”

It’s not an easy task. At one point along the way I shared with our group that, while we felt something very special happening to us in Israel, we would all go back home where mission creep could easily sink in. The really important things might surrender to the tyranny of the unimportant. I’m home now and the questions born of that experience are raised. How can I maintain my focus when I’m so bombarded by the material? How do I keep my feet on the ground and maintain the pilgrim’s sense of longing for that city I haven’t yet seen?

GRAFTED IN



April 7th was a wonderful day for me, particularly the morning. We left the hotel in Tiberias at about 8:00 A.M. By 9:30 we were in a small tour boat navigating the Sea of Galilee. The waters were calm and the crew was very hospitable. They unfurled an American flag and played our national anthem for us. It was a kind gesture, the sort of thing that has a tendency to tickle the American ego. About twenty minutes into the ride the crew played Israeli folk music and led us in an Israeli folk dance. It was all very nice, but the highlight for me was sitting next to our tour guide, Amos Davidowitz.

I’ve never met a man quite like Amos. He’s part historian, part archaeologist, part soldier, and part philosopher. He’s 100% a family man and thoroughly Jewish. He’s committed to the life and ideals of his kibbutz.

Amos was actually born in Brooklyn, the son of a rabbi. He moved to Israel with his father when he was about twelve. Upon learning this much about his family history, I was curious to know more. Later on the trip, at Yad Vashem, he told us that he can’t trace his roots back very far at all. The Nazis had systematically destroyed all traces of his family tree, including people and documentation of their existence.

Amos the historian and Amos the archaeologist seem to be a unified whole. As we visited sites he would often pick up what appeared to be meaningless pieces of rock. He would hold them up and proclaim, “This is pottery from the time of the second temple.” He’d occasionally take a piece of rock to his mouth, taste it, and tell us that “This is a piece of a clay jar that’s about three thousand years old.” On the temple mount he told us that “Without doubt, Jesus ascended these steps.” “He almost certainly turned over the tables of the money changers here.”

The history and archaeology I’d learned in seminary seemed like dead letter in comparison.

“Chasing terrorists” is one the professional roles Amos claims. He’s a military man. Yet, there’s something very unique about his view of honor, duty, and ethics. He’s given great thought to what he does and why he does it. In 2005 he drafted an “ethical will.” A month or so before I left for Vietnam I had a will drafted. It was short and sweet. “Send the body here.” “Give what little I have to my mother.” Amos’s will is 12 chapters and 42 pages long. The title of the will is “A Path of Peace in the Field of Battle.” The chapter titles give witness to the depth of his thought – “Love is Like Checkers” “Being Jewish, or Anything Else.” “Between Peace and War.” There’s very little I can say that will add justice to what Amos has written. A small sample of his thought will suffice: “I have led men into battle, through battle and to the end of battle, but you can never lead men out of battle. It always stays with you. I fight because my country is at war, but I choose to labor for peace because I know war will solve nothing.”

As we made our way across the Sea of Galilee I sat quietly next to Amos and thought of what are common roots. I’ve seen Salvatore Dali’s depiction of the last supper. Jesus is at the center. He’s blonde and in appearance he’s Aryan. Jesus was a Jew. I suspect he looked a lot like Amos. His thinking was Jewish. His temperament was Jewish. I think he was a man’s man, in the same way Amos is. I don’t think a pasty-faced Aryan could get a small band of Jewish fishermen to follow him. No way!

Amos talked openly about the pain the world of Christianity has brought to the Jewish people over the centuries. One day he talked about the theological stream called “replacement theology,” the idea that the Christian Church has replaced the Jews and Israel as “God’s “chosen.” The idea started early in Christian history and gave a philosophical foothold for those who hated the Jews to formulate even more evil philosophies.

Thankfully, there are newer streams of theology that see Christians and Christianity as having been grafted in to the original vine of history. In Holy Writ we are called the wild olive that has been grafted in. We find our strength and sustenance in roots that are Jewish.

What Amos and the Jewish people have given us is a great gift. We are heirs to a promise of a Jewish consciousness that author Thomas Cahill said “Was animated and kept warm by the breath of God.”

This was Amos’s great gift to me. I’ll always be thankful.