In 1998 Richard and I had a wonderful opportunity to navigate the world as ballroom dance teachers on a cruise ship. Many of the places we saw at the time, such as Oman, Jordan, Turkey, Morocco, Indonesia, and Israel, are now in crisis and not as safe for tourists. Last year, when Palestinian soldiers took refuge in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and were under siege, I marveled that I had been where they were, and could imagine the place when the news reports came. Even when it was there, Israel and Palestine were fighting, as they have been since Israel was formed.
When we docked in Haifa, Israel, we only had one day, so my Jewish friends, Murray and Sylvia (who had been there before) and I hired a taxi driver who drove us all over Israel, to see as much as we could in twelve hours. Arriving in Bethlehem was a lesson in world peace, and I want to share it with you, according to my travel notes:
After the long journey back from the Dead Sea, we reached the ancient walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, and passed through the old city to go to Bethlehem, just south. Along the way, there is evidence of constantly changing borders. A barbed wire and chain link fence marks the border for many miles, and on both sides you can see buildings with Hebrew signs on the Palestinian side and Arabic letters on the Israeli side, indicating that the land has changed ownership times. From one side to the other, from one side to the other, the fence moves, as several skirmishes change the borders. Bethlehem is now under the Palestinian government since the peace agreement four years ago, so our driver feels it is not safe for us to get into an Israeli taxi: he has telephoned across the border and has arranged a car with friends. Palestinian and a driver to take us. in.
The change of taxis makes the tension of these places palpable. Our driver stops at the Palestinian border and signals us to cross. We feel like characters in a spy movie as we walk among the crude guard shacks on the Israeli side, which are manned by guards who fire automatic rifles, cross no-man’s-land in the middle, and then between guard posts alike. Rude and equally well armed Palestinian guards, and no one seems to pay attention to us, they stare at us. Our friendly Palestinian driver, in his Arabic-marked taxi, greets us on the other side. We breathe again.
Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity are only three miles away, so we are there in a few minutes. As the driver speaks to us in quite useful English, we begin to relax. The friendliness of the two drivers, citizens of warring nations, points out that even when political situations are uncomfortable, people can find ways to work together. These drivers are not hostile to each other, they are helping each other (and us). Later, we discovered that many taxi drivers would not take their passengers to Bethlehem, only ours organized the change.
The Church of the Nativity turns out to be three churches in one: a Palestinian Christian church, a Greek Orthodox church and a Catholic church: the 3 buildings are next to each other, they share a courtyard and some walls, and we walk through each one to get to the next one! The oldest church is the Palestinian Church of the Nativity, originally built in 400 AD. We enter through a deliberately low door, so one has to bow to enter. The floor we are on now was built in 600 AD, after the first church was destroyed, but it has a trap door, through which we can look down and see the original mosaic floor, about 3 feet below. Priests have a silent pride and an evident awareness of the sacred land through which they walk and care.
The church is built in the shape of a traditional cross, with a high ceiling from which long chains hang with brass oil lamps cut into each. Maybe there are 50 of these cute lamps, all lit, and each one different. The designs cut into the metal allow the light to reflect the cut shapes on the walls: diamonds, moons, stars. What a glorious sight people have reverently experienced for 2,500 years! To one side is a door to a staircase that leads to a room draped in silk. On the left as you enter there is a niche that appears to be a fireplace, but it turns out to be the place where Jesus was born. An ornate 13-pointed star sits on the ground in the same spot, surrounded by oil lamps. The 13 points represent the generations between David and Jesus, the number of disciples at the Last Supper, and the Stations of the Cross.
On the opposite side of the room is the stone manger where the baby was laid down after birth. At one end there are candles. It is a powerful sight: all the centuries of veneration have left their energy in this room. My father was a Catholic and I have lit candles in his memory in churches around the world, but lighting the candle in the manger was a special moment for me. When I saw the votive candles in the room, I asked where I could buy one, and our guide said the priest would get me one. The priest was almost as old as the room, and with an almost audible creak, he slowly brought me a candle, which I then lit and placed with the other candles at the end of the manger. This simple ritual, followed for centuries, moved me to tears.
When we leave the Nativity scene, we walk through the Greek, Orthodox, and Catholic churches, which are beautiful, and return to the courtyard.
After taking a taxi back to the border, we switched back to our Israeli taxi. Back to Jerusalem. The afternoon was fading fast. We rush to old Jerusalem and visit the Cardo, an ancient Roman market surrounded by a more modern shopping area.
Then we are at the Wailing Wall (known as the Wailing Wall), the only remnant of an ancient temple, which the Jews worship, and where they come to pray. The wall is divided into two sides, one for men and one for women, so Sylvia and I went to the right and Murray to the left. It was Murray’s birthday and the anniversary of his mother’s death, and this was his main reason for returning to Israel. To pray on the wall. Everywhere along the wall there were men and women dancing or rocking while praying. Most men wore the long black coats and black hats of Orthodox Jews, and many of the women also wore long black suits. It is said that if you write a request on a piece of paper and stick it in a crack in the wall, it will be granted. As we got closer, we could hear the women murmuring, and one cried. Again we were surprised by the continuity of the centuries.
The history of these places, the millennia of human existence, the prayers, the pain, the fears, the hopes and dreams of the people who are simply trying to feed their families and live a peaceful life, emerges around us as a fog of strength and human survival. Our taxi drivers, both Palestinian and Israeli, are family men, as bewildered about why they are at war as we are in the United States about why the world cannot live in peace. They have no need to fight each other for land or for oil rights, or for religious supremacy. They need to feed their families, care for their wives and children, and try to leave a legacy for their descendants. So despite what their countries are doing to each other, despite the soldiers, the political parties, the suicide bombers, the guns and the borders, they work together to earn a day’s wages. They are proud of their part of the world, the Muslim, Jewish and Christian holy places, and see it as belonging to all of them, only fans, religious and / or politicians want to own it. These men, like you and me, want your little part to be comfortable enough to keep their families healthy. There is enough to feed and clothe everyone in this world.
The late warrior for peace Danaan Parry wrote: “The energy we use to create war is the energy we need to make real peace.
“That is the brave act the warrior must do: find a way to relate to the person on the other side of the shutoff valve, so that together we can turn that valve from both sides and reopen it.
“The new warrior is in a precarious position, because he or she says,” I am going to show myself and the rest of my tribe that … darkness exists within each of us, and I will demand that we have the courage to look at it. “So using the word” warrior “really does have some meaning, because warriors have to have the courage to put up with some pretty heavy criticism from their own people. We are asking our own people to grow and not project themselves.”
On this Memorial Day, I pray that we all learn to live in peace, even in the midst of wars that we don’t understand. I pray that we will not accept the idea that other humans are our enemies by virtue of their race, nation, or creed. I pray that we learn to work together, no matter what our governments insist on telling us. I pray for peace, within ourselves, within our families, within the world. And like Tiny Tim, I pray, “God bless us all.”
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