COMMUNITY EDITORIAL BOARD: Postcard from the Holy Land - A lesson in resilience
One of the pro-Trump signs seen around (west) Jerusalem.
Last summer, I made plans to achieve a lifelong dream of visiting the Holy Land over the Christmas holidays with my family.
Predictably, a month before we were to depart, Donald Trump inflamed tempers in the region by pledging to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and move the American embassy there from Tel Aviv. However, knowing that troubles of this kind are never as bad as portrayed by the ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ media and tend to fade away relatively quickly, we decided to carry on.
The first portion of our holiday was spent in the Galilee, where our rented house had a view of Mount Tabor (site of the Transfiguration) and was in easy driving distance of Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee, the Crusader port of Acre and the mountains of the Golan.
We traveled to Jerusalem Christmas Eve. Christmas Day was spent attending church and walking around the Old City to see the Western (or Wailing) Wall while Boxing Day was spent seeing religious sites on the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem, the Arab part of the city which was occupied by Jordan from 1948 until the Six Day War in 1967.
However, the journey to the Mount of Olives made clear to me that Jerusalem, while it may well be the seat of the Israeli Knesset and government ministries, is a profoundly divided capital city. While on our first day in (West) Jerusalem we saw a number of banners thanking Trump for his recognition of Jerusalem, on our second day we found that the bus cards we had bought to use around Jerusalem were not accepted by the Arab bus company which operates the routes to East Jerusalem.
Once on the Mount of Olives it quickly became obvious that we were in an Arab city. The signage was in Arabic, the people spoke Arabic, and there were no distinctively dressed Orthodox Jews to be seen anywhere. Clearly, a significant minority of the population of Jerusalem does not identify with the state of Israel and seeks only to survive and maintain its distinct identity and character within it.
While this is undoubtedly creates challenges for the Israeli government, there is something to be admired in the tenacity and resilience of the different religious communities in Israel.
To be Jewish in Palestine was a struggle for survival until very recently. In 1800, it is estimated that less than 10 per cent of the population of approximately 275,000 was Jewish. However, that minority hung on and survived until the 1900s when immigrants from Jewish communities around the world joined them to found the modern state of Israel. (Source: Population of Israel/Palestine (1553-Present) www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org)
To be a Christian remains a struggle for survival in Israel and throughout much of the Middle East. While in 1800 almost 10 per cent of the population was Christian, today Christians comprise less than 3 per cent of Israel’s people. Nonetheless, I respect the fact that these Arab Christians have managed to retain their faith through almost 1,200 years of Muslim rule (recall that for almost 200 years they were under the protection of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem) and the past 70 years of Israeli rule. In the face of this demographic decline, the vitality of Nazareth’s Orthodox Christian community, which erects a gigantic Christmas tree every year in the square by Mary’s Well, was beautiful to behold.
Thinking of the Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities’ determination to survive in the Holy Land has given me an appreciation for the ease of life we enjoy in Canada. While we all have our individual struggles and challenges, our faith communities are not threatened with extinction. Perhaps naively, we assume that they will continue to flourish and grow into the future.
As we move into 2018, we should take time to reflect and give thanks for this fact of our existence. Whatever other worries we may have, our collective survival is not one of them. Related to this, we should also do what we can to help those communities which are threatened with extinction, such as the historically important Christian communities in Iraq and Syria. Fifteen years of regime change and civil war have forced many Christians to flee their homes and become refugees. One organization doing work in this area is “Aid to the Church in Need” (https://www.churchinneed.org/), however many other denominations are also doing good work in this area.
May 2018 be a year of peace that brings relief to threatened communities around the world and allows their members to rebuild their lives and look forward to better days ahead.
Next week: a new writer joins our editorial board, Liz Kranz