“As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” Jesus’ ominous words about the destruction of the Temple. The Romans did indeed destroy it in 70 A.D. I’ve just seen where it once stood. In its place now is the great Dome of the Rock, a masterpiece of Islamic architecture. The plot has thickened–considerably.
I returned a week ago from Jerusalem, where I spent some sabbatical time. My focus was studying Arabic. I’ve studied Hebrew in the past, partly in order to understand the Bible better, and partly as a way of engaging the culture of a people whose contributions to the human enterprise have been enormous.
I’m studying Arabic partly because I enjoy studying languages, partly for practical reasons, since our work takes us to the Middle East. But also as a way of engaging a culture and as a gesture of solidarity with a people. Most Arabs have the perception that Americans could care less about their welfare or their culture or their language or their basic human rights. So, my very stumbling efforts meant that doors were opened to me—literally and figuratively—that probably would not have been otherwise.
Some observations about the Israeli-Palestinian impasse and where I see a ray of hope:
First, the Palestinians. What can be said? There is still a military occupation. There is an ugly wall of division. Ugly because a wall of poured concrete slabs is just ugly. And ugly because concerns for Israeli security have been a pretext for more wholesale appropriation of Palestinian territory. Why build a wall on recognized boundaries when you can simply take what you want? When you have the brute force to impose your will and, especially, when you have the United States government on your side?
Given the privations and insults of living under military occupation for so long, and the failure of the international community to be of assistance, Palestinians are understandably bitter. Many are simply resigned. Many are remarkably patient. And many realize that they are poorly served by their own leadership.
It’s the children I am most concerned about. One of the high points of my time in Jerusalem was being invited to the homes of two of the employees of St. George’s College, where I stayed. As I held little ones in my arms I couldn’t help wondering what the future holds for them. They can’t go to the beach to play—even though it’s only an hour away. They can’t go to the mountains. Their world is limited pretty much to their own village. Travel anywhere means permits and checkpoints. If you can get the permits; if you can bear the waiting and uncertainties and indignities at checkpoints. What will it mean for future leadership in Palestine if children are not exposed to a broader and more generous world-view?
Israel? Israel appears to me to be increasingly fractured, factionalized, even incoherent. There are no great visionaries on the political landscape just now. The immigration of large numbers of Jews from Russia, Africa and Muslim countries as well as thousands of non-Jewish workers from other countries has produced a surprisingly diverse demographic mix. And among Jews, there are wildly different understandings of what it means to be a Jew. Although Israel wants to define itself as a Jewish democracy, there is no clear consensus around what this actually means.
Israel is increasingly plagued by social problems: poverty, organized crime, trafficking in drugs and humans, prostitution. But I think its greatest problem is a kind of “inner corrosion”. Being occupiers of another people and their land is having a toxic, corrosive effect on the Israeli psyche. You cannot dominate another people through brute force and not be corrupted by it yourself.
Two peoples each with fractured, strongly factionalized populations, lacking clear consensus. But one with extraordinary military power of coercion enabled by a global super power. Not a recipe for success.
Jerusalem was a really interesting vantage point to watch our presidential election. I had access to the Internet, so was able to obsess over it to my heart’s content. But what was most surprising was the excitement on the street and the euphoria in evidence at the newsstands. I know Americans who were stopped repeatedly on the street on Nov. 5 and offered hearty congratulations. Mabruk! Arab opinion about what Obama might actually do ranges from “he’s just like all the rest and will do nothing” to “Obama will save the Arab world!”
There’s a newsstand near the Damascus Gate that has newspapers and magazines from all over the world. Euphoria, or O-phoria, has gone global. There are certainly great expectations abroad.
Many of you know I’m a great fan of Obama—and I am euphoric, too and have great expectations. It’s partly the man himself. He’s extraordinarily gifted and, it seems, the kind of leader we need for these difficult times.
But my excitement, my sense of hope, goes beyond the president-elect himself. And I think the global reaction to the election goes beyond him as well. I think what has resonated so deeply all over the world is seeing the realm of human possibility suddenly and so dramatically expanded.
The American people have succeeded in being agents of our own social transformation. We saw a problem; we put our shoulders to the wheel as a country and have engineered progress. We were not passive in the face of a great evil, but agents of our own transformation. The social milieu we inhabit today is very different from the one of my childhood. Shoulders were put to the wheel. And the wheel moved. Seeing this happen before our very eyes has changed not only our own social milieu; it has changed the chemistry of global politics.
Was God involved? Sure. God created us with the capacity to envision greater things and to put our shoulders to the wheel. God has given us the impulse to do these things. But the doing of it is ours. “The heaven of heavens is the Lord’s, but he has entrusted the earth to its peoples.”
This gives me hope for the future in the Middle East. We now have concrete evidence that shoulders can be put to wheels and wheels can move. If we can make such spectacular progress in the seemingly intractable area of race relations, we can tackle anything.
Psalm 87 envisions Jerusalem as the Mother City for all people: “Of Zion it shall be said, ‘Everyone was born in her’” “Glorious things are spoken of you, O city of our God.” Even ancient enemies (Egypt, Babylon, Philistia) are envisioned as children of the Mother City.
What will Obama do? A lot, I suspect. But the big change in the equation is the new chemistry, the renewed sense of hope, the re-invigorated sense of possibility. This should embolden the peace makers. Will the vision of Zion as Mother City of all peoples be fulfilled in our lifetime? I don’t know. But having seen what we’ve seen, we shouldn’t be too surprised.
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