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What Holiness? What Hope?

This week Christians from around the world will follow “in the footsteps of Jesus” as the events of Holy Week are reenacted on or near the sites named in the Biblical accounts. A Christian visitor to the website of the Israeli Ministry of Tourism will experience a deep sense of hospitality and welcome, offering information about events, celebrations, accommodations, etc. http://www.goisrael.com/Tourism_Eng/Tourist%20Information/Christian%20Themes/Pages/Easter%20in%20Israel.aspx While Israel demands that Palestinians recognize Israel as “a Jewish State,” it simultaneously caters to Christian tourists around the globe, a major industry on which Israel is economically dependent.

For Palestinian Christians, however, there is no welcome this Holy Week. Rifat Kassis, the author of Kairos for Palestine, puts it this way: “For me – as for most Palestinians, both Muslims and Christians – Jerusalem is the city we love most and visit least.”   Kassis describes his family’s separation from the city of their longing, a separation shared with the vast majority of Palestinians:

When the First Intifada broke out in 1987, Jerusalem was sealed off to those of us who live in the so-called West Bank, and we had to obtain special permits in order to enter the city. Legally, visiting Jerusalem became impossible for me; because I was a past political prisoner, I was put on some kind of state blacklist, and so the Israeli authorities wouldn’t grant me a permit. Since 2002, I have not returned to Jerusalem. My 29 year old son, Dafer, has never visited it at all, although he has probably traveled around half the world. Being barred from Jerusalem is a great emotional and psychological loss to me and to my family.

Kassis’ home village near Bethlehem is five miles from Jerusalem, less than the distance from my home in Hyde Park to the Loop in downtown Chicago. And yet for him, as for the majority of Palestinian Christians, a visit to celebrate Easter in the Old City is an impossible dream, as impossible as the desire of Palestinian Muslims seeking to visit the Al Aqsa Mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam. Even for those Palestinians with a rare Jerusalem permit, the visit is marked by long waits at armed checkpoints in the high concrete separation barrier, frequent humiliating encounters with youth Israeli soldiers, and periodic unannounced closures.

Beyond the religious importance of Jerusalem, the city has enormous political significance for Palestinians as well. But here, too, the dream grows increasingly elusive. The carefully planned removal of the Arab population of Jerusalem, relentlessly underway since 1948, continues with Israeli management of building permits, home demolitions, establishment of Jewish settlements in Palestinian neighborhoods, etc. Only a high Arab birthrate keeps the Palestinian population growing. The Wall and the pass system control movement and make every Palestinian Jerusalemite vulnerable to the loss of her or his residency. The collapse of the Kerry initiative means that, once again, Jerusalem’s status remains in limbo, while the failure to agree on all final status issues leaves a status quo in place. And while Secretary Kerry may upset Israeli officials and American supporters with his analysis of the failure, the promise of on-going US aid and support for Israel means there is no incentive to alter a status quo that is, in fact, a relentless erosion of Palestinians’ remaining footprint in their ancestral home and hoped for capital.

For most American tourists, Jerusalem is understood to be Jewish, historic, and sacred. Tour buses with Israeli tour guides whisk pilgrims from hotels in West Jerusalem to the holy sites, rendering the local Palestinian population all but invisible. Roads in and out of the city from Tel Aviv or Nazareth circumvent the long lines of Palestinians at checkpoints and in many places keep Palestine, through which those highways are routed, literally invisible. It is possible to visit “the Holy Land” and experience Palestine and Palestinians only as a vague part of the scenery. Jerusalem is Jewish, historic, and sacred. But if that carefully protected and embellished narrative is all we bring home, we miss much. For Jerusalem is also Palestinian, Muslim, and Christian, it’s history is as Arab as it is Jewish, and its holiness has as much to do with its future as with its ancient past.

Kassis speaks for many: “Jerusalem is the universal sacred place I cannot go to practice my faith, and the capital city I cannot visit.” This is the part of the story the Ministry of Tourism won’t tell, the story many pilgrims this week won’t see. Until all of us do, Jerusalem’s holiness will remain an illusion, its hope will be elusive.

John H. Thomas
April 17, 2014                                                                                               

To read Rifat Kassis’ essay, see http://globalministries.org/news/mee/jerusalem-the-city-we-love.html


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