Dr. Margaret Ann Cowden, a recently retired American Baptist minister, and I met while serving on the Judson Investment Committee. She is on the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility that arose out of South African apartheid.
In June Margaret went on a Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School trip, The Land Called Holy and its Peoples. The purpose of the trip was two fold: to visit biblical sites and to examine the conditions of military occupation and settler colonialism.
Israel conjures up for me an area packed with archaeological riches, three religions coexisting on a small plot of land and an industrial nation that fancies itself a democracy. Since I’m drawn to the region’s ancient culture but troubled by the U. S.’s blind eye to the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians, I asked Margaret if she would talk to me about her June 3-15 trip.
We had our first talk over mussels and wine in a West Village restaurant. This was followed by emails and phone conversations.
MAC: I’m from a military family. My parents, two brothers and I moved a lot. One of the ways I connected with new kids was by joining the school band. Believe me, as a product of the post WWII American world, every high school marching band played the theme from Exodus.
MJR: “This land is mine. God gave this land to me.”
MAC: “The opening lyrics…”
MJR: In hindsight, what great Hollywood propaganda. Our country was profoundly influenced by the Holocaust, wasn’t it? I think it’s the main reason we avoid criticizing Israel. After WWII a heroic quality was fostered about Israel. It was David to the Arab world’s Goliath.
MAC: The notion of having accepted propaganda was brought home to me on the recent trip: the settlements with their transplanted olive trees, ripped out of soil that had been farmed by the Palestinians for centuries. There’s no water, no sewage disposal and then the Palestinians are called pigs. After visiting a Palestinian woman’s store set up in a deserted Hebron souk, a feeling of guilt, anxiety and just plain exhaustion overcame me and, I think, other members of our group.
This is a link about the Hebron initiative: http://www.maannews.net/eng/ViewDetails.aspx?ID=610391
MJR: How did you prepare for the trip? What did you anticipate?
MAC: I’m familiar with the Bible. It’s one of the tools of my trade. I had expected to be moved by the sacred sites. Before the trip, I had read extensively about Israel, partly to make up for my ignorance about the Palestinians’ plight. I confess I came late to it.
MJR: What did you experience?
MAC: I was affected emotionally in a way I hadn’t expected. When we visited holy sites such as the Temple Mount, one of our leaders, Professor Melanie Duguid-May, described them as sites of accrued holiness. Think of the thousands of pilgrims who over thousands of years have come to these places. That part of the trip, visiting the various sites rather than the actual biblical study, was immensely rewarding, but…there’s always a but, isn’t there?
MJR: We’re coming to the Palestinian part.
MAC: The modern reality is grim: expanding settlements, closed military zones, increasing East Jerusalem encroachment, Israel’s apartheid wall, Jews only roads, and numerous checkpoints and barriers. Everywhere you see young Israeli soldiers armed to the teeth with semi-automatic weapons.
The Palestinians we visited were profoundly grateful for our interest. They showed us hospitality by inviting us into their homes. Our discussions were fruitful and frustrating. It’s possible to visit Israel without seeing what’s been done to the Palestinians.
Margaret’s group visited the Tantur Peace Center, overlooking Jerusalem to the north and Bethlehem to the south. It’s maintained by the University of Notre Dame. I quote one of its aims: We explore the relationships between Christians and peoples of other world faiths, especially Jews and Muslims. Visiting its website, you can read other observations. Four Months at the Tantur Checkpoint is David Selzer’s description of the Palestinians’ daily routine.
The night before Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent Middle East peace talks, the Israeli government approved sixty-nine new housing units in East Jerusalem.
Hamas spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri said: “…the only beneficiary from what will happen is the occupation which will cover its crimes with these negotiations.”
Israeli Justice Minister Livni said, “ I believe that history is not made by cynics. It is made by realists who are not afraid to dream.”
Pretty words but do they mean anything?