Tuesday: View from the Bus

In my Bible study Tuesday morning on Luke 19 with the Swedish Sabeel group, I used the image of an Israeli-owned and led tour bus as an analogy for the way in which foreign Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land are hermetically insulated from the harsh realities of Palestinian life “on the ground” in the West Bank.  On such tours (a huge and profitable industry here) participants see only religious sites and get only the Israeli narrative of the political conflict (if the topic is broached at all) .   I suggested that in a similar manner, our churches tend to read the Bible from the comfort of a “hermeneutic tour bus”: avoiding the challenges of conflictual economic, social and political factors “on the ground” of the ancient narrative, and concentrating exclusively on visiting and venerating “holy sites” in the story.
In counterpoint, Sabeel does a good job of organizing alternative exposures: day trips around the Bethlehem area to provide conference attendees with glimpses of checkpoints, refugee camps, house or farm demolitions sites, activist groups, Israeli settlements, etc.  That afternoon, a group that went down to see the situation in Hebron got a first-hand experience of the volatility and tension of that contested place.  Their bus was attacked at one point by a couple of stone-throwing youth, shattering windows and covering those inside with glass.  There were no serious injuries, but those on the bus were shaken and sobered by the incident.   
Pictured above: Ancient olive trees at Gethsemene.  For the story, read on.
No one got a good look at the teenagers, but the fact is, it could have been either settlers or Palestinians.  When we first heard the report, we assumed it was the former, who often attack anyone they consider to be critical of their illegal expropriation of Palestinian homes in the Old City.  However in this case, Omar Haramy (the senior organizer among an intrepid and hard working Sabeel staff) who was accompanying the tour, reckons it was likely Palestinian youth, for reasons which are somewhat ironic, particularly in light of my analogy earlier that day. 
The day before the tours were scheduled, the drivers of the Palestinian bus company usually employed by Sabeel went on strike.  The only transportation Omar could organize at the last minute involved an Israeli tour bus with “yellow license plates.”  On the West Bank, only yellow-plated vehicles are allowed to pass through checkpoints uncontested and to drive on the streamlined network of Israeli-only highways.  Palestinians (except the few able to obtain permits, mostly government officials and tourist companies) have only “white” plates.  Forbidden to use Israeli-only highways, they must run the gauntlet of long detours around the security wall, random barriers, and checkpoints that plague the fractured and deteriorating network of Palestinian roads.  It often takes 3-4 hours to travel between Palestinian villages that are only short distances as the crow flies—one of the daily reminders of the many indignities of the Israeli occupation of their land.
The Sabeel tour bus had Israeli plates.  Earlier that day, a Palestinian boy had been shot by a settler near Hebron; the stone throwing was the inevitable symbolic “retaliation.”  The Swedish visitors were unwittingly caught in that “crossfire,” vulnerable in an Israeli bus in a “Palestinians space.”  For those on the bus, the incident was a small but unforgettable glimpse of the painful realities of this place.   For the conference as a whole, it was a reminder that the truth of this (and any) conflicted context comes only when privileged insularity is shattered. 
The day had a happy ending.  We all reconvened at the Church of All Nations at Gethsemene in East Jerusalem for a service.  The church sits next to the traditional site of Jesus’ last night; in the small enclosed garden stand several ancient olive trees, some of which are believed to have witnessed Jesus’ agony.  The interior of the church, rebuilt in the early 20th century, has gorgeous mosaics of intertwining olive trees stretching up the arches; under the altar is the rock on which Jesus purportedly prayed.  Local Franciscan Bishop William Shoumali preached at our service, but the real significance was who presided.  Lisa Tegby was part of the first generation of women ordained in the Swedish Lutheran Church in the 1960s and early 70s.  We found out afterward that apparently it was the first time that a female clergyperson had ever led a service in that venerable church.  “We figured it would easier to ask forgiveness than permission,” quipped Sabeel founder Naim Ateek.