I first learned about the Jericho Road in my church’s Sunday School. As a kid, I was more aware of the Jericho Road in Israel than the major interstate toll road that ran near my home. Since I couldn’t drive, I could not have cared less about I-76 through Pennsylvania. By contrast, the Jericho Road was the setting of “The Good Samaritan,” one of the most celebrated parables of Jesus. The parable of the Good Samaritan was told over and over to children at the end of the twentieth century first with finger puppets and skits. Twenty-first century children probably use mp3s, videos, and YouTube.
Regardless of the medium, the basics of the story remain the same. Someone asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered with the story of some unfortunate guy who was mugged on the Road to Jericho. Two different kinds of church leaders stepped over his body in their rush to services. The hero, however, was a kind outsider, disliked by the church leaders and known as the Good Samaritan. The Good Samaritan was the only one who stopped to help the wounded man. Because of the Good Samaritan’s righteous actions, the Jericho Road was the Christian “batcave” or “the stand-alone phone booth,” the place from which heroes like Batman and Superman emerge to help the helpless. For us Christian kids, the Jericho Road was a reminder that heroic action involved being kind to strangers, being nice to our annoying siblings, showing love to the person who makes us feel uncomfortable, being ready to help and to love everyone. This existential road to Jericho ran through our real playgrounds and offices, the places we needed to remember to be good neighbors.
This year, while serving as a chaperone for college students on a nearly two-week trip to the Holy Land, our Palestinian tour guide pointed out that our bus was now on the Road to Jericho. I sat up in shock; the Jericho Road had now become real and covered in asphalt. I looked at the road, stunned at how much it looked like the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Except, in the middle of the road was a huge concrete wall that seemed to stretch almost ten stories into the sky.
“This is the apartheid wall,” the guide said, with disgust and anger. “Or the segregation wall, or whatever you want to call it; the Israelis used the wall to keep the Palestinians away from their settlements¦This wall snakes throughout Israel, walling up places where Palestinians live. Sometimes the wall winds back around itself, capturing a Palestinian community in a bubble and cutting those residents off from everything, schools, stores, family. The Israelis say that this wall is to protect them from terrorists,” the guide explained.
The guide was careful in his use of the term Israelis. “It is not the Jewish people who are the problem,” repeated the guide many times, “but the Israelis”, The leaders of the nation of Israel, the Israelis, are descendants of Jewish people, the Jewish Diaspora who had lived through Europe and the Americas, and other lands,” he tried to explain diplomatically. “These Jewish people moved to Palestine after World War II and the Holocaust and became Israelis. These Jews had survived a horrible genocide orchestrated by Nazi Germany. But their ancestors had also experienced centuries of persecution and pogroms and mini-genocides. For centuries Jews had hoped to have a nation, situated on the land that geographically was known as Palestine, the location of the Kingdoms of the Hebrew people, the land where the Torah was established, where King David and the others lived. In 1948, the dream of an Israeli nation was fulfilled. The hope was that the creation of the nation of Israel would end the torture and persecution of the Jews. And in many ways, it did. But this fear appears to have fueled a new season of torture and persecution, this time, against the Palestinians.
The guide continued his explanation as the bus backed away and took a route along the wall. “While Israelis were celebrating in 1948, Palestinians were being forced from their homes, forced to live in refugee camps,” the guide said. There are Palestinians who still have the keys to the homes they were forced from in 1948. They are still hoping to return.
The trip consisted mostly of college students, all Christians, except for one American Jewish woman who was more aware of the political situation than the Christians and a few agnostics who were very aware of the political while being neutral about any religious connection to the land. A few of the students and chaperones had been on the trip before, but although they said the situation was bad, they never explained what they had seen on prior trips. Since their last visit, they might have signed occasional petitions and attended rallies in support of Palestinians, and they probably educated people in the best way they knew: with stories about the wall.
Two students I sat near were curious about the political situation, but they were, like most American Christians, much more interested in seeing the land where their favorite Bible stories took place. They wanted to see the Sea of Galilee, the Mount of Olives, the river Jordan, and the Road to Jericho. They thought they might accidentally see evidence of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, but only between visits to Holy Land sights. They had not expected to confront a wall down the middle of one of their most treasured Bible Stories. One student opined against having a mystical/spiritual pilgrimage interrupted by a political reality with political commentary. Not that the plight of the Palestinians was unimportant, another student expressed, it’s just not what she had come to see.
The students also experienced a surprising number of White House personnel visiting the same religious sites they were. The White House personnel said they were preparing for the upcoming presidential visit to celebrate Israel’s 60th anniversary. It was strange looking at the Sea of Galilee with young men and women in suits and American walking shoes, speaking in hushed whispers, surveying the land, wondering about security for when the president would visit Biblical sites he too probably learned about as a boy in Sunday School.
The White House personnel also reminded the students that their nation was in the last year of an unpopular presidential administration, which had launched a war in the same region where these students were trying to be tourists. The existential Road to Jericho was becoming crowded with lots of people, but not necessarily good Samaritans. These students had waited their entire young lives to travel this land as pilgrims had done for centuries. Some of these students would have said that Jesus lives in their hearts, but they also longed to see with their eyes some physical evidence of Jesus’ glory and majesty. They wanted to join the countless others who could call themselves eyewitnesses, to see with their own eyes these places where Jesus could once have walked, to see that these places were not just legend. But while looking for glory and majesty, they saw evidence of a complicated tale of suffering and grief.
We know something is happening, in relation to the Palestinians,” said one of the women who sat near me on the bus. She admitted that, at home, she avoided watching the news, except for excerpts from Entertainment Tonight. “We know it’s bad,” said the woman’s friend, “but we don’t know what’s going on and we can’t do anything about it.” When the topic about the political situation came up, they would shrug and appear irritated if I pressed them for more thoughts. So, when I saw the real road to Jericho blocked by a huge slab of concrete, designed to keep Palestinians and Israelis from contact with each other, it was as if the batcave had collapsed. A wall designed to separate neighbors blocked the Road to Jericho. If the idea of the good neighbor was invented on the Road to Jericho, it was on this same existential street that it became roadkill.
On tours around the Dome of the Rock and the Wailing Wall, we had another guide, a Palestinian scholar. “We are the Gentiles,” he explained. “And later in Acts,” the Palestinian scholar said, “when it said that Paul went first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout the countryside of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, Paul was talking about the Palestinians¦We are the keepers of the tradition,” he said, referring to Christianity. Later on the tour, we met another Palestinian tour guide who claimed members of his family as direct descendants of one of the first families to become Christians after the resurrection. “In the book of Acts, when it says, (Acts 11:18) ‘then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life, “they were talking about us, the Palestinians,” said one of the guides.
The students bonded quickly with the guides, gleefully asking them questions about the Holy Land sites, some questions they had held since their days as children in Sunday School. It was here that the students found the biggest surprise, the Holy Land site they had not expected to find. Among the first non-Jews to contemplate the teachings of Christ were the people who had lived in that region for centuries. And these are the Palestinians. The families of the students’ guides had been showing Christian pilgrims the Holy Land for centuries. And we met them. They were the physical evidence left behind to give witness to the events of 2000 years ago. They were the evidence of Jesus’ glory and majesty. And now, they were subject to systemic discrimination and persecution.
Occasionally, during the tour, our bus was stopped at a checkpoint. At most checkpoints, our Palestinian guide had to leave the bus and go through the checkpoint on foot while the Americans remained on the bus. At one checkpoint, while our USA passports were being reviewed, one of our Palestinian guides was stripped naked and searched. When the guide returned to the bus, the students discovered that the Israeli soldiers had taken our guide’s ornate belt buckle.
The students who were not as interested in the Palestinian political situation still found the lost belt buckle deeply disturbing. These students became sullen and stormy, and I suspect they did not have the language to explain why they felt this way. They kept repeating, “We knew things were bad, but¦” They still could not explain why the Palestinian plight was bad; they could barely explain why they were infuriated when someone who had been so kind to them lost his belt buckle. The facts on the ground seemed so small; it was just a belt buckle. Yet, after the belt buckle incident, students began to see more than just the geography.
For a few hours, we visited a refugee camp. The camp looked awful and was full of dilapidated buildings, some without walls. We visited an educational center where people from the camp talked about their ministry to children, who were being taught to tell their stories through photography. The refugee camp residents treated us well, people came out of their homes, waving and saying hello in Arabic and English. We were fed a good lunch, a simple chicken and rice dish, with salad and juice. After lunch, we walked around the camp. The people allowed us into their homes, which had little-to-no furniture and sometimes, no walls or roofs. I walked through the camp, occasionally meeting residents, who hospitably showed me their homes, ushering me past thresholds without doors, inviting me to peer out of windows without glass at a view of the roofs of the refugee camp and the children playing below on the dirt roads. In the distance was the wall, snaking through the landscape, winding and turning back on itself, and disappearing into the distance.
Two of the students I sat near on the bus seemed to be the happiest during this part of the trip. They gleefully purchased things made by the refugee camp children. They posed for pictures with the children in tattered clothes who spoke rapidly in Arabic and hugged the Americans without any sign of fear.
Near the entrance of the camp, we had seen pictures of young men. The posters were in Arabic. “Who are they, are they running for office,” we asked. “No,” said our Palestinian guides. “They are, activists¦freedom fighters.” The guide seemed to search for words in English to describe these young men. “They are heroes to the people in the camp.” The man paused. “You, in America, call them suicide bombers.
The tour continued. We were surprised at how safe we felt. We became witnesses to the kindness of a people who had been demonized by our national press. The students did not expect this feeling of safety, which did not come from the wall, but from the hospitality of the people. When the students were talking about their feeling of safety, the Palestinian guide pointed to the wall outside of the refugee camp and talked about how the Israeli soldiers atop the wall gunned down the children who came too close. The children had just been playing, the guide said, but the soldiers may have thought they were writing graffiti on the walls, he said.
The wall near the refugee camps was full of graffiti. The most prominent graffiti piece portrayed a figure that looked like the stature of liberty, but instead of a woman’s head, the graffiti had a ghoulish skull. Palestinians were angry with the United States of America, we were told by the refugee camp residents. They were angry because the US government helped fund the Israelis, to pay for weapons and to pay for the wall.
The students snapped pictures of the wall with their cameras and their cellphones, smiling and posing in front of the graffiti. The students said they would post these pictures on Facebook and MySpace and other communication networking software. These pictures would prove that they had come to Israel and Palestine, although they were never sure which geographical title to use for the captions of their snapshots. The pictures were their physical proof that they had gone to the Holy Land; yes pictures of smiling happy Americans beside a terrorizing Statue of Liberty.
* Photo by: Peter Mulligan. The Wall, Palestinian West Bank.