Day 10: Bethlehem
Our tenth day began with Mass at St. Catherine's Basilica, the Catholic chapel at the Church of the Nativity. We prayed for our loved ones around the world and spent some time reflecting on peace and justice in Israel and Palestine. We reflected on the idea of being pilgrims and how following in the footsteps of Jesus means coming face-to-face with injustice, seeing the humans in front of us, and learning how to be peacemakers in this world.
After Mass we toured Efrat, a settlement or disputed neighborhood, near Bethlehem. This settlement has over 10,000 Jewish inhabitants and is considered the capitol of the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, built inside the West Bank. Efrat is considered illegal under international law but the State of Israel disputes this claim. We met Ardie Geldman, an American-Israeli settler, originally from the Chicago area inside a synagogue in Efrat. He explained his take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, laying much blame on the Palestinian Authority and their corruption. He explained that settlers would like peace, but that it is too dangerous for Palestinians to meet with settlers due to threats from their own government. It was a genuine conversation and he thanked us for being a peaceful group with good questions and a genuine desire to learn.
After our visit to Efrat we went to the Cremisan Winery in Beit Jala, a suburb of Bethlehem, owned and operated by Salesian monks. As Bethlehem Bible College states on their website, "The Cremisan Valley is one of the most vulnerable territories by the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. The Valley is situated between the Israeli settlements of Gilo and Har Gilo, which were constructed on land belonging to people from Beit Jala. In 2006, the Israeli military authorities announced an order for the construction of a separation barrier in the area. In June 2015, after 9 long years of prayers and legal battles, the monastery and the 58 Palestinian landowners were shocked to learn that the Israeli High Court approved construction of the barrier. The Cremisan Monastery would be cut off from Beit Jala and Bethlehem and fall behind the wall, becoming unreachable to the community around it. This would also result in the loss of one of the only remaining green areas in the district." Politics aside, the wine was delicious. We enjoyed learning about how the wine was made and had a wonderful tasting experience.
Needing a bit of a break from Middle Eastern food, we decided to go out for pizza at Al Mundo, a restaurant overlooking the city of Bethlehem with some of the most delicious pizza in the city. We had soda, french fries, and delicious pizza. After lunch half of our group went shopping at a fair trade store, while others went back to the hotel to rest.
In the evening we had a talk with Elias, a Palestinian Christian and the Executive Director at Holy Land Trust. Holy Land Trust is an organization that seeks to promote peace in the region by living lives motivated by unconditional love and not fear. They believe in the possibility of truth and goodness between all people and the ability to relate to each other with empathy and compassion. They recognize that much of the conflict in the area is due to trauma and that the only way to find peace is to understand the deeper issues that prevent a real and just peace from being realized. Elias invited his good friend from Israel along to talk to us, a former Israeli Defense Forces Jewish soldier. Both have risked their lives to be friends with each other, but know that peace is forged through relationships. Then we heard from a Palestinian Christian woman who is a brilliant English professor at Bethlehem University on her take on the conflict, relationships between Muslims and Christians, and what it is like for women growing up inside the Palestinian territories. We were left feeling hopeful for peace in the area and for progressive movements for women in the Middle East. A prayer of gratitude and a plea for peace ended our night as our thoughts moved forward to what we would experience tomorrow in Jerusalem.