Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Christmas in Tiberias

Tiberias is one of the lowest places on earth. Coming from Nazareth, there is a sign proclaiming ‘Sea level’, after which the road rather dramatically plunges down about 650ft to the lakeshore. It means that it is often hot and muggy. Last Wednesday was an incredibly clear day, however, and Mount Hermon appeared so visibly to the North, covered with snow. It was so wonderful to look at – an early Christmas present. Certainly to be savoured, as the next few days were horribly dreich – cold, grey and wet!

Tiberias is, of course, a Jewish town, so you have to look very hard for any sign of Christmas (unlike Nazareth, where there are Christmas parades).The Scots Hotel is, however, rather tastefully decorated for Christmas, as are the church and manse – Joanna my elder came with a bootful of holly, ivy and pine-cones. At the church we began our Christmas services with Lessons and Carols on Sunday evening – interesting, as half the congregation were Jewish! On Christmas Eve, we’ll have a carol service, and it will be interesting to see who turns up to that. After it (or after the mulled wine at the end) we’ll join our friends at St Peter’s Fransciscan Church for a meal. There is a new priest who is very keen on ecumenical links. There will be a communion service on Christmas morning.

Christmas is about God’s commitment to humankind, and I continue to be touched by people’s commitment to justice issues. Yesterday I visited Sindyanna, a fair-trade organisation run from Cana in Galilee by a remarkable Jewish woman, Hadas, which seeks to empower the women from the local Arab villages. They market soap from Nablus, as well as local herbs and olive oil. They are also just about to open a visitors’ centre nearby, where women are involved in the most marvellous basketry, talk about their experiences and offer a ‘Palestinian’ lunch. A good place for tours!

Wishing everyone a peaceful and joyful Christmas and a blessed 2010.

Friday, 11 December 2009


Hanukkah is a Jewish festival, celebrated in the middle of December, celebrating how the Temple light was miraculously kept alight, even though the oil had run out (from Macabees). In practice, most Israelis would light a candle each evening on the menorah for 8 days.

At my Hebrew class, we had to learn two songs about Hanukkah, and I was also invited to a Hanukkah party in the church. The school which meets above the Church is for the children of messianic believers (Jews who accept Jesus as the Messiah), so they held their party which included acting out a version of the story, and of course there was special food at the end. Most are part of the Peniel Fellowship which has 450 members.

Interestingly,many would not celebrate Christmas, and those who do, might not necessarily celebrate it in December, but in October!

HIV and Aids

I wear an Aids red ribbon on both my jackets, and it is amazing how many people here stop me and ask what it represents. It makes me aware of the difference between Israel and Africa. In Africa, the ribbon was everywhere and easily recognisable, and everyone was affected by Aids. In Israel/ Palestine it seems that it has a far lower profile.

In early December, just after World Aids Day, I travelled to Shafa Amr, arguably the 2nd biggest Arab town in Israel (after Nazareth), to visit the Galilee Society, whose HIV and Aids work is supported by the Church of Scotland’s HIV/AIDS Project.

The Galilee Society is actually one of the longest established NGO in the Arab community, and I was amazed and impressed to discover a modern building with superb facilities, including several labs and a staff of over 40. The Society has several different wings, including research (into wastewater, for example), environmental concerns and data processing. Their HIV and Aids project is part of the health justice wing, run by Mohammed Khatib. There is no hospital in Shafa Amr, so most patients prefer to go to the hospitals in Nazareth, which are run by the churches (like the Edinburgh Medical Mission Society hospital), though the government hospitals in Haifa are also very good. One problem is that many of the medical pamphlets are written only in Hebrew, and many of the Palestinian women especially do not necessarily read Hebrew, so miss out on advice.

The HIV pamphlets are all in Arabic. Numbers in the Palestinian community who are infected are relatively small - only 10 new cases in the last year - but that doesn’t mean to say that we can relax. Mohammed and his team go out, for example, to schools to raise awareness and try to train young people as peer educators. They recognise that young people in the Palestinian community are more open than ever before to outside (particularly Western) influences and thus more open to infection. They also continue to meet resistance, as the stigma of being HIV+ is still great in Israel.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Travels in the West Bank

Route 6 takes on a familiar hue when you have been up and down it a few times. It was obvious on the map which road we were supposed to take, but actually finding it was a different matter. Maybe a symbol of how difficult it is to access the West Bank from Israel because of the ‘Wall’. The ‘wall’ is sometimes a fence, and sometimes a wall, but always excludes. Before the wall was erected, thousands of people from the West Bank were able to go into Israel every day for employment, but with the wall, numbers have been cut to a tiny dribble, and always with the uncertainty of whether your work permit will be removed. It was ironic that we were making this journey at the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

We were making for Jayous, where the Church of Scotland Guild is supporting a crèche, which allows mothers the opportunity to have time to work whilst their children are cared for. Jayous is termed a village, but was far bigger than I imagined. After visiting the crèche, we experienced Palestinian hospitality with a wonderful lunch.

After lunch, we were taken down near the checkpoint which is the only way through the ‘wall’ for inhabitants of Jayous, so they can have access to their some of their fields and olive groves. An Israeli jeep was heard approaching (people develop a keen sense of hearing), so we had to retreat back to the village. There is a group of EAPPI (Ecumenical Accompaniement Programme in Palestine and Israel)volunteers at Jayous. This is a World Council of Churches scheme, whereby volunteers from all over the world (the four we met were from South Africa, Sweden, England and Norway) spend 3 months, accompanying people to the checkpoint and observing, helping to minimise any abuses. The EAPPI volunteers are also a symbol of the World Church standing with the Palestinian people. We sat down with the volunteers for a cup of tea, but almost immediately there was the sound of Israeli jeeps roaring through the town - and then a shot is fired... I think it was just into the air, but it destroys the peace.

It is difficult for me to explain what I have seen to my Jewish friends in Tiberias. Some refuse point blank to go into any conversation about politics, because they know it will prove divisive. Others struggle to justify, saying that the wall has stopped the suicide bombings, which had created such fear among the Israeli population. However, for the people of Jayous, they were unanimous over lunch that they looked forward to a day when everyone would live together peacefully in one state (but who would have the power?). ‘And the lion will lie down with the lamb...’ ?

The name Nablus conjured up to me pictures of the Intifada, and it was with some trepidation that I set off to join friends from Jerusalem, especially as we would drive in cars with Israeli number plate. My fears proved groundless, as it seemed the easiest thing in the world to get there. Interestingly, there were two Israeli women standing at the checkpoint into the city, monitoring any possible abuses – it was good to see. We joined Sheena Boyle from Prestwick, who is involved with a charity, Children of Amal, which seeks to use music therapy with the children in the refugee camps, who are often traumatised by curfews or by the security forces blowing up houses in search of militants.
We were in Balata Refugee camp, which has 30,000 people living in it and is in fact one of the most densely populated places on the planet. The children took it in turns to play the various musical instruments and also to conduct. Then at one point some music was played (In fact, it was ‘Out of Africa’) and the children had to let their imagination run riot. This has apparently led in the past to quite harrowing accounts, but on this occasion they seemed to imagine trips to far away, beautiful countries which. in its own way, was quite sad.

The following day I had been invited out in the evening for a Shabbat meal by Lavi, who works at the hotel and who lives with his wife in a caravan by the lake. It was quite a bohemian setting and a thrill to listen to 5 young Israelis talk and put the world to right. I felt enormously privileged to be part of the gathering. Yet, such a different world from Balata camp.