Come and See

Fr. Houk in the Holy Land.

Nathanael said to Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” (John 1:46)

I suppose first century folks were just as prone to labeling others as people are today. If you’re from the wrong side of the tracks, from the wrong country, from the wrong city, you might have a really hard time being accepted, or heard, or understood.

Jesus was from the wrong side of the tracks, from back-water Nazareth. Nathanael’s cynical question says it all: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” But Philip’s response was to say, “Don’t too quickly judge a book by its cover! Listen, learn. Come and see”

I’ve just returned from a trip to the Holy Land. Having led three pilgrimages over the past 10 years (and planning a fourth for 2020) this trip was different. It was a chance for me to travel not as group leader, but as part of a group being led. The purpose was to spend time within the boundaries of what some people call Israel, some people call the West Bank, but what the locals call Palestine—those parts of the Holy Land that have been under Israeli occupation since 1967 with no solution in sight.

On one hand, it was great fun. We stayed mostly in the city of Ramallah, the administrative capital of the Palestinian Authority and a town which has boasted a predominantly Christian population for hundreds of years. This ended in the early 2000’s when Arab Christians lost majority status, since many have emigrated to Europe or the United States in hopes of a better living situation.

Still, walking around Ramallah by day and by night, everything seemed fantastic. Some in our group “shopped till we dropped” in the city’s many markets. We all enjoyed incredible meals: hummus and kabobs and stuffed grape leaves. Ramallah is famous for a special brand of ice cream, which our group enjoyed, and we repeatedly devoured the scrumptious, unique Palestinian delicacy kanafeh—the dessert that eats like a meal.

On the other hand, we saw hardships wherever we went. We talked to civic leaders, entrepreneurs, university professors, musicians, dancers, college students and children. The burden of occupation was ubiquitous: travel restrictions, onerous checkpoints, red tape that stifles development, restrictions on Palestinians to build on Palestinian land while Israeli settlements continue to proliferate on the same soil.

Of course, Israel is concerned for its security. But part of my “come and see” experience was to see how vastly disproportionate politics and policy are to security concerns, in a way that only fuels tensions and a sense of hopelessness among Palestinians, the vast majority of whom simply want to live in peace.

The most vivid example of this is the topic of water. To look out over the city of the Ramallah, one will see a skyline speckled with water tanks atop homes and businesses. The reason for this is that the State of Israel completely controls the water supply. Palestinians cannot receive a permit to even dig a well. Water is frequently shut off in the occupied territories. We were told that in Ramallah, residents can count on water only three or four days of the week. Hence the water tanks, where water is stored up for the days they would otherwise have to do without. Check out this comparison, which shows the disproportionate access to water between Palestinians and Israelis.

“Can anything good come out of Ramallah?” I was fortunate and blessed to “come and see” the situation with an open heart and an open mind. I met Arab Christians and Arab Muslims who want a win-win outcome for a full, happy, healthy existence for all. To see this, one has to go a little deeper than the media coverage which relentlessly simplifies the situation as matter of security and violence. The truth is that there is violence on both sides. And both sides want, and deserve, security.

If I understand Jesus of Nazareth correctly, he cares for absolutely everybody–no matter where you’re from, no matter which country you call home, regardless of what city you live in or who your parents are. I return reflective of the need for Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians to listen, learn, understand, and to live as neighbors in a land where there’s not enough love to go around.

To see all the photos, go to the gallery.



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