Countless people have felt a connection to this land, this special and heartbreaking part of the world over the last few thousand years. Israel is not just a land of the people who live here full-time; it’s a homeland of anyone from any part of the world who feels that they have a soul-level stake in it. (Its level of complication means that people outside of the Abrahamic religions don’t really understand the hype. I don’t blame them at all; it’s exhausting). So what do we do when faith and fact, as well as spirituality and science, sometimes contradict? Or there’s not quite what we expected? Or when we all have our own religious narratives that claim a space as our own, but writings, history, and memories might not match?
Today, we learned more about the archeology the both props up and questions what the Hebrew Bible has to say on the origins of the people of the Book. We covered both temple periods in the history of Judaism in a hurry today, enjoying the kind of pilgrimage countless people have taken before us. I never realized just how contentious archeology can be, especially in a Land where people have built up and destroyed structures for thousands of years. Sometimes, these structures are even right on top of one another out of convenience or a desire for dominance, meaning that there will be narratives hidden as we uncover or highlight others. There are many layers of potentially important findings, so who gets to decide what’s the most important? There may always be layers left undiscovered. Knowing this, we came to see question marks on the signs as victories, not failures, in a kind of science that can become a way of confirming the hopes of the one who seeks or creating a more coherent storyline than there perhaps was. For example, what do you do with the possibility that David was never at what we now call the City of David?
There is something to be said about which stories we highlight and which ones we don’t – especially in a land that has occupation going on in parts of it. For example, an area called the City of David, an important park for showing off the earliest Jewish history that we have a lot of, is both an exciting point of Jewish culture and pride and also an act of politics. It went up quickly, at a large cost, even as the Israeli government gives an unfairly small proportion of funds to Palestinian neighborhoods. As we exited this exhibit, there were piles of trash stacked up across the street, a remnant of structural inequality, a different sense of environmentalism than I’m used to, and a lack of hope or sense of autonomy even in one’s own yard. There are certain things like this that seem to fall away when you have so much to be thinking about; this is true for Israelis and Palestinians alike. So, even in holy spots that connect the larger Jewish diaspora to the Land, the unholy and now all-too-mundane realities of the conflict shine (or, really, what’s the opposite of shine?) through. It’s the (un)Holy Land, or as one of my classmates put it, holy hell, after all.
We ended our day by having two fabulous, powerful, absurdly qualified women speak to us about engaging in activism together as an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian Muslim. They encouraged us to look for and build threads of hope everywhere, and to be willing to work for a “third way” rather than fight a zero-sum game of being pro-one side and anti-another – to call out people who have been won over by the thought of “winning” by bringing someone else down. The Jewish woman looked at the Muslim woman and said, “If she loses, I don’t possibly win.” When asked what we could do to be the best allies possible, they both said to notice the things we take for granted; build trust with others; and call out those who are playing a zero-sum game, and don’t let them get away with it so easily.
I can already tell that we’re going to be meeting exceptional people one after another. I’ve begun to wonder: What about the all-too-common person in the Land who secretly (or maybe not so secretly) wishes that the “other” weren’t there, whoever that is? Sometimes, you see artwork that depicts one religion’s holy site, but not another, or you go into an exhibit that has descriptions in one native tongue, but not another. No sides have their hands clean here. Something incredible is that, even when people aren’t open to hearing all narratives, the Land won’t allow them to forget these stories entirely. The walls speak where the dominant narratives try to silence them. I read part of this poem in graffiti, and it’s haunting me.
“Oh my intractable wound
My homeland is not a suitcase
and I am not a traveler
I am the lover and the land is the beloved
Hail the people of Lebanon who remain steadfast in the south”
– Mahmoud Darwish, written after the Six Day War