I have taken part of a post I wrote earlier for this blog - reworked and expanded it for the assignment.
Earlier this year I went on a tour of Israel and Palestine with a group of pastors. We were tourists and pilgrims visiting the Holy Land. We did the things that tourists and pilgrims do. We saw the historical sites, we went to museums, listened to lectures, bought souvenirs, and took pictures of everything.
During the trip I frequently wore a keffiyeh – the Arab head-covering scarf. My brother had bought it for me when he was in Israel earlier. They’re available for purchase from merchants in many cities in Israel and Palestine. But I wore mine, not just as a stupid American tourist, doing the things that tourists do, but because I understand the symbolic connection the keffiyeh has with the Palestinian people and their desire for a free and independent state. I wore my scarf in support of the Palestinian people and to identify with them.
During most of the trip it caused me very little trouble. In the northern parts of Israel, around the Sea of Galilee, it didn’t even occasion a second glance. When we went into the city of Bethlehem, which is part of the Palestinian territory, I was hailed by a couple of street venders, “Hey Mr. Arafat!”
It was at Masada, near the Dead Sea, that I had my first discomforting encounter on account of my scarf. Our group had gone up to that mountain fortress that was at one time a stronghold of King Herod, and later was the last stand of the Zealots during the Jewish revolt against the Romans in AD 72. Masada today is almost a religious site for the Jewish people and a symbol of Israel’s national identity, a symbol of their national determination to live free or die. While we were there we saw a family celebrating their son’s Bar Mitzvah in the remains of the synagogue used by the Zealots before their mass suicide.
As our group was preparing to leave the remains of that mountain fortress I stepped aside to take a few last pictures. I approached the vantage point that I wanted to photograph and realized that my path would take me right in front of two women who were taking pictures in the same area. Not wanting to photo-bomb their pictures, I waited as one of the women gave instructions (in Hebrew) to her friend on how to use the camera. When they were finished I said, “Shalom” and made to pass on by. The woman with the camera then rattled off a string of Hebrew to me in return. I apologized (in English) and said that I’d just about exhausted my knowledge of Hebrew.
“That’s okay,” she said, “I’m Canadian.”
Then she picked at my shirt and vest and my keffiyeh and said, “Why do you wear this Arab scarf?” Not wanting to engage in a confrontational debate right there and then, and also because our group was starting to leave, I made polite excuses and continued on my way. Most of our group rode the cable car down from the top, but some of us walked the long and rugged “snake path” down the steep cliff side.
When we arrived, hot and sweaty, at the bottom of the mountain we ate lunch at the visitors’ center and, after the obligatory few minutes at the gift shop, went outside to wait for our bus. That’s where I saw her again – or rather – she saw me.
“There’s my Arab American friend!” she called out. She waved me over to speak to her. “Do you know what this means?” she asked, picking at my scarf again. “Do you know what this is?”
“Yes. I do understand the implications of the keffiyeh,” I explained. “I know something of the history of the conflict between Israelis and the Palestinians.” We engaged in a short conversation there in front of the visitors’ center about the long history of conflict between these two groups.
When she learned that I’m a Christian pastor she said to me, “As follower of Jesus, you must support the sons of Abraham.”
“But aren’t the Palestinians, aren’t the Arabs, sons of Abraham too, through Ishmael?” I asked her.
My new Canadian Jewish friend waved her hand and dismissed my question, “Pfffft.”
Our bus arrived shortly after that. I shook hands with my Canadian Jewish friend and we both said, “Shalom.” The confrontation was over. It was brief and it was mild, but it wouldn’t be my final confrontation.
When our time in Israel and Palestine was over, we returned to Ben Gurion airport to catch our flight home. As I made my way through the checkpoints in the airport I was stopped by a security agent because of the keffiyeh I was wearing. The guard pulled me out of the line of travelers to ask a few questions.
“What is your purpose in Israel?” the security agent asked me. I don’t recall what he looked like; all I could see was the firearm on his hip.
“I’ve been here as a tourist.”
“Who do you know in Israel? Do you have friends here?”
“No. I don’t. I’ve just been here a few days as a tourist.”
He interrogated me with firm voice and stern eyes. “You don’t have any contacts in Israel or in the Palestinian territories? Who do you know in Israel?”
“No one. As I said, I’ve been here ten days with a tour group. Now I’m heading home.”
The guard examined my passport and my boarding pass, poked through my camera bag, and looked me over before speaking into his shoulder mounted radio. He spoke Hebrew rapidly – but I recognized my name being said. He stared at me as we waited for a response. It was one of those moments that seems to last much longer than the actual elapsed time. I could see my wife standing on the other side of the checkpoint ready to cry.
When an answer finally came back to the security agent from some unseen officer, he returned my passport and boarding pass. “You should proceed immediately to your plane, Mr. Carter,” he said to me as he handed me the documents.
The Catholic theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez has written, “To place oneself in the perspective of the kingdom [of God] means to participate in the struggle for the liberation of those who are oppressed by others (Gutiérrez, 287).” But in my normal everyday life I am not oppressed or persecuted. I live a fairly privileged life; as a white American male, I occupy a position of relative comfort and ease. How can I identify with those who are persecuted and oppressed?
I’m not stopped in the streets by police armed with assault rifles. I’m not, in my ordinary life, questioned by armed guards at military checkpoints when I travel. I don’t live behind concrete and barbed wire barricades. I had a few brief moments of fear and anxiety in Israel because of the keffiyeh. What is it like to live every day with that constant anxiety? I had a difficult few moments at one checkpoint. What is it like to have to endure a checkpoint interrogation in order to leave or return home every day?
Christian theologians talk about the kenosis of Christ – that is his “self-emptying,” the giving up of his place in heaven in order to take on a human incarnation and to live among us. He did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (English Standard Version, Philippians 2: 6 – 8).” He became as we are so that he could identify with us in our struggles.
It’s not enough for me, as a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, to speak the good news from the pulpit on Sundays. It is a hollow gospel that is proclaimed merely from a place of safety and comfort. If the gospel is about life and freedom for all of God’s people, I cannot sit idly silent while others struggle to live and be free. It may have been a small action, but I wore the keffiyeh as a way to identify with and to, for a few moments, participate in that struggle.
English Standard Version. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Bibles, 2007. Print.
Gutiérrez, Gustavo, “Theology of Liberation.” Gustavo Gutiérrez: Essential Writings. Ed. James B. Nickoloff. Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books, 1996. Print.