All Places are Plural

Door in old Nazareth

Everywhere I have been in Israel, Palestine and Jordan is more than one place. These ‘wheres’ are layered with ‘whens’. The hillsides have been grazed for millennia. Caves have been inhabited by thousands of generations. Even Neanderthals have been found in the Carmel mountain range.

Each church or basilica is often a collage, a composite assemblage of past shrines. Byzantine establishment, Islamic conquest, Crusader rebuilding, reconquest, 19th or 20th century restoration. Ottoman and then British colonial rule. Most recently, the state of Israel.

Israeli nationalism imagined a unified Jewish homeland. After WWII this aspiration gained traction. When Israel declared itself a state with British permission in what was then Mandatory Palestine, some 400 Arab villages were “depopulated.” Either razed or reinhabited by Israeli re-settlers. A massive global diaspora felt it was coming home. Arabs who had lived in these places for hundreds of years felt like they were being driven from their traditional territories so to speak.

Nationalisms of all stripes tend to purify and reify places and construct them as if there were an original people and place. Palestinian and Israeli nationalisms both make claims to autochthony, which literally means self-earth. Of the place. And all these peoples have strong claims to this land. Throughout the long list of empires that have trampled and exploited the region, some measure of plurality has been navigated. From Pagan to Christian to Muslim empires.

We are now living in a time of either/or, left/right, oppressors/oppressed. Israel and Palestine’s aspirations will continue to play into this winner/looser political rhetoric.

In this way, Nationalism is a kind of sacralized mono-culture. One that tries to control stories and identity by imposing a single reading of place. Regardless of the future arrangement, plurality is going to have to be recognized by all sides.

Mundane Made Holy

From May 15-31 I will be in Israel/Palestine on pilgrimage. Going to post some jottings. But I’m writing them on my phone so forgive the brevity and choppiness.

The first ten days will be on a tour led by a Franciscan friar named Father Ben. He is originally from Ghana. Getting here was a long journey but very smooth. On my over night plane from JFK to Tel Aviv, there were many different kinds of Jewish folk. The man next to me wore a black woven Kippah on a bald head and it kept falling off when his head dipped in sleep.

I would wake up and look around with groggy eyes and see men dressed in full Jewish prayer regalia bobbing in place with prayer books in hand or sitting quietly adjusting their phylacteries on forehead and left arm.

The airline steward asked if I wanted my mid flight meal kosher, or “just regular.” I looked at my Jewish seat companion and said, “um, non-kosher please.” I said that so as not to imply that eating Kosher was all that odd.

At the hotel, there were mezuzahs on every door. A surcharge for spa services on Shabbat. And there was an elevator that was designated for use on Shabbat, saving observant Jews from having to press the elevator buttons. There was a small synagogue in the hotel basement.

In the front of the hotel, just below their welcome sign, there was a small pipal tree growing, the holy tree of enlightenment for Buddhists. I think they are quite common here.

When I rented a car on the first day before the tour started so I could see Haifa, I saw a man pulled over to the side of the busy freeway praying on his mat in the dust. In the most mundane of places he was making that dust holy with his prayer.

As I drove on the busy Israeli freeway, I passed a Caesarea freeway exit and the Roman aqueduct that fed water to the city from Mount Carmel built by Herod to honor the Roman Emperor in 22 BCE. It felt surreal to see Biblical place names on street signage. But of course, how else would it be? These places did not freeze in time.

In Nazareth, we visited holy basilicas and shrines and then ate shawarma in an equally ancient grotto turned pilgrim cantina. I joked that perhaps it was the place Jesus himself had his first shawarma!

Eating fish at our hotel on the Lake of Galilee, where Jesus and his disciples fished. Walking the shoreline and seeing privatized beaches with kayak and sea doo rentals.

All the religious sites have been breathtaking, if crowded. But at the margins off all these places and spaces there has been a kind of dialect of the holy also spoken by the mundane. If holy places are so often sacred because of what we believe exists there objectively, holiness can also be a powerful practice of making-sacred-with our places.