Reflections from Israel & Palestine – “this is not what religion is about”

This article was written by my partner Anya Whiteside.

‘Somehow’ I say to Steve with sweat dripping off my nose  ‘I kind of understand the old testament God in this landscape’. We are scaling the spectacularly arid mountains next to the dead sea, unwisely enacting the phrase ‘only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun’. We are in the desert and the sun beats down on nothing but dust and rock and below us the dead sea shimmers blue in a landscape of reds, violent ocres and browns.

I have always struggled to understand the old testament God, capable of sending plagues and striking down disbelievers. I have also always wondered how my Christian friends reconcile this with the loving and forgiving  God that they seem to relate to. As we walk I think how it must be easier though to understand a God of judgement and violent retribution when surrounded by such an extreme landscape than it is when walking through the gentle English pastures.

During my week-long visit in Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories I found it hard to escape the violent edge of religion.

In Jerusalem Abu Mohammed served us falafel before asking ‘why are you here? People like you should just go home to your own country’. I asked him if he thought that there would be more violence if all the internationals went home? He responded, ‘Of course but this is the only way to sort this out – it will be the biggest war between the Arabs and the Jews  and there will be much killing, but at the end we will know who God wants to be on the land’. I explain to Abu Muhammad that I do not agree that an apocalyptic battle with mass slaughter is the only way to get peace and he smiles, ‘ah but you must study the Quran more and then you will know. Even the Jews know this – it is God’s will’.

Religious intolerance and violence though only made up a small part of my time in Israel/oPT.

I went with the EAPPI accompaniers to monitor the Friday prayers in Silwan, the so-called roughest and most dangerous part of Jerusalem. The men prayed in the street and the sound floated up to us as we watched from the slopes above, keeping one eye on the Israeli Army on the rooftops nearby. Afterwards one of the men approached the EAPPI observers and said, ‘thank you, thank you for always being here for the prayers’.

I met Michael in Hebron. He was an Israeli from near Tel Aviv who was taking months out of his life to travel around Israel and learn about ‘his country’ and his deeply-felt religion. There were many things we disagreed on from politics to theology, but as we stood looking at a street with a foot high wall running down it separating Palestinians on one side and Israelis on the other we agreed that this is not what religion should be about. Something, at the very least, I hope everyone from all religions can agree on.

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2 Comments

Filed under Human rights, Middle East, Religion

2 responses to “Reflections from Israel & Palestine – “this is not what religion is about”

  1. Thanks for this post, Steve.
    I like the juxtaposition between what the horrendous consequences of religious intolerance could be, and the much-needed practical human-rights support on the ground for ordinary people who just wish to get on with their lives, including their daily prayers, whatever their beliefs. One of the things which the conflict in Israel and Palestine makes us all think about is what religion is really about, and how we need to act towards others in the world.
    Thinking of you
    Jane

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  2. A deeply atmospheric article which is a nice change of direction from the usual nonsense on here 🙂

    I particularly enjoyed the bit about the guy inviting you into his home, then asking why you were there. Reminds me of the bit in John Simpson’s book where he met a member of the Afghan insurgency, who shook his hand cordially and warmly with the phrase “Ah, death to Thatcher.” In my experience, and it sounds like in yours too, there is a definite juxtaposition found in both Arabs and Persians, between the (ingrained) culture of hospitality and the (acquired) distrust of the West as a concept… but not Westerners as individuals.

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