Valley of Hinnom through the city of Jerusalem.
Valley of Hinnom through the city of Jerusalem.

Scott Morrison ’14 – This week in Israel has been challenging in more ways than one, and I will probably leave this country with more questions than answers. How fitting, right?

Natanel Cohen, founder of Shabbat of a Lifetime, talking with Wabash students.
Natanel Cohen, founder of Shabbat of a Lifetime, talking with Wabash students.

It’s fitting because Wabash tells students about the importance of questioning. We base our classes on discussions and we ask a lot of questions; these are questions we are told to continue asking throughout life. The experiences of the past days since my first blog on the first day of the trip have been amazing, enriching, and beautiful in a lot of ways. But they have also been ugly in a way, and this is what has raised the questions in my mind.

When I say ugly, let me explain. But, in order to make myself clear, I will relate the many positives.
Of course the religious sites themselves were fantastic. I have gained a greater appreciation for all of the faiths based in this Holy Land. The experience of being led by a Muslim waqf through Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock was in a way, life-changing. For one, they were very rare experiences which allowed me to see intense beauty as I have never seen. Additionally, seeing the peace of the Muslims praying and studying was in a word – intense. We faced no hostility and were treated with respect and humility. The waqf was down to earth, criticizing Muslim leaders in Arab countries like Saudi Arabia. For him, the Quran comes first, and he peacefully worshipped God.
My experience as a Catholic visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulcher really helped me appreciate my faith more than I have in the last few years. To see the many pilgrims, the place Jesus was crucified, where his body was prepared, and where he was buried was beyond words. It is hard to come to this land and not have your faith sparked.
Wabash students breaking bread with Benjamin.
Wabash students breaking bread with Benjamin.

That leaves Judaism. The Western Wall is a moving sight. To be able to pray alongside Jewish Haredim was awe-inspiring. We broke bread on Shabbat in the home of an Orthodox Jewish man named Ben, along with his wife and a friend. We shared in food and song as family and as friends. I truly believe this is something that would please God. It too was amazing.

Yet, all of those great experiences were complicated beyond belief. I stood with Kalp Juthani on the Mount of Olives on Friday as the Muslim call to prayer echoed over all of Jerusalem. Simultaneously, I heard the bells of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (which I should mention is divided between six Christian groups – a conflict in itself). And while I listened to those beautiful but competing sounds from the east of the Temple Mount, I knew that on the other side, pious Jews were rocking, praying, and wailing to God. That is what this class is about, contested sites. My tough hike up the Mount of Olives was worth this unique experience.
This is a beautiful land full of beautiful faiths and beautiful people. We have met many great people from all faiths and walks of life from Jews to Christians to Muslims. But there were constant, painful reminders of ugly lurking below the surface. We had great dinner conversation with our Shabbat host, Ben, about the conflict with Palestine. By the way, in the week we have been here 7 Palestinians have been killed, and rockets have flown both ways across the Gaza Strip border.
I find my heart goes out to our new Palestinian friends, Issa Ba’bish and Qamar Hamati, we met at the University of Bethlehem in the West Bank. They spoke of the corruption in the Palestinian government which they are hopeful can be fixed. They spoke of 50 percent unemployment, extreme poverty, settlements, and the hardship it is travel into Jerusalem to pray at religious sites. They told a very real story and they worked around the whole issue in our discussion. We plan on keeping in touch.
But we didn’t need much more explanation; we saw the wall that has been erected between Israel and Bethlehem in the West Bank. We went through more Israeli checkpoints than I ever care to go through in my life. All of this confused me more than I ever thought I would be about the political and religious conflict here. Whose side should I take? It’s not an easy question to answer.
But I am truly thankful I could experience this country, these religions, and these people in the Holy Land. I have gained new understanding, but many more questions. Can these people coexist? What will happen to Jerusalem? Will Israel and Palestine come to a peaceful agreement? Will Issa and Qamar be able to support their families? And so many others.
The human stories brought a mistiness to my eyes at times, and I know these everyday people want to peacefully live. But religious claims, scarce resources, and complex political ties will keep the situation tense here for the foreseeable future. As I head back to America, I know I will continue to ponder this situation, asking both myself and others questions. I am left with the words of Issa during our visit to Bethlehem. He asked us to be their media – to tell their story. So often we see one side of conflict from the media. Palestinians, Israelis, Arabs, Muslims, Christians, Jews, none of these people are evil, and none of these people are completely to blame for the religious conflict here. I know that this was for a religion class. I learned a lot about religious history, but I think this trip provided me with a true liberal arts education.
As we leave tomorrow, I will hope and pray that these great people can find peace with one another. People like Qamar, Ben, our guide Habib, and Jews, Muslims, and Christians around the world deserve that much. We must put the people first. It’s not that hard, but yet it is.
Photos by Ian Baumgardner ’14