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Journey to Jerusalem and the West Bank
January 26th, 2013
10:00 PM ET

My Take: An American Jew finds MLK – and a new understanding – on the West Bank

Editor's note: Arri Eisen, PhD., is professor of pedagogy at Emory University’s Center for Ethics, Department of Biology and Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts. Carlton D. Mackey, who took the accompanying photographs, is the director of the Ethics & the Arts Initiative at the Emory University Center for Ethics.

By Arri Eisen, Special to CNN

Monday was Martin Luther King Day. Monday, Barack Obama was inaugurated president for the second time.

This was one of the few glimmers of hope held up by many of the Palestinians I met with at the turn of the year in the West Bank: “Who would have thought in Martin Luther King’s day that you would now have a black president? If that can happen in the U.S., then maybe one day there can be peace here.”

I spent 10 days in Jordan, Israel and the occupied territories on a “journey of reconciliation” my university sponsored, with a dozen other Americans — I the only Jew among them — meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

We met with Vera Baboun, the newly elected and first-ever female mayor of Bethlehem, a small city in the West Bank. The mayor told us she earned her degree in African-American literature at the Hebrew University; she was inspired by Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. Like many of the Palestinian political leaders in the West Bank, she is Christian. She is a mother of five; her husband was detained by the Israelis for three years and died soon after his release. Just outside her office, across the square, Jesus was born.

As we stand in the lobby saying goodbye to the mayor, a full-sized picture of Yasser Arafat, waving and smiling at me. In the world I grew up in, the late Palestinian leader was considered nothing but a Jew-killer, a terrorist.

Take everything that is good in humans and everything that is bad, mix it together, pour it in a vat of irony and then boil it down and stick it in one small area. This is the Middle East.

As we leave Bethlehem, the “separation barrier” — tall, thick concrete walls topped with gnarly wires cutting through the land like a knife — is on our left. On our right, says our guide, is the valley where the shepherds were told by the angels of Jesus’ birth. As we cross through the checkpoint, one of 500 in the West Bank, I turn and look back to see a huge red sign warning that it’s illegal for Israelis to enter Bethlehem – as well as dangerous to their lives.

I think of another sign we saw earlier that day. We had driven our bus up a good road that led to a settlement — full of Jews, surrounded by their own fence and guarded gate — and then took a ragged road as far as we could, up to the boulders strewn across it. We got out and walked the wind-whipped path to the Tent of Nations, 100 acres owned by Daoud, a Palestinian with a deed for this land that dates to 1916. The sign on entering Daoud’s property: “We refuse to be enemies.” He fights as MLK would; his right to the land has been tied up in the Israeli courts for more than two decades. When Daoud puts up tents for a summer camps he runs for kids from Bethlehem, he is issued demolition orders for them. He sees swimming pools in the settlements, but his water and electricity are cut off; he collects his own rain water and produces his own solar power.

These were not the stories I was told. I was raised in the classical Jewish American Zionist narrative of black and white, good and evil. Seeing the endless stream of evangelical Christians and Jews on birthright trips from all over the world touring through Jerusalem, I want to stop and shake them and tell them what they’re missing, what I wasn’t told.

It’s not that the Palestinians are angels. When the Israelis built the separation barriers, the suicide bombings terrorizing Israeli citizens stopped. I had dinner with an old friend, an American who had moved to Israel decades before. She spoke of gas masks and bomb shelters and of fear for her daughter, who is in the army guarding a West Bank settlement.

In Jerusalem, I walk out of the Church of the Nativity with our Palestinian guide Nabeel, one of 42 allowed to enter the city (on a six-month renewable permit). He walks with a limp. I tell him, “I now know three men with your name, one from Pakistan, one from Lebanon and now you.” He smiles. “What is your name again?” he asks. “I’m glad you’re on the trip. You know, in America, outside, I have Jewish friends, but here ...”

At the place where Jesus was buried, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, bells compete in aural space with Muslim prayers over loudspeakers. Our guide shows us a side entrance for black Christians who at one time weren’t allowed to use the main entrance. We take it and wind upward. On the roof of the church, here in the middle of the Old City of Jerusalem, a group of African monks has set up their own village!

At the Wailing Wall, small birds have taken up residence in a very resilient plant that grows from its ancient bricks. The birds look out at me, at the man holding his iPhone to the wall so a distant friend can pray into its mortar, at the Israeli soldiers completing their training and swearing to die for their country before this last remnant of the second Temple, at the masses of praying men and women — the women in a smaller area, separated from the men and further from the holiest part of the Wall. I am humbled. I turn and am struck by a huge sign advertising “bar mitzvahs at the Wall.” I wonder what the birds are thinking.

Many, Palestinians and Israelis, talk of how “things have gotten worse the last two years,” how peace is not even an issue in this week’s Israeli elections.

We meet with a group of young men and women calling themselves Kids for Peace: Palestinians, Christians, Jews, Israelis, Muslims. They get together regularly and share stories; they bring their parents together across the enmity formed by walls and fences. I see my son in them. The oldest one clears his throat. “We have peace in our veins,” he says, “We are changing people. We must listen to each other.”

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Christianity • History • Israel • Jerusalem • Judaism • Middle East • Palestinians

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  7. Dave Pepper

    MLK A Living Legacy http://youtu.be/RmJNKhxTy4k

    February 10, 2013 at 5:02 pm |
  8. MiamiGuy

    How quaint and unusual. A liberal US Jew using his status as a Jew to sweep into Israel, bash the security measures while bemoaning the status of the poor Palestnians and then go back to his Ivory Tower in a large urban liberal city where his biggest concern is whether the Starbucks will get his latte order correct. This article is not interesting, not insightful and is definitely not newsworthy.

    January 28, 2013 at 10:07 pm |
  9. meifumado

    The Arabs do not want peace, If you believe this you have let them pull the wool over your eye's.
    In 1948 the arabs were offered a two state and they turned it down, The jews accepted, The arabs then tried to kill every Jew in the land, That did go so well for the arabs did it?
    The arabs dont want peace ,the arabs don't want to share the land.
    Again in 2008 the arabs were offered a two state and what did they do? that's right, they turned it down,
    the sooner we realize that Islam and western society dont mix the better.
    Remember these are the people who strap bombs to their own children and attacked and murdered innocent athletes in an Olympic village during an Olympics

    January 28, 2013 at 11:35 am |
  10. Slim JIm

    Humanity needs to do the world a favor and dig a hole the size of Lake Eerie for a thousand square miles and flood the entire region with the ocean. Then let them drift of boats and throw fish at each other. It has the become the @sshole of the world.

    January 28, 2013 at 3:44 am |
  11. Kat

    People like MLK succeed in civilized societies with essential good and humanity in their hearts. The Israeli fanatics on the other hand who dominate society and politics are ruthless racist Zio-nazis who believe they are god's chosen people and non-jews in Palestine should be exterminated (only world outcry is stopping them)

    January 28, 2013 at 1:18 am |
  12. Kat

    watch how the Zionazis are trashing this Jew for showing a little sympathy to the victims of Israeli military dictatorship and occupation/colonization in the UN-recognized state of Palestine.

    January 28, 2013 at 1:10 am |
  13. Lost

    The use of religion and God to divide and discriminate is killing all of us. The use of religious and cultural beliefs to encroach upon sovereign territory for political and militarily strategic placement is the reason, whether it's sanctioned by international policy or not.

    January 28, 2013 at 12:42 am |
    • Science

      @lost maybe someday the killing will stop hopefully soon.

      Evolution won in the Dover court trial. ID/creation can not be taught in public schools in US.. Moving forward, take a blood test map your genes.

      Creationists' tactics also have a more profound impact on science education which goes beyond biology because they communicate the idea that there is something lacking or something wrong with evolutionary theory, an idea which is not actually true from a scientific standpoint. This causes students to develop very mistaken beliefs about the nature of science, the scientific method, and how scientific research is used. This cheats students out of the proper science education which they deserve.

      Attempts to use the law to restrict or dilute the teaching of evolution in public schools matters because science matters. As society relies more and more heavily on science and technology on ever more fundamental levels, it becomes increasingly more important that all citizens receive a proper grounding in science and the scientific method. Science education is becoming a key part of what it means to be a well-informed and well-educated citizen of today; therefore, any effort to temper science education in order to placate a vocal religious group cheats the students, cheats society, and cheats our future.

      January 28, 2013 at 6:15 am |
    • wondering

      I wonder what would happen over there if the world's people were to finally see the truth and realize that religion is being used to delude them into thinking world wars are the way of life – something that has to happen in order for ... their glorious ascension into heaven or hell – (depending on who's side – re: religion – god – whatever – you are on).
      I wonder if they would all go insane, finally wake up, or still believe anyway?
      I wonder what would happen next after that?
      without their faith to back their existance ... would they still exist?

      January 29, 2013 at 3:49 pm |
  14. roberto

    Not sure I can rely upon the observations of a Jew who describes the Kotel as the "wailing wall."

    January 28, 2013 at 12:10 am |
  15. Reality

    MLK, great preacher with a flawed religion both historically and theologically. Ditto for Obama.

    January 27, 2013 at 11:31 pm |
    • truth11-19-2012

      JESUS is not flawed but god of this world who you serve which is the devil is flawed.

      January 27, 2013 at 11:42 pm |
    • Rickey

      There is also a saying about look at yourself before you find fault in others. No MLK was not a perfect man, he had flaws, he was after all a man. For you to pick that out of the man's message here, instead of understanding what the article was really about. I find most ministers, white, black, asian or whatever have flaws as a man and minister. The truth, if you are a Christian, is in the word itself, not the miinister. That's where your faith should be, not so hung up in finding fault in a man that has been dead for over 30 years. I am fine with you not agreeing with all the President says or does, heck I don't and I voted for himl. But you are missing the point of this article when that is what you find fault in.

      January 28, 2013 at 12:56 am |
    • Reality

      Saving Christians like Obama from the Infamous Resurrection Con/

      From that famous passage: In 1 Corinthians 15: 14, Paul reasoned, "If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith."

      Even now Catholic/Christian professors of theology are questioning the bodily resurrection of the simple, preacher man aka Jesus.

      To wit;

      From a major Catholic university's theology professor’s grad school white-board notes:

      "Heaven is a Spirit state or spiritual reality of union with God in love, without earthly – earth bound distractions.
      Jesus and Mary's bodies are therefore not in Heaven.

      Most believe that it to mean that the personal spiritual self that survives death is in continuity with the self we were while living on earth as an embodied person.

      Again, the physical Resurrection (meaning a resuscitated corpse returning to life), Ascension (of Jesus' crucified corpse), and Assumption (Mary's corpse) into heaven did not take place.

      The Ascension symbolizes the end of Jesus' earthly ministry and the beginning of the Church.

      Only Luke records it. (Luke mentions it in his gospel and Acts, i.e. a single attestation and therefore historically untenable). The Ascension ties Jesus' mission to Pentecost and missionary activity of Jesus' followers.

      The Assumption has multiple layers of symbolism, some are related to Mary's special role as "Christ bearer" (theotokos). It does not seem fitting that Mary, the body of Jesus' Virgin-Mother (another biblically based symbol found in Luke 1) would be derived by worms upon her death. Mary's assumption also shows God's positive regard, not only for Christ's male body, but also for female bodies." "

      "In three controversial Wednesday Audiences, Pope John Paul II pointed out that the essential characteristic of heaven, hell or purgatory is that they are states of being of a spirit (angel/demon) or human soul, rather than places, as commonly perceived and represented in human language. This language of place is, according to the Pope, inadequate to describe the realities involved, since it is tied to the temporal order in which this world and we exist. In this he is applying the philosophical categories used by the Church in her theology and saying what St. Thomas Aquinas said long before him."
      http://eternal-word.com/library/PAPALDOC/JP2HEAVN.HTM

      The Vatican quickly embellished this story with a lot CYAP.

      With respect to rising from the dead, we also have this account:

      An added note: As per R.B. Stewart in his introduction to the recent book, The Resurrection of Jesus, Crossan and Wright in Dialogue,

      p.4

      "Reimarus (1774-1778) posits that Jesus became sidetracked by embracing a political position, sought to force God's hand and that he died alone deserted by his disciples. What began as a call for repentance ended up as a misguided attempt to usher in the earthly political kingdom of God. After Jesus' failure and death, his disciples stole his body and declared his resurrection in order to maintain their financial security and ensure themselves some standing."

      p.168. by Ted Peters:

      Even so, asking historical questions is our responsibility. Did Jesus really rise from the tomb? Is it necessary to have been raised from the tomb and to appear to his disciples in order to explain the rise of early church and the transcription of the bible? Crossan answers no, Wright answers, yes. "

      So where are the bones"? As per Professor Crossan's analyses in his many books, the body of Jesus would have ended up in the mass graves of the crucified, eaten by wild dogs, covered with lime in a shallow grave, or under a pile of stones.

      January 28, 2013 at 6:17 am |
    • the colosseum is full

      @truth 11/19/ 2012 Jesus is not the go of this world.. that's Satan 2Cor 4:4 In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them.
      Jesus is king of kinds and lord of lords.. but until his permit has expired Satan is still the god of this world.. Satan also regularly has to get under my feet upon my command.. :) :)

      January 28, 2013 at 3:39 pm |
  16. David

    This "Daoud" was given a "land deed" from 1961, when JORDAN OCCUPIED JUDEA AND SAMARIA, ANNEXED IT, YET THE WORLD DIDN'T COMPLAINED ABOUT THAT ILLEGAL SEIZURE OF ISRAELI LAND. That deed is false and illegal to begin with, it was never Arab land to begin with. It's Judea and Samaria, not this "West Bank" c rap.

    January 27, 2013 at 11:19 pm |
    • mohammad

      the deed from 1916 not 1961 and it is palestine

      January 28, 2013 at 12:43 am |
  17. Paul II

    Recently CNN has posted an article by a Palestinian-American woman visiting her family in Gaza during the latest upsurge in violence, another article suggesting the US cut off aid to Israel, and now this shallow back-handed attack on Israel (comparing Israels security barrier to a "knife" and the contrasting it to the fields where angels announced the birth of Jesus). How about some op-eds by non-leftist Israelis, or is CNN just catering to the large Arab/Muslim audience?

    January 27, 2013 at 11:17 pm |
    • Kat

      CNN does not report on the daily disecration of Palestinian mosques, churches, and graves. CNN does not report on the almost daily israeli announcements of new illegal colonies

      January 28, 2013 at 1:12 am |
  18. Jihad Johnny

    Those poor Palestinian terrorists. I feel so bad for them. Palestine was divided in the 1920's and those poor Muslim Palestinians were given Jordan to live in! Israeli Palestinians were given a much smaller piece of land in the 2 state British mandate solution, which gave both Israeli Palestinians and Muslim Palestinians a home. But that wasn't enough for the Muslims, who want Israel destroyed, so they are now demanding that Israel be divided again in a new 2 state solution. Those who don't know history repeat it!

    January 27, 2013 at 10:55 pm |
    • Kat

      your zionazi propaganda is outdated and failed to get you more than 7 no votes in the UN Palestine state vote.

      January 28, 2013 at 1:13 am |
  19. Julian

    Everyone has greed. A great war will come again because of this greed. As our populations grow we struggle even more for what we think is ours. In the end what is priceless and what we take for-granted, no matter what religion, is our history of who we are. All the Holly places around the world will turn to dust in the coming years, either by our hand or nature. No one thinks of what the world will be in 100 years. Look at how much it has changed the past 100 years. Why waist time fighting and arguing when time should be spent preserving what little things we have, not only for us, but the future people of our small earth.

    January 27, 2013 at 10:49 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.