Thursday, July 27, 2006

Ungrateful Dead

We journeyed today up to the Galilee, passing through the busy town of Nazareth and beneath the shadow of the Roman Catholic Church of the Annunciaton which is built over an older Byzantine Church which in turn incorporates a cave that localizes the tradition of the angels announcement to Mary that she will bear the Messiah. As with other excursions with my little group of activists, there was no time to indulge in so patently religious (and Christian) an activity as entering a church.

Instead, we pressed on through town and north to a nearby hill where the ancient Roman city of Sepphoris once flourished. I'd been there before to marvel at its amphitheatre and mosaics. (Google "Mona Lisa of the Galilee" some time.) In the days of Herod Antipas and Jesus, Sepphoris was a bustling, expanding city, an easy walk from the little hamlet of Nazareth where Jesus grew up. Some have suggested that Jesus himself, perhaps with father Joseph, may have plied his builder's trade in Sepphoris during its hey day. Today, of course, the tables have turned. Once mighty Sepphoris lies in ruins and once lowly Nazareth attracts pilgrims from around the world. Evidently God likes reversals.

Again, however, we didn't visit the obvious tourist site to explore archaeological remains. We were there to hear another story. Our guide led us to out across an overgrown field in a valley below the ancient ruins. It was overgrown with weeds and brush. A few trees provided welcome shade. At our feet was a strange assortment of rocks, arranged in dozens of long rectangles. We were standing in the cemetery of an Arab village whose population was abruptly evacuated in 1948 when Zionist Jews swept across the land, claiming territory and moving swiftly to declare the independence of the new state of Israel.

If you've read Blood Brothers by Elias Chacour you know the story, at least as the Arabs tell it, of what happened to many Arab towns and villages in an event they call The Nakhba ("The Catastrophe"). Most of the 6,000 residents of Sepphoris or Zippori fled north, ending up in refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon.

The 800 or so who didn't flee were eventually displaced as well and the town's homes were destroyed. Today the village ruins lie mostly hidden beneath the trees of a young forest. I know this because our guide was Ziad led us there. A man in his thirties with short hair and bright eyes, Ziad's grandparents were young residents of the town when it happened. Today, Ziad said, six Israeli communities (kibbutzes, moshavs, settlements) perch on land that once belonged to this village.

Ziad dreams of co-existence. As we strained to hear to air raid sirens from Carmiel to the north, followed by two distant explosions -- a pair of Hezbollah rockets -- he spoke of "co-existence" between Palestinians and Jews. "We're not against co-existence," he said, "but co-existence is bullshit if you don't have the means to exist." His story, however shaded, embellished and spun (like every other story told in this land), attests to the plight, not of West Bank Palestinians but of Arab Israelis -- Palestinians from what is now Israel who remained in the land and eventually received Israeli citizenship, but who were systematically deprived of their ancestral land.

Lost land, abandoned farms, destroyed homes, hidden graves, third generation pain. More reminders of the staggering brokenness of this place. More reason to think that "co-existence" in which Jews and Arabs are both welcomed back to live side by side is our only hope.

Did Jesus know, as he hiked from Nazareth across those fields and up that hill to work in Sepphoris, that the hostile chasm between Romans and Jews in his day would be replaced by another divide, between Jews and Arabs, in ours? He once looked across from Nazareth toward this "city set on a hill." How might he tell his disciples today to let their lights shine?

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