We are not optimists; we do not present a lovely vision of the world which everyone is expected to fall in love with. We simply have, wherever we are, some small local task to do, on the side of justice, for the poor.Herbert mccabe
Dear friends, it has been too long since I last wrote, and for that, I apologise. February and March have been such busy months, with pilgrim groups and delegations from Scotland, visits to partner organisations, all manner of meetings, and rather a lot of time spent in the car traveling along Road 6 from Tiberias to Tel Aviv-Jaffa and Jerusalem and back. And alongside it all, there’s the weekly cycle of Sunday worship and a steady stream of guests staying in the upper apartment in the manse.
I was in Paris recently to attend the meeting of the Presbytery of International Charges, and took a couple of days after to wander the streets, do some shopping, and explore all the many cafes and restaurants where one can sit with a cup of coffee or glass of wine and watch the world go by.
Having lived in Tiberias for nearly three and a half years, I’ve learned that I really need time away from Israel every three or four months, even if it’s just for a short break. It was only when I arrived in Paris that I became aware of how absolutely exhausted I was. It’s not just the busyness of work; life in Israel — and to some extent work in the church here — requires a generous measure of assertiveness and a very thick skin, neither of which come naturally to me.
But I’ve realised that what takes the greatest toll is often feeling like I live a ‘double life’ doing the work I do.
On the one hand, life here is as it would be anywhere else. Emails have to be answered. Sermons need writing. Laundry needs doing. Groceries need to be bought. And there is much that I absolutely love about living here in the north of Israel. I love the weather and long lazy days off on the beaches. I love the buzz of evenings in Haifa and Tel Aviv-Jaffa. I love immersing myself in an ever-changing landscape, historically rich and naturally diverse, on the Israel National Trail. I love having a glass of wine in a friend’s garden, watching the sun set over the Mediterranean, listening to the call to prayer rising up from the mosques on the nearby hillside. I love the people I meet from all backgrounds and walks of life, and I love hearing their stories.
There is another reality here that is quite different. I sit on the beach near Caesarea and think of children in Gaza whose beaches are polluted. I drink a g&t in Jaffa with an awareness that just down the road in an Arab neighbourhood, another shooting took place the night before. I walk the Israel National Trail through ruins of Palestinian villages destroyed in 1948, and remember standing amongst the recently demolished homes of a Bedouin village. I watch the sun rise over the Sea of Galilee and think of Palestinian workers queuing at checkpoints on their way to work. I laugh and chat with young people straight out of the army, and think of the fear I’ve seen in a child’s eyes in the West Bank as a soldier walked past.
It’s not unlike pastoral ministry and those emotionally jarring days when in the morning you sit with a couple preparing for marriage and in the afternoon with a family preparing to bury a loved one. But here, it’s like that every day. Back and forth I visit both grief and celebration, righteous anger and complicit silence, hope and hopelessness, passion for justice and acceptance of the status quo. Every partner visit. Every meeting with an overseas delegation. Every talk with a pilgrim group. Conversations may be theoretical political analysis, but always at the forefront of my mind, I see the faces of people I know and care about. What do I think about the rockets in Tel Aviv? I think of the Tabeetha students. Or the bombing in Gaza? I remember the girls in the psychosocial clinics.
And this is a place where those of us in this work have to choose our words carefully. Emotions run high, especially as tensions rise. The wrong phrase could shut down a conversation or inflame it. What I say or write could put others at risk, especially if they are people or organisations in Israel critical of the current government’s policies. Self-censorship becomes second nature.
Since returning from Paris, I’ve met with some of the partner organisations that we are trying to reestablish links with — Sadaka-Reut and New Profile — and by chance, both of those meetings have been all women. (I’ll write posts about each, hopefully in the next week or so.) As well as the work they are involved in, and the ever evolving political situation here, we also talked about the way the work affects us. It was refreshing to hear them reflect so honestly on their experiences of living and working in a land where the space for critical discourse is continually shrinking, in contexts that are patriarchal and shaped by toxic masculinity, in jobs (vocations really) that require as much emotional intelligence as intellectual agility.
Those are conversations I am not able to have very often here, and it was liberating to be able to speak openly with such wise, passionate, and empathetic women. To hear my thoughts and feelings and experiences echoed in what they were saying. And to hear them affirm that the work we are all involved in is hard and comes with a cost … but that it is good, just, right work. We are each faithfully doing that small local task that we are called to do on the side of justice.
And we do not do it alone. I think that is what is most important. This land may not always feel so holy, but in these past weeks, I’ve been reminded again that I am surrounded by holy people doing holy work.