Friends,* greetings from the very quiet shores of the Sea of Galilee. I hope that you are all safe and healthy, and pray that despite this strange, often disorienting new reality we all find ourselves in, you may know the joy and the peace of our risen Lord in this Easter season.
We have been in lockdown here in Israel since mid-March, with additional stricter curfews around Pesach, Memorial Day, and Independence Day (in the Jewish villages) and Ramadan (in the Arab villages). On Independence Day, Tiberias should have been full of tourists having barbecues on its beaches and enjoying water sports on the lake; instead the promenade was empty, and the town was absolutely silent.
However, the restrictions are now slowly starting to ease. Many shops are beginning to open again, some of the younger students are back in school, and we’re able to travel farther distances from our homes for essential journeys and exercise. At the time of writing, Israel has only had 16,000 cases of Covid-19 and 238 deaths, and in the last 24 hours, fewer than 50 new cases were reported. As the virus began its spread in Israel, the government acted earlier than many other countries, closing its borders to foreign nationals, restricting businesses, and imposing limits on movement within the country.
This has, of course, impacted the work of our partners, my work, and the work of our institutions, and I wanted to write to you with an update of the situation as it is here on the ground.
Our partners have continued their work, though they, like many of us, have had to change the way they work, and all of them have experienced dramatic cuts in funding as funding bodies have either frozen or cancelled their financial giving. Yet this is a time when their work is especially needed. Here, as everywhere, the virus has exposed the inequalities and injustices already present in society, with those who were already vulnerable being most severely affected. Here is a brief overview of how some of our partners have responded to the crisis (please click on the names of our partners to go to their websites for more information).
Much of the work of House of Grace has continued despite the pandemic, some becoming more busy because of the increase in unemployment (over 25%, though that is decreasing as businesses begin to open) and poverty. They have had four ex-offenders complete the residential rehabilitation programme and an additional three join. Their youth programme has not been able to meet, but the team still has regular contact with the young people through Zoom and WhatsApp. They have seen a sharp increase in families requiring food parcels, and have coordinated their efforts with other NGOs in Haifa as well as the municipality and Home Front Command to ensure families are getting the support they need.
Last month via Zoom Physicians for Human Rights and B’tselem arranged a briefing for the international community on the situation in Gaza and the risks posed by Covid-19. Thus far, by imposing strict quarantine restrictions on all who are entering the territory (including international humanitarian workers and medical staff), Gaza has managed to avoid a wide outbreak of the virus. The only cases found have been in those in the quarantine facilities and they have been quickly isolated. The spread of Covid-19 would be catastrophic for the population there, most of whom live in densely populated areas, with limited access to clean water, and a health care system already on the brink of collapse.
B’tselem held a webinar (in place of a field visit because of the virus restrictions) this week on the rise in settler violence in the West Bank over the past two months. They have also included a page on the website for special reports during the Covid-19 crisis. Both organisations are concerned that while the world’s attention is on Covid-19, human rights violations will increase and so they continue to hold Israel to account, raise awareness in the international community, and are urging Israel to assist Gaza and the West Bank in preventing the spread of the virus.
WAC-MAAN (Workers Advice Centre)
As Israel and the West Bank imposed a lockdown on their residents, many of the Palestinians from the West Bank who work in Israel or in Israeli settlements found themselves unable to travel to their places of work to collect their paycheques. So WAC-MAAN faced the logistical challenge of arranging with employers, workers, police and border control for a few workers to collect the cheques on behalf of other workers in their city.
Authorities in the West Bank worried that crowded checkpoints and busy public transportation would hasten the spread of Covid-19, so Israel offered 70,000 permits to Palestinian workers allowing them to stay in Israel in accommodation provided by their employers. However some of the companies instead housed their workers in shared rooms or even factory floors, putting them at greater risk of infection. Workers who have vulnerable family members therefore felt the risk was too high, and chose not to go to work. WAC-MAAN is now petitioning the High Court in Israel for compensation for workers who lost their jobs during the pandemic. More information about the petition can be found on WAC-MAAN’s website.
Bethlehem was the first city in the West Bank to go into lockdown at the start of the pandemic, and because it is so reliant upon tourism, this has had a significant impact on the livelihoods of many of its residents. Wi’am has been busy providing food packages and distributing hygiene kits to some of the most vulnerable residents, especially those who are unable to leave home because of high risk of infection. They have also worked with local churches to create maintenance, admin, and gardening jobs for those who are now unemployed and struggling to feed their families. They continue their work in mediation and conflict transformation, especially crucial at this time as the lockdown and rise in unemployment have increased tension in families and communities.
For those who are unfamiliar with the work of WhoProfits, they are an independent research centre ‘dedicated to exposing the role of the private sector in the Israeli occupation economy’. They have created a separate page on their site dedicated to the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on the Palestinian society, highlighting the companies complicit in perpetuating inequalities and injustices: Viral Occupation. They recently held a webinar via Zoom discussing The Political Economy of Covid-19 in Palestine, and the recording is available on their Facebook page. The hour long discussion provides a comprehensive overview of the Palestinian healthcare system and the economic dependency of the Palestinian territories on Israel.
Sindyanna has been particularly hard hit by the economic crisis that has resulted from the pandemic. Customers have frozen payments, and some have cancelled orders for which Sindyanna had already purchased olive oil. They furloughed the workers at the Visitors Centre when local and international tourism stopped. However, the olive groves are flourishing, including the Scots Grove, indicating there will be a good harvest in the autumn, and their factory workers are kept busy as new orders have come in from the USA, Austria and Italy. But they will need to develop a more sustainable business model to compensate for the significant losses. In the meantime, their products are still available on Amazon.com.
Several of Sadaka-Reut’s bi-national groups had to take a break when they could no longer meet in person, and therefore they took the hard decision to furlough a number of their staff to ensure they will have the financial reserves available to continue their work in future.
They found that holding gatherings by Zoom wasn’t an option for many families who were trying to share one or two computers between students now having to learn online, and parents who were trying to work from home. However, the Tel Aviv University bi-national student group did ask to continue; that group had become particularly close and had worked together to change university practices to ensure communication about preventing the spread of Covid-19 was also issued to its students in Arabic, not only Hebrew.
The Arabic Forum has also continued its book club via Zoom and is meeting even more frequently than it had before. It connects Arabic-speaking asylum seekers with the local Palestinian community in Jaffa, using books from a variety of cultures as a way to learn about one another’s backgrounds, and Director Rawan said that discussing poetry especially has provided an anchor to the group in this time.
Sadaka-Reut has also been working on a history booklet to complement its social-political tours of Jaffa, and it is now complete. To launch the booklet, they will be hosting two virtual tours of Jaffa on Monday 11 May and Wednesday 13 May. This is open to anyone who might like to join; to register, contact Rawan.
St Andrew’s Jerusalem and Tiberias
Our last service in our churches was on Sunday 8 March. Since then, we have started a WhatApp group for the congregation of St Andrew’s Jerusalem and Tiberias, posted pre-recorded video sermons on the St Andrew’s Jerusalem Facebook page, and begun a Zoom coffee morning each Sunday at 10am, where we have an opportunity to check in with one another and end with a time of prayer. Though the easing of restrictions means that we could begin worship again (outside, in limited numbers), our ecumenical associates with St Andrew’s Jerusalem are still in lockdown in the Bethlehem area until June, and Rev John McCulloch is in Scotland with his family, so we will continue our virtual gatherings. One of the positive consequences of this time has been the opportunity for members who worship in the different churches to get to know one another better. We’ve been a united congregation officially for over two years, but have had few opportunities for that to be reflected in our worship, so it’s been wonderful to see the congregation grow together through prayer and fellowship over the past weeks.
The Scots Hotel closed on 14 March, furloughing most of its staff and managers. Israel’s borders are still closed to foreign nationals and it will be some time before international tourism recovers, but as restrictions are lifted, we are anticipating a rise in local tourism, enabling us to open again towards the end of June.
The hospitality ministry in Yakfie, the manse, also stopped in mid-March as the country began to close. There was a rush of Ecumenical Accompaniers who came to stay on their way to the airport after the EAPPI offices urged them to return to their home countries before flights stopped. I told some Jewish and Christian clergy friends in the north that the guest apartment is available should they know of anyone in their congregations or local community for whom staying at home could be unsafe, and who might need interim accommodation while making other arrangements through official channels.
As we move out of lockdown here in Israel, it’s difficult to know precisely what the coming months will look like. Whatever happens, we are all likely to feel the physical, emotional, social, political, and economic effects of this pandemic for some time yet.
And as I reflect on the many questions I have … about the shape of our congregational life … our role as a church in a world changed by this pandemic … our response to the systemic injustices in our local and global economy … our relationship with the natural world … our presence in this land as we journey with our partners … when I struggle to know the way forward amongst so much uncertainty, I remember Jesus’ words from John’s gospel: I am the Way. Jesus’ Way is the way of compassion, of mercy, of justice. It is the way of feeding, healing, welcoming, forgiving. It is the way of truth and of life. And it is the Way we are called to walk in, at all times, in all places.
Friends, thank you for your faithful prayers and continued support of our ministry here. I pray you will continue to stay safe and healthy where you are, and may God bless you and guide you through these days as we all seek to walk in the way of Christ.
* This is adapted from the partner plan letter recently sent to the presbyteries and churches who have committed to supporting me through prayer during my time as a Mission Partner with the Church of Scotland.