In 1998, Richard and I had a marvelous opportunity to sail around the world as the ballroom dance teachers on a cruise ship. Many of the places we saw then, such as Oman, Jordan, Turkey, Morocco, Indonesia and Israel are in turmoil now, and not as safe for tourists. Last year, when Palestinian soldiers took refuge in the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem and were under siege, I marveled that I had stood where they were, and I could picture the place as the news reports came in. Even when I was there, Israel and Palestine were struggling, as they have been since Israel was formed.
When we docked in Haifa, Israel, we had only one day, so my Jewish friends, Murray and Sylvia (who had been there before) and I hired a cab driver who drove us through the entire length of Israel, to see as much as we could in twelve hours. Getting to Bethlehem was a lesson in world peace, and I want to share it with you, from my travel notes:
After the long drive back from the Dead Sea, we reach the ancient walls of the Old City in Jerusalem, and pass right through the old city to go to Bethlehem, just to the south. All along the way, there is evidence of the constantly changing borders. A barbed-wire and chain link fence marks the border for many miles, and on either side of it can be seen buildings with Hebrew signs on the Palestinian side, and Arabic lettering on the Israeli side, indicating that the land has changed ownership many times. Back and forth, back and forth, the fence moves, as various skirmishes change the borders. Bethlehem is now under Palestinian rule since the peace accord four years ago, so our driver feels it is not safe for us to enter in an Israeli taxi—he has phoned across the border and arranged with friends for a Palestinian car and driver to take us in.
Changing cabs makes the tension of these places palpable. Our driver stops at the Palestinian border and instructs us to walk across. We feel like characters in a spy movie as we walk between the crude guard shacks on the Israeli side—which are manned by guards cradling automatic rifles—walk across the no-man’s-land in the middle, and then between the equally crude guard posts and the equally well-armed Palestinian guards, and no one seems to pay any attention to us—they stare right through us. Our friendly Palestinian driver, in his Arabic- marked taxi, greets us on the other side. We breathe again.
Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity are just three miles away, so we’re there in a few minutes. As the driver chatters to us in quite serviceable English, we begin to relax. The friendliness of the two drivers, citizens of warring nations, points out that even when political situations are uncomfortable, people can find ways to work together. These drivers are not hostile toward each other, they are helping each other (and us) out. Later, we find out that many cab drivers would not take their passengers into Bethlehem—only ours arranged the switch.
The Church of the Nativity turns out to be three churches in one: A Palestinian Christian church, a Greek Orthodox, and a Catholic church—all 3 buildings are side by side, sharing a courtyard and some walls, and we walk through each one to get to the next! The oldest church is the Palestinian Church of the Nativity, originally built in 400 AD. We enter through a door build deliberately low, so one has to bow in respect to come in. The floor we stand on now was built in 600 AD, after the first church was destroyed, but it has a trap door in it, through which we can look down and see the original mosaic floor, about 3 feet below. The priests have a quiet pride, and an obvious awareness of the sacred ground they walk on and care for.
The church is built in the traditional cross shape, with a high ceiling from which long chains hang with a cut brass oil lamps on each one. Perhaps there are 50 of these lovely lamps, all lit, and each one different. The designs cut into the metal allow the light to reflect the cut-out shapes on the walls—diamonds, moons, stars. What a glorious sight people have reverently experienced for 2500 years! To one side is a door to a stairway leading down to a room draped in silks. On the left as you enter is a niche that appears to be a fireplace, but turns out to be the spot where Jesus was born. An ornate, 13-pointed star is set in the floor on the very spot, surrounded by oil lamps. The 13 points represent the generations between David and Jesus, the number of disciples at the last supper, and the stations of the cross.
On the opposite side of the room is the stone manger where the baby was laid after birth. At one end are candles. It is a powerful sight—all the centuries of veneration have left their energy in this room. My father was Catholic, and I have lit candles in his memory in churches all over the world, but lighting the candle at the manger was a special moment for me. When I saw the votive candles in the room, I asked where I could buy one, and our guide said the priest would get me one. The priest was almost as ancient as the room, and with almost audible creaking, he slowly brought me a candle, which I then lighted and placed with the other candles at the end of the manger. This simple ritual, followed for centuries, moved me to tears.
When we left the scene of the Nativity, we walked through the Greek Orthodox and Catholic Churches, both of which are beautiful, and back out into the courtyard.
After taking a taxi back to the border, we changed into our Israeli taxi again. Off we sped back to Jerusalem. The afternoon was fading fast. We rushed to Old Jerusalem, and visited the Cardo, an ancient Roman marketplace surrounded by a more modern shopping area.
Then we are at the Western Wall (known as the Wailing Wall)—the only remnant of an ancient temple, which the Jews venerate, and where they come to pray. The wall is divided into two sides, one for men, one for women, so Sylvia and I went to the right, and Murray went to the left. It was Murray’s birthday, and the anniversary of his mother’s death, and this was his main reason for coming back to Israel. To pray at the wall. Everywhere along the wall were men and women davening, or rocking back and forth while praying. Most of the men were dressed in the long black coats and black hats of the Orthodox Jews, and a lot of the women were also in long black costumes. It is said if you write a request on a bit of paper, and tuck it into a crack in the wall, it will be granted. As we got closer, we could hear the women murmuring, and one was crying. Again we were struck by the continuity of centuries.
The history of these places, the millennia of human existence, the prayers, grief, fears, hopes and dreams of people who are simply trying to feed their families and live a peaceful life, rises around us like a mist of human strength and survival. Our taxi drivers, both Palestinian and Israeli, are family men, as mystified about why they’re at war as we in America are about why the world can’t live in peace. They have no need to fight each other for land or for oil rights, or for religious supremacy. They need to feed their families, to care for their wives and children, and to try to leave a legacy for their descendants. So, despite what their countries are doing to each other—despite the soldiers, the political parties, the suicide bombers, the guns and the borders—they work together to earn a day’s wage. They are proud of their part of the world—the Moslem, Jewish and Christian holy sites, and they view it all as belonging to all of them—only the fanatics, religious and/or political, want to possess it. These men, like you and me, want just their small part—enough to be comfortable, and to keep their families healthy. There is enough to feed and clothe everyone in this world.
The late peace warrior Danaan Parry wrote: “The energy that we use to create war is the energy we need to make real peace.
“That's the courageous act that the warrior must do—to find a way to relate to the person on the other side of the closed-off valve, so that together we can twist that valve from both sides and open it back up again.
“The new warrior is in a precarious position, because he or she says, "I am going to show myself and the rest of my tribe that... darkness exists within each one of us, and I will demand that we have the courage to look at it." So using the word "warrior" really has some meaning, because warriors have to have the courage to put up with some pretty heavy flak from their own people. We are asking our own people to grow and not to project.”
I pray that we all learn to live in peace, even in the midst of wars we don’t understand. I pray that we don’t accept the idea that other humans are our enemies by virtue of their race, nation or creed. I pray that we learn to work together, no matter what our governments insist on telling us. I pray for peace, within ourselves, within our families, within the world. And like Tiny Tim, I pray: “God bless us, every one.”