Lutheran Pastor Russ Siler writes from Jerusalem
From Jerusalem # 37
15 April 2007
My wife Anne and I, along with two close friends, went this past Friday to the Palestinian National Theater for a performance of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” presented by a touring group from England. The work was outstanding! What was most entertaining for me was the ease with which these young performers acted and sang—even enjoyed—their roles. The same was true for the small orchestra accompanying the opera. The flow and rhythm were so smooth and natural that one was tempted to forget the incredible amount of time and energy that went into this one night. Long years of study, literally countless hours of practice, and exhausting days of draining rehearsals all combined to create the illusion brought to that small stage here, an illusion which allowed the members of the audience to forget for a few hours the oppressive circumstances in which we all live and work. It was a marvelous respite.
Yet, in the wake of that night there returned a reality which is so pervasive in this part of the world that even Mozart was veiled with the pall which seems never to lift from this holy place. On Saturday, less than twenty-four hours after the night out, I walked both to and from the Old City from our flat. On the way home my eyes were drawn to a small house just behind the gas station where we fuel our car. Remarkably, it was still standing. Just three days before that performance I had received a call from a colleague that a “house demolition” was about to be carried out. We could easily see the house under threat from our flat. When I arrived at the site, I found a relatively quiet scene. Police and/or army [It's often very hard to tell the difference.] troops were standing in disorder, as if waiting for someone to give directions. There was a group of civilian workers clad in florescent orange and green vests. [I later found that these were the people who had actually emptied out the furniture and personal belongings of the family living there.] There were photographers and videographers on an adjacent rooftop, along with reporters from several local and international news outlets. And there were the rest of us: NGO staff concerned about both the probable injustice about to commence and the welfare of the Palestinian family who lived in the house; representatives of Rabbis for Human Rights; staffers from ICAHD, the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions; and others like me.
In addition to the people described above, here is what we saw. At the foot of the steps which led from the sidewalk all the family's worldly goods were piled in an ungainly heap in one corner of the small stone courtyard. A little further on perhaps fifteen officers and workers were milling around, talking either in small groups or on mobile telephones. They wandered in and out of the dwelling with absolutely no regard for the fact that it was someone's home. Oh, yes, lest I forget, those "someones" were all gathered and confined to an area in the rear of their house. If you want to see a study in confusion, fear, and near panic, look into the face of a young child who has just been told by an older sibling that his house is about to be destroyed…in front of his eyes.
This story had, not a happy ending, but a deferred ending. The waiting atmosphere I first encountered was because a judge was considering a "stay" to the demolition order. The stay was granted for four days after the family paid a bond of 30,000 Israeli Shekels [about $7,500]. When I left that place the homeowner was showing Rabbi Arik Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights a whole box of receipts and official papers. From what I could piece together from the comments of those around me who understand Hebrew, the man had been working on getting the proper permits for more than two years and had met nothing but promises and delays. Finally, based on those promises, he had built. Every day of the construction—just a baseball throw from the Old City—police or other officials had passed by the site, quite aware of what was going on. Now, the construction over and the dwelling occupied, the demolition was about to begin, because he had no permit! Now each day, as I pass the house, I hold my breath as I round the curve, praying that I will see walls, not rubble. I can't help but think that if I am that afraid, how terrified the family must be.
People often ask, "How can this be?" They are trying to comprehend such things through the focus of our American democracy. Here things are very, very different. Here we know that in the first four years of the Intifada [2000-2004] over 5000 houses in the West Bank—including Arab East Jerusalem—and Gaza were demolished. Here we know that in the nearly 40 years of illegal Israeli occupation of those areas more than 15,000 houses have been destroyed. Here we know that in those same 40 years the government of Israel has sponsored housing units in Arab East Jerusalem: for Israelis—100,000; for Palestinians—500. Here we know that it is next to impossible for a Palestinian to acquire the needed permits to build a house. Here we keep asking the question, "Why does the United States watch this destruction and support it?" We continue to fail to find a single moral or ethical justification for such complicity.
Two things stand out from this episode. The first is that, from the perspective of a parish pastor, I can't tell you how gratifying it was last week to have several members of our small congregation around the home, trying to do what they could to protect this virtually defenseless family. It was a dramatic example of God's servants carrying the proclamation of Sunday directly into the lives of ordinary people. Gathered there also were members of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel, adding their support along with their witness of protest. The second is that all the statistics, like those I cited above, will never carry the true impact of the story. But if the world could look into the faces of those children silently waiting for their home to fall, things would never be the same. That is the tragic face of the occupation—children who will grow into adults without knowing a hint of freedom.
I asked one of the young soldiers there if he thought he would be able to sleep that night. He said he didn't speak English, but I have come to recognize the look in the eyes that says otherwise. I know he was already wondering, perhaps worrying, about his rest that night. The illusion may no longer work for him.
Russell O. Siler, Pastor
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer
Jerusalem, Old City