Atheists in the Holy Land

Religion Activism
by Sarah Stuteville Nov 13, 2006

At the Wailing Wall, Jerusalam
Part I in a series exploring the role of the traveler in the 21st century. Read the introductory post here.

This article originally appeared on Glimpse Abroad, an international news, culture and travel site that features stories written by students and volunteers living abroad.

As I woke to the muezzin’s wails straining through a riot of church bells in my cramped hostel room in Old Jerusalem, excerpts of the previous night’s angry conversations were already working their way through my mounting hangover. Shouts of, “how can you call them terrorists?” and “there aren’t two sides to this story!” and, of course, “What are you looking for anyway?!” pierced the headache I had earned over hours of politically charged debate and a steady stream of warm red wine. I rolled out of my narrow bed and groaned, cursing another day of reporting in this enraged and bitter country.

What was I looking for?

It was not my first time in Israel and Palestine. I had visited the region three years before as a tourist and student of journalism and was so captivated by the complex politics, passionate people, and heady religious atmosphere that I vowed to return as a reporter. I had visions of humanizing a land synonymous with hatred, of revealing positive, hopeful stories and bringing new insight to a seemingly intractable conflict.

Turns out that the summer of 2006 was a bad season for hope and insight in the Holy Land. When I landed at Ben Gurion airport along with my fellow journalists Jessica and Alex on June 28th we were well aware of the Israeli air strike that had killed a picnicking family on a beach in Gaza, and the Israeli soldier that had been kidnapped by Hamas a few days earlier. But we were full of energy and a fair amount of self-importance. Our online magazine had uncovered positive and unique stories in some pretty unlikely places and we were sure that we could do the same here – even in this land of perpetual war.

We were full of energy and a fair amount of self-importance. Our online magazine had uncovered positive and unique stories in some pretty unlikely places and we were sure that we could do the same here – even in this land of perpetual war.

Almost immediately I sensed that the mood had shifted since my visit in 2003. Though suicide bombings and violence in Gaza were regular occurrences then as well, the people I had spoken with during those two weeks had seemed hopeful, open, and philosophical when conversation – as it inevitably did – turned to the conflict.

But the Jerusalem that enchanted me three years ago felt like a different city this time. The tension wires were pulled tight and a potent rage seemed to float in the ether, lighting and lifting at a moment’s notice.

We pulled up to our hostel in East Jerusalem and interrupted a shouting match between an Orthodox Jew and an Arab man over a bicycle accident. “Jew killer,” hissed our otherwise jocular cab driver, jerking his chin in the direction of the young Arab currently yanking twisted handle bars from the other man’s grasp.

Later, at the Western Wall, a place I recalled for its liveliness and beauty, the smiling and bearded men that once crowded to invite me to Shabbat dinner and ask what New York borough I lived in kept to themselves, impenetrable huddles of black hats and overcoats. The only interaction I experienced was with a seething security guard that shouted at me for wearing short sleeves.

On the way back a group of young men loitering in a pool of seedy yellow light shouted, “fuck your mother America” at my back. No flirtatious invitations to practice broken English this time.

I remembered feeling like a religious outsider during my last visit to Jerusalem. Being a non-religious person in the holy land had been strange. Your experience as a traveler there is largely defined by observing other people’s religious devotions. But my political ambivalence, largely a result of my journalistic training, had served me well here before. I recall my lack of “side-taking” as an invitation to some incredible conversations. It seemed to me then that people enjoyed speaking with someone who hadn’t firmly entrenched themselves in a camp, someone who just wanted to hear what everyone had to say.

It seemed to me then that people enjoyed speaking with someone who hadn’t firmly entrenched themselves in a camp, someone who just wanted to hear what everyone had to say.

Right away I realized that my neutrality was going to be cause for suspicion this time. Taking sides, it seemed, had become a prerequisite for most interactions. And it wasn’t limited to Israelis and Palestinians. The hostel conflagration, which resulted in some storming-out-of-the-room moments and icy breakfasts around the rooftop common table in the days that followed, was a reaction to our pitching story ideas to a group of American and European backpackers.

We raised some ire when we mentioned that we were looking to report on Palestinian NGOs working on issues outside the conflict (“how can you suggest that someone can work on social issues when they’re under occupation? Where’s your sensitivity?!”). But our biggest mistake was suggesting a piece that explored motivational links between Jewish-American settlers and activists working with the Palestinian International Solidarity Movement, [cue: out-of-the-room storming].

How were we supposed to report anything if we couldn’t even discuss ideas and pitch stories openly?

We weren’t trying to broker peace agreements or map out new borders here, we just wanted to challenge journalism to explore beyond the predictable political frames of conflict. But with every hopeful email sent out or lead explored that returned an angry political diatribe, that goal receded further into the realm of naive memory.

We finally just gave in. We focused our energy on a radio short that was basically a montage of Palestinian and Israeli voices-all ex-pats-and played more like an indictment of American culture (seems that no one has a problem with hearty criticisms of the United States these days) than a hard hitting discussion of the conflict or politics.

But producing a radio short takes time, in our case over three weeks, and while we may have had the media focus of our travels in Israel and Palestine worked out, it didn’t mean that we weren’t still suffering the emotional toll of working in a country that seemed to burying itself in hatred and intolerance.

It was strange to keep receiving emails from worried friends and family back home whose main concerns were for our physical safety when it felt like our psychological wellbeing was what was at stake. Just the simple fact that our radio piece required moving regularly between political, religious and ethnic borders made us feel isolated and suspicious – lonely in our unique curiosity.

Even in the rare moments when we allowed ourselves the luxury of stepping outside of our journalistic duties, when we were invited to a friend’s home for dinner and discussions focused on catching up on each other’s lives for example, it felt like politics loomed as an unacknowledged subtext. In the face of the overwhelming political identity and moral certitude of our hosts, there was no room for us to express our own feelings about politics or life. A guidebook that used the wrong geographical terminology, or even a misplaced sigh at the mention of violence, was enough to inspire terse breaks in otherwise lively conversation.

Then war broke out and I screamed at a priest.

It was the morning of July 13th and predictably the pressure that had been swelling for months – or I guess generations – exploded again onto Al-Jazeera and the BBC.

We woke to a surprisingly quiet hostel. Everyone, from backpacker to kid off the street looking for an update, was lined up on the dirty couches, faces tilted upwards to the TV, transfixed by the grayscale images and jerky camera work of war.

We had to get out of there. I couldn’t bear the idea of watching those tiny green explosions or the stupid talking heads or the sooty billows of smoke all day. Already, smug I-told-you-so predictions of doom were rising from the growing crowd. It was too much. We headed for the Mount of Olives, thinking that a walk, a view, or some time in a quiet Orthodox church would soothe us, give us perspective.

As we entered the dark, cool interior of the Tomb of The Virgin Mary I began to feel myself relax. I know it’s a cliché but I can’t help but say that I was comforted by a sense of timelessness. A gilt-edged pieta glowed quietly in the dark, deep woody incense infused the air, our flip-flops squeaked on the worn stone floor.

I even found myself smiling at a pair of young American men, resplendent in Bermuda shorts and dirty tank tops. “This place has seen it all, and silently carried on,” I thought, imagining that I was uncovering some solemn truth about time versus human drama, when a voice behind me stated in a thick Slavic accent, “you are not properly dressed young lady, please cover up or leave.”

I am no stranger to gender double standards. They abound in the States and are practically celebrated in many other parts of the world. But as this priest admonished me for wearing too low-cut a shirt we were both looking directly at the proudly displayed sunburned legs and shoulders of the two young American men as their Adidas sandals shuffled out the door.

There are probably only a few good reasons to yell at a priest, and I’m guessing mine doesn’t qualify in most people’s books. Really, screaming “hypocrite!” in the middle of the Tomb of The Virgin is extremely bad behavior-even among atheists.

I was exhausted by diplomacy, and disgusted that the one truth I’d been able to uncover, for all my trouble, was that the only consensus left in the world is the communal laying of a smooth path to war.

But as the word rang out and echoed off the burnished stones I had just moments before been meditating over, I was wracked by anger. Anger at the judgment, intolerance, and yes, the hypocrisy we’d been steeping in – and perpetuating – over the past month. I was exhausted by diplomacy, and disgusted that the one truth I’d been able to uncover, for all my trouble, was that the only consensus left in the world is the communal laying of a smooth path to war. After three weeks in The Holy Land, the free floating rage had lighted on me.

It may be too late, but I don’t want to give the impression that everyone in Israel and Palestine is a fanatic, or that I was miserable and feeling sorry for myself twenty four hours a day. Actually, I had some profoundly hopeful moments and meetings there. Whether it was a young man in Tel Aviv working to begin an intentional urban community or drunken conversations with fervent young Palestinians over the meaning of democracy, there are a lot of sane, concerned people in that part of the world, desperate to effect positive change.

But there is something deeply paradoxical about Israel. The same land that produced The Prince of Peace has also somehow managed to create the perfect formula for endless war. A country meant as refuge is also home to the oldest refugee camps on earth. So I suppose that it’s fitting that my most hopeful moment came simultaneously with my most uneasy.

We were visiting Hebron, home to Arabs, Jews, and the famous Tomb of the Patriarchs. Our guide, Wesam, was a fellow American – of Palestinian descent – who agreed to accompany us to the troubled West Bank city. It was Friday evening. As we tiptoed through the Shabbat-emptied streets of the militarized Jewish neighborhood, we discussed strategies on how to evade the inevitable soldiers that would be guarding the religious site.

“We should lie and say we’re all Jewish,” declared Wesam, “then they’ll let us in.” “Or, I don’t know,” he faltered, “maybe only Muslims are allowed in on Fridays.”

“I think if we say we’re Christian it’ll be more likely,” I whispered back, spooked by the vacant dusty streets ringed by tangles of barbed wire.

“No,” Alex countered, “If we just say we’re all Americans it’ll work. They’ll like that we’re all Americans.”

This exchange perfectly mirrors the absurdity of so many experiences I had in Israel and Palestine. The four of us were all Americans, one a non-practicing Jew, one a non-practicing Muslim, and two non-practicing Christians. Actually, one thing we all solidly had in common (aside from being American citizens) was a healthy skepticism of religion and here we were, guessing at what religious lie would be most likely to get us into a religious site that had been a recent flashpoint for religious violence.

It’s also important to note that it is virtually impossible to predict what identity, religion, ethnicity or nationality is more likely to get you past a military checkpoint like the one we were headed for. It seems that in the spirit of confusion and arbitrary refusals the rules can change at a moment’s notice.

The one thing that an authority figure is sure to demand is that you take a side. No room for political neutrality here. Everyone, no matter how removed from the conflict, must declare that they are Jewish/Muslim/Christian/American/Israeli/Palestinian when asked. Whether you understand it or not, you must force yourself into their image. At the airport I had witnessed a conversation between a customs official and Jessica that went as followed:

“Are you Jewish?”

“I’m non-religious.”

“But are you Jewish?”

“No, then, I’m not Jewish.”

“Well, what religion are you?”

“I’m non-religious.”

“What religion is your family?”

“My family is Jewish.”

“OK then, you’re Jewish.”

As we neared the checkpoint in Hebron we fell silent. We had no plan as we approached the soldiers and their cement blocks and their jauntily angled guns. We sputtered awkwardly for a few moments as we stared at our distorted images reflected in the Russian soldier’s Oakleys.

Suddenly Wesam declared,

“I am a Palestinian-American, my family is Muslim.”

And I said, “I am an American, my family is Christian.”

And Alex said, “I am an American, my family is Christian.”

And Jessica said finally, “I am an American, my family is Jewish. We’d all like to visit the Tomb of The Patriarchs together please.”

Of course this tactic didn’t work, and we were turned away with a fair amount of disgust, but not before we had the pleasure of basking in the utter bafflement of the group of soldiers that were formed around us, and not before I had the chance to stutter out quite possibly the dumbest thing I could have said under the circumstances: “we’re a rainbow of diversity!”

I had meant for this to come out as a profoundly dry statement, but instead was embarrassed to hear myself utter it in deep earnestness.

Maybe inspiring a stunned reaction from a gang of soldiers seems like a small victory but it left a deep impression. The experience asserted a new idea for me, that in a world pulled apart by extreme sides, by animosities so deep and polarized they threaten to suck everybody into their dark centers; neutrality, humanity, skepticism, atheism, become a stand in and of themselves.

They can, and maybe should, become your position.

Sarah Stuteville writes for The Common Language Project – dedicated to developing and implementing innovative approaches to international journalism by focusing on positive, inclusive and humane reporting of stories ignored by the mainstream media.

What do you think about Sarah’s experience? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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