Monday, April 23, 2007

Remembering II

Today was Israel's version of what is Memorial Day in America. My Hebrew class was invited to a memorial ceremony at a school, which so happened to be the same one my daughter goes to.
It was a very somber event and all of the children were on their best behavior (which is unusual in this country).

Everyone takes this day with the utmost solemnity which remembers all of the soldiers who fell while protecting Israel, as well as terror victims, since 1860, when Jews officially began to immigrate back to Israel. The vast majority of deaths from fighting have come since Israel's founding in 1948. Since that time, close to 20,000 have been killed, which comes out to be almost one person per day from the time that the State of Israel declared independence. Today in Memorial Day and tomorrow is Independence Day - sadness one day and celebration the next. Just another of the many stark contrasts which are part of everyday life here.

On that note of gloom, Rima's mother's family has had a difficult week last week. First, the mother of one of her brother's wife died. A few days after that, another sister-in-law lost her father. At that funeral the next day they heard that another sister-in-law's mother died. Afterwards the family was eating together and Rima's mother was sitting next to her other sister-in-law's father. Suddenly, during the meal, the man swallowed his tongue. Everyone freaked out and the ambulance came and got him, but he ended up dying, too. Needless to say, it is a lot they are going through at the present, so remember keep them, and all of us, in your prayers.

Monday, April 16, 2007


Today in Israel is Holocaust Memorial Day, or Yom HaShoah. It is the first of several Israeli memorial days in the coming weeks, but by far it is the most solemn. I wasn't planning to post on this but I had an interesting morning.

(Holocaust display at Ulpan)

In Hebrew class (ulpan) this morning my teacher began to explain to us (mostly Jewish new immigrants) about what this day is all about because, surprisingly, many new immigrants are not all that familiar with every Jewish holiday and event. She began by talking about World War II and what happened to Jews prior to the outbreak of the war, and then about the Holocaust itself. A heavy subject to discuss, but this was the time and place for it.

We have several Ethiopian Jewish immigrants (Falasha Mura) in our class and they began to look confused while the teacher was explaining. She noticed their dazed expressions and quizzed them about what they didn't understand. Basically, none of them had heard about the Holocaust, Auschwitz, World War II, Hitler, or why it all happened. The rest of us were fairly stunned that they were completely unaware. Jews not heard of the Holocaust?

Our teacher, with much patience, gave a generalized explanation of what all happened. The Ethiopians were so aghast and distraught that one of them ran out of class in tears. At that point the rest of us were wondering, "How can this be?" when the teacher began to explain to us that about the Ethiopian situation, who not too many years ago dealt with their own genocide, wars, and famine. Many Falasha, in their quest to come to Israel, had to literally walk here through Sudan, with many dying along the way from the harsh conditions, Islamic death squads, rape, and robbery. Many of those who are now here came with absolutely nothing but their clothes they were wearing. In other words, these Africans were a world away and were concerned about their own survival so who can really blame them for not knowing about what went on in Europe a generation ago?

Our elderly French classmate told of how he was one of the Jewish "Hidden Children" during the war. He shared that, when was only 8 years old, his parents changed his name and sent him away in order to hopefully protect him from being rounded up and sent to the concentration camps. He was moved from place to place during the war and, as a result, he and his sister survived. He said he heard that his father was sent to a concentration camp in Germany, then later to Auschwitz where he was killed, while his mother, who went into hiding when the war started, was never heard from again.

The Russian and Ukrainian students were all born after the war but had family that fought and died fighting the Nazis, while some lost family in the Jewish purges there. They also spoke of how they commemorate the World War II victory in their countries now. It is hard to imagine, but the Soviets lost around 25,000,000 people in the war.

At 10am the air raid sirens sounded for 2 minutes all over the country and everyone, no matter what they are doing, stops and stands in memory for those poor souls who perished.

PS - It is worth noting that nearly 6,000,000 Jews were killed in the Holocaust, which is close to the Jewish population of Israel (~5,600,000). Iran, who currently denies that the Holocaust occurred as known, threatens to wipe Israel off of the map, effectively aiming to make happen today that which they deny happened over 60 years ago.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007


Nazareth is a small town on a hill in central Galilee, about halfway between Haifa on the Mediterranean coast and the Sea of Galilee. Lower Nazareth has an estimated population of 70,000. The majority of residents are Arab citizens of Israel, about 35-40% of whom are Christians and 55-60% are Muslims. The adjacent city of Nazareth Illit (upper Nazareth) has a population of 44,000 Israeli Jews.

Besides that, Nazareth is the hometown of my lovely wife and her family. And when I say family, I don't mean family in the American sense. I mean family in the sense that the family has no end, it seems. We enjoy visiting there from time to time to see family (we're working on seeing all of them) and friends. Also, to eat good Middle Eastern home cooking, which also is without end. I usually try to fast before I go in order to be able to be as hungry as I can, so as not to disappoint or offend my overly-gracious hosts.

The worst pronunciation of "Nazareth" I ever heard was an old woman country preacher on community access television call it "Nazariss" (which rhymes with "Lazarus"). Rima just loves it when I say it like that.

Rima was born and raised in a house up on the hill overlooking the city. It is a typical Arab-looking town...
...full of churches...

(The Catholic church)

(The Baptist church where Rima used to go)

...and mosques.
The Greek Orthodox Church (the "Mary's Well" church, supposedly where the angel appeared to Mary) is just below where Rima lived. It is simple, no frills.
Just down the road is the more ornate Roman Catholic Church, or the "Basilica of the Annunciation", which has remains of living quarters from a long time ago. It has obviously received more money from all over the world, which explains why everything looks so clean and nice, inside...
...and out.
Right next to the Catholic church is the Nazareth shuk, or market.
It is an Arab shuk that is markedly different than the Jewish shuk we frequent in our town.
The smells are like your spice rack multiplied ten times, so don't go there if you are hungry...
...or if you are the kind to lose your appetite easily.
If you are fortunate to go to an Arab wedding party, be prepared to have fun because they know how to party.

(This guy has obviously had one too many)

Nazareth used to be a fun-loving place to go, but lately it is becoming more uncomfortable to be in. Most of it has to do with the aggressiveness and hostility of the Muslims who share the city with the Christians. For most of its history over the past 2000 years, Nazareth has been primarily a Christian town, but during Israel's war of Independence in 1948, an influx of Muslim Arab refugees from the surrounding villages and towns that were destroyed changed the population of Nazareth from having a Christian majority to having a Muslim majority. And they brought their hostility with them.
The biggest flashpoint came about 10 years ago when Preparations for the Pope's visit to Nazareth in 2000 triggered highly publicized tensions related to the Basilica of the Annunciation. Israel gave permission for construction of a paved plaza to handle the expected thousands of Christian pilgrims caused Muslim protests and occupation of the proposed site, which is considered the grave of a nephew of Saladin. (His nephew, mind you.) This means the land is partly waqf (Islamic religious endowment) land, meaning the Muslims said it was theirs and it is holy.
(Muslim prayer at the controversial site in Nazareth)

Initially, Israel gave some approval for subsequent plans for a large mosque to be constructed at the site. Not just a mosque, but a giant mosque which would dwarf and hide any sight of the church. This led to protests from Christian leaders worldwide, which continued after the papal visit. Finally, in 2002, a special government commission permanently halted construction of the mosque, which Islamic leaders called it a declaration of war. Today it is simply a plaza area for the public, though Muslims often take it over during their prayer times, daring anyone to get in their way.

More recently, on New Year's Day in Nazareth this year, local Muslims marched provocatively shouting "Islam is the only truth" and "Islam will dominate the world" as they again called for the mosque to be built. The entire article is here and it describes the problem very well.
This is indicative of the problems Arab Christians, in general, face. Instead of fighting for the land which has been in their family for generations, most Christians of the Middle East are simply leaving. In places like Bethlehem, another historically Christian town, Christians are leaving by the droves because of Islamic persecution (see another good article here on Bethlehem Christians). Rima had relatives that lived in east Jerusalem, but recently moved into Israel because of Muslim hostility.

Nevertheless, if one stays out of the Muslim areas of Nazareth, it is a great place to be. There are the most wonderful people you can find anywhere and it gives you the feeling that you are actually in the Middle East, which despite the problems, is a good thing.
If you are interested, read more about Nazareth here.

FYI - If anyone decides to ask me if "anything good can come out of Nazareth", that joke has already been told. Many times. Really. (If you really want to know the answer to the question, the answer is "YES"!)