Notes from the Holy Land

“Welcome to the Holy Land, full of unholy people.” That’s how Antwan, a young Palestinian Christian from Bethlehem, greeted me when I met him two weeks ago in his hometown. After ten extraordinary days in Israel and Palestine, it seems a pretty apt summing up of all that I have seen, heard, felt and experienced.

I met people who embody extremes of sadness, energy, hope, despair, courage and decency far beyond anything I’ve previously encountered. And yet there is a gap here between the promise of something divine and the at times God-forsaken reality.

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The heavy hand of history

In Bethlehem, Antwan took us to see the Aida refugee camp, which, since 1948, has been home to thousands of Palestinian families.

Above the gateway into Aida is a giant rusted metal key. The key is the symbol of this community and others like it. As Antwan explained, when many Palestinians left their homes in 1948, they took their house-key with them, believing they would soon be returning. More than 65 years later, many of the families in Aida still have the key to homes that have long since been destroyed.

Just as important as the physical symbol of the key is the retention of the label ‘refugees’. It represents the conscious refusal of people here to accept the events of 1948 as irrevocable. The result is debilitating for current and future generations, who remain trapped by their people’s history, unable to make a fresh start.

Earlier, in Jerusalem, we had visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust museum. As you would expect, it was a humbling and sobering experience. But what makes Yad Vashem unique is the way it ties together the tragic story of Hitler’s ‘final solution’ with the supposedly redemptive story of the birth of Israel just a few years later.

As you emerge from the final room – a giant circular space whose walls are lined with files containing details of the millions who died – you arrive on a balcony with a view over the hillsides around Jerusalem.

As I watched a group of young Israeli soldiers in uniform follow us round the museum and out onto the balcony to admire the vista over the ‘promised land’, I couldn’t help but feel a little uncomfortable. Here, again, it seemed to me that a historic tragedy was being transformed into a potent symbol that commands loyalty and obedience.

All this makes the work that Antwan does in Bethlehem even more exceptional. Through the Holy Land Trust – the organisation he helps to run – Antwan works with young leaders to build a better future for the local community.

A core aspect of the Holy Land Trust’s approach is ‘non-linear thinking’. Essentially this involves helping people to understand that who they are in the present and who they become in the future does not have to be determined by what has happened in the past. No lesson could be more important in this troubled corner of our planet.

Crucible of the future

There’s another side to the story of this part of the world. Alongside this sense of the past weighing on the present exists an exceptional entrepreneurial energy that is propelling the region towards a more prosperous (though not necessarily more peaceful) future.

Many residents of Tel Aviv describe the city as a ‘pressure cooker’. The main dish on the menu is high-tech start-ups. In 2013 alone, 850 new start-ups were launched in Israel, a country of just 8 million people. Apple has announced that it intends to establish its second biggest hub in the world here (building has already commenced). And many of the other big players in the world of high-tech are following suit.

Conditions in the West Bank are more challenging, but here too we saw the spirit of enterprise flourishing. We visited Rawabi, a new model city being built in the mountains – from where you can see the skyscrapers of Tel Aviv and the deep blue of the Mediterranean.

Rawabi is the pet project of Palestinian billionaire Bashar Masri. It’s a hugely ambitious business venture – as well as apartments for 40,000 people, they are building schools, hospitals, a church, a mosque, office blocks, football pitches and a vast Greek-style amphitheatre. Its motto is ‘the best is yet to come’.

As yet there are no people in Rawabi (apart from an army of construction workers).The arrival of the first residents has had to be postponed due to difficulties in obtaining the relevant permits from the Israeli authorities to secure the water supply. (This problem is prevalent across the West Bank. Many of the houses here have water collection tanks on the roof. In Aida, in the shadow of the separation wall and its IDF watch-towers, these tanks are often decorated with bullet holes – a sign of the everyday tit-for-tat of life in the ‘occupied territories’. But Rawabi’s designers have consciously eschewed this solution for aesthetic reasons, leaving them entirely dependent upon the good will of Israel.)

Masri and his team are not ones to pull back in the face of adversity. There’s something slightly bewildering about the scale of their ambition and their desire to implant an Americanised and commercialised version of the Palestinian dream here in this arid, troubled land. You can’t help but admire the ‘not taking no for an answer’ attitude though.

The fragile present

Both past and future exert a tremendous pull on the people of the Holy Land. At times it feels like the present exists as little more than a fragile thread connecting the forces of history with competing dreams for the future.

Yet, amidst all this, perhaps the greatest cause for hope is the number of people determined to live ordinary, fulfilling lives. Lives rooted not in a sense of historical justice or a longing for some distant future, but in the basic human impulse to look after the wellbeing and happiness of ourselves and those closest to us, today and tomorrow.

Ironically, my biggest takeaway from this land steeped in history and full of dreams is the importance of living in the present. A healthy respect for both past and future is imperative, but our present state too needs nurturing.

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