On our last pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2009, our bus driver was an Arab-Israeli Muslim and our tour guide was a German-Israeli Christian. Both were fluent in English, Arabic and Modern Hebrew, and Maria probably spoke German as well. Guides from previous trips have included a Palestinian Muslim, an Armenian Orthodox Christian, and an American Jew who is a permanent resident of Israel. Bus drivers have been exclusively Arab — and probably Muslim — as far as we know.
During our ten-day tour we listened to a children’s choir from a Scandinavian Messianic Jewish community near Jerusalem, met with a Palestinian Christian professor from a college in Bethlehem, prayed at the Western Wall alongside ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jews dressed in European styles from hundreds of years ago, observed the living quarters of Ethiopian Orthodox monks on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and mingled everywhere with believers from just about “every tribe and nation.” One of my fondest memories from that time is when a Syrian Orthodox nun sang the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic, an ancient language that was Jesus’ native tongue.
On previous trips we have strolled through the artist colony of Safed, which is also the spiritual center of mystical Jewish Kabbalah, and viewed the monument to the founder of the Baha’i faith from an overlook above Haifa. We’ve eaten kosher meals in Arab guesthouses and marveled at (and complained about) the Shabbat elevators in Jewish hotels. We’ve shopped for local handicrafts in a Druze village and stood on the outskirts of a Bedouin encampment. And on this upcoming tour in March we hope to visit the Samaritan Museum and Center near modern-day Nablus. (Yes, there are still Samaritans living in the Holy Land!)
Before my first trip in 1994 I had a naive and stereotypical understanding of the residents of the Holy Land. If I thought of them at all, it was as a fairly homogenous conglomeration of Christians, Jews and Muslims — with their population sizes in that order. The reality “on the ground” was quite different, and I quickly learned just how wrong I was. But unpacking and understanding this really non-homogenous mixture of people, faiths and customs took time and serious thought.
Take the designation “Israeli,” for example. The common definition has to do mostly with nationality: “a person who was born, raised or living in modern Israel, or a person living elsewhere who is of Israeli descent.” But people are also often referred to as “Israeli” if they are citizens of the State of Israel — even if, like our German tour guide, Maria, they come from a different national background. Since the term “American” shares this same kind of double meaning in our culture, that wasn’t too hard to grasp.
It makes sense, then, that individuals who were born and live in the immediate area outside Israel are called “Palestinian.” Most Palestinians hold their citizenship in the State of Palestine, which is also called the West Bank or the Occupied Territories. But a minority of Palestinians live in, and are citizens of, Israel.
It took me a bit longer to figure out that “Arab” and “Jew” refer in the narrowest sense to ethnic groups. Most Arabs, including the Druze and Bedouin subgroups, trace their lineage to somewhere in the Middle East. Jews, on the other hand, hail from all over the globe — in addition to the Middle East, from America, Europe, Asia and Africa. (Both Arabs and Jews share a broader, common ethnic heritage as Semites.) Samaritans are also native to the Middle East, though they are neither Jewish nor Arab and practice their own unique form of religion.
Contrary to my earlier assumptions, the three major religious groups — in order of size — are Jewish (75% in 2011), Muslim (17%) and Christian (2%, and declining). The majority of ethnic Jews are also Jewish in faith, though not all are equally observant. About 20,000 of them are Messianic believers in Jesus. Arabs are mostly Muslim, a few are Christian, and even fewer still practice one of the minority faiths. Christians share the same world-wide ethnic heritage as the Jews, and primarily belong to one of the ten officially recognized “sects.”
The resulting smorgasbord of faiths, cultures and customs — even though sometimes in tension with one another — make Israel and Palestine two of the most enticing and memorable places that I have ever visited. Just go back and re-read the first three paragraphs, counting the various nationalities, ethnic backgrounds, races, religions and languages mentioned, and you’ll see what I mean. Each visit brings a wealth of new people to meet and new lessons to learn.
It’s not too late to join our group in March. I promise you it will be the trip of a lifetime!
Photos courtesy Freestockphotos.com