Jerusalem is a holy city for three major religions, and two people groups consider it their rightful capital. International law has given the city special status. No one people group or religion has the right to claim exclusive sovereignty of this sacred place.
As I entered Old Jerusalem for the first time, I didn’t hear the voices. How could I? I didn’t know the people. I didn’t know the place. I didn’t know the history. I was overwhelmed with the newness of the experience, the cultural smells and sounds and sights that enticed my senses and held me in rapt attention. It was my new friend and traveling companion, Tita, who heard them, and shared their stories with me. “Look up,” she said, “see those windows above the stores. Those were the homes of many Palestinians who were forcibly removed from the city in 1967.”
One week later, I returned to the city, and their voices were impossible to silence. I had time to walk the streets as a tourist, taking in the sights and sounds, time to browse the shops and get lost in the maze of narrow streets, but my eyes kept drifting up to the windows. My ears kept hearing the cries of so many who were no longer present, but whose anguish remained. Reminiscent of the land crying out to God about the murder of one brother from another (Gen. 4), I couldn’t shake the memories of a history I’d newly encountered, and it’s impact on the lives of so many. With new eyes and new ears, I couldn’t not see and hear what I was oblivious to days before.
On my first day in Jerusalem, our group met with Afro-Palestinians to learn their unique (and all too common) struggles. Our very first speaker, Ali Jiddah, spoke a refrain we would hear echoed by all we encountered, “the only demand of the Palestinian people: we want human rights like everyone else.” We went to an Afro-Palestinian Cultural Center working to give children, youth and women hope in seemingly hopeless times. Musa, the Center’s leader, gave examples of the many ways Palestinians in Old Jerusalem have known invasion, occupation, harassment, economic oppression, and corruption of thinking. We had a rich discussion about the similar struggles of giving hope to young people when the larger society deems them worthless, from Jerusalem to the Tohono O’odham reservation to African Americans in Oakland. We concluded our Jerusalem tour by learning of how religious tourism is being promoted to further displace Palestinians (see my entry Profiting Off Pain).
By the end of the day, lyrics to a song I listened to in high school kept running through my head, “Jerusalem, the prophets call your name Jerusalem, but they call out in vain ‘cause you don’t hear, how many tears must fall, Jerusalem” (Whiteheart). Jesus himself repeated the call of the Hebrew prophets (Matthew 23:37, Luke 13:34), longing for the oppressed people of this great city to be seen, heard, and given human rights like everyone else.
Palestinian protests continue in the wake of Trump’s declaration last week, claiming Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. These protests are the anguished cries of a people who have been forcibly removed from their homes, endured occupation and oppression for decades, and refuse to allow their history and their culture to be destroyed as they struggle to remain in their homeland. Can you hear their cries? Listen!
In the midst of the holiday season in the U.S., we are bombarded with messages of peace. Candles are lit in homes across the country, by both the religious and non-religious alike, as we long for peace on earth. But peace does not come without justice, and the work of justice begins with hearing the cries of the oppressed. As people of conscience from all walks of life long for peace – especially in a season in which we are invited to pray for peace and sing of peace – may we also (re)commit ourselves to working for peace. May we hear the cries of the oppressed (both in distant lands and in our own communities), may we find ways to partner with those who are working for justice, may we remove our complicity in systems and structures of injustice, and may we become – ever more fully – a people of peace.