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Holy Land memories indelibly etched in minds of Yale Divinity School sojourners

By Jeffrey Pierce '06 M.Div.

Jennie Ott '06 M.Div. had been in Israel-Palestine hardly 24 hours when she found herself marching from Manger Square in Bethlehem to the controversial Israeli Separation Wall on the outskirts of town. The Holy Land Trust, a Palestinian Catholic charitable organization, had assembled a nonviolent protest march against the Wall near the Jerusalem checkpoint, marking the end of a four-day international conference on nonviolence held in Bethlehem . Among the 450 Palestinians and their international accompaniers, including Israelis, was a small cluster of jet-lagged Americans from Yale Divinity School .

“We get to this wall, and we didn't really know what we were doing,” recalled Ott recently. “We marched through the gate to the rotary on the other side, and all of a sudden we're surrounded by Israeli police with machine guns.”

The Wall, designed to control entrance to Israel and a source of great frustration for Palestinians, is a 400-mile long system of 26-foot-tall concrete walls, with watch posts every 200 meters and layers of razor wire with electric fencing, sensors and cameras. [Click here to learn about film on The Wall made by Peter Nagle '96 M.A.R.]

Participating clerics divided Ott and the other marchers into smaller groups for prayer. With a “sinking feeling,” Ott had second thoughts about being there: “We like to think that laws apply,” she noted, “but we're in one of the most violent parts of the world.”

Protest against Seperation WallHer anxiety would only deepen. When she turned around to return to the “safety” of the Palestinian territory, Ott discovered that the gate—a retractable portion of the wall—had closed on them. Within one day of her arrival to Israel-Palestine, Ott had become embroiled in a major international issue for which she had simply “tagged along.” Looking around at those huddled in prayer, she realized that to believe in nonviolent resistance means not to capitulate to the fear of an unknown outcome.

Ott was among a group of 23 Yale Divinity students, faculty and staff who were in Israel-Palestine Dec. 27-Jan. 8 as part of a Holy Land travel seminar, conceived some months earlier during a chance encounter on Sterling Divinity Quadrangle. She and other participants have spent considerable time sharing impressions of their trip with the wider YDS community, both in public presentations and private conversation.

A chance encounter and an idea hatched

Late one night in spring 2005, Joel Hanisek '06 M.Div. emerged through another gate, at the entrance to Sterling Divinity Library. Jeremy Hultin, associate professor of New Testament studies, was himself wrapping up one of many late evenings of work in his Quadrangle office. Bumping into one another in the after-hours quiet, the two struck up a conversation. Hanisek raised the subject of Israel-Palestine, where both had lived and worked—Hanisek as a young adult intern for the United Nations office of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Hultin to study Hebrew—and suggested that it might finally be time for a travel seminar to that region. “We had similar ideas,” Hanisek recalls. “It was a fortunate meeting.”

Excited by the prospect, the two sought out Serene Jones, professor of systematic theology, to learn how YDS travel seminars work. Jones had previously led several of her own, including one to Egypt and another to Israel-Palestine. The three then turned for advice to Wes Avram, Clement-Muehl Assistant Professor of Communication, who has maintained close involvement with the region ever since living there more than 24 years ago.

Tour of the Seperation LawConcrete plans began to take shape. Word got out. Expectations were that a travel seminar would consist of about a dozen participants, but 45 applications were submitted—more than one in every 10 members of the entire student body. In the end, 20 students were accepted, along with YDS Instructional Technologies Librarian Suzanne Estelle-Holmer, who has traveled to Israel several times over the past 30 years. She volunteered to pay her own way to participate in the seminar. In short, says Hultin, there was never a lack of interest.

Why travel seminars?

The concept of the Yale Divinity travel seminar dates to 1988, when Letty Russell, then a professor of theology and now professor emerita, took a student group to Kenya . Russell had envisioned an “ecumenical travel seminar” that might be offered in a three-year cycle, moving from Africa , to Asia , and then to Latin America . Between 1990 and 2000, seminars were held in Korea , Mexico , South Africa , the Philippines , El Salvador , Chile , India , Ghana , Central America , Israel - Palestine , and Cuba . A travel seminar fund established in Russell's name contributed to financing the Israel-Palestine trip, helping make it possible for students to participate at about half the actual cost.

The idea of a travel seminar begs the questions: Why travel? Why not just a seminar? For Hultin, the recent trip to Israel-Palestine aptly demonstrates how study “on the ground” and entering the homes of people reaches far beyond the classroom learning experience.

Ott agrees. “Everything is brought to life when you're there,” she said. “There's something about seeing the Wall, seeing the land and walking on it.” Ott sees the travel component as essential to studying an issue in context. Moreover, the traveling fosters community, teaches students to rely on others, and provides a way of “living out ecclesiology,” she notes.

Jeremy Sabella '07 M.Div., another participant in the trip, had taken a course on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as an undergraduate at Notre Dame. “The travel brought closure to the class, and gave me grounds to do synthesis of my own,” said Sabella. For him, it was the unmediated experience of sitting down with a Palestinian man in charge of a refugee camp that turned the theoretical to real “flesh and blood.”

Viewed through a Christian lens, the travel seminar can be seen as incarnating the idea of focus; it provides an opportunity for encounter that no article or book or discussion can supply. Elizabeth Roebke '06 M.Div. vividly recalls the epiphany she experienced through her direct contact with Israelis and Palestinians—that “places ridden with conflict are not devoid of laughter and warmth.”

JC Aevaliotis '06 M.A.R. writes with passion about having had the opportunity to see the region through the eyes of a single individual, Elias Haron, a Palestinian Christian who began as the group's Bethlehem tour guide and ended as a close friend as well.

Aevaliotis describes Haron, who had lived in Europe but returned to Palestine to be with his family, as “phenomenally learned.” Having exchanged his relatively carefree European lifestyle for a hardscrabble existence in Palestine , things are now markedly different for Haron, according to Aevaliotis: “Elias lives now in a state of siege, confined by law to Bethlehem and the increasingly carved up West Bank . He is one of the lucky ones. He has a job as a guide, and he speaks to international groups, showing them around Bethlehem . Elias is frustrated, though, and speaks candidly about the occupation, about his parents, and about the life he left in Scandinavia to return to Palestine .”

A self-described “advocate and lover of the desert,” Kelly van Andel '06 M.Div felt compelled to respond to the land itself: “I fear… that the land which serves as a gracious host will disappear through inattentive exploitation in the name of politics or sacrality . While I hope that will not happen, the travel seminar has prodded me to consider that, in the meantime, perhaps rather than reflecting on how Israel-Palestine is the Holy Land, we might better ask how the land bears witness to us—peoples of all faiths—as Holy People. Undoubtedly, it may not judge us so kindly.”

Why Israel-Palestine?

Because Israel-Palestine is the Holy Land , it is a land like no other. Avram recalls the words of Elias Shakur, an Amalekite priest, who insists, “Christians should come not to visit the dead stones but the living stones.” Avram explicates the proverb this way: “If one believes Christian discipleship is based not just in history but in reality, there are few other places in the world where history and reality merge with such volatility, and volatility because of the historical claims.”

Street SceneSabella sees Israel-Palestine as crucial because it marks the convergence of numerous important topics. It is a “religious hot-button” for Sabella, a nexus of political controversy, “ground zero for monotheism,” a locus where East and West meet—in short, “a microcosm of world issues.”

Though an end in itself, a trip to Israel-Palestine offers seminarians lessons that go beyond the particulars of the situation there; it is a case study in conflict resolution and theological ethics. “Israel-Palestine may not be ‘our issue,'” explains Ott, “but we come back with a better understanding of how to think theologically about conflict, how to hold a position in conflict, how to practice mediation, and how to address oppression here [at home].”

In a jointly written reflection, librarian Estelle-Holmer and student Kenneth Hughes '06 M.Div. observed: “One of the things that makes the land holy is the sharing of traditions, the respect for one another's holy places. The three Abrahamic faiths share connections to one another so intimate they cannot be severed. A Jerusalem composed of only Christian sites or Christian believers would be meaningless to (us). Jerusalem as shared space is holy space.”

Hultin believes that an ongoing travel seminar program should make an Israel-Palestine trip a regular part of the initiative. Given the importance of peace making and human rights as issues in their own right, the conflict in Israel-Palestine is even more significant, Hultin argues, because of its centrality on a worldwide scale. Said Hultin, “Although you wouldn't know it from the American media, this [ Israel ] is the central issue [for Muslim discontent] from North Africa to Indonesia .”

This was a trip consisting largely of future pastors and ministers. None of those who participated, Hultin wagers, will ever lead their congregants simply on a touristy pilgrimage to the holy sites in Jerusalem because their contextual understanding has been so enriched. They will be well equipped to explain the conflict to their congregations, or even to involve them in peacemaking, within an ecclesial context, Hultin believes.

Hultin would like to see Russell's vision fully realized, with travel seminars offered according to her proposed three-year cycle. He even dreams of a time when the travel seminar might be a mandatory component of the Yale Divinity education, such that people will say of YDS: “That's the school where this is part of the program.”

Editor's Note: Alumni and friends interested in supporting the Ecumenical Travel Seminar fund may contact the YDS Office of Development at 203-432-5358.

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