Nuns on one side: Priests on the other
After remaining in the shadows of non-Catholic-based media for years, women religious seem to be capturing the spotlight. Recently in these pages I discussed the American Nuns on the Bus trying to explain social justice to the cranky Republican boys who do not want to share, and the work of Sr. Anne Montgomery in al-Khalil (Hebron) and in the US antiwar movement. There are other nuns making noise in Beit Jala and in other parts of the occupied West Bank.
The Salesian Sisters of Cremisan, led by Mother Adriana, run a school for Palestinian children. The nuns were told in September 2011 that the Apartheid Wall would bisect their land. By separating their convent and school from the villages, particularly al-Walaja, where the school children live, the peaceful town of Beit Jala will become another Hebron. The Israelis intend to create another area of the occupied West Bank virtually unliveable, complete with armed Israeli soldiers who will circle like buzzards around the checkpoint that the children will have to go through twice a day in order to attend school. That is, if their families are given the new IDs that will allow them to cross to the other side of the Wall. What the Israeli Defense Ministry has recently proposed is to leave the nuns on the West Bank side of the Wall and the monks on the Israeli side. I realize that the Defense Ministry’s plan is somewhat confusing geographically since both sides of Beit Jala are clearly on Palestinian land, often called the West Bank, without reference to ownership of the land.
Mother Adriana did not accept the Israeli plan, certainly not with the humility one so frequently attribures to women religious. Keeping her focus on the importance of the mission of educating the children and sharing crops with the villagers of al-Walaja, she dug in her heels.
“The monks make wine, and for them it’s great. They’re interested in producing wine and this enables them to send it to Israel, where their customers are located,” said the Mother Superior, Sister Adriana. “For us it’s not good at all. If the fence passes here and they put us on the Israeli side, the children won’t be able to reach us. There’s only one road to the monastery. The fence will create a checkpoint here with soldiers.” (Haaretz, 5 January 2012)
When the Apartheid Wall was encircling Bethlehem, in 2008, I saw an amazing sight that summed up the Israeli intentions with their “security fence.” A small red house was completely encircled by the Wall. No one I spoke to seemed to know the importance of the tiny house, why it had its own 20-foot high Wall. The heart of Bethlehem was being dislocated, stores boarded up, restaurants no longer expecting an eager dinner clientele. Now the outskirts of Bethlehem, the pastoral town of Beit Jala, is undergoing similar treatment.
According to one villager,
“Everyone inside the village of Walaja depends on the land for a living. Many Walaja-een used to work in Jerusalem but it is illegal for them to go there now although the city is within walking distance of the village. “If we go, we’ll be arrested,” said Bargouth.
“We have no IDs,” said Abu Nidal At-Trash. “That’s the problem. The Israeli government even says we are illegal here, sitting in our own houses. Sometimes they arrest us for it.” (Christian Peacemaker Team newsletter: Feb. 2005)
Nuns on one side, school children on the other
The town of Beit Jala, a predominantly Christian town of about 15,000 people, on the outskirts of Bethlehem, is verdant, full of ancient olive trees, straight rows of grapevines, and lush grazing land. On the horizon line, one can see the Apartheid Wall, separating Jerusalem from Bethlehem. Of course if you look to your left, you will see the illegal settlement of Gilo, rising like a white demon with whirling satellite dishes and the persistent hum of electrical wires. Turn your head and look up on the hillside, you will see Har Gilo, its illegal mirror reflection settlement. Caught in the middle, the verdant Carpesian Valley where grapevines and olive trees thrive has become a temptation that the Israeli settlers can no longer resist.
For an eyewitness account of the ongoing situation in al-Walaja, when the frustrated Palestinians and their International supporters protest the bulldozers destroying olive trees and ripping out grape vines by the roots, and the vicious treatment from the Israeli army, see the video.
As the young Israeli soldiers give nonemotional smug reponses to the desperate villagers, and one watches the Palestinians fall to the Israeli rifle butts, one gets the uneasy feeling that the clean-shaven soldiers are practicing on the villagers for a larger confrontation.
What about the Cremisan winery?
There are also priests and friars, who run the only only winery in the West Bank. Until now, the most popular Israeli wines come from the occupied Golan Heights. The Yardin wines (“yardin” is the Hebrew name of the Jordan River) and the Golan wines, the Gamia wines, and the Galil wines are all produced in the “disputed” land of the Golan Heights. Might there be a possibility of grabbing that arable Cremisan land in the West Bank for Israeli commercial use?
When the Apartheid Wall splits Bethlehem yet again, approximately 50 families of laborers who work in the Salesian Friary’s Cremisan vineyards, in Beit Jala, will be without work. These workers have been coming to Cremisan from local villages, pruning and hand-tending the vines, and harvesting the grapes as their families have done for more than 100 years. Last spring Israel announced that the Apartheid Wall will be extended to the vineyards, cutting off the surrounding villages from the Vineyard and forcing them to apply for new work permits. The Israel Defense Ministry has offered an “agricultural gate” through which the villagers could enter the Cremisan land at the time of the olive harvest. And during the rest of the year? With the Salesian nuns and monks, and the people they serve separated, who will help the nuns with their huge vegetable gardens, the produce of which are shared with the villagers? And who will maintain the huge Convent and School buildings?
In 2006, 5th Gospel Retreats, a British church group in solidarity with the Palestinian churches, began to import the highly prized Cremisan altar wine as part of their commitment to peace and justice to aid the people of the occupied West Bank. For reasons of “security,” the Israelis slapped an embargo on the altar wine from the fall of 2008 until early 2009, depriving not only the people in the UK, but also the Christians in the West Bank from savoring this sacramental wine for Advent and Christmas masses.
While many of the priests have remained silent, in an effort not to enflame the situation, one priest — Father Ibrahim Shomali — has raised his voice.
“When people suffer, the Church must be near them. This is not politics. This is human rights and this is Christians who must be defended,” he said. (BBC News Magazine, 2 May 2012)
The priests have learned a hard lesson from that embargo. The Israelis could stop the flow of wine at any time. So the possibility that the planned serpentine Wall might put their winery on the Jerusalem side of commerce and more sales is not unpleasant. This possibility leaves the priests oddly silent, not overtly reacting to the Israeli plan, while the nuns, along with the town of al-Walaja, are going to court to fight the Israelis. If they lose, the children will be wondering if they will ever get the prized IDs that will allow them to stand at the checkpoint twice a day, with long-nosed rifles pointed at them, while their schoolbags are searched.
In an effort to quell the media coverage of the squabble between the priests and nuns, which keeps the focus away from the menace of the Israeli Wall, the Monastery administration issued a terse statement. “The monastery never asked to move over to the Israeli side,” it said. “The entire route of the fence, including the part that directly affects the lands of Cremisan, was decided by the Israeli authorities alone.” But the announcement did not impress Mother Adriana. “We and the monks have very different opinions regarding the fence here,” she said in the aforementioned Haaretz article, adding that she preferred not to elaborate.