Friday, October 9, 2009

What About Today?

Dear Praying People,

Mid-day Friday here. The Israeli military and police helicopters have been hovering overhead all day. There is a surveillance dirigible above my head. A burst of gunfire closeby. Friday is Muslim prayer day and there is trouble.

A few weeks ago, Israel decided that Jewish worshippers should also be able to use Al Aqsa Mosque. They say a section should be set aside for them and that on 50 Jewish holidays each year(are there 50??), the Mosque should be for the exclusive use of Jewish worshippers. Since many holidays of the two religions overlap, guess who will prevail in use of the Mosque on those days?

So on Fridays now, there are people clashing.

Al Aqsa is located on the Haram Al-Sharif, which is the Temple Mount to Jews. It was where the Second Temple was located, Jesus' temple, and so of course is of legitimate and very holy significance to Jews. However, the Temple was destroyed in 79 AD and Al Aqsa has been there housing Muslim worship for 1400 years since the 7th Century. Considering this preponderance of presence there by Muslims, it seems like it might have been possible to approach this difficult issue with some preliminary discussions and agreements. It seems like the sort of issue one might have treated with consideration and respect for another. But I guess not. Instead we get autocratic decree, enforcing it with the use of hundreds of armed soldiers resulting in injuries to the unarmed, and then blaming Arabs for being naturally prone to violence and making trouble.

The establishment of apartheid here is moving along without a hitch.

People who come here, and people around the world, are always praying for peace here. Several times each year, there are special events here of Prayers for Peace.

I don't know if prayer works or how it works, but I know that the situation here has been worsening steadily for the past 60 years, despite all these prayers, so I wonder.....

Maybe we need to be more specific in the prayers:

Maybe we should be sure to mention that the peace is supposed to be for everyone, not just the group we favor.

Maybe we should mention that peace for some should not come at the cost of oppression of the others.

Maybe we should remember that peace is not just about the all-important "security" and a minimal number of bullets being fired, but should also include the notions of justice and fairness, apology and forgiveness, conciliation and equity, respect and consideration.

If prayer works, it seems to need alot of time I guess. Like more than 60 years and counting here, for example. So maybe we can back up the prayer with something else.

The photo at the top of this blog is homes destroyed last January in the Gaza war. They still look like this because Israel has not allowed any materials into Gaza to rebuild. So the 40,000 people whose homes were destroyed still do not have a home. Winter is coming on. I hope your prayers will give people a house before that, but so far they haven't. So maybe if you pray about this, you could cc: the White House and US State Dept who are backpedaling on several issues related to the situation here at a pace that would leave Lance Armstrong envious.

I met some university students in Gaza this week who are receiving scholarship loans from a Christian organization. I'm sure that the members of that organization pray regularly, but they also do something to make a difference today.

People need jobs today. They need food today. They need healthcare today. They need the gun off their head today.

I can't tell you how often someone responds to my description of the situation here with "Oh my goodness, I'll be sure to pray about that." That is great, but maybe you could also inform yourself and then write a letter to your newspaper or legislative member; or work actively to support a candidate who supports your position; speak out when you hear misinformation; or go to the place you care about and see for yourself.

A few decades ago, when there were activists who meant it, there was a pop tune that I think about alot here. Its lyrics say.

"The tears I'm shedding now I hear will dry in time,
The fears I'm fearing now I hear will die in time,
But while I wait around for tomorrow, watching life drift away
What about, yes what about today?

I can't help wondering if tomorrow ever comes.
And what's my life been lived for if it never comes?
I've heard alot of toasts to tomorrow, but none of them ever say
What about, yes what about today?

Till nirvana comes, what about today
Till messiah comes, what about today?
Till the mountains move and oceans part and angels sing and life can start,
What about, yes what about today?"

I hope you will pray for peace here. But right after the "amen" I hope you will ask yourself, what about today?

Saturday, September 26, 2009


Following is a copy of a letter I sent to President Barack Obama today.

Dear Mr. President:

I am writing to offer plaudits and gratitude for your leadership in producing the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1887 regarding nuclear disarmament. It demonstrated the resolve and resourcefulness that we have come to expect from your Administration. As one who supported your election, I was particularly pleased to know that you were at the gavel for that session.

I hope that choosing that venue for the initiative; i.e., the community of nations united, was another example of your government’s intention to earnestly participate in that community. It is in that context that I wish to respectfully offer a challenge to you.

I speak of your government’s position toward the State of Israel. I am a retired American physician, a constituent of the 23rd Congressional District in Texas. For the past two years I have been living in Jerusalem and doing volunteer work in the West Bank and Gaza. It is from this perspective and experience that I write to you.

For several decades, the State of Israel has ignored numerous UN Resolutions, rulings of international legal bodies, and mandates of international humanitarian agencies regarding its illegal Occupation of the Palestinian territories and its oppressive treatment of the Palestinian people. In the face of these admonishments to Israel’s policies and actions, the United States and the international community have been silent. In so doing, our government has tacitly approved these actions and to that extent has been complicit in them.

I respectfully ask, Sir: how can the US and other nations expect compliance with Resolution 1887 while it empowers Israel to ignore other resolutions and act with impunity?

I hope that your government does not hold the rationale that it can overlook transgressions of the State of Israel because it is in the national interest to do so. Such a position will only further justify the anarchy of self-interest that we see too commonly in our world, as well as place the US on the wrong side of history.

You are fond of using that metaphor. I respectfully ask you, then, how often we now condemn empires of the past because they came to power on the backs of innocents? How often do we now view previous political expediencies as egregious self-interest? Sir, will you enter history as having stood up against injustice in any quarter, or will you enter history asterisked merely as a two-term President?

Either we are part of the community of nations, or we are not. Either we hold all member nations accountable to international law, or we do not. Either we abide by the consensus of international bodies, or we do not. To advocate compliance for some nations for some issues is disingenuous at best, and arrogant and cynical at worst.

I am aware of the forceful statements from you and Secretary Clinton regarding the settlements in the West Bank. You should know, Mr. President, that those statements have brought much hope to Palestinian people here. But with respect, Sir, the statements come from lips and mouth only and have no “teeth”. Unless and until the statements are enforced by the same kind of sanctions and forceful economic measures from the international community that are applied toward rogue nuclear states, those statements will continue to be ignored by the State of Israel.

Israel does not await responses from the world. From my two years living here, I assure you that although the diplomatic process proceeds sluggishly, the reality on the ground accelerates at a relentless pace. Indeed, as I write from Jerusalem today, Palestinian apartheid is very nearly a fait accompli. While your Administration’s efforts are repeatedly rebuffed, and duplicitous decoys of relaxed travel restrictions obscure the truth, the suffering of 4 million people increases every day.

I implore you, Sir, to uphold the integrity and credibility of your Administration by enforcing international law wherever it applies.

In closing, Mr. President, I offer fervent support for the success of your Administration and hope that you will heed the advice of your predecessor and follow the better angels of your nature.

John Harry Gunkel, M.D.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Ramadan Mubarak

Dear Wednesday Morning Group,

Sometime between 3 and 4 in the morning now comes the sound of drumming. I wake and hear it distant at first, then closer as someone moves along the streets in East Jerusalem pounding a big drum. No particular rhythm, just noise. Not long after that, a cannon fires once. A very big, very loud cannon.

It's Ramadan.

I'm not sure why this letter is to all of you. But as I thought who might especially enjoy this posting I thought of you first, perhaps because our conversations and discussions on those early Wednesday mornings always seemed to me to honor differences in backgrounds and traditions. So I thought you would enjoy hearing a little about this very special time here.

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and it is the month in which the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Mohammad. The Islamic calendar is a lunar one, so the dates of Ramadan, according to the Western calendar, are different each year. By the Western calendar, it occurs one month earlier each year. That is, next year it will be from mid-July to mid-August.

Ramadan is intended to be a prayerful and observant time as befits the revealing of the Quran. The faithful fast from before sunrise until the moment of sunset. The drumming in the morning is intended to wake people so that they might eat before the fast begins and that is signaled by the cannonfire. At the moment of sunset, the cannon fires again to let everyone know the fast is broken. So now, during the summertime, the fast lasts about 15 hours.

The fast is absolute. No food, no liquids, no gum, no cigarettes, no sexual relations during its time. But more, the mouth should also be prayerful. There should be no idle gossip, or silly chatter. No profanity or harmful speech.

When the fast breaks every evening, there is a general gathering of friends and family for "break-fast" (iftur). So there is an extremely important social and family-strengthening aspect of the time as well. And this is shared with all. A few evenings ago, I was returning to my apartment just after 7 in the evening and waved hello to the guys in the barber shop across the street. They called me over and invited me to share their iftur with them. I did and enjoyed getting to know my new neighbors.

The evenings also find the streets lit up festively. The photo at the head of this blog shows a scene in the Old City at Ramadan.

I love the rhythm of Ramadan. It is rather noisy where I live, with the sounds of life all day long from the street. But around 6:30 pm, a quiet begins to descend. It is noticeable and makes you stop - "what's different?". It lasts until about 8 pm. Everyone is indoors eating and drinking after 15 long hours without, and enjoying their friends and family. Around 8, the streets fill again, but then it becomes quiet again about an hour later. It is now Evening Prayer time and most people are at the mosque for prayers. I live near Al Aqsa Mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam, and thousands of people attend prayer services there during Ramadan.

Thousands more would also like to pray there but are not allowed by Israeli security. Mostly this is young men. It is one thing to prevent someone from moving about under ordinary conditions, but it is another much more nefarious and insidious thing to also prevent them from practicing their faith. Imagine someone stopping you from going to Christmas Eve services - how would that affect you?

As an outsider and one with an extremely superficial understanding of Ramadan, I am struck by the profundity of this time. I am moved by it and in awe of the faithfulness it calls forth. I sometimes try to join in the fast and admit it is extraordinarily difficult. But what moves me is that the difficulty is minor for the observants. They are much more focused on the intent. The Quran tells that the purpose of the fast is "in order that you might become more pious"; to find humility; to recognize the bounty of Allah by noticing its simulated absence; and to find empathy and compassion for those everywhere who everyday do not have enough to eat. From where I sit, this is profound and I feel blessed to be here in the midst of it.

I hope you enjoy this very unlearned rendering of this celebration of faith, and perhaps you will want to "google" it to learn more.

I look forward to seeing you all again, inshallah at the beginning of next year.


Friday, August 14, 2009

Those Lazy, Crazy, Hazy Days of Summer

Dear John and Mike,

I've been thinking enviously of your new jacuzzi. I know it's been a special boon to you this particular summer. I was thinking especially about you when a group of us ajaaneb (foreigners) went last Saturday to the Jifna Dream Pool.

Jifna is a village in the West Bank outside Ramallah and there is a wonderful community pool there that was a great oasis in this August's heat.

Nine of us went and when we arrived there were only a couple families with kids. We were the only foreigners. The pool is half-Olympic size, sparkling clean. It's surrounded by a wall with some lovely paintings of town and country scenes. Look at the photos in the slideshow at left.

We swam a little, ate a great lunch of bar-b-q chicken and lamb kebabs, and "salads". Every meal here begins with salads, but we would probably call them appetizers. Small plates of a variety of dishes. I'm not sure what some of them are, but they're unfailingly delicious. When you first come here, you have to learn not to make a meal of them because there will be LOTS more food coming.

We lounged and lingered a few hours as others families arrived, then headed back home, refreshed and relaxed.

There are as many levels of engagement in what's going on here (aka, brutal oppression of 4 million people) as there are people who come. I've always tried to see what's here; why else would I be here?? But there is a price to pay for that and Saturday was a rare opportunity to just enjoy, relax, and refresh.

Jifna Dream Pool, what a perfect name.

Keep the jacuzzi bubbling till the winter when I get back. It will be a nice place to while away a winter evening.


Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Have A Nice Day

Dear Sandy,

Thank you for continuing to send the articles from the Washington Post and NY Times. I usually know about the events - they're happening outside the front door, after all - but I appreciate reading what's being said about them abroad. Or not being said, which is sometimes more informative.

I have to comment on one of the articles you sent recently because I think it tells much more than it was meant to. Or more accurately, reveals more and in a way that holds a world of meaning for what's happening here.

The article, from the NY Times, reports on 3 recent occurrences here. One is possible corruption charges against a key figure in Netanyahu's new government. But what caught my attention more was the 2 other occurrences.

The reporter described the eviction last Sunday of two Palestinian families from their homes in an Arab neighborhood around the corner from me. This has been going on for months here, the relentless insidious extension of the Occupation into East Jerusalem. Many homes and buildings are being taken and occupied by "Israeli nationalists" every day.

But this one seems to have caught the attention of the media perhaps because the occupants of the homes have been there for decades, 53 years in one case, and despite the title of ownership still being considered in the courts, an eviction notice was issued anyway.

So on Sunday, two families were out on the street and new occupants had moved in within minutes. All enabled and enforced by Israeli police.

Then, the third part of the story was a brief mention of the recent killings inside a gay club in Tel Aviv. The story contained this sentence:

"...shock over the attack jolted a society that largely values tolerance and has hardly been exposed to the specter of hate crimes."

Oh my goodness. OH MY GOODNESS!! One hardly knows where to start.

So within sentences of describing tossing two families out on the street from their homes of 50 years - without evidence to do so - and letting in new occupants who have no claim to ownership, the reporter describes a society that "largely values tolerance". Umm, which kind of tolerance would that be?? And if illegally occupying and oppressing 4 million people and periodically bombing the crap out of them isn't a hate crime, exactly what is?

But this is what I think is so revealing here. My guess is that the reporter either 1) does not consider home evictions and demolitions of Arab homes to be intolerant or hateful; or 2) does not even realize what she did.

I suspect the latter. Like much of the world, her image of Israel is so entrenched, so ingrained, so reinforced by her Judeo-Christian environment (and really, really effective media management) that she cannot even recognize when it is refuted by reality.

It's too simple to say that's the only problem here, but it is certainly a large part of it. As it must be in all cases where there are some people who are different and therefore, scary.

There is too much in our relationships with each other that is hidden. Unspoken. Unacknowledged. Buried in our fear and guilt. Too many dirty little secrets.

So we all go along with policies that enable hateful treatment of a people by calling them something else. "Security" for example. Denying it is what it is because we don't want someone calling us the "Anti-..." name. And after all, the society is so tolerant and naive of hate. Surely a people who were the victims of hate crimes cannot themselves perpetrate the same? Surely.

Easier that way, isn't it? We don't have to get all mixed up and confused by our dark sides. The trouble is that what makes some of us really comfortable with ourselves is causing a world of hurt for others.

About the same time I was reading this little slice of Disney-mania, I also saw a notice that the internet was "abuzz" because two actors had been left off People Magazine's photo of the reunion of the ancient TV sitcom, Saved by the Bell.

Really? Abuzz? About this? This is what gets attention?


Have a nice day.


Monday, August 3, 2009


This letter is for all those who have found themselves living in a foreign place. Or anyone who is thinking of doing that.

We all do it for different reasons. But for many of us, it's because we think there is something "wrong" somewhere and we go to try to help. To "do something". Or maybe we just can't stand watching it from afar and want to get closer and see better what's really happening.

So we go. And pretty soon, we figure out that it's not like we thought it was. It's worse, or more complicated, or more enormous. At this point, some of us realize there's little or nothing for us to "do". And if we stay on, we begin to shift our awareness and focus from doing to being. As my friend Jesse recently wrote so wisely, it dawns on us why we're called human beings and not human doings.

So we begin to think and talk and write alot about "Presence". The importance and significance of just being with people who are in hardship.

And that's where many continue to live while they're there.

But I think we have to be careful with this Presence thing. It doesn't necessarily mean relationship; in fact I would argue that it rarely does. It can have a deux ex machina quality about it. Dropping in to just "be with you." I think we can move through presence and come to realize how it is different from making relationship.

We are forever alien in these new places we inhabit. No matter how much we want not to be alien. That's what all of us wanted when we came - to not be alien. We wanted to learn the language and every nuance of the culture and "belong".

I'm not sure we can ever belong. Which can leave us in an isolated place, especially if we came alone. But if we're really, really fortunate we can learn to abide in this alien state without deluding ourselves, and on occasion live in moments that show us the real reason we came.........

I live in a flat in a GuestHouse. There is a beautiful courtyard garden which I can look down on from my windows. A few days ago, there was an engagement party in the garden. It was beautiful. From time to time during the evening I watched in a kind of cultural voyeurism, seeking to know better how to "belong". As I watched during the evening, two friends who work at the GuestHouse and were serving that night weaved through the crowd, looking movie-star handsome in their black slacks, white shirts, and black bowties.

'Round about 10 pm, the party had broken up and the clean-up was just about finished. There was a knock at my door. It was one of the two guys who had worked that evening. His wife had been taken to the hospital and he asked if I would drive him there and go with him. So the three of us went.

His wife was in the emergency room, thankfully doing fine. She had fallen and had some bumps and bruises. The hospital is a large one in East Jerusalem whose staff and patients are just about exclusively Arab. Late at night like that, I was the only foreign face for miles around. I stood with my friends, waited for and talked with the doctors to find out what the situation was, watched all the people coming and going.

I realized with a suddenness that startled me that I wasn't alien to my two friends that evening in the ER. I was just with them. Not in a Presence way - I wasn't there to "support" or do anything. I was just there because they knew I would go with them and they weren't afraid to ask me. The cultural prohibitions against that - and there are many - were no longer operating with us. We were there together just because we know each other.......

Just steps from where I'm sitting right now occurred some of the most momentous events in all of human history. Some believe God incarnated and walked here. Died and rose from the dead. Some believe that a people here in ancient times were chosen by God to be an example of devotion for all future generations. Some believe a great Prophet came here one night in a miraculous mystical journey.

Millions of people come here to see where these things happened. To hear stories about them, pray about them, wonder about them, be transformed by them.

When I leave here someday and think back on this time, it won't be those events or places that I remember. It will be an evening that I spent in an ER with some friends.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Back To Gaza

Dear Janina and Johannes,

I was able to visit Gaza yesterday for the first time since February. Our friends send their love and long for the day when you might be able to visit again. You are much remembered and missed.

Entering Gaza has changed a little since you last visited. Now, just a kilometer or so after clearing Erez checkpoint and entering Gaza, you have to stop at a Hamas checkpoint. They examine your passport and take information and sometimes examine your luggage. The first time I was a bit unnerved by this (Hamas has a copy of my passport?!?!?), but now it's another part of the routine. I have always found the men at this checkpoint to be cordial, polite, and professional. Much more so than some other people who man checkpoints around here.

Everyone we know is as well as can be expected, but I worry more and more about Dr. M. He remains as gentle and gracious as ever, but his tired, saddened eyes and stooped shoulders tell the strain and burden of life there.

I'm sorry to say nothing has improved in Gaza. Which means it is worse. Every day that goes by without change means another day of poverty, no work, ill health, little food, and confinement. Nothing has been rebuilt or repaired since the destruction caused by the war. Nothing. Israel lets nothing in that is needed for repairs, saying the materials could be used for bombs or rockets. The UN is supposed to be taking in 20,000 tons of cement, but so far approval is still not given. No hurry, it's only people's lives. We wouldn't want to go too fast and cause diplomatic awkwardness. Tony Blair, Envoy for Only-God-Knows-What, is still encamped at the $400/day American Colony Hotel here. I do hope he's comfortable enough.

I also have some positive news for you, though. Yesterday I sat in on some training for staff in Gaza to learn how to deliver psychosocial counselling and support. This is almost universally needed after two years of embargo and deprivation, and the war/slaughter of January. So even though this activity was made necessary by so much suffering, still it's wonderful to see something positive, constructive, and life-affirming arise out of it. I don't believe I've seen people there so energized and enthusiastic about anything in the nearly two years I've been going.

I'm sorry the world despises Gaza so, because we are missing a chance to see such wonderful developments. To see people figure out how to ennoble themselves against all odds. To enrich themselves, to save themselves. Or maybe the world doesn't despise Gaza, maybe we are just afraid. Or don't understand. Or ignore. It's a shame. We have alot to learn from the people we hurt the most.

I know you well enough to know how you miss going to Gaza and how you hurt when you hear the news from there. I look forward to the time when we might go again together.