Saturday, August 12, 2017

Of Israel, Palestine and Threats of Physical Harm

Over my 14 years of writing a faith page column for the Winnipeg Free Press, I have received a number of responses criticizing the things I have written.

Ninety-nine percent are respectful, decent, and thoughtful. I always reply, addressing the issue at hand and thanking writers for taking the time to reach out—and encouraging them to submit their thoughts to the letters to the editor. (Few do.)

There’s almost no way of telling what will spark someone to write. Sometimes you think a controversial column will generate responses, but nothing comes.

Other times, you think nobody will care and the e-mails pour in.

But there is always one issue that I know will generate reaction: Israel-Palestine.

No matter how balanced or neutral I try to be, I know I will hear from people who condemn me for not being 100 percent unequivocal in support of Israel.

Who are these people? A few Jews, but almost always people who identify as Christians.

Most of them are reasonable, using the Bible to show me the error of my ways.

But others want to let me know how bad a Christian I am for even suggesting the Palestinians just might have some good points to make about their experience. For them, that is clear evidence of my anti-Israel bias.

I reply, as always, thanking them for their responses. And then I forget about it.

But not this time. For the first time in my column writing career, I have been threatened with violence.

In the column, I wondered whether sacred places like these were really worth fighting and dying over.

I thought it was a neutral kind of piece, criticizing both Israelis and Palestinians for using geography against one another.

A few people wrote in reply, two Jews and a Christian Zionist. The comments were respectful, suggesting I could have done more to promote the Israeli point of view.

But one person was different. He called and left two messages on my phone. I was out of town, so didn’t get them until many days later.

In the first rambling message, he began by casting doubts on my faith and intelligence for not taking the Israeli side.

He went on to describe the Palestinians as a "deadly, ugly people."

He then “cursed" me "in Jesus name” for not supporting Israel.

Not a big deal, I thought; I've been told before I will burn in Hell for my opinions. But this was the first time I was cursed.

His second message came about 15 minutes later. This time, things went darker. He wanted, he said, to come and “kick my teeth right in.”


It’s been about 50 years since I was last threatened with violence. Back then, it was a schoolyard bully when I was about 10 years old.

And now here it was happening again.

I have to say that, this time, his words struck home. Did he really mean it? Would he show up at my house one day? Did he know where I live? Was my family safe?

Or was he just blowing smoke?

It’s probably just an empty threat, I told myself. Just an angry man spouting hate and anger.

Or maybe there was another motive. Maybe he was trying to intimidate me, to make me reluctant to write about this topic in the future.

If that’s the case, he is mistaken. I will write about Israel and Palestine again, if the topic is relevant.

But I would be lying if I don't say this will be in the back of my mind, or that I won't wonder if a stranger might turn up at my door one day with malice in mind.

Since this was my first experience with a threat of physical violence, I reported it to my editor. 

When this happens, he said, they tend to ignore it unless they believe a real threat is posed. If that's the case, it is reported to the police.

Israel-Palestine, he added, is a topic that brings out the worst in people "no matter what we say or write.”

Like I said before, it’s probably nothing. But it certainly caught my attention. It makes me wonder about the kind of people who say such terrible things.

Especially when so many of them say they are Christians.

Monday, August 7, 2017

We Need More Peace, Fewer Sacred Spaces

It’s hard to imagine religion without sacred spaces.

These sacred spaces can be hills, mountains, rivers, caves, cities, trees and buildings—temples, mosques, cathedrals, and other places of worship.

For believers, these places are sacred because something religiously significant happened there, usually hundreds or thousands of years ago. 

Visiting these places is an opportunity to draw closer to God or the divine, to find inner peace and fulfilment, or to experience something deep and supernatural.

For others, however, they are reasons to fight and kill. Instead of promoting peace, they are sources of conflict.

That’s what’s happening now in Jerusalem, over the Al-Aqsa mosque.

The mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, is located on what Jews call the Temple Mount—the holiest site in Judaism—and what Muslims call Haram al-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary.

Muslims believe that the Prophet Mohammed was carried on a flying horse from Mecca to Al-Aqsa during his miraculous night journey. While there, he prayed with Abraham and Jesus on the rock that is now said to be inside the Dome of the Rock, whose golden roof dominates the Jerusalem skyline.

For Jews, it is the site of the first temple, built around 1,000 B.C. It was destroyed 400 years later by the Babylonians. In the first century B.C., a second temple was built; it, too, was destroyed in A.D. 70 by the Romans.

Over the past 50 years, the site has been a source of tension between Palestinians and Israelis. It is said the Second Intifada, which saw over 4,000 people killed, was sparked by a visit to the mosque by Ariel Sharon, then a candidate for Prime Minister of Israel.

This summer, the site has been the source of unrest and conflict after Israeli authorities restricted Muslim access to the mosque following the murders of two Israeli police officers. In response, Palestinians gathered to pray, and protest—mostly peacefully—in the streets surrounding the area.

Of course, the conflict is over more than what people believe happened on the site centuries ago. Israelis view it as a matter of security and safety, while Palestinians see it as part of the larger effort to control and humiliate them.

Both sides can justify their actions. But I still wonder: Are these principles worth killing and dying over? I posed that question to a Palestinian friend.

He agreed that any deaths arising from the unrest were terrible, but said answers are “not so easy when everything has been taken away from you.”

He noted that, over the centuries, Palestinians have welcomed and incorporated people from many nationalities and faiths—Arabs, Turks, Berbers, Greeks, and Jews, among others.

“Those who came as pilgrims and refugees, found space on the land. But an occupation is a different story.”

This is indeed a different story, for Israelis and Palestinians alike. The Al-Aqsa mosque today stands for much more than a holy place. Both sides, each for their own political reasons, seem to be looking for more confrontation rather than calm.

(And lest Christians think they are above this sort of controversy, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre proves otherwise. The Church, which is said to contain the tomb of Jesus, is administered by six Christian groups under a centuries-old agreement. They squabble constantly over who is responsible for what part of the church, sometimes resulting in fist fights between monks. So bad are the relations between them they don’t even trust each other with the church keys; a Muslim family opens and closes the church each day.)

As for me, my mind keeps going back to the prophet Isaiah, who delivers a message from God about sacred spaces.

As for me, my mind keeps going back to the prophet Isaiah, who delivers a message from God about sacred spaces.

In chapter 66:1-2, God says through the prophet: “Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is my resting place? 

All these things my hand has made, and so all these things are mine. But this is the one to whom I will look, to the humble and contrite in spirit, who trembles at my word.”

I don’t know about you, but I think the world would be better off if we had more of those kinds of people today, and maybe fewer sacred spaces.