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Take time to read Muriel Pearson’s latest blog post as she prepares to return to Tiberias.

A couple of weeks ago on a Sunday evening, I heard a wonderful selection of music and poetry on Radio 3, The Black Sun, themed around Oppenheimer and the development of the nuclear bomb. It is all worth a listen.

But the selection that leapt out at me was part of the poem September 1, 1939 by W.H. Auden read by Iain Glen at about 43 minutes in to the programme. You can hear the whole poem read by Jeremy Irons here:

September 1, 1939

I sit in one of the dives

On Fifty-Second Street

Uncertain and afraid

As the clever hopes expire

Of a low dishonest decade:

Waves of anger and fear

Circulate over the bright

And darkened lands of the earth,

Obsessing our private lives;

The unmentionable odour of death

Offends the September night.

All I have is a voice

To undo the folded lie,

The romantic lie in the brain

Of the sensual man-in-the-street

And the lie of Authority

Whose buildings grope the sky:

There is no such thing as the State

And no one exists alone;

Hunger allows no choice

To the citizen or the police;

We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet, dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the Just

Exchange their messages:

May I, composed like them

Of Eros and of dust,

Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,

Show an affirming flame.

I listened as I was preparing to return to Israel having been away for almost four months: an unexpected hiatus. I had left following the attack of October 7th when it was unclear how my work could or should go on. As the war in Gaza continues and the death toll mounts relentlessly and hostages remain both in Gaza and Israeli prisons and the United States and UK flex military muscle in Yemen and Syria and Iraq ‘the unmentionable odour of death offends’ the February sky.

It seems everyone is afraid: with good reason. And fear does not make fellowship easy and keeps pilgrims away and splinters organisations that have worked for decades to humanize the ‘other’ and tell the truth about Occupation and the daily lives of those affected by it. The Scots Hotel in Tiberias has been home to over one hundred evacuees from a village on the Lebanese border and that looks set to continue until the end of February anyway. The St Andrew’s House Hotel (Guest House) in Jerusalem is only partially open because of staff shortages. All workers from the West Bank have had permits revoked and cannot cross the separation barrier from Bethlehem into Jerusalem.

Tabeetha School has been adapting to missing students and occasional air raid sirens and the need to be ready to move to the safe room. These are difficult conditions to teach in and learn in. Although on the surface everything is calm, fear is not far away. The local families of the students who are not international have family in Gaza or are acutely aware of their minority status in Israeli society: cautious, anxious, keeping a low profile. And some staff have family members serving in the military. It is hard to balance the budget with missing school fees. Yet the sense of being one Tabeetha family persists: ‘an affirming flame’.

When I think of all this, I am glad to being returning to offer what support I can, despite my uncertainty and fear.

While in Scotland I have effectively been on deputation, speaking to congregations and presbyteries, telling them about the Church of Scotland’s work in Israel and Palestine, sharing the concerns and challenges posed by Palestinian Christians who wonder why the churches’ voices seem so muted.

Many people have said they find my presentations hopeful. This puzzles me, because I am not hopeful of war ending any time soon, or empathy growing or the trauma and post traumatic stress being well handled. What I have been doing, however, is sharing stories of brave individuals and organisations that refuse to hate, who share the Tent of Nations affirmation ‘We refuse to be enemies’.

Organisations like Rabbis for Human Rights, Parents Circle Family Forum, Musalaha, Sindyanna, Women wage Peace.

Individuals like Magen Inon and Rev Dr Munther Isaac have spoken out in different ways. Their message echoes Auden’s written as the world tipped into World War Two: ‘We must love one another or die’.

Looking back, I can see that like many others I had adapted to the reality, ‘the normalisation’, formed by the way that the State of Israel was set up by expulsion of Palestinians and by fifty years of Occupation which severely damages Palestinians but also hurts Israelis. Some Israelis have always recognized this.

I came across a letter written by some Israeli lawyers and scholars, including Shimon Tzabar, published in Haaretz on 22nd September 1967, which predicts so clearly the story of the next fifty years:

Our right to defend ourselves from extermination does not give us the right to oppress others.

Occupation entails foreign rule.

Foreign rule entails resistance.

Resistance entails repression.

Repression entails terror and counter-terror.

The victims of terror are mostly innocent people.

Holding on to the Occupied Territories will turn us into a nation of murderers and murder victims.

Let us get out of the Occupied Territories immediately.

Tzabar’s life is celebrated in a website His words seem to have little traction in the current situation. Yet, they were all he had.

Which brings me back to my return to Israel. It will be hard to get to friends in the Occupied Territories. It will be difficult to function in ‘this new normal’. But I have to try. Auden’s words remind me of what I believe is still true: we must love each other or die.

Is love enough? I think it depends what we understand by love. If love and justice are conjoined, if justice and peace hold hands, then love becomes something resilient and powerful, even if it hangs by a thread. As we turn towards Lent, and face with Jesus a journey to Jerusalem, we recognize the cost he bore.

What do I plan to do as I return to Israel? I remind myself that we have two ears and one mouth for a reason. I will try to listen. I will try to stand alongside. I will try to love as a way of life. And I will use my one voice where I can.


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