JERUSALEM – “I walk with you,” President Obama announced during his arrival ceremony in Jerusalem this week, “on the historic homeland of the Jewish people.” The president referred to modern Israelis as “the sons of Abraham and the daughters of Sarah.”
He made no mention of Palestinians, or of Palestinian Israelis like myself.
As a tour guide to Israel’s ancient sites, I have come to take the long view when it comes to events in the Holy Land. History here begins in the Bronze Age, extending like the twisted vine of some ancient family tree through to the modern era. Homes built two centuries earlier, prized as relics in the United States, are demolished here with little more than a passing thought.
As guides, we take tourists to churches like the Benedictine Monastery in Abu Gosh, 10 kilometers west of Jerusalem, still intact from the time of the Crusaders. We visit biblical sites such as Tel Lachish, near Mt. Hebron, which still features the ramp used by the invading Assyrian King Sennacherib in 720 BC to attack Judea. Today, the London museum houses the Lachish Relief, taken by the British in the 19th Century from Sennacherib Palace in Nineveh, Iraq.
On these tours, I routinely see American tourists praising the Lord with full-throated biblical recitations as if reliving history. In the Valley of Elah, between Tel Socho and Tel Azeqa, I once saw a group of Americans throwing stones in re-enactment of the story of David and Goliath. At Gideon’s Fountain, I witnessed a young American woman removing her shoes and drinking from the water, just as the 300 warriors of Gideon did before defeating the Midianites.
Arabs and Palestinians also relive history in this land.
I remember a song from my youth that begins with the words, “The land speaks Arabic.” Sung in the classroom, it is meant to emphasize the ancient connection linking Palestinians to the land of Palestine. Indeed, the Arab names of many villages today date back to the pre-Israelite era. In many cases even Israeli archeologists will use the Arabic names to identify Biblical sites.
Take the modern village of Al Jib for example. Today it is identified with the ancient city of Gibeon, which some three millennia ago sent an ambassador to Joshua, believed to have ruled over the land of Canaan following the death of Moses 1500 years before the death of Christ.
According to the biblical account, the Gibeon ambassador hid his identity for fear that Joshua would refuse to deal with him. As the story goes, Joshua had been commanded by God to destroy all the inhabitants of Canaan. Joshua later learned of the ambassador’s deceit, cursing the land’s inhabitants to serve for an eternity as “hewers of wood and drawers of water.”
Some argue that curse remains today, condemning Palestinians to lives as construction workers or bus drivers. In truth, Palestinians with jobs are the lucky ones.
Israel has a first class transportation system, better than the one I used for many years in the United States. This, in turn, has created a huge demand for bus drivers, a position that many Arab Israelis are now taking as it pays relatively well. There are also Arab Israelis working in medicine and teaching positions. The truth of the matter is that Arabs who live in Israel are far better off than their cousins in the West Bank.
There, the disappointment in Obama and the United States is palpable. As Israel rolled out the red carpet for the American president’s largely symbolic visit, crowds of angry Palestinians defaced large posters of him in Ramallah.
Yet despite criticism of U.S. policy, Palestinians have a lot of house cleaning of their own to do. The poverty in Arab villages under the control of the Palestinian Authority is shocking, especially when compared to the ornate villas occupied by local officials and their kin.
But rendering a people invisible is more offensive than exploiting them. As President Obama ends his trip to the Holy Land, I want to say, from the vantage of history: This is our homeland too.
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