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Today was a rich and full day. We started the day with a tour of the Old City of Nazareth led by Ramzi. Nazereth is primarily an Arab city, with Muslim and Christian inhabitants. As it was the home of Jesus for much of his life, and is the site of the Basilica of the Annunciation, it is a very popular destination for Christian tourists. Along the way Ramzi showed us powerful street graffiti, demonstrating Palestinians’ sorrow and anger over destruction of villages and loss of many Palestinian lives (termed martyrs) during the process of the creation of the state of Israel, as well as current mixed feelings of anger, loyalty to their people, and hope.
We toured the grand and striking Basilica, which, in the Catholic tradition, was the site of the annunciation of the birth of Christ and also housed the site of Mary’s home. Although the exterior was completed in 1969, the interior contains stunning and and spiritual tributes to Mary from a wide range of time periods, including beautiful artistic tableaus contributed by countries across the globe.
We next met with Shireen, a self-possessed and very accomplished 23 year old Muslim student at the Technion who is instrumental in staffing the NGO Founders and Coders, which teaches coding and hi-tech skills to local and international students in an intensive four month program. She answered our many tough questions with integrity, depth, and honesty–regarding her mission to promote accessible and pragmatic education and skills, and also her identity as a non-traditional Muslim woman making her mark on the world. She impressed all of us with her maturity, inquisitiveness, warmth, and drive.
We explored the winding streets of Nazareth rich with scents of spices, kanafeh (extraordinary sweet cheese-filled pastry), and plentiful markets. After lunch we headed to Haifa, where we met with representatives with Bet Hagefen, an established organization dedicated to multiculturalism and understanding among the city’s Arabs and Jews. We learned that in Haifa there has been a pattern of Jews and Arabs working and living together with less tension than in other parts of the country–at least partially related to the fact that the city is more secular than cities such as Jerusalem–without the holy sites that have been a source of such struggle. We learned about programs that Bet Hagefen is doing bringing Arab and Jewish children and teenagers together–although we learned that by and large they remain in separate public schools. We were reminded of how people can remain committed to their own narratives–our speaker mentioned that the socialist foundation of the country mitigated the impact of income inequality, when in fact extreme income inequality has become a major social problem in Israel in recent decades. If someone is attached to a particular mission and belief structure, it may be challenging to broaden one’s perspective.
We toured upper Haifa and enjoyed an overlook featuring the city, the bay, and the spectacular Baha’i gardens, learning more about the history and geography of the city and the region, as well as a bit about the unique Baha’i faith.
We next traveled to Isfiya, a predominantly Druze village high in the Carmel mountains near Haifa. We learned about the Druze faith and culture from our knowledgeable and spirited guide Ha-el. The Druze have lived in the region which is now the Israeli Galilee, Lebanon, and Syria for hundreds of years. Their language is Arabic and they share cultural similarities with Muslims of the region, but their faith is distinct from Islam–it combines elements of Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and a spiritual essence similar to Buddhism. Their faith and practice is in many ways secretive–one cannot convert to the Druze faith, and adolescents make a decision whether to practice a religiously observant or secular path. They believe in reincarnation, and that one is obligated to lead an honorable life to pave the way for the next life. They have a strong sense of family and community, and cluster in mountaintop villages. Distinct from some Arabs we have met, who have identified themselves as Palestinians living in Israel, Ha-el described that the Druze hold loyalty to both their faith community and their nation–he clearly calls himself an Israeli. Also, the Druze have made a commitment for their men to serve in the Israeli army, which can be particularly challenging if Israel is in a conflict with another nation which may have Druze serving in their army as well.
The village was stunningly beautiful atop the mountain, and we were treated to a delicious feast in a traditional Druze home–along with fabulous music provided by a local Oud player/singer and drummer. We all relished the hospitality, and were sated with the flavorful food, music, and spirit. Rumor has it that our rabbi did a bit of a dance routine which was captured on video and may be auctioned off to the highest bidder.
We had discussion and debriefing from Ramzi and Gal on our way home–a beautiful day of learning, relishing, and bonding among our group and very knowledgeable and generous guides.