A year in the Promised Land

Our Faith
 A student abroad observes how past and present shape the future of the Holy Land.

October 4, 2010

In less than a week, I leave for a year-long Fulbright fellowship in Jerusalem. In preparation I have spent a lot of time reading Israeli newspapers to brush up on current affairs in the country. Last week, The New York Times carried a sobering image on its front page of Israeli law enforcers on horseback, sharply silhouetted against a large column of smoke in an area of Jerusalem that I’ve been to many times. Religious-political riots had broken out, and the officers were there to quell the disturbances.

When I visited Israel in the past, I worked on an excavation in Ashkelon, where a military supply plane would fly overhead every morning. Helicopters followed routine surveillance routes in the vicinity, and large ships remained permanently anchored in the water.

What strikes me is that despite a constant threat of attack and violence, people in the country continue going about their everyday tasks. Parts of cities shut down and police patrol the streets, but eventually people return to their jobs, to the markets, to school. Violence is unpredictable and frightening, but humans have a tremendous capacity for making anything seem routine.

I hope experts who say a new Intifada would be too costly are right. In the meantime, I will say a prayer, take a lesson from the Israelis, continue packing my bags and reviewing my vocabulary cards. 


October 26, 2010

Every time I walk up the beautiful, wide staircase at the Hebrew University, I pause for a few minutes to look out at the view. It is magnificent. The desert looms in the distance, a vast expanse of rolling dunes as far as the eye can see. But closer to the school, houses and buildings cluster together, teeming with hundreds and hundreds of people. I pause to look at the wall that stretches from one end of the vista to the other, the wall that divides Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The wall in Jerusalem has been a reality for many years now, and people carefully plan their travel around it, budgeting for the extra time it takes to go through security checkpoints. There is no doubt that this wall has helped reduce the number of suicide bombings in the region. But it also reinforces fear and suspicion on both sides. People eye each other warily, and tensions erupt very quickly.

When the wall was constructed, the government agreed to not build it next to a kindergarten, but walking to and from school anywhere near the wall is difficult, no matter where one’s loyalties lie. Many children are accompanied to school by Christian peacekeepers because neighbors throw pebbles and eggs if they walk on their own.

When I pause to look at the view from atop the university campus, I wonder what we are doing to the children here. What kind of a world are we giving them if they cannot even trust their own neighbors?


December 20, 2010

The atmosphere during Advent in Israel is very different from the United States or even India, where I grew up. Life continues as normal, and few people are preparing for Christmas. Away from family, I miss the Christmas cheer, returning home to stars on the veranda, a Christmas tree in the living room, and the aroma of pumpkin pie wafting through the house.

But perhaps Advent in Israel more closely resembles the Christmas when Jesus was born. Few people at that time knew of Mary and Joseph, and most were concerned with registering for the Roman census. That first Christmas few people were celebrating Advent save for Mary and Joseph and perhaps a few of their friends. The shepherds arrived after following the bright star, and the three wise men were a few days late. But I imagine the spirit was joyful.

In the absence of a plethora of reminders that Christmas is approaching, one must be more intentional, more deliberate about celebrating Jesus’ birth. The little rituals—opening doors on the Advent calendar, lighting the candles on the Advent wreath—take on greater meaning.

Look for the star in the sky, the herd of sheep hurrying to an inn, the chorus of music from on high. I walk home more slowly on the same road that Mary and Joseph walked on centuries before me, mindful of the hope that is renewed and strengthened each Christmas. The spirit is still joyful.

January 29, 2011

Stones, sound bombs, and rubber pellets fly through the air as residents confront settlers. Over the last few days, protests have erupted again in Silwan, the neighborhood near mine. It lies at the base of an archaeological site, the City of David, and is among the poorest Palestinian villages in Jerusalem.

The tourism ministry and the officials leading the excavation want to extend dig perimeters, which would involve relocating 22 houses in the area. This proposition has been met with angry protests from residents. They do not trust the government to find them housing elsewhere, and so the government quickly resorts to force because they are distrustful of the people’s intentions to come to any kind of mutual agreement.
The quickest way to visit my friend who lives on the Mount of Olives is to take a taxi through the valley of Silwan. I stand waiting for a taxi at the street corner. One road leads to my neighborhood—posh Abu Tor, home to diplomats, expatriates, and U.N. officials; the other road goes down into the volatile valley of Silwan.

A gentleman with two dogs walks by. I nod and say hello. “Where do I know you from?” he asks quizzically, with a wary look. “You don’t know me,” I respond, “I was just saying hello.” “My God,” he answers, “What a world we live in! Neighbors are not even used to greeting each other!”

When a taxi arrives, I hop in and give the driver the address in East Jerusalem. “You are not Jewish,” he says appraisingly. “What makes you say that?” I ask, even though I know the answer. “Jewish and Arab people do not live together. Jewish people would not go to East Jerusalem at this hour of the evening.” It is 5 p.m.

The driver, an Arab gentleman, passes the turn for the valley and continues through the city center. The road through Silwan is closed because of stone throwing, he tells me gravely. Israeli police guard the street now, ready to fire tear gas shells and rubber pellets at the slightest hint of unrest.

What led to the trouble that evening? Two families had been forcibly evicted from their homes so that the City of David could expand its excavations. Residents of the area were protesting the action.

There is much to argue about. Both sides lay a unique claim to the land, but this time the victims of these protests are not the Israeli police or even the men protesting in the streets. They have been women and children. This week a baby is battling asphyxiation from tear gas and a pregnant woman is unsure of the repercussions for her unborn child. Children are traumatized by what they see every day in their neighborhood.

The residents of Silwan and the Israeli government face a grave situation and struggle to find a way to have a civil dialogue. The police use the unruliness of the people as a reason for force, and the protesters see the use of force as reason to continue protesting and throwing Molotov cocktails at passing police vehicles. It’s a twisted justice system on both sides.

An eye for an eye has been taken too literally, and loving thy neighbor has been all but forgotten.

March 21, 2011

“1-0-0. Come in, 1-0-0. 1-0-0, do you read me? Please, can you hear me?” The voice, speaking in Hebrew, becomes increasingly urgent. A jumble of shouting voices permeates my sleep. I think it is a continuation of the Purim celebrations from the weekend—a major holiday here—and turn over in my sleep, peeved that people are celebrating so late into the night. But then I smell smoke. I bolt upright and look around. “1-0-0, DO YOU HEAR ME?”

Wide awake now, fear grips me. 1-0-0 is the emergency police number in Israel. I look out the window, and see a police jeep, flames already licking their way around the vehicle, smoke rising up quickly. I can’t tell where the person screaming into his radio is. Is he stuck in the jeep? Did he get out? I grab my phone and call 100, 101, 102—fire and ambulance services.

As I listen to the ringing at the other end, the jeep suddenly explodes.

And the ringing at the other end of the phone line continues. Shards of glass shatter on the street that divides Abu Tor and the Silwan Valley. The emergency numbers never respond, so I call my friends Brian and Amy. Brian is a former U.S. foreign service officer and has served twice in Iraq and also in numerous other crisis-ridden countries. He has seen car bombings, rockets, and gunfire. He and his wife, Amy, now live in Israel, where Brian is pursuing a degree in biblical studies.

Amy answers her phone first. The smoke is billowing through my neighbor’s vines, and the flames on the jeep are leaping higher and higher. “Brian will come get you,” she says.

As I wait anxiously for Brian’s arrival, his stories of Iraq began playing in my head. “Take cover, take cover,” runs the refrain. I lay on the floor, partly because of the smoke, and partly because I don’t know if there are bullets outside. In the distance, I hear sirens begin to wail, but I stay on the floor until Brian calls. He’s at the corner—police have shut down the street.

Shaking, I walk out of my apartment (with my “emergency” tote containing a sweater, water, passport, wallet, and computer) to find the exit blocked by two border control police, each wielding a machine gun. A little surprised to see a young, slightly sleepy woman, they gently ask why I am leaving; the street is not safe. Sobbing, I show them my passport and tell them my apartment is smoky and I am afraid of being alone there. Two supervisors come over, and after a quick deliberation, they all lead me to Brian’s car, right past the still-smoking shell of the jeep. The vines above are charred and the air stinks of burnt rubber and metal. My eyes sting.

Amy is waiting for us when we return. The three of us sit and talk for a little while. Brian suggests that we say a prayer together and then try to get some sleep. But when I close my eyes, I see the jeep burning and exploding.

I say my prayers over and over again, and sleep eventually comes. But when I wake a few hours later, the acrid smell on my clothes reminds me of the horrors of the previous night.

I call the U.S. Embassy’s Regional Security Officer to notify him of the incident. He asks me to vacate my apartment, immediately if possible. The area has grown increasingly volatile, and they are concerned about security in the area. Brian and Amy graciously offer to let me stay with them until I figure out where to go. So I return to my apartment, pack a small suitcase, and move into Brian and Amy’s house.

March 23, 2011

I am headed toward the central bus station to pick up my monthly pass. I call Amy to ask her about her afternoon plans. She needs to run an errand—would I mind watching her kids? I decide to go to the bus station later. Not five minutes after Amy leaves, my friend Daphna calls.

“You aren’t at the bus station, are you?” she asks urgently. “There’s been a bomb blast.” A sickening feeling grips my stomach. The bus that exploded was the one I would have been on.

When I arrived in Israel in October, I reassured friends and family that the region was stable. Nothing seems further from the truth this week. My parents and other family members encourage me to come home early.

For residents of the city, the bomb at the bus station today brought back memories of the Intifada, when buses, popular shops, and restaurants were frequently targeted. We’re praying that this is not the start of another Intifada, that perhaps the events of the last week are isolated incidents of violence, but the fear of a greater problem is not far from most people’s minds.

In the meantime, I am avoiding buses and crowded places, and taking every precaution I can. My guardian angels have been working overtime these last two weeks, and I’m doing my best to give them a little rest.

June 10, 2011

Three summers ago I began participating in an archaeological excavation at Ashkelon, a small town four miles north of Gaza. It is a small city by modern standards, but in antiquity it was one of the principal cities in the Philistine Pentapolis. Located on the Mediterranean coast, Ashkelon has always occupied a strategic economic and political spot on the map.

Excavating is arduous work. Wake-up time is 4:30 a.m., and we are in the field by 5. The work varies from pick-axing through a Roman drain to fine-sifting dirt carefully scraped off the surface of a Philistine floor. My first summer I was more interested in finding little treasures, long forgotten by their owners: a juglet tucked away in a wall, forgotten and plastered over with new mud, or a coin lost in a Persian villa.

Over time, however, I became attuned to bigger questions: How did people construct their houses? How did they guard against the inevitable erosion of a mudbrick floor? How did they protect their city against enemies? Ashkelon was destroyed in 604 B.C. by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. This year, after having been in Israel through two bombings and having heard news reports of multiple rocket attacks from Gaza, I look out onto the Mediterranean and I wonder what fear the people must have felt when they saw Nebuchadnezzar’s army coming.

Ashkelon was a well-fortified, walled city. On that day, however, the walls trapped them in, affording no exit from the fires that the Babylonians lit in the city. The town burned and smoldered into dust. It was left unoccupied for almost 100 years—the longest such period in its history—before it was reoccupied by the Persians. The evidence of Nebuchadnezzar’s wrath is visible today in a layer of grey ash that stands out in stark contrast to the brown earth above and below it.

I am more mindful now of the mark we are leaving on the world today. What will archaeologists find from our generation? So much of what we do is perishable, deleted by the click of a mouse. Archaeologists in the past have found clay tablets with rituals inscribed on them, receipts for purchases of wine, wheat, and barley. What will they find when they excavate our time? Will they think we lived in the dark ages, with a strange fascination for plastic? What mark do we want to leave for the future?


I returned to the United States in early August with only a few weeks to settle back into life here and move to Connecticut to begin my graduate studies at Yale Divinity School. Those first weeks were a whirlwind of reunions with friends and family.

After the initial few weeks of excitement, I began to settle into life in yet another new place and another new community. The adjustment was not easy or quick, but with the support of old friends, wonderful professors, and family, it did happen.

My experiences in Israel made me more cautious, slower to trust and form friendships, but they also made me more contemplative and focused. I returned to my academic work here with a renewed sense of purpose, a deeper joy in what I do, and a strengthened call to teach. With a song in my step, I enter this next chapter.

This article appeared in the May 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 5, pages 17-20).

Image: Photo courtesy of Cathleen Chopra McGowan

About the author

Cathleen Chopra-McGowan

Cathleen Chopra-McGowan, a graduate student at Yale Divinity School, where she is studying Hebrew Bible and ancient Near Eastern studies. She is from northern India.

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