Friday, May 26, 2017

How's Israel?

I don't even know what to call this land. Is it Israel? Israel is the Jewish name for the Jewish nation here, mostly populated by Western Jews in a land that's not the West. The land is called Palestine, too. It's Palestine, a state that Israel calls the West Bank, and builds settlements in, in an attempt to bulldoze their way back into its history. But the land's been called Palestine for millennia, ever since, in fact the ROMANS, another Western colonial power took it over. Okay, well who had it before the Romans? The Israelites. This land was Israel and Judea for hundreds of years before it was ever Palestine, but the Israelites were not native to this land, they wrested it from the Canaanites. It's rightfully Canaan, right? (Who settled here first? Abraham? his children? We're back in the hazy ground of pre-history here—is that just a polite term for myth?—so who can say? The Egyptians. They were around before history even began it seemed.) To excavate her identity requires and exhaustive and exhausting peeling-away of all the layers of history that have literally built up on this land, an effort that exhausts human capability. When hasn't this land been named by someone not from its own soil? If a land's been colonized, recolonized, conquered and despoiled for thousands of years then who, in fact, does this land belong to? Who has the right to name this place?

So do I just call this place the "Holy Land"? It seems to sidestep the fraught Israel/Palestine labeling, which I have no right or ability to decide, but then I've just smacked a religious appellation to this piece of ground, and if there's one thing that's controversial here it's religion. Religion divides this holy city into quarters, it splits it almost literally down the middle. Or is religion just a convenient cover for something else? For clashes between race, ethnicity, and culture? What are the real dividing lines?

But I find myself in awe of the physical land itself, of the ground which bucks anyone's attempt to give it a name not its own; like Yahweh, perhaps, whose given name is "I am who am"— no name at all, really. No gender, no limits attached to the name, Yahweh's chosen designation as limitless and ineffable as being itself. The land's sacredness lies in her mystery, in her exposing of human nature. Humans — all of us, Christians, Muslims, Jews — attempt to grasp at the sacred for ourselves. We want it to be neat, homogenous, clean, and ours. We want it to be one single story, and we the possessor and sole inheritor of it. 

But, I think, this land will not allow anyone that simplicity. And I find that a mark of the sacred. Because sacred lies deeper than all attempts to profane it. Sacred is often met by our weak human nature with violence. Because we sense the mystery, but are not good enough to let it be larger than ourselves.

If any land is holy, surely this one must be. This land that holds so many stories in it, that ties together many faiths, that has space for each one of them, as countless as Abraham's stars in the sky (Gen 22: 17). If any land has held God in it, surely it must be this one. God's dwelling in this land has not made the mystery any easier. Its clarity lies beyond human comprehension. Its holiness has become more profound, untamable, most intimately us, and not ours.

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