Pope Francis talks with, from left, Rabbi of the Western Wall Shmuel Rabinovitch, Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka, and Argentine Muslim leader Omar Abboud, during his visit at the Western Wall.
The Tent of Nations was pitched in an orchard of fruit trees. Its grove is now gone.
On May 19, Israeli forces uprooted and buried about 1,500 apple and apricot trees and grape vines there, about a month before harvest time—and six days before Pope Francis landed in Palestine from Jordan, the first pope not entering by way of Israel.
Francis went to Israel and Palestine on May 25 and 26 on a religious pilgrimage that included gestures for peace, and he brought close Jewish and Muslim friends with him. The area is important to all three Abrahamic religions.
The Nassar family has worked for peace on the Tent of Nations land, with ongoing threats of losing the farm. “This land has been in danger of confiscation since 1991,” Daoud Nassar said in an interview for a June 8, 2013, Blade article prior to his speaking in northwest Ohio. Mr. Nassar‘s family owns about 100 acres in the West Bank, called Daher’s Vineyard after Daher Nassar, who started the farm in 1916. Daoud Nassar began Tent of Nations, an educational and environmental peace project, on that land in 2001.
The Nassars have had difficulty because of geography and politics. They are Christians who live near Bethlehem, a Palestinian area (the United Nations recognized a state of Palestine in 2012). Daher’s Vineyard is in a place that Israel controls, and Israel wants to build a wall to separate it from Palestine. The Nassars’ land overlaps areas for Jewish and Muslim states, and the Nassars have been involved in ongoing legal action to prove to Israel that they own the farm, and to keep it in operation during the dispute.
The Nassars are in a religious minority; according to the Associated Press, the Holy Land is approximately two percent Christian, and Christians are one-third of the Bethlehem population. Tent of Nations works “to bring people together who refuse to be enemies,” Mr. Nassar said, and it brings international volunteers in to help with their harvests and to learn about the Middle East. Unfortunately, the Nassars’ farm is also near an Israeli settlement, and the Israeli government wants the area more secure. The Nassars are caught in the middle.
The Friends of Tent of Nations North America Facebook page says that the Israeli military ordered the Nassars to stop cultivation, claiming the trees were planted on state land, but while lawyers appealed the order May 12, the military went ahead with the destruction May 19 even though no action could legally be taken until the appeal was decided.
The Revs. Martin and Angela Zimmann of Springfield have been living in Jerusalem for more than a year, serving the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land and assisting the bishop there, the Rev. Munib Younan; they plan to return to the U.S. in late June.
Pastor Martin Zimmann said in a Facebook message to the Blade, “Our friend and colleague, Tony Nassar, is the vice principal at the Lutheran School in Bethlehem. The destruction of over 1,500 fruit trees on his family land deeply saddens us. While the visit of the pope and the salient moment he spent praying at the separation wall in Bethlehem made an impact in the world media, the ongoing situation for good people like Tony has not changed as a result.
“As I type this in my living room, I can hear Israeli police using ‘flashbang’ stun grenades and tear gas canisters to quell a nonviolent Palestinian demonstration outside Damascus Gate at the Old City, but you won’t hear about it in the news because these things are so common here.”
When I consider the ongoing conflict of Israel and Palestine, with this reestablishment of Israel having happened 65 years ago, I see that providing separate, peaceful space for each nation is not possible. I hope that efforts to live as two states sharing the same land come into a good practice. I see Jerusalem as truly an international city, and its history and religious importance to three faiths means that a democratic openness, not possisiveness, is the way to go. People can look to each other, with recognition of history and faith traditions, rather than working for their own dominance.
And the citizens who live in Israel and Palestine, of many faiths and no faith, however long they have been there whether as longtime land-owners, people returning to the place where their religion first came into practice, or more recent arrivals with little standing in religion or ongoing culture there, can work together, even if it’s uneasily at this stage.
During his visit, Pope Francis said, “The time has come to put an end to this situation which has become increasingly unacceptable.” He called for generosity and creativity “in the service of the common good.” I hope his words were heard.