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Voices in the Wilderness
December 19, 2002

Ein Kerem
Hadassah Hospital sits atop a hill to the west of Jerusalem.  From its vantage we can see the Jerusalem forest, covering nearby hilltops with familiar deep-green pine.  Hillsides facing the hospital are striated with gray stone walls, etching out old terraces and property boundaries for the olive groves within.  Down below, the old mosque tower and church steeples rise above the village of Ein Kerem, celebrated as the birthplace of John the Baptist.  We had made the trip to Hadassah for some medical tests for Elizabeth.  Though the recurring headaches have subsided, her history gave us enough pause to be cautious.  The prayers and well wishes of friends and family have sustained us, and Fr. Aktham, the school principal in Zababdeh, has been gracious with our absence.

Once at Hadassah, we had a full day to kill, with one test early in the morning and the other late at night.  We had brought papers to grade, books to read, and knitting to knit, so that was no problem.  But we also wanted to explore a bit, so late that morning we made the half-hour walk from the hospital's perch down to the village of Ein Kerem.

The name means "generous spring" in Arabic, and until 1948, it was an Arab village.  Its story is like the stories of the hundreds of de-populated towns in what is now Israel.  In 1948, during the Israeli War of Independence/Palestinian Catastrophe, most Palestinian civilians hoped to wait out the war.  Many of them changed their minds on April 9th, when Zionist paramilitary fighters attacked the village of Deir Yassin.  Official reports recorded great cruelty: the killing of whole families, piles of bodies, parading male villagers through streets of a nearby Jewish town before killing them, and possible rape and subsequent murder of village girls.  These reports paled in comparison to how the story grew in gruesomeness in the Arab press and spread among Palestinians like wildfire.  The Deir Yassin Massacre was a major factor in the mass exodus of two-thirds of a million Palestinians from their homes, unknowingly destined to be refugees still, half a century later.  Vocally condemned by mainstream Zionist leaders, the cruelty of Deir Yassin didn't repeat itself during the war.  Arguably, it didn't have to, as the goal of its perpetrators was largely achieved: cleansing the land of its Palestinian population.  At the time in Ein Kerem, the men of the village kept vigilant watch.  As Zionist forces approached the village in the middle of one night, the alarm call was sounded and nearly everyone fled, taking what they could.  Most went to Beit Jala initially, near Bethlehem, but are now scattered, like the rest of the Palestinian diaspora, all over the world, denied the right to return to their ancestral homes.  One Arab family in Ein Kerem decided not to flee.  They, and people like them, are the "Arab Israelis," Palestinian by ethnicity, Israeli by nationality.  The rest of the town's homes were classified as "abandoned" by the new Israeli government, and new immigrants flooded into the properties.

The village's former Greek Orthodox parish church
A walk through the modern village, now something of an artists' colony, reveals some of what the town must once have been.  The narrow streets and haphazard building betray its origins, as do the architectural features of most of the homes: thick walls made of large honey-colored stones, domed roofs, stone arches over narrow passageways to courtyards.  Israeli flags and Jewish surnames decorate the mailboxes now, and large Soviet-style cement housing complexes loom over the town, on land which no doubt once produced olives harvested by Ein Kerem's families.  The mosque still stands, recently restored, though the daily prayer doesn't sound.  The two Franciscan monasteries - one marking the place of John the Baptist's birth, the other marking the site that Mary and Elizabeth met - are still functioning, as are the French and Russian monasteries.  The Rosary Sisters' orphanage is still there, as is the Greek Orthodox Church.  The latter, once a parish church, stands repaired but locked and silent.  There is no need of parish ministry here, save the one remaining Catholic family.  The place is what the rest of this land threatens to become, a museum dedicated to the distant memory of a thriving Christian population.  Walking through this town, knowing little of its history at the time, we still felt a great weight of sadness for what once was and what will never be again.  We pictured in our minds the families as they must've fled, fearing for their children's safety, expecting to return quickly, but having to start all over again; the Palestinian civilian population paying the price of Europe's brutal anti-Semitism, generations of family heritage wiped out in a single night.

It's not hard to imagine, in the mingled bloodline that makes up Palestinian heritage, that among the ancestors of Ein Kerem's 1948 refugees were some who knew young John.  It seemed fitting to walk these streets during the Advent season, because Ein Kerem's native son was, in the words imprinted in the grotto at the Franciscan Church, the precursor of Christ.  He was preparing the way of the Lord.  The picture in our minds of this New Testament prophet is that of the Byzantine icons, the young man with wild hair and rough clothes, eating strange foods and saying strange things.  His was that voice in the wilderness, that lone word of true repentance facing a tide of Pharisaic self-righteousness. His charge to the people of God was one of self-reflection, of self-critique, of self-awareness.  His baptism was not a cleansing of the body - anyone who has seen the Jordan River knows that - so much as a cleansing of the heart.  Our purity comes from our repentance, our welcome of the Prince of Peace comes from removing the speck in our own eye.

The birthplace of John the Baptist
As these words take form back in Zababdeh, the pre-dawn call to prayer sounds from the mosque, breaking the quiet that has fallen over the village in the last hour or so.  It has been a stressful morning, a neighbor's house surrounded by soldiers and lit up with flashlights and snipers' lasers like a Christmas tree.  We can only guess at what is happening, but the sounds of Israeli gunfire, jeeps, tanks, and helicopters have woken us earlier than we would like.  Quiet has retaken the village, but the soldiers have not yet left.  The mosque's call breaks through the silence - somehow different this morning.  Its words are the same ones we've heard five times a day since we've been here, but gone is the distortion of a primitive sound system.  It's not a familiar tune, either.  Rather, it sounds a yearning, as if calling out to God for an end to this madness - an end to death, an end to bloodshed, an end to enmity.

Or perhaps that's just interfaith projection on our parts.  We are weary of this world and its violence.  And we are angry with our growing tribalism, our circling of the wagons against the world which is our enemy.  There is a need, among Western nations and Eastern, among all of the religions of the world, to accept John's invitation to repentance.  We need a chorus of Muslim voices crying that the intentional slaughter of civilians, in any and all circumstances, is evil.  We need a chorus of Christian voices to silence the beating of the war drums, to stem the tide of pretense that war is only a game, that the only blood that is precious is Western blood.  We need a chorus of Jewish voices who are willing to speak out against the country perpetrating racism, colonialism, and slaughter in their name.  Maybe then, maybe, we can prepare ourselves for the coming of the Prince of Peace.  Prepare the way of the Lord.

Salaam al-Masiih (the peace of Christ),
Elizabeth and Marthame

PS  Elizabeth's medical tests turned out well, a clean bill of health!  We have deeply appreciated your prayers and support this past month.