Taking Teddy Bears to Gaza

I take off my sandals, for this is holy ground.

Sitting in her sometimes sunny garden in a small town outside of Glasgow, my mother (with the same span of years as the Queen) looks at the twenty-two pictures I show her from the Twitter account of the Rev. Kate McDonald, ‘an Appalachian Scottish Episcopal priest serving in the Church of Scotland in Israel and Palestine’.

The first photo is of this year’s Pride parade in Tel Aviv. Rainbows and the Star of David. The Sabra are a handsome people but I don’t see any smiles in this picture. This parade is controversial inside and outside Israel. It is opposed by Orthodox Jews, by the Muslim majority states of the Near and Middle East (including the Palestinian West Bank where same sex relations are criminal and Gaza where they are punishable by death) and denounced as ‘pinkwashing’ by Western liberals.

On Saturday I plan to attend a small, new, Pride parade taking place on the Isle of Bute, a promontory a ferry ride over the Clyde Estuary. I usually attend both Edinburgh and Glasgow parades. I take my dog, who loves the attention. I can remember when homosexual ‘acts’ were criminalised here in Scotland. I remember when the age of consent was six, then two, years above that for heterosexual ‘acts’. My heart was moved when I attended a civil partnership in Cardonald and the gallus MC, wearing a pink fringed Stetson, said ‘right let’s have the grooms to lead us in The Slosh’. I cried when the people of my country decided ‘it’s time’ to legislate for equal marriage.

The next two photos are street scenes from Gaza. A man under the bonnet of his car, the typical webs of two-thirds-world electricity cables on the graffitied concrete walls and (looking closer) the holes in the concrete and in the beautiful patterns of ventilation tiles. A thin donkey harnessed to an empty cart waits patiently in the sun while two wee boys are in a shaded doorway, one winding something on a stick. Fairy lights above a closed shop.

Then, two blonde White women, both wearing a voluminous white blouse and a long black skirt, trundle smart suitcases and tote Lululemon bags (from the store in Glasgow?) bearing inspirational messages that are full of plastic-wrapped teddy bears from the congregation of Dunfermline Abbey, on the ‘long walk through no-man’s land between Israel and Gaza’.

Two photos: the rusted sign in English and Arabic over the steel plates and delicate tracery of the gate of the Ahli Arab Hospital; and Suheila Tarazi the Director, gesticulating with a pen as she says: ‘We are part of a mosaic picture – whether Christians, or Muslims, or Jews – and we have to keep this hospital as a witness of Christianity working in Gaza…we are small instruments to do God’s work.’

Then Fr Mario, in his Catholic black clericals and white collar, makes a point sitting on a worn brown sofa with a white phone behind him on the painted cream wall: ‘Our work is to preach about hope & pardon & forgiveness.’ Kate tells us that there are roughly 1,100 Christians in Gaza, 138 are Catholic (out of a pop. of 2 million).

Three photos titled ‘Morning beach walk in Gaza’ and the first just looks like flotsam and jetsam at the tideline until I notice the rods sticking up out of the sand. They might be seaweed. They might be barbed wire fence pickets to deter boats landing. The second has lovely smiles from girls in a peach, plum or black and white mosaic hijab, Kate’s in this selfie and smiles too. She’s not wearing a hijab. An attractive face, strong and honest, and determined, but there’s tension there. How could there not be? Then there are covered stalls on the beach and what I recognise as cabanas. A fishmarket? A marina beyond the harbour wall (is the harbour open at all?) and the city beyond. Grey cloud covers most of the blue sky.

Three photos from Rafah, near the border with Egypt, ‘glimpses of Gaza’. So this must be a neighbourhood or region. Concrete walls, bars on windows, washed underwear, shalwar kameez and a prayer mat hung out to dry in the sun. A white Subaru (is it a taxi?) driven by a bearded man with a smiling woman beside him and someone in the back, a big air conditioner outside a Wataniya mobile shop where three men look at plants on a horse-drawn cart. People wearing white herd sheep past buildings and white cars and carry what may be hay or wool on a cart.

Then thirteen little kids, with all the expressions that kids have everywhere, kneel around a multicoloured fabric circle (was it a balloon?) and play cat’s cradle with a smiling woman in a fawn hijab with white lace trim with coloured plastic bins and shelves full of toys and books. Beside two beach balls, surreal lines of poetry in beautiful handwriting on foolscap paper: ‘All of this gets in front/ All the world’s esophagus/ an[d the] Arabs/ […]’. A mystery, to me.

But Kate’s caption is clear: ‘Today the teddies were delivered to Lubna at the Near East Council of Churches to be distributed at their clinics which provide healthcare and psychosocial support to children throughout Gaza. Thank you @abbey_church @churchscotland!!’.  And a smiling young woman with a white cloth hairband carrying a more serious wee tot wearing a pink bolero top with puffed sleeves with a bow in her Champaign coloured dress and a Kirby grip in her hair. A slighty older woman with black hijab and glasses gesticulating in an office with a poster on a cork board behind her with Arabic and the red kangaroo of Australian Aid. And then the teddies. In a big transparent vacuum sealed clothes storage bag, with a sign from Dunfermline Abbey: ‘A Labour of Love’.

Four photos from Hilarion Monastery. Kate says it’s ‘a site dating back to the 4th century & an important part of Gaza’s rich cultural heritage.’ Red tulip roses (?) with flower and thorn, outside, and inside a beautifully preserved leafy floor mosaic with a baptismal font in the centre. A basket of grapes in the centre of a patio mosaic with a surrounding peacock, a horse, an ibis, a swan, doves, a dog – and is that a hippo? Beyond the patio is the city. How will such treasure, the patrimony of humankind, survive?

Kate says goodbye to Gaza with the interculturally comprehensible Wataniya Arabic ‘W’ inside a heart on the concrete roadsign that reads ‘I love Gaza’.

Twenty-two photos. One for every letter of the alphabet I learned, lazily, at university where I studied alongside candidates for the ministry of the Church of Scotland. Hebrew is a language that some ancestors of mine may have spoken. Although the matrilineal descent was broken, when my German great-grandfather came to London, if the patronymic was passed down faithfully, then one of them may have been Aaron, brother of Moses, liberator of the oppressed.

In my naïve youth, I spend four months washing dishes and picking mangoes on a kibbutz opposite Tiberias, where the Rev Kate is stationed. There was no wall then but there was always war. I learned a little as I sat with Scottish and German girls making anklets and friendship bracelets, eating baklava and drinking endless cups of Arabic coffee from a lovely porcelain demi-tasse all afternoon with a Bedouin called Ali in his shop just off the Via Dolorosa. Leaving, I looked out over Jerusalem and thought that the only conclusions I had come to were that the Holy Land is so beautiful, and the situation so complex.

Thirty years on, I haven’t learned anything more.

But this I know. If ever there was an image of priesthood, it’s this: a woman walking a careful line through no man’s land. Taking teddy bears to Gaza.

Teddy Bear



The Other Refugees

On Saturday I attended the “Refugees Welcome” rally in George Square, in my native Glasgow, with my mother who was herself a refugee in time of war when for five years she forsook the banks of the Thames for the shores of the Irish Sea. My father’s people had crossed that sea three generations before and while my mother’s mother was from the West Highlands, her father’s father crossed the English Channel from Germany and his Hebrew surname dates back to an old story about an enslaved people fleeing for their lives across the Red Sea.

This isn’t the usual ‘everyone comes from somewhere else’ memo, true as that reminder is. This is about another group of refugees. Their cause cannot be proved to be as urgent as that of the millions who now face religious death squads, famine, disease, and the torturous labyrinth of the asylum process, should they be fortunate enough to even be admitted into it. Their cause is not, now, so urgent, not now, not at the moment but it has been so before and many of them fear that it may be so again. Not urgent, but important, and not just for them.

I, still, call myself a Roman Catholic, yet no-one blames me for the deaths of slaves and Christians in the Roman amphitheatres. No-one blames me for the blind spot the present pope has (for all his humility, simplicity and courage) about sexual ethics. No-one, at least no-one who knows my continued criticism of them, even blames me for the continued pastoral stupidity of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Scotland or for the vile outpourings of blatant prejudice of its clergy-fawning press. In short, the people of my country do not hold me accountable for the evils of the rulers, past and present, of the political State most closely associated with my religion and not even for the continuing evils of some of my coreligionists.

Why are some Scots not using the same common sense with the Jews?

I know racist people and I know those who hate Islam because they hate religion (usually because of vile prejudice that stems from the influence of White, Christian missionaries). Such people do not convince anyone of goodwill or who has any grasp at all of European history. I am not going to argue against racism or against Islamophobia because there is no need: they are indefensible.

Apparently some Scots don’t feel the same way about anti-Semitism.

‘I am Jewish’ and ‘I am Israeli’ are not identical statements; neither are ‘I am Israeli’ and ‘I support the policy of the Israeli government’. I do not ignore the atrocities carried out by Israeli soldiers; neither do I ignore those carried out by British or American soldiers. I do not ignore the deadly game of chess that the colonial powers, notably Britain and France, played in 1948 in the Near East (no, the Levant is not the Middle East) nor the atrocities carried out by the Christian hordes of the Middle Ages (on Muslims, on Jews, on women) nor those carried being out today by Daesh. All this must continue to provide a context for the fear (is it paranoia?) of being ‘swept into the sea’ while the surrounding powers-that-be do what they have always done for the protection of the Jews: nothing.

My Roman Catholic coreligionists who display such culpable and malevolent stupidity are stuck in the past. When the four Scottish banks wouldn’t employ a Catholic. When you had to change your school name on your CV. When you had to be guarded with your surname. This clannish fortress mentality sees the compassion and common sense that caused a country to declare that ‘it’s time’ for equal marriage as a personal attack on all they hold dear. As if G_d were not Merciful and Compassionate!

But no-one blames me for that.

Can we please stop blaming the Jews?

Do I have to mention the cultural impoverishment that happens (not ‘would happen’ yes, disgracefully, we Europeans have experience of this) when the Jews are no longer here? Do I have to recall the eminent Jewish men and women who with clear-sighted intellect have graced our progress as a civilisation? The empresarios? The entertainers? The artists, novelists? Our friends, lovers and family?

Can we, together, as Scots, realise that knowing someone’s ancestral religion gives no clue as to their current political position in regard to the ideology of another country? If anyone wants to know my position as regards Ulster/ Ireland/ Eire/ The Six Counties they had better be prepared for an intensive course in history and cultural studies, if they have the temerity to ask me, or worse to presume to know what my position is without asking. Will it surprise anyone to know that my basic view is: it’s complicated?

What isn’t complicated is to stop making assumptions. A good friend this evening told me that he is thinking of leaving this country. My country. His country. He’s thinking of becoming a refugee. No, he’s not poor, he’s healthy and he has a UK passport. He won’t starve and he won’t be homeless. But if he goes, to Manchester, to London, to the USA, to Canada, to Israel, he will be a refugee. He will be fleeing from our refusal of Scottish hospitality, from our lack of canny commonsense, from our ignorance of kinship. My father fought and suffered years of imprisonment in a war waged by those who tried to wipe out the Jews and eradicate them from Europe. I cannot but take up his cause. Times have changed since the crossing of the Red Sea. These people are our people. These people are my people. Don’t let my people go!

The Jewish Cemetery

Thanks to Carlos Sardá for releasing his photo “The Jewish Cemetery” into the Public Domain.