/ First hand experiences

Tree of Life Journey: February 15-25, 2023

Optional Extension to Saudi Arabia – February 25 to March 3

In the year 621, the Prophet Mohammad, Peace be upon him, made a journey by night from the Great Mosque in Mecca to what is now The Dome of the Rock, Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. On this journey, he rode a winged white horse, by the name of Buraq, translated as “Lightning” and he prayed with the great prophets, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.

So it is with us. Each year, Tree of Life travels to the Holy Land allowing travelers to pray with the prophets of old. In many of today’s prophetic voices of conscience – Jewish, Christian, and Muslim – we have the privilege of sitting at the feet of those who work and pray for human rights, struggling to make this a better world for all Creation.

This year, in our extension, Muslims and Non-Muslims had the extraordinary opportunity to travel to Saudi Arabia as well. With emerging and startling changes in Saudi Arabia, our Non-Muslim travelers were able to stand in solidarity with our Muslim friends.

As we are overwhelmed by the darkness of the land, with all its political corruption, greed, nationalism, tribalism, fear, and war, we need to learn from the wisdom of the prophets, past and present, so that we too can add our own prophetic voices to this troubled world.

Leading this journey was Ghoufran Allababidi, President of Tree of Life Educational Fund.


Journey Updates

Here are three updates from our recent Tree of Life Journey. Our group is now back home, and I know they’re eager to share their experiences with their friends and neighbors, schools, faith communities and elected officials. They were an extraordinarily thoughtful and energetic group of travelers, and those of us in Tree of Life Educational Fund are honored to welcome them to our community!
David W. Good
Founder and Chairman, Tree of Life Educational Fund

UPDATE #1 – Monday, February 20th

TOL Travelers in the Negev

Tree of Life Travelers with Bedouin friends in the Negev

Our Tree of Life travelers had a good first few days, meeting with our friends Ivan Karakashian, Jeff Halper, and Mustafa Abu Sway in Jerusalem, Breaking the Silence, Community Peacemaking Team, two of our young friends from Hebron, Sadeq and Dalia in Hebron, and yesterday, they had a warm welcome from our Bedouin friends in the Negev, Amal Abu AlKhom and Khalil Al Amour. Also, of course, on Friday, our Muslim travelers were delighted to offer prayers at Al Aqsa. Today was a very busy day, starting with prayers at the Omar Mosque in Bethlehem and the Grotto of the Church of Nativity. From there, they had a wonderful visit at Shepherds Field School, a place where Tree of Life supports a scholarship program to help the neediest of their children, regardless of race or religion. From there, they had beautiful 60 degree weather for a visit to Tent of Nations to meet with our friend Daoud Nassar. Daoud and Tent of Nations are still embroiled in a legal battle to maintain ownership of their farm.

Daoud Nassar

Daoud Nassar
at his Tent of Nations farm

Situated in a highly desirable location, the agents of settler colonialism/zionism have tried to force them out, buy them out, burn them out, and yet inspite of it all, Daoud still has a rock at the entrance to the farm that says, “We Refuse to Be Enemies.” After Tent of Nations, the group then returned to Bethlehem to meet with our friends from the Parents Circle, Rami Elhanan and George Saadeh. The 2 of them have traveled throughout the world to share their painful stories. Both lost children in the violence, and yet they stand together in friendship to say that the occupation must end. They have paid the highest price for the injustices of settler colonialism and as such, they speak with moral courage and authority.

From there, our group visited Aida refugee camp, a place where thanks to the help of our friend Mazin Qumsiyeh, Tree of Life also has a scholarship program, providing academic scholarships for Palestinian students attending Palestinian universities. Our group then split up into smaller units to have supper in the homes of those who live in Aida.
While these first few days have gone well; I wish I could say the same for Thursday, the day they arrived.  Upon their arrival 10 of our young Muslim travelers were pulled aside for questioning, and while one by one they were granted visas to enter Israel, two of our travelers were denied, 20-year-old Rim and her 16-year-old sister Rahaf. They are two of the most gentle and thoughtful young people I know. Rahaf attends the Berlin High School and Rim is a student at Capital Community College. They have family roots in Syria, and that’s the reason they were denied, even though they have a US Passport. As you can imagine they were shaking and crying, heartbroken over this rejection, as the rest of us are as well. The authorities wanted to immediately send them back, but thankfully we were able to prevail upon them to allow Rim and Rahaf to fly to Amman, Jordan where they have relatives. That flight departure wasn’t until early on Friday morning, and to add more to their mistreatment, Reem and Rahaf had to sleep on the floor of the airport — no blankets provided — and also, they were told that they would not be able to take their luggage to Jordan. It would have to be sent back here. Thanks to our friends at Siraj, our Palestinian tour operator, we were able to get them to Jordan, and from there we’ve arranged for them to get clothing and other supplies and in a few days, they will fly to Saudi Arabia so they can be reunited with the rest of our group for a sojourn in Jeddah, Mecca, Medina, AlUla, Tabuk and Jeddah. This I think will be good for them to salvage at least a part of their journey, but also, it will be good for the rest of our group to be reunited with their two sisters.
Earlier today, one of our travelers sent a photo of our group meeting together in one of the caves at Tent of Nations. Because Israel won’t allow any barns or buildings above ground, they make use of the caves on the farm.
Travelers meeting in a Tent of Nations cave
Here in conclusion is my reflection on caves that I sent our travelers earlier:
. . . I love the caves at Tent of Nations, not to mention the great food! While in that cave; I’m reminded of how caves have been not only a shelter from the storm but also an opportunity for new birth. Elijah went to a cave and there came to the realization that God is not in the spectacular — the earthquake, wind and fire — but rather in the “still small voice of conscience” present within each one of us. In a cave, Plato came to the realization that we are all emanations from God. Everything that can be seen is a shadow from eternity. In a cave, the Scot, Robert the Bruce, saw in an “itsy bitsy” spider” the determination — “sumud” — and resiliency to keep on with his quest to liberate his people from oppression, and at Tent of Nations, we have learned the ingenious capacity of the human spirit to go “underground” when we have to. “The Underground Railroad” began not out in the open in the major terminals, the Grand Central Stations of our “civilization” but quietly, in caves, basements, in secret… and I’m quite sure that the message being taught at Tent of Nations will one day prevail, or at least, I live in that hope!

UPDATE #2 – Wednesday, February 22nd

Many thanks to those who read and responded to my previous update, and thank you to those who responded so sympathetically to the fact that our two young friends, Rim who is 20 years old and her sister Rahaf who is 16, were denied a Visa to enter Israel, even though they have a valid US Passport. As I mentioned, the only reason they were denied is because they are children of a refugee family from Syria, and that was enough to have them deported. We arranged for them to fly to Jordan the next day and soon they will go to Saudi Arabia to be reunited with our group for a sojourn in Mecca, Medina, Alula, Tabuk and Jeddah. From what I hear they’re doing very well — even though Israel confiscated all their luggage! – and I’m not surprised to hear they’re doing so well given the strength and resilience — and Sumud — I have seen in many refugee families who have come to our communities.
Several of you asked about response from our elected officials. When I learned last Thursday that they had been denied, I contacted both the Hartford and DC offices of Senator Murphy and Senator Blumenthal. While staff members were sympathetic; they acknowledged that there was little they could do to intervene. However I may disagree with that self-assessment, I want to have representatives of our group meet with both Senators or at least members of their staffs when they return to share in person what our group has seen and heard during their visit. Yes, please feel free to contact their offices to express your sorrow and dismay and urge them to meet with our group!
In Ramallah we met with Mahmoud Nawajaa in the offices of our friend, Omar Barghouti. I remember on one of our previous visits, when we met with Omar, he shared a personal story of how someday, when peace with justice finally arrives, he would love to devote his time to his first love, which is dancing. What a touching and revealing moment that was! What a joy it would be for us all to be out on the dance floor instead of doing the hard work of explaining the harsh realities of occupation, theologies of entitlement, the ugly details of apartheid, the impediments to peace, the complicity of our own country, but thank God for those such as Omar and Mahmoud who meet with groups such as ours and with painstaking detail try to explain the inexplicable but also teach and inspire strategies for non-violent resistance.
On this Ash Wednesday when all that is left of yesterday’s palm branches and Hallelujahs is a palm full of ashes, let us give thanks for these voice of consciences and our travelers who sit at their feet. One of our travelers is a student at Harvard and due to exams had to leave early, but I know her heart is full with the stories of occupation and the voices of courage and the wisdom of those who rebel against it! Harvard is a great school, but nothing can compete with the hard and difficult lessons our group has learned in this immersion into apartheid and ethnic cleansing.

In this photo/video you’ll see our very good friend and former speaker for our Tree of Life series, Taiseer Maray. Taiseer lives in the Golan, and his home is surrounded by magnificent gardens and apple orchards, and over the years, we’ve been so grateful for Taiseer’s help in meeting with our groups to show houses, villages and mosques destroyed by Israel, fields of land mines where children, dogs and sheep have been killed, a heavily armed boundary near Mt. Hermon separating occupied Syria from the rest of Syria. In our journeys, we ask our travelers to remember that “Occupation” is not singular. It includes the West Bank and Gaza, but it also includes the Golan, and each year we try to visit the Golan to remember that truth. The occupation also includes our Halls of Congress that despite all the evidence so readily available still speaks of Israel as the “only democracy in the Middle East.”

Rim and Rahaf in their Palestinian shawlsGhoufran, the leader of our group, is originally from Syria, and she brought 2 of her children on this journey, and of course, Rim and Rahaf also have roots in Syria, and so with what we had hoped would be a homecoming for these 5 travelers, our group formed a circle while they were there to celebrate their beloved land and culture. Because Rim and Rahaf could not be with them, Ghoufran acquired two beautiful Palestinian shawls that our group will present to them once the group is reunited in Saudi Arabia. This circle of prayer also gave the group the opportunity to grieve over all the victims of the earthquake in Syria and Turkey.

UPDATE #3 – Saturday, February 25

On the second to last day of our Tree of Life Journey, our group visited Jaffa, a lively seaside community near Tel Aviv, a playground on the Mediterranean Sea that’s not often on our Tree of Life itineraries, but this time, our visit to Jaffa had special significance. Najd, one of our young travelers, a student at UConn, had shared with us that she’s a Palestinian American whose parents and grandparents had been driven from their home in 1948 by Zionist forces and found refuge in Jordan before coming to America. Sana, Najd’s mother, came to our orientation meeting at the Berlin Mosque, and I asked her if she had any photographs of their home and community in Jaffa. “None”, she said, saying they literally had to run for their lives.
Tragically, the story of ethnic cleansing repeats itself again and again in the history of the human race. The poet Longfellow tells the story of “Evangeline” and the ethnic cleansing of the French from Nova Scotia. The history of the Jews is replete with horrific stories of ethnic cleansing including the Holocaust itself, and here in this country we should be reminded of the Trail of Tears and how indigenous people were driven from their homes. Part of my family were Huguenots from France who fled to their own places of sanctuary in Southern Indiana. So, for our group to travel with Najd was a painful and poignant reminder of our all too human capacity for inhumanity. Jaffa wasn’t originally on our Tree of Life itinerary but when we learned that Najd would be one of our travelers, we wanted to give her the opportunity to visit her ancestral home, but also, it would be an opportunity for our group to learn about how the Palestinian people have suffered greatly from expulsion, xenophobia, discrimination, racial profiling and ethnic cleansing, and it’s not an ancient history but a cruel reality played out by the IDF, airport “Security” personnel, Israel’s kafkaesque “legal” system, the expansion of the settlements all aided and abetted by the support of our own country with both public and private financial support.
In preparation for their journey, I always urge our travelers to read the outstanding book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine by Ilan Pappe who we’re proud to have as one of our Tree of Life advisors. On page 103, under the heading “The Ruination of Jaffa”, the author writes:
With the fall of Jaffa, the occupying Jewish forces had emptied and depopulated all the major cities and towns of Palestine. The vast majority of their inhabitants — of all classes, denominations, and occupations — never saw their cities again….
I know our group felt deeply honored to accompany Najd to a place she had never been before, the home of her ancestors, and to commemorate the occasion, our group presented Najd with a beautiful Palestinian shawl, to celebrate the dignity of her Palestinian identity. In the photographs below, you’ll see Najd standing at the gate of her family’s ancestral home and also, wearing her new shawl, telling her family’s story in Jaffa.

Nadj at the gate

Nadj at the gate of her family’s ancestral home in Jaffa

Najd in her Palestinian shawl

Najd in her Palestinian shawl

Sadly, to show that “ethnic cleansing” and dispossession is not a thing of the past, when Najd left to fly home from Tel Aviv, the so-called Security at Ben Gurion subjected her to cruel interrogation and scrutiny and confiscated her purse (you’ll see it in the photos) and also her Apple Watch. How do we respond to such stories? Surely these stories tell us we have a moral imperative to tell these stories to our neighbors, our churches, synagogues and mosques. Surely, our elected officials need to hear these stories. As they are perpetually asked to show their support for the State of Israel and as even now, as several of you have reminded me, as they consider granting Israel “Visa Waiver Status”, they need to be reminded of how Najd, a proud Palestinian American, an American Citizen with a US Passport has been treated at their border.

When I speak with elected officials and share with them the stories of how Najd has been treated and how Reem and Rahaf’s hearts were broken when they were denied a visa, I will speak with all the authority I can muster that Israel is not a Jewish State. I can speak with authority because I can hear the lamentations of Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt, Abraham Heschel, Albert Einstein, Holocaust survivor, Hajo Meier and such contemporary heroes as Ilan Pappe, Jeff Halper, Rami Elhanan, Mark Braverman, Gideon Levy, Amira Hass, Avraham Burg, Sahar Vardi and my good friends here in Connecticut, Elizabeth Aaronsohn, Sam Goldberger (with us in spirit!) Stan Heller and Shelly Altman to name only a few!

With lamentations,

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