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Visiting the Lands of the Bible

On the arduous road to better global understanding, what does it take for Westerners to do their fair share?

July 24, 2007

On the arduous road to better global understanding, what does it take for Westerners to do their fair share?

Whoever travels to biblical lands in search of historical events quickly realizes that this endeavor is not at all akin to a trip to a museum, with scenic landscapes as background.

Rather, this search inevitably involves people — even when historically precious ruins are on the itinerary.

Perhaps most importantly, this search leads to intense encounters of Orient and Occident. Accordingly, we learned long before the terrible events of September 11, 2001 that the West is literally amputated without the East. The Orient’s history is our history — and its problems are our problems.

Admittedly, many people still have to embrace this reality. In my view, it is a special challenge in the United States. This comes as no surprise. After all, the roots of the United States, as long as they are white, are in Europe — and as long as they are black, are in Africa.

In contrast, for us Europeans, the search for our own roots of culture and Christian religion guide us towards the Orient, which — if we reflect on it for just a moment — inevitably triggers a high esteem and appreciation for old oriental cultures.

As many people are aware, for Jews, the saying “Next year in Jerusalem” was, and still is, a “goodbye” with a profound meaning. Similarly, as European travelers tracing the roots of the Bible come to realize, the encounter with the Orient means: “Visit it once — and you will do so over and over again.”

At the same time, as I see it, this process of learning and exposure leads to operating assumptions that differ from those that seem to prevail in the United States.

For example, while there cannot be any doubt whatsoever about Israel’s right to exist, this cannot imply that all families which resided in Palestine in 1948/1949, and for centuries before that, had to be evacuated — with no return on the horizon.

By the same token, Europeans have no quibbles about acknowledging that the Israel/Palestine problem clearly is one of the open wounds of injustice in our time. It may unfortunately even be a wound that spreads like a physical infection to its neighbors.

What this means in practical terms is that there has to be, and there will be, a Palestinian state — and that Palestinians and Israelis will have to create, as partners, their common political and economic future. Anyone who has ever entered the city of Jerusalem understands the complexity of this problem.

In politics, geographic distance is often a reason for a failure of understanding. The Middle East conflict has been misinterpreted, for too long, as a regional problem. And the religious and cultural dimension has been widely underestimated — and wrongly treated with western logic.

Time is of the essence in coming to political terms with this real-life insight. Why? The people in the region who are, for now, still able to tame those who seem hell-bent on letting the warring spirit break loose are old — and low on energy. Their influence is eroding.

The following generation cannot, and will not, be relied upon to uphold existing structures — because they view the last 50 years as a history of lost opportunities.

Against all scientific and economic successes which the West is able to show, the Oriental mentality is, and stays, distinct. Neither the downfall of the old British and French political structures after 1954 (witness Iraq, Syria and Libya) — nor the downfall of the shah in Iran — are well-comprehended in the western hemisphere.

In addition, as hard as it is for westerners to comprehend, we would do well to recognize the European and North American lifestyle, economy and social value system are no longer able to claim sole worldwide authority.

But now, with the global value system facing a pluralistic process of refinement, overlap and integration, we are confronted with the realization that — whether as Christians, Jews or Muslims — our own identity is shaped and asserted in differing manners.

The old Coca-Cola myth, that someone who drinks the brown soda inevitably feels American (or global), is the bygone symbol of a soon-to-be distant era.

As result, the search for the roots of one’s own cultural identity is very important. As it is said, “A tree without roots will die, as will a culture without roots.”

In our travels through biblical lands and soils, we have wondered out loud: Where have they gone, the cultures of the Sumerians, Hittites, Babylonians, the old Syrians and Egyptians? Pretty stones, yes, ruins with always blue sky, yes — but they have been replaced by new ones, mixed in with other cultures.

In the city of Sanaa in Yemen, the land of queen of Saba, stands the great mosque, in the very place where once stood the greatest Christian cathedral of the Arabian Peninsula.

And before that, it was the location of the Sabaen temple of the moon god. And it is the place where Himyars, Persians, Ethiopians, Ottomans — and whoever else — has lived, worked, acted and prayed.

Fortunately, the evolution of humankind has not been halted just because Europe and North America operating in tandem decided — back in 1945, after the most horrific of all wars, with millions over millions of dead — that we now know how the world should be.

A Pax Americana will face the same fate as any other empire on which the sun supposedly never set, such as the Pax Romana, Pax Britannica or Pax Sovietica. Thankfully, the world is too diverse and colorful a place for one person or one culture to determine its direction.

The economically potent north of the world will have to face a painful learning process. Ironically, it is a learning process that it started itself — by virtue of the globalization of media, the economy and travel.

Now, the world’s poor can watch on their television and in movies how life is over “there” for the Japanese, Europeans and Americans. And they start questioning their poverty.

What will make this global adjustment process so hard is that, for us westerners, it means we must overcome our ingrained arrogance and the mechanical insistence on our value systems.

Instead, we will have to examine what they really mean to us — and recognize that their development took us entire centuries. If we do not engage in this careful process of reexamination and mere circumscription, we may create further breeding grounds for those who are susceptible to turning to terrorist acts.

To overcome the present state of affairs, Jews, Christians and Muslims must finally seize the opportunity, without the deafening pressure of current events, to compare their roots — and realize their similarities.

To me, this means continuing to travel on Abrahams’ and Moses’ tracks. Sustaining contacts in Bethlehem, Addis Ababa, Axum, Sanaa and Amman ultimately is what adds up to a promising “dialogue of cultures.”