Bethany Beyond the Jordan, Palestine and Israel’s Policy of Apartheid


By Siraj Davis

Near Madaba, Jordan, and connected to the Jordan River, is Bethany Beyond the Jordan (Al-Maghtas in Arabic). It is a bustling attraction constantly inundated with tourists: those who come every January for the Epiphany/Theophany celebrations, those who desire to glance at the site where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, or where Saint Mary the Egyptian traveled after her conversion, and where the Elijah ascended to heaven in a flaming chariot. A preponderance of Byzantine and Roman artifacts saturate the locale and highlight its historical significance.


The experience of Bethany Beyond the Jordan: “We will return to Palestine!”

The religious history of Bethany Beyond the Jordan is an over-emphasized theme that tends to neglect the personal experience of this secluded location. It is an alluring wilderness comprised of beautiful thick lush trees and rich green bushes. Each step down the dirt trails, lined with fresh water streams, rejuvenates my youth. These winding trails lead to magnificent agape spaces that engender gleeful astonishment. The sight of the inhabitable caves highlight the humble reclusiveness of their prior venerable occupants. A Greek Orthodox church escalates childhood curiosity in consequence of a single tiny glass casing inside where unidentified bones and a skull rest. Jesus’ baptismal place is a remote quiescence surrounded by towering trees and stone steps, marked with loose bricks, that descend into a glossy pool.


The entire area is akin to the origin of fresh air, innocence and purity. One cannot escape the palpable recognition of why this place was chosen. It is a perfect refuge from the dangers and superficial judgments of the world, a foundation to focus on life’s purpose. The indelible emotion of sincere humility strikes me like a lightning bolt deep in my heart. I feel closer to Jesus, John the Baptist, and God. Then I tragically arrive at one scene.


At the Jordan River, a chain bifurcates two sides: one for Israelis and the other for Jordanians. Tourists from the different sides immerse in the same river with on-looking armed soldiers. I quickly recollect that before the 1994 Treaty between both nations, this geographical host of the prophets was a minefield. And there still exists apartheid in Israel. I cannot restrain my rage and quickly point at one tourist while I loudly declare “we will return to Palestine,” to his astonished blank stare. There are subtle nervous jerks of the frenetic armed men across from me who witnessed my proclamation.


Israeli segregation

The Jordan River is not the sole tragedy of Israel’s emetic nationalism. Israel has barefacedly increased demolitions of Palestinian homes by over 50 percent in East Jerusalem since 2011. Israel still denies the right of return to Palestinian refugees who reside in nations that buckle her borders: one of the largest refugee populations in the world.  Israel also imposes unannounced curfews that prevent Muslims younger than 50 years old, the majority of Palestinians, from praying at the Al Aqsa mosque. Israeli authorities feign incompetence as Jewish settlers sporadically attack Palestinians (97 percent of criminal charges against Israeli-settler violence result in no prosecution, according to Yesh Dinn). In contrast, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of statistics from 2014, 66 percent of juvenile convictions against Palestinians are for ambiguous acts against the “security of the state and public order.”


The assumption by Zionists, that the Palestinian Christians within Israel are victims of solely Palestinian Muslim discrimination and violence, has as much veracity as statements by Bernard Madoff, the Lehman brothers, and Enron in regard to the financial market. Like the Palestinian Muslims, the Palestinian Christians complain of a lack of access to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and about the intermittent curfews from which the Jewish population enjoys immunity. Fifty-six percent of Palestinian Christians, from the diaspora of 1948 and 1967, are also not allowed to return. Vandalism of Palestinian Christian and Muslim places of worship has proliferated by 150 percent annually since 2008. In April 2011, only 2,500 of 15,000 applications by Christian Palestinians to enter East Jerusalem were approved. Israel has claimed that the Christian population is receding because of Muslim discrimination and terrorism, but several reputable Palestinian Christian leaders have publicly debunked this as being an outrageous and clear fabrication, and Palestinian think tanks have crunched the numbers to support this refutation. Israel’s angle-grinder retort to this interfaith unity is more segregation. In February 2014, Israel passed a law that forcefully segregates Christians from Muslims.


It is inconsequential what your religion is. It doesn’t matter if you are Atheist, Pagan, Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, or just plainly Human. One only needs to imagine an existence of armed checkpoints, Jewish-only areas, religiously quarantined transportation, the omniscient replica of a Berlin wall, expanding Jewish settlements, demolitions of houses of Palestinian Christians and Muslims, coerced land seizures, discriminatory marriage laws, and over 50 legislative discriminatory enactments that formulate a ghastly amalgam of a democratic theocracy in an appalling Israel. Prudent nations with democracies don’t christen their birth with names like the Protestant United States of America or the Anglican United Kingdom of Great Britain, or the Atheist Republic of China. By contrast, Israeli politicians have repeatedly adulterated, like an augury in the christening of the Titanic, their own nation with the obloquy of the Democratic Jewish State of Israel (an oxymoron). Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has anchored legislation to declare this to be official. Evidently, political evolution and human evolution are both reversible.


Partition is not exclusive to areas where a profligate Israel’s tentacles flop. Docile tourists, eager to visit Israel’s holy sites, are often unexplainably denied entry. The Arab American Institute has been collecting testimonies of fractious and prolonged detentions, unreasonable searches, belligerent border-guard abuse, frivolous 10-year bans and implausible refusals of entry without explanation, and so on. The outlandish irony is that Israel has been struggling to become a member of the US Visa Waiver Program, but it cannot curtail its border denials to less than the three-percent rejection rate mandated of Visa-Waiver participants. I have personally witnessed Israel’s mercurial and paranoid border policies. On one occasion, a friend, Ariana, was denied reentry into Israel after visiting Jordan. She had to have her possessions, which she left behind, mailed out of Israel. A second friend, Brooke, was interrogated for several hours because she had been wearing an Islamic article of clothing together with a crucifix around her neck. Her plea for help was heroically answered by the United States Embassy: “We can’t do anything. It’s their jurisdiction.” While crying, she telephoned her Christian pastor in the US. He could do nothing either; she was at the total tumultuous mercy of the bellicose border guards. Another friend named Miles, a former employee for a US Pentagon-funded language program in Jordan, had Israeli authorities pressure him to divulge sensitive information pertaining to this program. The Israeli authorities also commanded him to reveal his FaceBook account. After he refused to cooperate with either demand, he was banned.


Israel’s idiosyncrasy – national defense by a suffocating segregation, desultory discrimination and disenfranchisement, and capricious border policies – is about Jewish supremacy. It’s about preventing activists like Gary Spedding and humanitarians like Mads Gilbert, from entering Israel to ameliorate the insipid status quo. It’s about discriminating against Palestinians. It’s about allowing the carnage in Gaza to continue. (According to Washington Post and United Nations figures, in Operation Protective Edge, Israel, on average, killed more civilians in a month and a half, than ISIS did in its six-month offensive in Northern Iraq.) It’s about power and avarice. We shouldn’t witness Americans being hysterically terrified while at the mercy of the Israeli border craven’s interrogations. We shouldn’t overhear tales of an anomalous democratic nation that furtively demands intelligence on US programs with other nations. We shouldn’t be surprised or maligned without reason as to why we may not enter Israel’s borders. None of this should happen!


The above incorrigible policies and more – unless changed – seriously repudiate Israel’s democratic legitimacy to pursue participation in the US Visa Waiver program and to sustain itself as a beneficiary of US taxes. I refuse to be a US citizen if this obdurate misnomer is granted participation in the US waiver program. I respect democracy too much to see her corrupted by Israel’s barking and unleashed participation in democracy’s privileges. I respect my nation’s people too much to allow hypocrisy to debauch our honor and lead us toward a precipice. I respect my Christian family too much to wink at the suffering of the Palestinian Christians. I respect my Muslim brothers and sisters too much to donate to their demise in Israel. I respect Jews too much to court favor with the antithesis of Judaism. Therefore, like Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, I will not pay a pence to any nation that forwards my money to a democratic theocracy: an abominable tyranny to all of humankind.


Israel’s insular policies: an affront to the prophets and the antithesis of democracy

Throughout antiquity, the coagulation of religious nationalism has had occasional horrific repercussions. Today we are witnessing such a portent with Israel’s chosen nationalism. Israel’s insular policies are an affront to the prophets, a cheapening of monotheism as hypocrisy in others’ eyes, and a shameful antithesis to democracy. This is a danger to humanity and all of us humans across this beautiful world. Jerusalem is the home of Jesus’ crucifixion, Mohammed’s ascension to heaven, and King Solomon’s temple. It should not be venerated with a pernicious, imprudent, and lachrymose segregation, but should be spliced and unfettered with a loving and magnanimous inclusion. Bethany Beyond the Jordan is more open than Israel to all explorers who desire to set eyes on the place where Jesus’ was baptized, the pathway where Joshua crossed, and where Elijah preached.


Editor’s Notes: Siraj Davis is a free-lance journalist and the author of several books, including Religious Fanaticism and Abolition: Early 19th Century Marginalization of David Walker and Nat Turner. Davis is a human-rights lobbyist and organizer for Amnesty International. He holds a Masters degree in history, speaks several languages and is an instructor of History and English. Photograph one by Siraj Davis; photographs two and five by Bob McCaffrey; photographs three and four by Benjamin; photographs six, nine and ten from the archive of Active Stills; photographs seven and eight by Paval Hadzinski; photograph eleven by Danny Hammontree; and photograph twelve by Frank M. Rafik.





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