Pilgrim's progress through division

The Body and the Blood
May 16, 2003

Imagine the pilgrimage of a contemporary Christian to the Holy Land, in the steps of Jesus, but in the context of the intifada , with all its political and diplomatic ramifications. This will give some idea of the scope of Charles Sennott's book and its pattern. This pilgrimage and its detours took place two years ago but it remains astonishingly relevant and also offers an unfamiliar viewpoint on the Middle East conflict. It breaks away from the stereotyped and polarised Israeli-Arab presentation.

A journey of this type would tax the percipience of the most gifted reporter and Sennott's occasional sallies into history (Christian, Jewish and Muslim) are sometimes unreliable. The "tactile spirituality" he acquired, after three years in Jerusalem, has led to a certain sloppiness and waffle. Listen to this: "There was something about putting one's hands on the stones of Jerusalem, about standing within earshot of the place where the first utterances of the existential dialogue between Man and God were heard, or are believed to have been heard."

"Pilgrimage" is being used in a loose sense, to designate not much more than a roundabout journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem. But it does bring Sennott face to face with a central but rarely mentioned feature of the Middle East: the decline in Christian influence and presence in Israel and its neighbours. This is the theme of most of Sennott's encounters with Christian spokesmen - Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Maronite Christian and so on. He finds it all the more regrettable because it results in a failure to provide "a nexus where Muslims, Jews, Israelis and Palestinians could come together".

The divisions in the Christian world are not only the inheritance of the past but also the creation of contemporary circumstances, and some have emerged only recently - the distinction between American Protestant fundamentalists supportive of Israel and the more reserved attitude of the churches in Israel, for example. The other reason for the decline in Christian influence is the rise of Islamic militancy, manifest in previous centres of Christian settlement such as Gaza, and in Lebanon and Egypt.

There is a small countervailing factor and that is to be found among the Russian immigrants to Israel, of whom, apparently, a considerable proportion identify with the Orthodox church. For all that, the pilgrimage ends on a constructive note, drawing encouragement from the notion that if the local Christian population is to be empowered, the church must be what Sennott calls "Arabized".

In this framework, the Israeli Jews and government, especially under Ariel Sharon, are, in the main, present as a malevolent force, occupying Arab land, fomenting Muslim-Christian discord and deploying unwarranted force.

There is little here to please Israeli officialdom. It will be all the more unwelcome because Sennott draws attention to the activities of groups such as Rabbis for Human Rights, Israeli peace activists and to the revisionist historians. Their researches led to a reconsideration of the factors involved in the Arab exodus of 1948.

This is quintessentially a work of reportage - naive, vivid, impressionistic, personal, and it has lost little of its topical value, which is as unpromising as ever.

Lionel Kochan is an honorary research fellow, Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish studies.

The Body and the Blood: A Reporter's Journey Through the Holy Land

Author - Charles Sennott
ISBN - 1 903985 7
Publisher - PublicAffairs Ltd
Price - £18.99
Pages - 479

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