Tag Archives: Jesus

Peacefulness amidst Chaos

4 Dec

On a frigid and clear Friday morning I scale the roads leading to the summit of Mt. Tavor.

ENtrance to church grounds

Entrance to church grounds

Tired of hitting the university books, disgusted with the depressing news of violence between Arabs and Jews, I decide to take refuge at the highest point in Lower Galilee.  At eight in the morning I’m the sole driver negotiating the hairpin turns of the mountain.  The car radio is off, only the sound of the shrieking wind that bends the cypress trees up ahead.  At the next turn, the entrance to the church compound appears, all majestic.  tavor 11The Franciscan flag with its signature four small crosses and one large cross is splashed against the blue sky.  The flag sits atop a tunnel that dates back centuries.  I park at the plateau alongside several large vans.  Eager parishioners must have come ahead of me.  At the main gate, a large group of Filipino worshippers are about to leave.  They giggle like school children, rubbing their glove-less hands to ward off the cold.  Mt. Tavor is a long way from Manila, I think as I continue down the pebble pathway leading to the church.

Franciscan Friar on Mt. Tavor

Franciscan Friar on Mt. Tavor

Three men wrapped with scarves round their necks rake the pebbles on the ground, back and forth, back and forth, until all is flat and even.  Gardeners tend to the flower pots, pull errant leaves and discard them.

The peacefulness hurts.

What is it about these men-of-the-cloth that makes them appear so tranquil and at ease.  Just 600 meters below, we’re out to kill one another.  The contrast is so severe, the solitude so intense, the beauty so striking that it pains me more than the icy wind.  I march on and read the plaque honoring Antonio Barluzzi, the “architect of the Holy Land.”  An Italian Franciscan monk, he left his mark on several churches in Jerusalem, Sea of Galilee, and here, on Mt. Tabor with his Church of Transfiguration, completed almost one-hundred years ago atop the ruins of Byzantine and later a Crusader church.  Tavor 7

Pilgrims from far-away Colombia at Mt. Tavor

Pilgrims from far-away Colombia at Mt. Tavor

It is at this point that I’m reminded that history in this neck of the woods has always been bloody, crusaders on horseback pillaging,killing, torching, and now, surrounded by green lawns and colorful petunias, it seems unimaginable.

The space inside the church is awesome.  The acoustics are first-class; the prayer coming from the chapel down below.  A Franciscan friar with his robe and its trademark rope tied with three knots (poverty, chastity, obedience) leads the prayer service.  Turns out, this summit atop Mt. Tavor is revered by Christians the world over, along with Bethlehem and Nazareth. It is here that Jesus is believed to have “transfigured.” tavor 12It is here that he shone, became radiant and spoke to Elijah and Moses before descending the mountain.  Sounds familiar?

Bird's eye-view of my village below

Bird’s eye-view of my village below

I visit the small chapels dedicated to Judaism’s forefathers.  Then off to the rooftop balcony to take in the magnificent view.  A group of pilgrims from Colombia are listening attentively to their tour guide.

From this vantage point I see my village, Kfar Tavor, sprawled.  Below, nothing but houses upon houses and lush fields sparkle in the morning sun.

Must I come down and face reality?


Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teenage daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.

He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at Amazon.com


or at BN.com


Guns N’ Roses (and Pencils)

10 Jan

At what price freedom?  Is the sword mightier than the pen?

This week 10 journalists and cartoonists at a French satirical magazine were gunned downed by Islamist terrorists.  A second terror attack at a Paris Jewish market left more dead.  People around the world are rallying in solidarity with the victims and their families.  Soon, the all-too-familiar sight of lighting candles and laying roses on fresh graves will be with us.

France's September 11

France’s September 11

Could it be that we’re weak and afraid to speak out?  We’d rather have cartoonists and controversial writers do the fighting (and the thinking) for us.  We cheer them on from the sidelines.  We hide behind our national flag.  When attacked, we show our disgust, we support our president, primed minister, and the armed forces.

Soldiers, police, we plead.  Restore our calm.  Go out there and kick butt.

The rift between the West and Islam cannot be over exaggerated. We don’t understand Islam. Islam hates the West.  Let’s face it, assemble ten terrorists in a room, nine will be Muslim.

Could it be that Muslims don’t have a sense of humor?

In Galilee, I come across Muslims daily.  I see them where I teach English in college, and I see them as a student at Haifa University. Muslims laugh, just like the rest of us.  But they don’t laugh at Muhammad.terror

And here lies the difference.  In the West, we make fun of anyone alive, maybe risk being sued.  In the West, we can ridicule the dead (Elvis, Nixon) with impunity. Why? Because they’re dead.  They can’t come after us.

Christians make fun of Jesus, Jews make fun of Moses and get to see the light of day. But not in Islam.  Muhammad lives forever.  They don’t get the joke.

Satirists the world over are very clever.  They poke fun at government, at the Establishment. They make us think.  They hope to bring change with pens and pencils.  They criticize the government, and yet, when these French cartoonists and satirists were threatened months before, it was the government and police that stepped in to protect them.  It’s democracy and liberty at its best.

So, what’s next?  Lock up 6 million Muslims in France?  Put up barricades, fences, and armored cars around their neighborhoods?

I think not.

Yes, the majority of terrorists are Muslim.  But Europe had its own crop of terrorists who were not Muslim:  The German Baader Meinhof, the Italian Red Brigades.  They too killed and bombed. Most Muslims in France and the rest of Europe want to go about their lives, earn a decent paycheck, send their kids to school.  But they can’t shake off the stigma and the label that haunts them: Muslim = terrorist.

What are they to do?

First, they should walk out into the streets, by the thousands, by the millions and declare:

“We are French.  We are with France.”

Anything less is cowardly.  To keep silent in their homes is equal to being partners in crime.  They should demand of their mosque leaders to quit fanning the flames of hatred.  Now, the proof is in the doing, not talking.

France should do its share, too.  France can borrow a page from America’s imperfect past regarding blacks.  America in its violent past did finally relent, it did include blacks in public restrooms, in restaurants, in schools, in churches, in jobs, in government.french bread

France, it’s your turn.  Bring Muslims into the fold. Make Muslims feel proud to be French.  In time, ten, twenty, fifty years from now, France could look back on this bloody week and say it was a turning point in its history.

In a brighter future, Muslim men will be seen wearing a French beret.  Muslim women will model French perfume. They will ride their bicycles not with a Kalashnikov, but with a French baguette in hand.

Now, that would be funny.



A Big Texas Footprint in Galilee

9 Nov

Galilee, like much of ancient Israel, was at the crossroads of the Fertile Crescent.  Not everyone came in peace. The Babylonians, the Romans, the Crusaders, the Ottoman Turks trampled the region on horseback.  And with swords.



Last month we learned of another “invader,” this time from America, from Texas.  This time, they’re not coming with knives in their satchels.  Instead, they’re coming with a fig leaf, big Texan smiles, and lots of money.

Texas A&M, the 4th largest university in America is coming to Nazareth in Galilee.  Their mission: to build a “Peace Campus” in the Arab town.  Texas A&M will join forces with the one and only Arab college in Israel: Nazareth Academic Institute.

Texas A&M University logo

Texas A&M University logo

The project is the brainchild of Texas A&M’s chacellor John Sharp and the Texas governor and former Republican presidential candidate, Rick Perry. Christians United for Israel Pastor from San Antonio, Texas also “lobbied” for Nazareth, a town where Jesus grew up.

Texas University Chancellor John SHarp and Texas Governor Rick Perry

Texas University Chancellor John SHarp and Texas Governor Rick Perry

They’ve already built an American university elsewhere in the Middle East, in Qatar, in the Persian Gulf.  Now they’re bringing their science and research branch to Nazareth.  It’s not going to be as big as the “mothership” university in Texas (1/2 the area of Tel Aviv!), but the modest start is drawing attention from many educators and hands-on involvement from Israel’s president, Shimon Peres.

Simon Peres wants to be remembered as the advocate for peace.  It follows his recent ambitions to foster cooperation between Jews and Arabs in Galilee.  And the Americans are coming with $70,000,000 in their briefcases to help build the new campus.

Israel is 80% Jewish, 20% Arab.  The Arabs remained here after the war of 1948.  They enjoy equal rights under the law.  The official languages are Hebrew and Arabic.  All road signs, milk cartons, bags of potato chips carry both languages.  However, in elementary school, the Arabs kids, Christian and Moslem, start out in Arabic and eventually they turn to Hebrew as well.

This late start in Hebrew plus their wish to retain their culture are what keeps them from getting ahead in later years. Rarely do they catch up in high school and colleges where all is taught in Hebrew and English.  They don’t get the grades.  Many fail the universities’ entry exams and end up in quasi-academic schools that churn dubious diplomas.  In recent years, Arabs have made great strides in education.  They work in hospitals, pharmacies, law firms, social work.  They’re narrowing the gap.  Somewhat.

Students at Nazareth Academy Institute

Students at Nazareth Academy Institute

So what’s an Arab to do if he can’t get the grades, can’t graduate?  Up until recently, not much.  As many as 10,000 Israeli Arabs study in Arabic — in Jordan(!).  Many trek to study in the West Bank.  Thousands more study abroad, in Hungary, in Italy, Bulgaria.

That’s all about to change in 2015, the opening of the “Peace Campus” in Nazareth.  The Texas university will award degrees in chemistry, engineering and other science programs.

The kicker?

Classes will be taught by American professors as well as Israeli.  Arabs who’d struggled with academic Hebrew will have to deal with another challenge – English.

But everyone’s excited.  Israel’s Ministry of Education stresses the American campus will be open to all: Arabs and Jews.  Classrooms at Haifa University, Zefat and elsewhere in Israel already cater to both populations.

It’s not a melting pot.  Not by a long shot.  At best, it will be a salad, with the greens next to each other, Jews and Arabs.  The salad dressing will be American.

So if you’re near Nazareth in 2015, come see the students: Arabs women wear head covering, Jews wear aviator sunglasses, and Texans wear ten-gallon hats.

What’s next?  Texas steakhouses next to Hummus joints?


Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teenage daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.

He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at Amazon.com


or at BN.com



Galilee – Why can (can’t) we all get along?

21 Jan

It was bound to happen sooner or later.  In this part of the world it’s unavoidable.  You’re at someone’s house or at a cafe.  You start out talking about your summer trip to Budapest, the latest pair of shoes you bought in Tel Aviv at a steal of a price, and then, BAM! you find yourself embroiled in a heated discussion about politics, religion.

What happened to the cruise down the Danube River and the Italian leather shoes you ask?  They got buried under ancient controversies of ancient peoples.  Israel’s small, the size of California’s San Bernardino County.  My focus is the Galilee–the size of the City of Los Angeles–it stretches from Yizrael Valley in the south to the Lebanese border in the north, from the Mediterranean coast in the west to the sources of the Jordan river in the east.  Yet there are so many religions here, splinter groups, factions, denominations, special-interest, you’d think Galilee is the size of China.

Here history runs deep. It’s not to take away from American history, 1776, the Civil War, the wagons heading West, settling Native Americans in reservations, Route 66 — yet it pales in comparison to what’s happening, and has happened in Galilee.  Here they talk in millennia and centuries, not decades.  It’s not Who’s Your Mama, but Who’s your Father’s Father’s Father’s Father. You can’t kick a rock around here without tripping over a ruin, fragments of scripture, a marble column. Every hill, outcrop, ravine, valley, mountain, rift, river, stream, creek, wadi, has a name whose origin is prehistoric, biblical. Jews call one settlement by one name, the Moslems by another and they both claim the high road. Throw in the Christians (not to the lions, please), with all their splinter groups (Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Protestants, Assyrians, Armenians, to name a few) and you’ve gone one wild Hannuka, Christmas, Ramadan party.

What does Galilee mean? It depends who you ask. To Christians it’s where Jesus performed miracles, practiced his ministry. To Moslems, it’s where they’ve lived for centuries, where they drove away the Crusader armies. To religious and observant Jews, it’s the battle of Devorah against the armies of Sisra, it’s where the Tribes of Naftali, Dan, and Asher lived, it’s where the scholars and sages in Tiberias studied, it’s the center of Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, in Zefat. To secular, urban Jews from Tel-Aviv — a two-hour drive — the Galilee evokes vineyards, hills, valleys, hikes, a week-end destination for yuppies with money to burn at roadside Zimmers (Bed & Breakfast, in German), or skiing down the snowy Mt. Hermon instead of the Swiss Alps. To them it’s also a place of kibbutzim, moshavim (collective farms), industrial parks, and failing towns which had absorbed immigrants in the 50s.

The Druze, who are Arab but draw influences not only from the Three religions but also from Greek philosophy and Hinduism, the Galilee is a sacred place. To the Circassians, fair-skinned and blue-eyed, who were driven from the shores of the Black Sea by the Russians, and who’d become expert horsemen and warriors under the Ottoman empire, and who’d converted from Christianity to Islam, the Galilee is their last refuge from persecution. And I have yet to throw into the mix the Bedouin tribes, the nomads.

Church of Beatitudes overlooking Sea of Galilee

We live in Kfar (Village, in Hebrew) Tavor, population 4000, at the foot of Mount Tavor. The Kfar’s Community Center arranges monthly bus tours to neighboring towns and attractions. Recently one such tour was to the Sea of Galilee, the other to Nazareth, in the footsteps of Jesus. The average age of the day-trippers is 75. There are so many walking sticks on board the bus you can build a nice campfire. The loud beeps and whistles from their hearing aids could interfere with military radar or bring down fighter jets. Yet they’re a feisty group, full of zest and quest for life. They embrace us as newcomers; they call me and Pnina “the Israeli-American kids.” The trips are ridiculously cheap ($10), and the guides are volunteers, licensed by Israel’s Ministry of Tourism.

The guides on the first tour, Amiram and Yaffa, are a husband and wife team. It’s a second marriage for both of them. He’s religious, spiritual. She’s all business. He wears a kippa, she wears the pants. We’re at the Church of Beatitudes on a hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee, a church commissioned by Mussolini in the 1930s, completed by the Italian architect Barluzzi, nicknamed the “Holyland architect” under the Franciscan Order from Assisi, Italy. Amiram talks about the Christians’ wishes to link Jesus to King David, to Bethlehem. “Joseph and Mary lived in and around Nazareth. They were forced to move to Bethlehem as part of the Roman census to count its subjects. There Jesus was born.” It’s not long before Amiram begins to meander from one topic to another; he’s a barrel of knowledge. Yaffa cuts him off. “Focus on the fishes and loaves story.” He sighs and continues. “Jesus was born a Jew, died a Jew. Like all Jews, he lived under Roman rule. He challenged the Jewish scholars, announced that he was the Messiah, the King. The Jews turned him in. The Jews had no army, no power, no currency, no form of government. The Romans ruled the land, did away with the troublemaker.”

Madonna and Child Mosaic

A month later we’re on another tour, this time to Nazareth.  Leslie, a Moroccan-Israeli from Kfar Tavor, a vivacious woman in her 50s, is our guide.  Her Hebrew is sprinkled with a French accent.  Nazareth, spread over several hilltops, was once a Christian stronghold.  But no more.  It’s 2/3 Moslem.  Every square inch is contested.  The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming may have been a funny movie in the 60s, but even here, in Nazareth, the Russians came, secured their Russian Orthodox foothold.  Much earlier, Ivan the IV, the Terrible, linked himself to King David, said the Russians are the Chosen People, and Moscow is the Third Rome after the original Rome, and after Byzantium.

After a short break for homemade sandwiches and some coffee from Thermoses, we shuffle to the next point of interest.  We’re standing in front of the Church of Annunciation, the place where the Virgin Mary was told she would give birth to Jesus.  Ironically, on the ruins of this ancient church, Solel Boneh, Israel’s largest public works contractor, built the new Church in 1965.  It’s almost as if Halliburton won the bid to build New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

The Church of Annunciation is a massive structure, breaks the skyline.

Nigerian Pilgrims in Nazareth

Hordes of pilgrims from Nigeria, Korea, the American Bible Belt, Moscow, go past us and into the vast courtyard.  In it are mosaics of the Madonna and Child from around the world.  Once we’re out, we walk down the hill to the main square.  There we run into a Moslem throng, hundreds of men.  An Imam, a Moslem priest, is leading the prayers.  He’s shouting into the megaphone.  Moslems kneel and bow on dozens of carpets.  Tourists cringe and rush past him to the Church.  This area is known as the Square of Contention.  The Moslems want to build a mosque on or near the Church of Annunciation.  They claim the remains of Salah Al-Din’s uncle, the warrior who fought off the Crusaders, are buried here.   So far this demand has been blocked.  With the Church of Annunciation acting as a backdrop, a passage from the Koran is written on a large banner in English and in Arabic.  It reads: “Whoever seeks a religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted, and in the Hereafter, he will be one of the losers.”

Square of Contention at Church of Annunciation

We’re hungry again and we want a distraction from all this religious stuff.  We trek through the Moslem market, the butchers, the vendors.  Leslie then leads us to a Christian-owned spice shop.  It’s a cavern of a structure, high rounded ceiling.  Sacks of every imaginable spice are stacked high and deep.  The owner, Christian, runs the century-old business.  He tells us he no longer grows the herbs in Israel.  “We import everything from the Orient, from India.”

The Indians are Coming, the Indians are coming.

We buy German-made chocolate, left over from the Christmas rush.  We’re treated to sweet coffee and a short history about the place.  Outside, there’s a billboard in Arabic, with Santa Clause standing on a patch of snow.  Moslems walk past it without the slightest interest.  Jews don’t frequent Lower Nazareth either unless they want to have their cars fixed on the cheap, unless they want a low-cost dentist.

Santa Clause Billboard in Galilee

We’re all living side by side but not with each other.  Jews read the Hebrew road signs, Arabs read the Arabic, foreigners read the English.  There are three languages on bags of potato chips, three languages on milk cartons, three religions at every turn.  And here’s the rub.  The man (son of God), who preached of brotherly love, brought about such friction after his death (resurrection), that we mortals are still dealing with it today.  Or is it all a master plan to see if we can survive together on this “rocky” terrain?

Amiram the guide summed it this way: “Christians number 2+ billion.  Their one obligation: Believe.  They make it to the Afterlife.  With Jews, just 14 million, it’s more complicated.  There’s no specific talk of the Afterlife.  Our purpose is to do good deeds (mitzvah).  What’s the reward?  Another mitzvah.  Completed mitzvah begets another mitzvah.  Judaism is work.”

Christian Spice Market in Nazareth

I don’t know all the details of how Moslems regard the Afterlife, but I heard it has to do with virgins.

I’m thinking of converting.