Dr. Mark Meehl reflects on rescheduled Holy Land tour, Middle East tensions
If it weren’t for the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Mark Meehl '79, professor of theology, along with 45 Concordia alumni and students would be set to leave for a Holy Land Tour in Israel sometime today. Due to the pandemic, Meehl’s semi-annual trip to Israel has been postponed until 2022. In this time of reflection for Meehl, he visited with Brooke Lange, a sophomore education major from Concordia, Missouri, about the current situation in Israel, and how important it is to see the world from different perspectives, even if we can’t physically be there.
BL: Can you give a brief synopsis of the issues going on in Israel for those who might not know what’s going on?
MM: This past month was the holy month of Ramadan. During Ramadan, Muslims come from all over the world to Israel to fast during the day and break fast in the evening and pray at Al Aqsa Mosque. Recently, Israel has allowed more Jewish extremists to tour the Dome of the Rock, where Al Aqsa Mosque is also located. Further, to protect the Jews going into the Western Wall to pray, Israel has shut off the Damascus gate area during the evening. Muslims who would usually come to the Damascus Gate and Al Aqsa were being denied access to the Holy Place. That started the tensions and when Muslims or Palestinian Arabs were finally completely stopped from going to Al-Aqsa, Hamas began firing rockets into Israel.
BL: Considering these current tensions, are you glad the tour has been postponed?
MM: When people see this stuff, it’s an automatic question: “Is it safe?” Yes, it’s safe. When we’re on the tour and if, God forbid, trouble breaks out somewhere, we will just go somewhere else. There’s tons of stuff to see, and it’s not like we’re going to run out. I kind of equate it to going to Washington DC. DC has one of the highest murder rates in the country, but would you feel uncomfortable going to the Smithsonian? No. You just stay out of the areas where the violence is happening. And so far, on all my trips, we’ve always had very peaceful stays in the Holy Land.
BL: How have you seen these issues being represented in the mainstream media?
MM: One of the things that has been heartening for me has been the strong sympathy for the Palestinian cause. Normally, because of the strong evangelical community in America, Israel gets a ton of support. But there are so many underlying causes that people need to bring up. Palestinian residents are not counted as full citizens in Israel. They pay full taxes, but one-third of those taxes go towards Israel, so they only have two-thirds of taxes left to pay for infrastructure and education in their communities. Their communities are dirtier, and their education system is worse because they simply don’t have the money to pay for it. Israel is a military power, and they use that power to take control of the land they believe is theirs.
BL: How much did you know about the tensions going on in Israel before going to Jerusalem yourself?
MM: Before I went, I had no idea what was going on in that part of the world. I was getting ready to work on a dig in Jordan and tour Israel beforehand and I was reading a copy of Time magazine that says, “Jewish Israeli seminary student killed in Hebron” and I thought, “Well I’m a seminary student” so I look at that and it turns out this guy was packing an automatic rifle and I thought, “Why is a seminary student in Hebron carrying an automatic rifle?” That kind of got me looking a little bit deeper and asking questions. Further, when you’re living there, you’re right in the middle of it, and whether you like it or not, the issues start to affect all aspects of your life.
BL: Does your tour influence people the same way visiting Israel influenced you?
MM: Yes. In this country, we tend to be inundated with the pro-Israel side in the media, in general. Palestinians don’t have a voice, and when they are represented, they’re seen as terrorists. They’re the ones shooting the rockets, they’re the bad guys. But when our tour group goes to Israel, we usually patronize Palestinians. Our guide is a Palestinian, we stay at hotels run by Palestinians. And when we do that, it helps the students to realize that people are people. They get locked in these neighborhoods and stereotypes, but they’re still just people. The students get exposed to a wide range of views. We don’t bombard them and force them to be pro-Palestine, we just expose them to the facts of life.
Concordia students and alumni on the 2018 Holy Land tour visit the Roman Theater at Caesarea with their tour guide, Johnny Asmir.
Concordia students explore the Jordan River during the 2018 Holy Land tour.
Some of the 2018 Holy Land tour group after going through Hezekiah's Tunnel in Jerusalem.
Members of the 2018 Holy Land tour group in the Siloam Pool (John 9) in Jerusalem.
BL: How can we approach these issues from a Christian perspective?
MM: There’s a strong sense of justice involved. There’s a comic I saw the other day that said, “I don’t really care about Israelis or Palestinians because they're helping me fulfill my Armageddon fantasy.” It sounds kind of ridiculous, but to an extent, it’s true of the American position. We can love our neighbor by becoming educated and by reading diverse sources (Al-Jazeera, BBC, Jerusalem Post) and asking questions. Self-education is the best way to go.