On Checkpoints and Vineyards, A Reflection

Written by Julien C. H. Smith, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Humanities and Theology at Valparaiso University and member of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, Valparaiso
** Please note, this is Julien's individual reflection/commentary based on his experience and not a specific stance of the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Indiana.
June 2018

View from Mount Carmel (Julien Smith)

View from Mount Carmel (Julien Smith)

On one of our last days in Palestine, we visited Mount Carmel, Nazareth, and the Sea of Galilee. While these are more or less due north from Ramallah, our journey that day began by heading south through Jerusalem. This was not all bad, since it gave us the opportunity to see Emmaus, a small town where Jesus is recorded to have met with two disciples after his resurrection. The reason for our circuitous route was not out of antiquarian interest, but rather political necessity. One of our Palestinian companions, Awad, was only permitted to enter Israel from the West Bank through the Qalandiya checkpoint just north of East Jerusalem. Checkpoints are common throughout the West Bank and, for visitors like myself, little more than an occasional annoyance. But for millions of Palestinians they constitute a daily harassment and humiliation. While we and our guide remained in the vehicle, Awad was required to depart on foot to a different checkpoint a hundred yards or so away, where he wound through several narrow metal cages reminiscent of cattle chutes before presenting his ID and permit for entrance into Israel. Mercifully, on that day the checkpoint was operating smoothly and Awad was back with us on the other side in twenty minutes. I am told that on some days that crossing takes upward of an hour, a grievous delay for the thousands of Palestinians on their way to work each day.

The rest of our trip north transpired without event, affording me the time to enjoy the beautiful countryside surrounding us. For an arid climate, the land was still rather green, thanks to recent spring rains. As we ascended Mount Carmel, the landscape grew more densely wooded. At the top we were afforded a magnificent view in all directions. Looking northwest one can see the expanse of the Jezreel valley, a fertile agricultural plain whose name appropriately means “God sows”. The sight of all those neatly laid out farming plots below brought a question to mind and also recalled a story from the Bible. I’ll come to the question in a bit.

The story involves the ancient Israelite King Ahab, who ruled Israel in the 9th century B.C. during the course of a ruinous three year drought. Mount Carmel is the place where the drought was brought to an end following a dramatic confrontation resulting in the slaughter of some 450 prophets of Baal. (A statue of the prophet Elijah, sword in hand, foot atop a prophet’s head, remembers the grisly event.) The story I recalled is not nearly so dramatic, having to do merely with the theft of a vineyard, and can be found in the Bible in the book of 1 Kings chapter 21. There we are told that King Ahab wished to acquire a vineyard near his palace, belonging to a man by the name of Naboth. Although the king offered either to give Naboth another vineyard in exchange or pay him a fair price for the property, he refused to give up his ancestral inheritance. Sullen and resentful, the king was quickly cheered by Queen Jezebel’s promise to get him the land by conspiring to have Naboth accused of treason and stoned to death. Although the king succeeded in stealing the land, his crime earned him the immediate and severe judgment of God, delivered through the prophet Elijah.

Standing atop Mount Carmel, that story struck me as strange for a couple reasons. First, it is not the sort of account one expects to find in a narrative mostly concerned with matters of great political and religious import. So far as we know, Naboth was nobody of historical significance, just a man whose ancestors had planted a vineyard in a location that the king now demanded. Yet it is precisely this story of brazen thievery, thousands of years later, for which King Ahab is remembered.  Injustice, the story sharply reminds us, cannot be hidden from God. Of course, Queen Jezebel sought to do just that—hide the theft by having Naboth put to death on trumped up charges. And this is the second reason I found the story strange that day. Queen Jezebel’s response to the king was not simply, “Take his land. You’re the King!” Rather, she works out a way to make it appear as though the land was legally forfeited to the crown by a condemned and executed traitor. She desires not simply the land, but the illusion of propriety.

2018-06 Olive tree by Julien Smith.jpg

And now to my question. Gazing northwest from Mount Carmel, I had seen acres upon acres of productive Israeli farmland, which indeed I had seen throughout the drive from Jerusalem all the way to Galilee. Yet oddly, I had seen comparatively little agricultural development on this scale throughout our days of driving in the West Bank. Why was this, I wondered? No doubt part of the reason lay in the topography in the area surrounding Ramallah, which is mountainous and hilly, less favorable to large scale farming. And to be sure, there are acres and acres of olive groves, laid out neatly in terraces upon the hillsides. But there were also large swaths of arable land seemingly lying fallow. When I asked about this, I was told that the Palestinians who own this land are restricted from developing it. Some of this restriction is due to the land lying in Area C, upon which Palestinian development is sanctioned by Israeli law. Some of the restriction is the effect of harassment by nearby Israeli settlements. And some of the restriction is the result of the land simply being inaccessible as a result of checkpoints, security walls, or the placement of settlements.

Passing through checkpoints on the way home that day, I reflected on the similar strategies pursued in the theft of Naboth’s vineyard and of Palestinian land today. In both cases, it seemed to me, there was a concern to cover over the illicit acquisition of land with the appearance of legal propriety. After all, who would protest against the forfeiture of land belonging to a convicted traitor like Naboth? Who could argue against Israel’s need for security, provided by the numerous checkpoints and walls? Of course there were outraged voices of protest on Naboth’s behalf; one of them survives to this day in the pages of the Bible. And just as Naboth’s story was passed on in judgment of Ahab, so must the stories of Palestinians today be told in judgment against the unjust policies of the state of Israel.

Naboth’s story reminds us that we never know how we will be remembered by future generations. Whatever his political or military ambitions, successes, and failures, King Ahab is remembered in the Bible chiefly for his appalling injustice towards his neighbor. These brief words of reflection are offered in the hope that Israel’s leaders and citizens will hear the rebuke of their prophet Elijah and once again pursue the things that make for justice and peace.