MIAMI | Religion teacher David Masters started the month of July by standing with other U.S. Catholic educators on Israel’s Golan Heights and looking out toward the distant bombing and violent civil conflict raging in Syrian territory.
Several days later, as he and other American pilgrims on a study tour were preparing to depart Israel, the Egyptian military were deposing that country’s polarizing president, Mohammed Morsi, leading to more violence and ongoing protests in another of the Holy Land’s countries.
David Masters poses with the papal nuncio to Israel, Archbishop Giuseppe Lazzarotto, one of the people the Catholic educators met with during their stay in the Holy Land.
“We went up to the Golan Heights and were right there with the barbed wire on the edge of the hill looking down to Syria, and were hearing ‘boom, boom,’ and seeing the smoke rising with a sign pointing to Damascus 60 miles away,” said Masters, who teaches theology at Msgr. Edward Pace High School
and is an adjunct professor of world religions and peacemaking at St. Thomas University
, both in Miami Gardens.
A member of St. Stephen Parish in Miramar and a Miami native whose two children attend St. Jerome School in Fort Lauderdale, Master’s tour of Israel and the Holy Land was made possible by the Anti-Defamation League’s Bearing Witness
Advanced Program for Catholic educators. Participation requires a lengthy application and approval process.
About 20 U.S. Catholic school teachers and administrators from 10 states — including Father Michael Dolan, director of vocations for the Archdiocese of Hartford, Conn. — traveled to Israel June 26 through July 3.
No one on the trip knew beforehand just how much regional unrest would be taking place during the trip.
David Masters is pictured here with the Sea of Galilee behind him.
“The Israelis kept telling us that although they live in a dangerous neighborhood and although they have to remain vigilant, that they have to take into account the innate, enduring humanity of the other, meaning the Muslims,” said Masters, remembering the conversations the group had with their guides on the Golan Heights and many other places and holy sites in Israel.
“Some people in our group seemed a little bit frightened but mostly relieved to not be down in that valley,” Masters added.
In addition to visiting some of the Catholic holy places, and swimming in the Jordan River, the Mediterranean Sea and the Sea of Galilee, the Bearing Witness group explored areas of common interest to Catholics and Jews, along with Holocaust studies and a tour of Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem.
In the mixed-ethnic towns of Haifa and Jaffa on Israel’s coast, the group met with people in the Arab and Jewish community centers who are working to build peace and strong personal and commercial relationships.
“They told us that anybody who gets involved (with their peace-building efforts) should dedicate at least three years to the projects so that the kids grow up together as friends and do things in common, so that when things get tough or politicians start ranting they can view each other as people first,” Masters recalled. “A lot of the Jews told us the best neighbors to have are those with a vested interest in commerce.”
Masters, who has an extensive background in Catholic missionary projects, said that during the study tour he heard a lot of comments in support of the so-called two-state solution for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
“A lot of parents told their children, ‘Remember that every Palestinian you meet is somebody’s child or parent or brother and you should treat them with respect.’ I was surprised that so many of the Jews said they need a two-state solution and (Palestinians) should have a homeland too.”
In terms of the July 3 Egyptian military coup removing the Muslim Brotherhood’s president from the country’s highest office, Masters said he had conversations about the situation with an Iranian-born Jewish woman and others while at the airport in Tel Aviv.
“One Persian Jewish refugee mother who fled with her whole family from Iran told me that she admires the Egyptian pro-democracy demonstrators and the Egyptian military because at least they have chosen to fight for the future of their civilization, instead of submitting to the Islamists as the Iranians did,” Masters said.
“Another person said they hope the Egyptians are maturing in terms of not allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to take all the power.”
Elias Zananiri, an Israeli Arab Christian who works as a peace advisor and a media consultant, told the U.S. group that it is better, as an interim political solution, to have neighboring countries ruled by autocrats who at least possess a modicum of ability to recognize the dignity of people of other ethnicities and faiths, than to be ruled by elected Islamists who deny the humanity of others, Masters recalled.
“My spiritual reflection as a Christian who visited the Holy Land for the first time is that it occurred to me all the values and virtues that we Christians hold dear were first given by God to the Jewish people who then enshrined them in writing,” Masters said. “We Christians have inherited them from the Jews.”
“It was amazing to be in places like the shepherd's field and to be looking up at the Church of Nativity,” he added. “I wanted to kneel down and kiss the ground. Sometimes I would go to a corner and just thank God for the opportunity to be there.”
The New York-based ADL
was founded in 1913 to stop the defamation of Jewish people and is a civil rights agency fighting anti-Semitism and bigotry. Its Florida offices are in Boca Raton.
At the Shepherds' Field near Bethlehem, David Masters, far right, poses with fellow Bearing Witness travelers John Thomas, Donna Tarney, ather Michael Dolan, director of vocations for the Archdiocese of Hartford, Conn., and Robin Siczek.