Watershed Snapshot | The Jordan River Watershed, Part 2

Above photo: Jordan River today, Christopher-Sprake / iStock / Getty

My name is Jonathan. I am a Mennonite Christian Palestinian US American. My dual identities as a Palestinian, and as a white US American offer me insight to Christianity both as an indigenous wisdom tradition, and as a religion serving as a tool of global imperialism. I write each entry of this two-part blog post from the first person, as a Palestinian Christian, and as a Western Christian respectively. See part 1 of my Jordan River Watershed snapshot here.

Last year, over 2.4 million Christians visited the “Holy Land.” To put that into perspective, 60% of the tourists to Israel were Christian, compared to only 20% Jewish. Christian tourists spent billions of dollars to walk where Jesus walked, visit sites from the Bible, and see the remains of the world Jesus inhabited.    

Group baptism at Yardenit, from the Yardenit Facebook page
Group baptism at Yardenit, from the Yardenit Facebook page.

A favorite spot for these tourists is the Yardenit Baptismal Site, the most visited spot on the Jordan River. This site is not the site traditionally believed to be that of Jesus’ Baptism—that’s Al-Maghtas on the Jordanian side, or where Elijah ascended into heaven—that’s Qasr el Yahud, in the West Bank Palestinian territories. The Yardenit Baptismal Site has no biblical significance at all.

So why does virtually every “Holy Land” tour visit it? Because it is in Israel. It is a fictionalized baptismal spot created by the Israeli minister of tourism in the 1980s for Christian tourists to be “baptized in the Jordan.” Its purpose is to give Christian tourists the experience without having to interact with Jordanian or Palestinian Arabs.

The pristine water always pooled about 4 feet deep in this spot (perfect dunking depth), creates another layer of fictionality. In recent years the Jordan River has become incredibly depleted and polluted. As reported by Friends of the Earth Middle East:

Over the past 50 years, the Lower Jordan River has been destroyed. 96% of its historic flow has been diverted. What little water remains is polluted with saline and effluent, including untreated sewage. The valley’s wetlands have dried up, its springs are failing, and half its biodiversity has been lost. This is not just a tragedy for wildlife: families have seen their fields turn to dust, not from a lack of water but from the injustice of its distribution. The demise of the Jordan and the collapse of the valley’s eco-system represents a failure of our most basic responsibility towards the species whose habitats have been destroyed and the ecological systems that sustain life on earth.

If the Jordan River is in fact a holy site, it has been desecrated. Its holy waters have been diverted to “Make the desert bloom”; its watershed is  turning into desert in turn. The dead sea it feeds is dying rapidly. The little water that remains is polluted with chemicals, refuse, and human excrement. If this defilement is acceptable to Christian holy sites, Black Elk may want to rethink his assertion that “The Holy Land is everywhere.”

This baptismal site, created in recent decades to supposedly hearken back to biblical times, is not telling a biblical story. Instead, by depriving the river of its water, and depriving indigenous Palestinians of tourist visitors to legitimate “biblical sites,” it is telling a cynical tale of colonial practices. And many Western Christians, steeped in our colonial Christian mindset, are happy to drink up without asking questions.

Al-Maghtas, traditionally believed to be the site of Jesus' baptism by John, now in the Palestinian territory of the West Bank. Photo from Wikimedia Commons
Al-Maghtas, traditionally believed to be the site of Jesus’ baptism by John, now in the Palestinian territory of the West Bank. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The true story is not convenient for most Western Christian tourists, or the rest of Western Christendom. We prefer the myth to the reality. So, rather than visiting the baptismal site of Jesus and seeing how it is but a trickle of sewage today, we visit invented baptismal sites designed to be pollution free, and dammed so they remain deep enough for immersion baptism. After all, these trips are religious pilgrimages, and most Western Christians don’t tend to come to religion to be confronted by reality. Our theology has helped us escape—not to escape slavery, like the spirituals did for enslaved Africans —  but to escape the realities of our world.

While Western Christian tourists escape to a make believe “Holy Land,” the actual Jordan River Watershed is truly passing away, despite the will of the Palestinian people. This land where Jesus walked is reeling due to human conflicts over natural resources, and choices regarding unequal distribution of this once rich land’s wealth.  As the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem noted:

If one of our forebears were to return, he or she may have difficulty recognizing this as the same land described by early visitors as a land “flowing with milk and honey.” Barren hills have taken the place of what was once rolling woodland covered with thickets and forests. Deserts have replaced grassland. A polluted and salty water now runs where once was the Jordan River. And the Dead Sea has sunk so low that it is now two separate seas and still dropping. Gone from the land are animals which were once plentiful — the ostrich, cheetah, leopard, lion (the last one killed 800 years ago by the crusades), Syrian bear, crocodiles and several kinds of deer — casualties, each of them, to human encroachment.  

These drastic changes have affected all people on that land as well. But imbalanced power has allowed Israelis to insulate themselves from the change while intentionally heaping the burden upon Palestinians.

In 1967, when Israel occupied the land of the West Bank, it also occupied the water, taking control of the Jordan River as well as the groundwater in the West Bank. Today that control is run through Israel’s national water company, Mekorot.

Part of the 1993 Oslo Accords was to put the water under joint control throughout the Joint Water Committee (JWC). Assuming Israel would act in good faith, the Accords allowed Israel to control Palestinian water infrastructure development, and gave it control of over 80% of the water in the Palestinian territory for a 5-year period. Israel has used this to halt water infrastructure in the West Bank, pressure Palestinians to allow Israeli settlement projects to have water rights, and ostensibly steal the water from under Palestinians’ feet. Today Israel continues its control despite the breakdown of negotiations, and the five-year agreement has stretched to over 25. It uses 85% of the agreed upon “shared” water. It does not allow Palestinians to receive the amount of water allocated by Oslo, leaving the Palestinians no choice but to buy water from Mekorot, becoming even more dependent on Israel. Today Israel’s 600,000 settlers, illegally building and living on Palestinian land, guzzle six times more water than the three million Palestinians in the occupied territories. While the settlers have swimming pools, most Palestinians are water insecure in the water rich West Bank. Looking to the future, as climate change exacerbates water issues, Palestinians are far more vulnerable because they have been legally prevented from developing a water infrastructure capable of adapting.

So long as Western Christians only care about “The Holy Land” that was, or “The Holy Land” as necessary ingredient in our apocalyptic escape plan in the future, these developments won’t bother us. But for those interested in watershed discipleship, interested in the holiness of all land in the here and now, this situation should raise major concern.  

As followers of a Jewish Palestinian, as disciples who recognize this watershed moment as the world as we know it is breaking apart and the earth is in peril, are we aware of how Palestinians have articulated this watershed/ Kairos moment?

As people who seek to apply lessons of the Jordan River Watershed to our own watersheds, how do we not participate in purely extractive theology? What do we have to offer our watersheds as well?

As disciples within our own watersheds, what responsibilities do we have to the watershed that birthed our faith tradition, to the people of that watershed, and to the plants and animals that live there?

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