ELKHART, Ind. — When Mike Hostetler continues his work for Mennonite Mission Network at Nazareth Village in the Holy Land later this year, he knows he will be among friends again. This in a place where friendships must weather a maelstrom of suspicion and violent political upheaval that continues to grip Israel and Palestine, draining the area of hope, people and money.
Hostetler, executive director of Nazareth Village – an educational tourist attraction in the village where Christ grew to manhood – visited MMN headquarters July 1 with his wife, Ginny, and their son Stefan and daughter Sofia.
Hostetler said many Palestinian Christians are fleeing Israel today, seeking safety and opportunities for themselves and their children, while those outside the war-ravaged country are avoiding the Holy Land to such a degree that the future of Nazareth Village is in peril.
“We either have to close down, or we have to find a way to carry on,” said Hostetler. “Up to now, the feeling has been that we need to find a way to carry on. But it’s a heavy [financial] burden right now.”
Tourism has slowed to a trickle even in the relative tranquility of Nazareth – now Israel’s largest Arab city. Nazareth, though somewhat isolated from most of the ongoing violence in Israel, is suffering in its own ways because of the perceived dangers in the region.
The financial picture in Nazareth and at Nazareth Village is “not good,” Hostetler said. “Actually, right now, it’s very difficult.”
Tourism forecasts indicate that 83 percent of traffic through Nazareth Village normally would be international travelers, “and that’s basically nonexistent right now,” Hostetler said. “We’re operating in a significant deficit, and we’re having to struggle about what to do about that.”
In order to be effective witnesses and peacemakers in the Holy Land, Hostetler said Christians must make a commitment to settle in long-term, work patiently, be available and listen.
“We’re living in a very complicated part of the world, where things don’t change overnight. For me, it’s very important to accept the fact that this is something that you engage in for the long haul,” Hostetler said. “We went to Nazareth with a vision. The American way says that you do your homework, and six months later, you start building. Well, we got there in 1996, and we started building in 1999 – after we had done archeological research on the land, historical research in the written sources and relationship-building within the community.
“We had met with most of the significant church leaders in the area, we met with the mayor and city council. We did this early on, and we met with them the next year, and the next year and the next year, and we are still there, saying the same thing. After a while, people started saying, ‘Maybe there’s something to this,’ ” he said.
Last year, Nazareth Village had an operating budget of $320,000, about half of which was generated through gift shop sales and gate receipts, Hostetler said. The rest came from contributions. Next year’s projections are similar.
Because the tour buses have either stopped coming, or are bringing far fewer passengers to visit Nazareth Village these days, the Hostetlers said they will return to Israel to continue developing new income to shrink the gap between profits and donations.
Hostetler said plans are being studied to wholesale handmade Christmas cards from Nazareth Village and handmade costumes of the kind worn when Jesus walked Nazareth’s streets.
Another program, which began shortly after the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict began, involves the schoolchildren – 70 to 80 percent of them Muslims – who come to Nazareth Village on field trips.
“Kids liked the village so much, they’d return individually and say, ‘We want to be in the village,’ ” Hostetler said. “So, a program was developed that requires that kids learn about Jesus, life in the first century and what it means to apply what Jesus taught. Once they go through that, they can don the costume, ride a donkey, work on the village farm, or work with the carpenter or the weaver.”
More than 250 kids have signed up for the program, which is evolving. “The potential market is significant. If we can generate the right products, I think we can generate significant income, which will then help carry on the work of the village,” Hostetler said.
Christian Arabs make up only about 2 percent of the population of Israel, which is home to about 6.5 million mostly Jewish and Palestinian Muslim inhabitants. News accounts daily detail the ongoing violent struggle between Jewish and Palestinian groups, each of which claims to be the
“David” to the other’s bullying “Goliath,” the Hostetlers said.
“Both sides have strong victim mentalities,” Hostetler said.
This column was reprinted with permission from the Mennonite Weekly Review.