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Dallas pastor, delegation including Texans, among those stuck in Israel amid conflict

The Rev. Dr. George Mason was in the city of Jerusalem when the Hamas attacks began over the weekend.

The attack on Israel is drawing a lot of attention among Texas politicians, with Gov. Abbott addressing a pro-Israel gathering last night in Austin. The war implications for Texas are considerable, as many have family members with ties to the region or have emigrated from the region to Texas.

Some are feeling the effects of this war firsthand, including a group of Texans in Israel when the Hamas attacks erupted.

The Rev. Dr. George Mason is a retired Dallas pastor, one of the leaders of an interfaith group called Faith Commons based in North Texas, who’s leading a delegation of Texans on a trip to Israel right now. He was in Jerusalem when the first Hamas rockets began to fall on Saturday.

Texas Standard was able to speak with Mason after he and his group had evacuated Jerusalem for a town near the Sea of Galilee trying to find safer ground and a way home. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: How are you doing amid everything?

The Rev. Dr. George Mason: Exhausted, to be honest. Things were pretty tense over here, and it’s been challenging to be with the group and have uncertain plans. But, you know, this is an opportunity for us to practice our faith. So we’re trying to find peace in the midst of all the chaos.

You were in Jerusalem on Saturday, I understand, when the Hamas attack began. Can you tell us what it was like there on Saturday?

Well, the sirens started going off. We started hearing the Iron Dome deflect and destroy missiles, rockets that were coming into Jerusalem.

This is the missile interceptor that they call the Iron Dome.

Right, right. And it works effectively, but it nonetheless reminds you that you’re within range. And yet, while we were relatively safe, therefore, in West Jerusalem, it was impossible not to know what was going on just 40 miles down the road in Gaza and in the towns surrounding. It was just a horrendous scene of inhumanity.

Did you find yourself or your group in the direct line of fire? Were rockets falling near or around? 

You know, like I said, the rockets were mostly destroyed by the Iron Dome. There was one or two that fell in a wooded area just on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

So, you know, I think everyone was tense. Everyone knew that we were within range. No one knew just how deeply militants had penetrated or whether they would be in Jerusalem, whether they would be coming out from other groups that were sympathetic with Hamas.

And, of course, it seemed that Hamas wanted to incite others to join the fight wherever they were. But it was not forthcoming, it seemed, and it was still localized, mostly in the south.

What did you then decide to do? I mean, after the immediate attacks, the announcements from Israeli officials… How did you know where to go, what to do next? 

Well, we were following security protocols and trying to keep as much as possible to the advice of both the Israeli security people and the State Department and U.S. embassy, which meant for the most part, that we were staying close to the hotel and not wandering far in small groups, that sort of thing. But there wasn’t much to wander to because really everything closed down.

It was almost like COVID on the one hand. But really it was more like the shock of 9/11 that many of us experienced years ago in the U.S. So people were just walking around in a stupor. Nobody knew what to do, whether they were supposed to try to resume normal life or stay in and just grieve and watch the news. It’s just everything’s changed and no one knows exactly what to do over here.

Have you decided you’re returning home? And if so, how do you get home?

Well, generally speaking, the Tel Aviv airport is too close to the conflict at this point. There are some flights out. I know two of our group is making it out tonight from Tel Aviv. But for the most part, most flights have been canceled incoming and there are a few going out.

But we have mostly decided to rebook from Amman, Jordan, and we’re hoping to cross into Jordan tomorrow. God willing, the border remains open and then we will come back from Jordan. But even then, for me, it’s another week before I’ve gotten a flight because everybody’s trying to get out through Jordan.

Where are you staying? I mean, there’s no way to plan for something like this, clearly.

No, I mean, you just make it up as you go, right? And I mean, Jordan is a sort of remarkable country and we’ll try to do what we can to make the most of the time. But we think it’s a safer place to be than in Israel at this point.

How big is the group that you’re with and are most from Texas or no?

Yes, most are from Texas, most from Dallas, some from San Antonio. The group is about half as large as it was supposed to be because only about half of them got on the plane before war broke out. The other half had their flights canceled.

So we have a group of about 14 right now, and they are intrepid adventurers, I would say people who are facing this with a lot of courage and depending upon each other and on their faith. So I’m proud of them, and I think they’re doing really well.

I mean, here’s the thing: The group was here not just as a spiritual pilgrimage for their own sakes, but we were here actually deliberately to have a dual narrative tour where we were going to be talking to people on the Palestinian and Israeli sides of things and talking especially with people who are trying to live together and to create conditions for when the occupation ends and when there’s an opportunity for a new status quo in Palestine, in Israel.

And so we came over with the intent of learning from people. And instead, what happened is this explosion of war that preempted that dual narrative tour.

What strikes me as you were talking is that you have, despite the sentiment that many have, that this is an intractable conflict, you went over with the hope that you could actually be a part of something that would bring people together. And now you’ve found yourself in the line of fire in a sense. Has this this changed perception or your perspective on the situation in Israel and in the territories?

No, I mean, it has dampened my hopes, but it’s not extinguished them.

Look, I do subscribe to the theory that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice. And ultimately, I believe that people are meant to fulfill this call to live as one people on this earth and that our emnities have to cease and we have to learn war no more.

These are all not just clichés from our biblical traditions, but they are hopes and dreams that we should share as human beings. And we have to live into that kind of vision or we’re going to continue to beget violence. And that’s no way to live.

So I just believe that this is another lesson that we will have to learn, about how violence is not the answer, of how war does not solve the problems we have with one another or bring peace. We have to find creative ways on the ground of learning to care for one another, listen to one another’s stories, and live together in peace.

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Rhonda joined KUT in late 2013 as producer for the station's new daily news program, Texas Standard. Rhonda will forever be known as the answer to the trivia question, “Who was the first full-time hire for The Texas Standard?” She’s an Iowa native who got her start in public radio at WFSU in Tallahassee, while getting her Master's Degree in Library Science at Florida State University. Prior to joining KUT and The Texas Standard, Rhonda was a producer for Wisconsin Public Radio.
David entered radio journalism thanks to a love of storytelling, an obsession with news, and a desire to keep his hair long and play in rock bands. An inveterate political junkie with a passion for pop culture and the romance of radio, David has reported from bases in Washington, London, Los Angeles, and Boston for Monitor Radio and for NPR, and has anchored in-depth public radio documentaries from India, Brazil, and points across the United States and Europe. He is, perhaps, known most widely for his work as host of public radio's Marketplace. Fulfilling a lifelong dream of moving to Texas full-time in 2005, Brown joined the staff of KUT, launching the award-winning cultural journalism unit "Texas Music Matters."