"You are not allowed to lose hope. This is not your right."
Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Nazareth: July 30-August 2, 2008
Bird's Eye View of the Holy Land – Jewish and Palestinian Birds Seeing Different Realities on the Ground
Jerusalem, July 30, 2008
Two days listening to young Israelis and Palestinians of generosity of spirit and good will have shown us the world here from their perspective. We speak of the reality on the ground and getting perspective by having a bird's eye view. Here one must ask: is this view through the eyes of an Israeli bird or a Palestinian bird? The reality on the ground shifts tremendously based upon the eyes through which the world is seen.
Four Israeli students from Hebrew University, three of whom have served earlier in the military, speak with all the love and passion for peace they can muster. If you are looking for black and white solutions ... one state – two states – whatever, look elsewhere. Here the world is defined by finer and finer shades of gray. Complexity built upon even greater complexity.
Having grown up in a world since 1980 defined by the first and second intifada, with the narrative of the founding of Israel in 1948, these Israeli Jewish young adults speak with both hope and frustration and hopelessness of their sense of a very short time left for establishment of a lasting peace.
This is a future earnestly desired but virtually impossible for them to envision. Imagine the life of someone starting out on adulthood with only a vague and fleeting sense of a permanent stable, secure and lasting future.
The view from this bird is of an Israel that must be always a Jewish State with a Jewish army. The memory of never again and never forget the holocaust is palpably present and colors their future.
These young Israelis seek to break the sixty year impasse of contention with their Arab Christian and Muslim neighbors. Strikingly they relate that the vast majority of Jewish citizens have virtually no contact with Palestinians nor any desire or need to fill this gap in their lives. They, along with many other Jewish Israel citizens, see a free democratic Jewish state with a Jewish army to ensure their protection. This results in the two-edged sword of being powerful militarily while feeling constantly vulnerable to threat from the other.
One of these young adults, a former soldier, prepared to engage in dialogue with Palestinians and Europeans this past month. He went in with this complex and foggy sense of the future. He was prepared to acknowledge the imperfections of Israeli rule in exchange for admission of good and ill on the part of his Palestinian dialogue counterparts.
He was totally unprepared for the deluge of feeling from both the Palestinian and the European who see the State of Israel's rule very differently. His wish for acknowledgement of good and ill on both sides was foiled.
Palestinians have a totally different impression of life on the ground. Their bird's eye view is of being in a prison with Israeli jailers in their own historic land (see photo here). The free and democratic life is beyond their lived reality.
These Israeli young adults find it remarkably difficult to envision a world of hope. A vision of a better life without threat to their existence is a constant and haunting presence in the background. Their bird's eye view is of Israel as both their salvation and security immersed in a world without stability and security being surrounded internally and externally by threats to their lives.
Where does the Jewish Israeli bird or the Palestinian Arab bird find a vision of a better life?
Sympathy, the Enemy of Compassion
Ramallah, July 31, 2008
Today once again we listen. Omar Barghouti and Dr. Gabi Baramki speak of their hopes for the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI). Sam Bahour, a Palestinian businessman (here by way of Youngstown, Ohio) speaks of his hopes for Palestinian business. Representatives of Al Haq speak of their documentation, monitoring, and advocacy for cases of human rights violations by either Palestinians or Israelis and finally Tala Abu Rahme and Sanabel Hassan speak from their lives as twenty something women growing up Palestinian in the West Bank.
Today was a day to listen to the dire straits lived daily by Palestinians. It was a day to listen to their hopes for support for economic boycott, divestment and sanctions against what they experience as an apartheid regime. Their lives are dictated by daily Israeli government intrusions that seem to be arbitrary and simply based upon a division of people in this land based upon their humanity.
Their call was for the preparation of civil society in Palestine and Israel as well as the U.S. for reception of their stories of oppression.
The greatest challenge laid down was that they choose the language and strategy of oppression and path to freedom. The enemy of advancement is the reception of sympathy from people outside of their lives. Sympathetic people wish to aid in resolution of this intractable situation but often impose (in the case of US citizens) our own sense of the correct language and strategy and perception of path to peace.
This sympathy is a barrier to compassion, a barrier to simply allowing us to experience their reality for a moment. Sympathy maintains the distance of the privileged who can come, see, and leave freely. Compassion, being moved in one's heart, requires a loss of the distance between ourselves and Palestinians so that we may simply stand silently next to them as their words and actions move us to a deeper sense of their lives.
Tolerance and sympathy maintain a distance between people, with one group being privileged over the other. Compassion is the much harder spiritual move to relinquish our positions of power and privilege and take the downward path of powerlessness to be open to the fuller experience of the lives of others in all their joy and sorrow without qualification or interpretation.
Compassion is proving to be a painful experience but one that also has glimpses of hope. Christians can think of the need to go through the suffering and death of Jesus before the glorious experience of the resurrection. We have experienced the suffering and death. It is in compassion with those least privileged that we experience glimmers of resurrection in our own lives that are not accessible in all of protected, comfortable and powerful daily lives at home.
Jerusalem, August 1, 2008
Today was the most emotional day so far. We started out going to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial and Museum. Needless to say, it is impossible to go through that museum and memorial without being profoundly moved. The museum is beautifully done – with photographs, video footage from World War II, video footage of Holocaust survivors telling their stories, artifacts from the Holocaust – clothing, personal items, letters, passports and identity cards, prayer books, religious items from synagogues and homes, postcards, re-creations of the camps and the train cars. It is a wonderfully executed montage of the entire experience, starting with the rise of Nazism in Germany and going systematically through the years of the war in every country of Europe. It is heartbreaking to see the images of the camps, the ghettos, the anti-Jewish propaganda of those years. It is tasteful, complete and bone chilling all at the same time. I have studied the holocaust in some depth, especially during my college years, and growing up in a very Jewish town, I saw hours of footage of film that the Nazis left behind as they so carefully documented their activities so I did not expect to be particularly impacted because I’ve done this before. But there is simply no way to immerse yourself in that experience for several hours without being profoundly saddened. What was so different for me was that this time, I kept seeing all that was done to the Jews in Europe through the lens of what is happening to the Palestinians in Israel and the Occupied Territories now and had that sinking sense that history is repeating itself. Just yesterday we met with Omar Baghouti whose organization is calling for “divestment, boycott and sanctions” with respect to Israeli goods, and today we saw advertisements, photographs and film footage of calls to boycott Jewish businesses in Germany prior to the war. “Don’t buy Jewish goods” was all over Nazi posters plastered in pre-war Germany, and here we are sixty-plus years later saying “Boycott Israeli products.” It’s eerie, to say the least. (Of course it is possible to distinguish the two – the call for boycott now is aimed at Israeli political and economic policy, not at the Jewish people as a people or Judaism as a religion, but still, it made me pause.)
Similarly, seeing the camps, the walls of the ghettos, was uncomfortably similar to the concrete wall dividing East Jerusalem from the West Bank and cutting through Palestinian territories, and the images of the camps bore an uncanny resemblance to the prison-like checkpoint (see photo here) that we walked through yesterday. Those who are abused grow up to become abusers, and that principle is being played out on a national scale in this conflict. I found myself grieving the endless cycle of violence that is being perpetuated from generation to generation – “the sins of the fathers being visited upon the sons” in a very real sense.
The Holocaust Museum reinforced my own empathy for the Jewish commitment to the State of Israel and the desperation of many Jews to preserve it as a refuge and sanctuary for Jewish people the world over. But I found myself struggling to find a way for Israel to be that place of sanctuary and safety for Jews without becoming a place of destruction and annihilation for the Palestinian Christians and Muslims who also live in this place. Trying to find a way to bridge the narratives of pain that these different groups have is proving difficult for me.
The Holocaust Museum trip ended with a visit to the Children’s Memorial which is by far one of the most moving memorials I’ve ever seen anywhere. You enter into a darkened room lit by a candle which is reflected in mirrors that go from floor to ceiling. The effect is that of millions of single candles burning in the room. You walk around the room in darkness, pierced only by the flames of these candles and hear the names of the children who died in the camps (1.5 million of them) read aloud in English and Hebrew, with their age and country of origin. Listening to that litany of names was heartbreaking. Several members of our group collapsed in sobs against the wall and had to stay there for a while to recover from the experience. The slaughter of the innocents – such a painful part of human history – “Rachel weeping for her children” - the Biblical accounts of children slaughtered by Pharoah, by Herod, children dying today in Darfur, the children lost in other ethnic cleansing wars like Bosnia and Rwanda, the children of Iraq who have died in this pointless war – the list goes on and on. One wonders when we will stop creating a world in which our children die as a result of adult stupidity.
After that heart-wrenching experience, we went to Sabeel, an ecumenical Christian organization that works for peace, justice and reconciliation between Palestinian Christians and Israelis. The word “sabeel” means “the way” in Arabic. Sabeel calls itself a Palestinian Liberation Theology center and it works hard to build bridges between the Israeli Jews and the Palestinian Christians and Muslims here in the holy land. The woman who spoke with us, Cedar, is a 62-year-old Palestinian Christian, a passionate and articulate woman (see photo here). She remembers vividly what the Palestinians call the “Nakba” (the catastrophe) in 1948 when she and her family were forced to leave their homes because the country was being turned over to the Zionists. Her family fled to Nazareth and it was 10 years before they could get a permit to return to Haifa. When they went back to their house, there were three Jewish families, refugees from Europe living in it. She described the sense of loss and shock that Palestinians went through at that time. They had no idea when they left that they wouldn’t be back in a matter of days or maybe weeks. They never dreamed they were leaving their homes forever. Her childhood home had been built by her grandfather and it was simply taken by Jewish settlers after she and her family fled. And they fled because they feared for their lives. She said, “In May of 1948, one night I went to bed in Palestine and woke up in Israel.” She added that upon Israeli independence, she and all other Palestinians became “present absent people.” Their history, their narrative was removed from history books and not taught in school. They had no rights, they could not move freely about the country, they could not return to their homes and in many cases their jobs, they who are citizens of this land suddenly are not citizens because they are “non-Jews.”
Her story was particularly poignant as she spoke about the faith struggles she had after the Nakba. Did God really want the Jews to have this land? Did God want the Palestinians to leave? Does God favor one group of people over another? How do I read the Bible, which seems to say that God gave this land to the Jews as “the promised land for the chosen people?” She spoke eloquently about her struggle to integrate her identity as a Palestinian, with cultural and ethnic roots in this land, with her identity as an Anglican Christian. She struggled for many years to discern whether she could be both Christian and Palestinian. As she spoke and described the British missionary schools in which she was educated and raised, I realized that she had been subjected to a considerable amount of Christian Zionist theology and that much of her spiritual and theological struggle centered around working that out for herself.
Cedar echoed what every other Palestinian we have met so far has also said – before 1948 Christians, Muslims and Jews in Palestine lived peaceably with one another. They were friends, they lived in the same communities, shopped in the same markets, socialized with one another, respected one another’s differences. It was only with the advent of the state of Israel that these groups became enemies in this region of the world. She believes it is possible for the three groups to co-exist peacefully with one another as they once did, but not until Israel recognizes the rights of the Palestinians as whole people with rights equal to those of Israeli Jews. She repeated what others we have talked to this week also said, that they have a hard time swallowing the fact that they have fewer rights and privileges as citizens of Israel than do Jews who have never lived here. Rights and privileges do not go to “citizens” in this state but to “nationals” which means anyone, anywhere in the world who is Jewish.
Cedar spoke so eloquently and passionately about her hopes for a country where everyone is treated equally and where Palestinian Christians could live their faith and their secular lives on an equal par with Jews. She admits that the situation is deteriorating but holds on to hope that somehow God can bring people who long for peace to find a way to get there. When she finished speaking our group gave her a standing ovation. She inspired all of us with her words of hope and compassion.
Then we went to the offices of Rabbis for Human Rights, an activist organization of rabbis in Israel and around the world who work hard to protest and address human rights violations committed by the Israeli government and by Palestinians. These folks are the ones who stand in front of bulldozers that are threatening a Palestinian home, who accompany Palestinian farmers into their olive groves at harvest time so that the right wing Jewish settlers don’t shoot them or otherwise interfere with their ability to harvest their crops, who go out and rebuild demolished homes and fight in court for the Palestinians who are suffering human rights abuses. Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the Executive Director of RHR, was an eloquent speaker about his cause. He spoke about his vision of a Judaism that operates out of the prophetic tradition of social justice. He was very passionate about God’s call to Jews to be people who care for those in the world whom no one else is caring for, to be hospitable to strangers and neighbors, to work with God to bring about “tikkun olam” the healing of the world. He reminded me so much of Rabbi Michael Lerner. So very passionate and committed both to the State of Israel and his Jewish faith, but also to doing the right thing by all the people who live in this land. He brought me and many others in the room to tears as he described an incident where he was called to a checkpoint where a Palestinian boy, 13 years old, had been grabbed by Israeli soldiers and tied to a military vehicle as a human shield. He went up to those soldiers and ordered them to release the child, which they did not do immediately but ultimately he prevailed. He recounted how later, when the child who was traumatized by the entire experience was interviewed about it, he said that he didn’t hate Jews despite what happened to him, because “a tall man in a kippah came and saved me and told me not to be afraid.” Rabbi Ascherman wants to spend his life being “a tall man in a kippah” who “saves” people who are being threatened and helps them not to be afraid. He is truly someone who walks the walk. He’s been arrested and jailed numerous times and has gone to court many times suing the Israeli government for human rights violations. He concluded his talk by exhorting all of us to “create hope” in whatever way we can in our own communities so that someday Israel can be the land it is called to be by God and all people can live in peace with one another. When he was done, he too got a standing ovation from our group, and, as the saying goes, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
All in all, this was an emotionally draining day. The sadness and grief at the perpetuation of violence from one generation to another is almost enough to make one want to give up and just live for the moment, forget about all this stuff and retreat into our cocoon of safety, which we privileged Americans can certainly do. But talking to people like those we met today is a reminder to me that God calls all of us to be better than that, to reach out to help bring healing and reconciliation to our world in whatever arena we happen to be living and working in. The work of “tikkun olam” calls us to work with God and for the brief time we have on this earth we have a job to do. In Christian terms it’s called “bringing in the kingdom” – or as the words of the Lord’s Prayer put it “your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” We have work to do for that “on earth” part. Along with my travel companions I hope for the courage and commitment to share in this struggle with the amazing people we are meeting over here. This land is the birthplace of three major world religions, including my own. We cannot allow it to simply disintegrate into a theater of violence and oppression.
Create hope. That’s the job description.
The Cactus and the Pine Trees
The Galilee, August 2, 2008
"Wherever there are cactuses, a village was destroyed," Ali Zbeidy, our guide, told us this today on our trip around the Galilee. We traveled to Nazareth to visit the land of Al Birwa and Miyar, two destroyed Palestinian villages near Sakhnin. What is left of these villages is rocky Mediterranean scrubland.
Our first visit was to Al Birwa (photo here). All of the village homes were destroyed by the Israeli military in 1948. Abu Firhas, who used to live in the village, spoke to our group. He held the key to his home as well as the documents that proved his family owned their home that was destroyed with the other homes by nine Israeli tanks attacking from three sides of the village(see photo here and here). Muhammad said that the Israeli military killed his younger sister during this attack on June 23rd 1948. He was 18 years old at the time. Muhammad said his status is considered to be "present absentee" in the state of Israel. This means that he is a citizen but he no longer owns the land. This law was enacted by the Israeli Parliament in 1950 which means that the original owners of the land are "absent" from their properties, though they may live in a nearby village. Abu Firhas lives in a neighboring village today.
After 1948, Al Birwa, Abu Firhas' original village, became a closed military area. People are not allowed to enter this area. There are grave stones at this village and a school that is destroyed on the inside but with its outer structure remaining. There is poetry and art written on the building which I found to be beautiful. This is symbolic of the strong and persistent Palestinian culture that did not get destroyed in the Nakba (catastrophe) in 1948.
Near this village, and in this area of Israel, are pine trees. The trees are not native to this area. The Israeli Jewish National Fund planted thousands of pine trees from America to cover up the destroyed Palestinian villages as well as to declare designated areas a national forest to preclude the Palestinians from ever being able to reclaim their land. Today I looked at a cactus on one side of me and the pine trees on another. I recalled my experience of giving a donation each week at Hebrew school to a fund that would help Israel obtain trees. I thought that Israel was an empty land and I never learned in Hebrew school there were people living in Palestine for hundreds of years before Israel became a state in 1948.
Nazareth, August 2, 2008
This week has been astoundingly dense and deeply emotional. Two days into the trip I already felt like my experience had been worth the effort and expense. I had no idea how each of the following days would multiply that impression.
I've tried three times to start this update with a story from the trip, and each time I've found that the stories open onto a flood of other stories, questions and observations — it's hard to be succinct when writing about an experience this rich.
So for now I won't tell a story, I'll just explain that though I knew before I came that this situation was profoundly complicated and intricate, I have found it exponentially more so than I could have imagined. Perhaps more importantly, I've been struck by the strong sense that the intricacy of the issues does not excuse me from standing for justice wherever I find it to be lacking.
People of faith, especially those of the Abrahamic traditions (Christians, Jews and Muslims), have a duty to educate ourselves about the issue and advocate for just policies. Moreover, U.S. citizens have a duty to inform ourselves, given that we live in a democracy, and that we are paying a significant part of the cost of the occupation with our tax dollars. As Rabbi Abraham Heschel once said, "In a democratic society, some are guilty, but all are responsible."
We've had almost non-stop meetings and vivid experiences on this trip, from map briefings by the UN to conversations with right wing Zionists to visits in Palestinian homes slated for demolition by the government. We've walked through an Israeli checkpoint and talked with the founder of Rabbis for Human Rights and the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions.
All of it has broken my heart, but I hope and believe that those cracks are letting some Light in. If you're one who offers prayers of any kind, I humbly request some for myself, as well as for the people of the Middle East.
You'll notice, though (at least when I point it out), that when I said the conflict was complicated, I said "profoundly complicated," not "hopelessly complicated," as we so often hear. When we met with Abir Kopty this morning (a young Palestinian, human rights activist and Coptic Christian) she said "We learned, as Palestinians, 'You are not allowed to lose hope. This is not your right.'"
To that, I say "Sah," which in Arabic means "that's right." As Vaclav Havel said, "Hope is not prognostication, it is an orientation of the spirit."
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