As I Saw It…
It’s very complicated. The challenges in Israel and Palestine are very real and very, very complicated. I had a glimpse first hand of the struggle that persists there. The struggle appears unending. This is and has been a decades-old hot spot in the world. Hope and optimism were present, but in some ways seemed in short, even dwindling supply.
I was privileged to travel to the Middle East as part of an American group of Christian clergy and Jewish rabbinical leaders. The group, Interfaith Partners for Peace, was a thoughtful and diverse group of progressive minded leaders. For ten days we toured holy sights and rode in our heavily guarded bus through ancient lands, seeking to understand better the historic challenges that this part of the world has faced for decades and even centuries. Security was tight and obvious, taken seriously.
We felt privileged to hear perspectives from a variety of high level Jewish leaders: a former member and first woman member of the Knesset, a Jerusalem Post reporter, Jewish leaders and scholars who over decades have sought to offer service to address the conflict in the region. We heard from a U.S. diplomatic servant, teachers and students in unique school situations teaching Arab and Jewish students together (very rare), NGOs and committed and passionate people on the ground seeking to find peaceful solutions to often complex and seemingly intractable problems. All of them appeared to work hard despite little emotional or intellectual reward.
It struck all of us that so much blood has been and is being spilled, even during one day of our visit. We learned of a young Arab woman, who, feeling hopeless because her husband was abusive to her, decided to attack an Israeli guard at a checkpoint, which ended her life- suicide by police. She was desperate to escape an untenable situation and in hopes that her act might ensure that her children would be cared for by the Palestinian state. We were told this was not exceptional, but another desperate event in a land mired in conflict.
We worshiped in the Jewish tradition, the Christian tradition and were given a lecture on the Muslim faith by a high level Muslim official. In the Friday prayers or “Shabbat,” a centerpiece of Jewish religious life, we witnessed thousands of people in celebration and spirit at the temple wall in the old and holy city. I saw the Bible come alive in that holy place. I stood where Jesus preached his sermon on the mount, where he was born, where he was crucified and even the spot believed to be the place where he rose in victory. I was breathless when I watched the sun come up over the Sea of Galilee, remembering in the beauty of that brand new day his walk upon the water and his order to fish on the other side of the boat and prepare for a big catch. It was exciting to see old world sights as our bus moved down the road, like that of a sheepherder riding his mule in the nearby field, holding his staff with a flock of sheep trailing behind. I was moved by seeing a dusty trail where Psalm 23 may have been conceived or where the Good Samaritan may have stopped to help the man ambushed by thieves.
We also met with high ranking officials of the Palestinian government. They were men who offered a very difference perspective on the dilemma facing the region and state. We were not shielded from the pain or the aspirations of the Palestinian people, as we were shown places where poverty abounded and at least one place where hope was breaking through, a generous gift of a foreign government, not the United States. The contrast between many of the areas of the people of Palestine and the people of Israel was striking. Reminders of America’s separate but equal history came to mind while viewing several sights.
There was talk of peace, of a yearning for better days and more harmony in the land. Yet opposing agendas were unmistakable as I heard the undertones of violence, palpable mistrust and in some cases disdain for the other – whether Israeli or Palestinian. There was also pride in declaring that some Arab Israelis lived among the Jewish Israelis, but there seemed limited effort to live with intentional commonality and integration. The quiet and consistent move to educate Arabs on the Israeli side, were all too quietly done, a vision that needed more illumination and encouragement on both sides of the fence. The need for transparency and open dialog was often overshadowed on both sides, by the need to wear their victimhood as a garment or badge to be displayed. These needs caused many to openly speak and foster unconstructive posturing. For those on either side to publically express outreach was rare and seemed a betrayal to their cause.
In our travels through the West Bank and the occupied territory we were escorted in a heightened way by armed police and soldiers. On both sides of the divide we were keenly aware of where we were and how we should behave. I am sure neither side wanted an international incident to occur with a bus load of American Jewish and Christian clergy. Actually it was all a bit surreal.
I was struck by the fact that Bethlehem is now an Arab town, with no Christians or Jews in residence. The famous wall that separates Jerusalem from the West Bank is over 450 miles long, some concrete walls but mostly wire, sophisticated alarms, and a warning system that when penetrated or even touched can trigger a lethal response. One Palestinian leader told us that their youth are in a state of despair, willing too often to give their lives needlessly because they see no hope for themselves or in their future. Life behind the fence, whichever side of the fence one was on, was filled with anxiety, anger and nervousness. It felt like people were waiting for the next shoe to drop, but going on with life as best they could until that moment. While the number of attacks is down in the region, all are bracing for an uprising if the upcoming elections for the Palestinian leadership turns toward an extreme rather than those who just might want to find a pathway toward peace or at least a new or higher level of stability.
It’s very complicated. The U. S. has a role to be sure, in finding peaceful solutions in the region. Our track record in recent history is not the greatest, given the invasion we orchestrated in Iraq in 2003. Yet the kind of leadership that President Jimmy Carter offered is still remembered fondly in the region, at least from those I talked to. With the American election results now decided, I suspect tension will surely rise in the region. Words matter and the President-elect now has significant work to do, more sensitive work than that spoken rhetoric offered on the campaign trail. Foreign aid from the United States is seen as vital but also perpetuating the problems in some instances. Complicated! To the extent we can, it is in our national interest to seek to broker sustained peace in the area. Spending our foreign aid more smartly would make sense as well.
Historically, the Balfour Declaration of 1917 has much to answer for in this long, arduous road. It states, “His majesty’s Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.” Clearly, this is an admirable goal, but it has not completely been implemented.
So what do I think I have learned?
First I think that every side of the conflict carries heavy historical baggage and we Americans carry some of the heavy bags too. The burden of history and complicated agendas in the region still demand that we as Americans do our part to broker peace. It is like the narrow gate at the entrance of the old city that we saw. When going through a narrow gate, it is true that sometimes one has to shed some of the bags one carries to get through that gate. If American interests are to be served in the region, we will need to think anew about our roles and responsibilities. We will need to find a more inclusive posture without deviating from our core values as Americans in the process. I am hopeful that America will not take two steps backwards with the election of our new president-elect and the positions he has articulated.
Secondly, Israel has every right to exist. No one should question the need for a Jewish homeland after the events of World War I and II and historical anti-Semitism. I am firm in that thought. Jews seem reluctant given the rejection and rebuff they have experienced to peace initiatives they have offered. I also believe that Israel, as the chief influencer and dominant power in the region, should find ways to continue to take risks that could lead to peace. They have most of the good cards in the deck, most of the eggs in their basket. One should not deny or ignore that Palestinian land and water rights and self-determination are also at issue, not just the rights of Israel. The security fence hinders peace, but thwarts the spilling of blood. For now I suppose it must exist, but removed at the first opportunity.
Smarter minds than mine have tried to solve this question of how to tear down walls and build bridges of peace. Just as it has been a quandary of which came first, the chicken or the egg, surely the Israeli government has wrestled with when the right time is to ease their hold on the Arab situation. What I do think I know is that one can not exist without the other. Israelis and Palestinians are both tied and committed to the land, both willing to die over rights to the land. The tragic loses the Israelis’ have endured have made them reluctant, it seems, to step forward toward peace. The wall has made the Palestinians angry, fearful and full of mistrust. I don’t believe either side wants another person to die. Unfortunately both sides seem trapped in an unending fight that seems to have no moral center or logical end. It’s almost as if they have been fighting so long, few know why they are fighting any more. It is increasingly harder these days to know who the victim is and who the villain is. It will take courageous leadership from Israel to move the situation in a peaceful direction. I am not very hopeful any movement will happen soon. I hope I am wrong.
Thirdly, we need to recognize and acknowledge that racism exists among Israelis like it exists in the United States. I observed a number of things which seemed familiar to me as an American black person of a certain age. I saw class and social divisions between the descendants of European Jews and other Jewish groups. Jews who are from different cultures are often marginalized, in particular those from Africa. Arab Israelis, native to the geographic area for generations, are often marginalized as well.
The Palestinian people and especially their leadership will need to extinguish the notion of the Jewish people as “blue-eyed devils.” Nothing constructive will occur until this can be removed from the slate of words used to describe the people of Israel and their motivations. After some time or thought, I believe it is too simple to describe the plight of the Palestinians as under a kind of apartheid regime, but they are an oppressed people. Why? They are oppressed because of past decisions of some Jewish leaders. The wall was defensive, but clearly seen as oppressive. The Jewish people see many Arabs as terrorists, but the Arabs refer themselves as freedom fighters. Too many leaders seem to serve their own self-interest rather than that of the people they are supposed to serve. Political public service is a blood sport in the Fertile Crescent, and the risk of assassination has been and continues to be real and always present. The choices some Palestinian leaders over the years has not helped thaw the icy relationship that rises and dwindles. The wall, I believe a key, demoralize and demeans, but the Israelis insists it is saving lives. But clearly the wall makes the Arab people feel trapped and imprisoned in their land. Where is the alternative to what is seemingly constant bloodshed and violence that often saturated the landscape is unclear? Who will give, so all can get? I don’t know. Another Nobel Prize awaits anyone who helps shape the answer. A single and shared state may be possible but seems improbable, but a two state solution could be achievable with enormous work. The American Civil War and aftermath are instructive but not definitive when thinking about uniting people with what appears to be diametrically opposed positions in one nation particularly in a geographically small area.
It seems interesting to me that America has been asking for a long time, why can’t the state of Israel and the people of Palestine find a way through the conflict to an equitable resolution. I guess this question falls into the same category of why we haven’t solved racism or sexism in our context. It has always seemed that we first must have the will to solve it and then work to get it done. We have to keep trying, keep up the struggle (as I saw many on the trip seeking to do) and not resolve to live simply with walls but build bridges wherever and whenever they can be erected. I suspect that is what this trip was designed to do.