I have waited and reflected a bit since my pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine before writing something about the conflict between the State of Israel and the Palestinians. Recent violence in Gaza and the conflicting destructive messaging all around in my social media circles has compelled me to go ahead and get this written out. I want to be clear and I want to be irenic (peace-making) in what I say. I was deeply grieved and affected by what I saw in Palestine. I was moved by the daily plight of Palestinians in the West Bank having to navigate checkpoints and walls in their daily lives. I was moved by the stories of families and communities who were displaced and dispossessed in the late 40’s when Zionist armed forces removed them from their homes and lands and set them adrift. And what I personally saw was just in the West Bank, we aren’t even talking about the world’s largest open-air prison, the Gaza Strip.
As I process what I saw and what I have come to hope for, let me be clear about a few things. I support the right of the State of Israel to exist, I support it as much as I support the existence a Palestinian State. I would support even more a single state which granted full human rights and civil liberties to all the people within it’s borders regardless of race or religion. Sounds down right American, right? This is my left hand most days now, pictured to the right, with my wedding band inscribed in Hebrew and my bracelet bearing the Palestinian flag and the word love. I choose not to hate either people, or to ignore the needs of either people. My desire is for a peaceful, secure home for all the people of that land. I am glad that the State of Israel was created as a solution to the global and historical problem of anti Semitism and existential threat to the Jewish people which culminated in the Holocaust. I am aware of and terribly empathetic to the needs of the that time which moved the international community to sanction and support the creation of the State of Israel. I have no ill will toward Jewish people or Israeli citizens.
Now let me be as clear on the Palestinian people. They are a dispossessed and disenfranchised people, expelled from their homes, some into exile in other countries and some into lives as exiles near or on their own lands. As a group they were forced into this situation by immigrating Jewish families and Zionist forces, at gunpoint, and their plight has been one of the great injustices of our age. Even as the international community has leveraged it’s great moral weight and power to end Apartheid in South Africa, it ironically has ignored the similar plight of the Palestinians and their systematic and nearly complete disenfranchisement under an invading and expanding power.
The State of Israel has not been a shining example of democracy in the Middle East, but along with it’s achievements and progress as a nation and a military power it has systematically destroyed a people, occupied and dehumanized them, and never extended them full citizenship in their own land or anything near equal representation. When speaking of the Israeli settlements and occupation of Palestinian lands Henry Seigman (past National Director of the American Jewish Congress) only a decade ago warned us that, “As a result of that ‘achievement,’ one that successive Israeli governments have long sought in order to preclude the possibility of a two-state solution, Israel has crossed the threshold from ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ to the only apartheid regime in the Western world.” <— source The Palestinian people have been repeatedly removed from their homes and lands to make room for immigrating Jewish families, and with the newest settlement under construction just last year, they are still being displaced and dispossessed, today. That great injustice, met so often with war from without and terrorism from within, has been the foundation of all the death and hopelessness we see, today.
That is what we call a 40,000 foot view, from up in the clouds. Down on earth today we have Israeli settlements, Hamas, the PLO, checkpoints and walls of separation, Zionism, the War of 1967, the Oslo Accords, armed occupation and terrorism. We have a human rights mess of titanic proportions including the most recent demonstrations for the Right of Return in the Gaza Strip and the brutal, lethal military responses of the IDF. There is such an enormous difference in Israel and Palestine today between the Israeli cities and the cities of Palestine, an enormous gap in wealth, stability and hope. You can wine and dine in Haifa, Israel, and struggle to find basic affordable medical care in Nablus, Palestine, on the same day. And yet in both areas we find human beings, families, neighbors, communities seeking a future and deserving one. We must take a longer view to find a way to peace. Solutions are not found in one-sided histories or focus on any one day’s violence.
If you choose to unconditionally support the State of Israel continuing as it has, then you point to Hamas and speak of a sovereign state defending it’s borders. If you choose to unconditionally support the Palestinians, then you ignore the indiscriminate terrorism of Palestinian factions and speak of the State of Israel only as an oppressor and only as an occupier. I am asking that we change this narrative to speak unconditionally of human dignity and equity, and about the needs of the future. The security of the Israeli people is bound to the security of the Palestinian people. Justice and peace for both sides must be founded in an equity of belonging, an equity of civil rights, and an equity of human dignity. We citizens of the United States learned (and are still learning) this lesson in our own country as we deal with the deep and painful legacy and resurgent reality of racism and oppression in our own nation as we are still learning to live together. We eventually joined the international community and helped end Apartheid in South Africa… not by killing the white South Africans, but by demanding equity and taking economic and political steps to stop the oppression. We must do the same for the Palestinians. This is not about killing Jews or destroying the State of Israel, but about ending the oppression upon which it currently has anchored itself. This is about saving the both Palestinian people and the State of Israel, for their future security and peace are inextricably bound.
As we recognize that the State of Israel was established to protect the human dignity of the Jews, we must also as honestly recognize the great human injustice done to the Palestinian people in that establishment. That injustice is the foundation for the narrative of hate, violence, terrorism and displacement which we have witnessed for the past seventy years and this very day. A new foundation must be laid for the future because anything built on that kind of injustice will forever be plagued by the violence, confusion and loss of human dignity we have witnessed. As we work to help change this narrative we must also deal with our culpability as a nation. Our money has financed and backed the Israeli military for decades. We have ignored the injustices done to the Palestinian people. We have rationalized and sided with oppression, and that must change.
Pray for peace. Mourn the dead. Speak for the future. Help change this narrative of violence and conflict to one of restoration and reconciliation. I’d like share some amazing voices I have recently heard met, and from whom I am learning about a future of hope…
Rev. Naim Ateek who recently spoke in Chevy Chase, Maryland, at St. John’s Episcopal Church and said, “The God we believe in loves justice and all people equally.” I agree. He’s an Anglican Priest, a Palestinian, an author, a theologian and no enemy to any human being. His books can found on Amazon right here!
Sabeel is the foundation for peace and dialogue which was established by Rev. Naim Ateek.
FOSNA is the Friends of Sabeel North America and offers ways to be involved with Sabeel and a peaceful way forward in the Middle East between Israel and Palestine.
Jewish Voice for Peace is an amazing Jewish voice for our time! They are a great resource for our peace studies.
I wish I knew an easy, concrete answer to making peace in the Middle East happen today or tomorrow. I don’t think that such an easy answer exists, but I do fully believe that a secure, peaceful and joyful future for both Israel and Palestine does exist. We have to change our thinking and telling of the narrative, and speak and act for that peace. We have to give each other the grace to grapple with these emotionally charged issues and events, and stay committed to arriving on the other side together. We must at all costs avoid the voices of one-sided extremism who call us to violence and to hatred.
On a personal note… I love my many Jewish friends. I love and appreciate our shared religious roots and I abhor the anti Semitism and history of racial discrimination that Jewish people have faced around the world, and sadly often at the hands of my sisters and brothers in Christ. You matter to me. The safety and security of people in the State of Israel matter to me. I also love my Muslim friends, a group which has grown in recent years and months to include Palestinian friends of both Muslim and Christian faiths. Your lives matter to me and the future joy and security of the Palestinian people matter to me. Never think that I fall on one side or the other, but only ever strive to be on the side of human dignity, something that each and every one of us possesses in equal measure by God’s grace. Renouncing oppression, disenfranchisement and violence is our way forward, a way to peace that will never be purchased with rockets, bullets, bombs or walls. The sooner we can help our respective faith communities, social groups and governmental leaders change the narrative, the sooner we can take real steps toward the future that we all need and deserve.
Faith and our journeys of faith are interesting pursuits. As I begin to process my recent pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine I find myself exploring the ways that we often deal with faith and fact, certainty and hope. It seems to me that many folks spend a lot of time seeking fact, support for our faith ideas, certainty of what we have hoped. On the other hand some of us seem averse to fact, almost afraid of certainty, as though proof or even just pieces of proof might undermine faith itself. One thing the pilgrimage has taught me is a deeper understanding that faith and certainty are not opposed, forcing a choice of one or the other, but exist in balance, complimenting one another as we seek a nearer walk with God.
I was excited to visit some of the first locations of our pilgrimage, scattered along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, which factored in the public ministry of Jesus. We stood on the Mount of Beatitudes where tradition has Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount. We celebrated the Eucharist at Tabgah, the location where tradition says that Jesus broke the bread and shared the fish to feed more than 5,000 people in the crowds who followed him.
Then we came to the first of the stones on our pilgrimage, these black basalt stones which formed the base of the Jewish Synagogue in the ruins of Capernaum, a small city from the time of Christ. But this was not just any small city! Jesus based some of his public ministry from this city, and it was the hometown of one of his closest followers, Simon Peter. Here we pilgrims can touch the foundation stones of that synagogue where Jesus attended, see the streets and building foundations where he walked and shared life with friends. None of this proves that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, the resurrected incarnate God, or any of the things in which I place my faith, but we were in the geography of the man! We came as close as possible to sharing space with Jesus, sharing those stones and touching a tangible moment with him.
It’s affecting to come from a completely spiritual experience of Christ and to move into a geographical awareness of him. The abstract becomes more concrete. Faith has a rootedness and an anchor in a place and time in a very new way for a pilgrim. Nothing proven, but certainly something gained.
Toward the end of our pilgrimage we again encountered some stones, the stairs leading to and from the home of the High Priest and the location of one of the trials to which Jesus submitted himself. We stood upon the stairs which Jesus would have walked. Yes, we walked the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem’s Old City, and I’ll write about that later, but these stairs, these stones! Instead of tracing a path, some meters above the stones on which Jesus walked, here we shared the very stones! Did Jesus walk these stairs? There’s no real certainty he did, but these are stones of his day, the very stones on which he would have walked to go and to and from the house of the High Priest. This is a tangible connection to Jesus the likes of which I have never before known, and it affected me more than I would have expected. A passage came to mind as I sat with these stones along the stairs… Luke 19:37-40 (CEV), “When Jesus started down the Mount of Olives, his large crowd of disciples were happy and praised God because of all the miracles they had seen. They shouted, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory to God.” Some Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, make your disciples stop shouting!” But Jesus answered, “If they keep quiet, these stones will start shouting.”
To be a pilgrim is to become one of those followers along the roads of Jerusalem, even to be one of the stones waiting to cry out if needed. We now share the witness, the song, the joy. Our faith picks up some concrete reality along these dusty hot paths. Nothing is proven, but there is a new kind of sharing with Christ. And with sharing comes gratefulness. I am so grateful to everyone who made this trip possible and the 42 pilgrims who journeyed alongside me. I thank Christ for walking our paths and sharing such beauty with us.