Just a little over one year ago, I returned from a three-month term of service with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). I lived in Bethlehem, experienced daily life in this Palestinian city, saw both its beauty and its devastation, witnessed both the warmth and the despair of the Palestinian people. Hardly a day passes when I don’t long to return.
When it comes to the long conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people, I’d like nothing better than to find a safe place to sit, from which I could simply defend one side and condemn the other. Moral certainty is so comforting.
But I cannot. I illustrate my ambivalence with a personal story. On April 5th of last year, just three weeks before my term ended, I went to Jerusalem on a day off, taking the bus from Beit Jala, a community that abuts Bethlehem. When that particular bus route passes through the separation barrier that seals the West Bank off from sovereign Israeli territory, all the Palestinians are required to get off and stand in line outside while their permits are checked. Internationals like me get to stay on the bus while two soldiers board and proceed down the aisle, long guns pointed at the floor, checking passports. When all the checking is finished, the Palestinians re-board and the bus continues on its way.
On this morning, there was a confrontation between the soldiers and an old Palestinian man. Because the conversation was conducted in Hebrew or Arabic (I’m not sure which), I can’t know what it was about, but based on what I could glean from those seated around me, it seemed that he might have been asking permission to stay seated and not debark. Eventually, though, the old man did debark, and the confrontation continued outside. Soon the bus took off, without the old man. He hadn’t been allowed to re-board.
Later that morning, while sitting in a city park just outside the Jaffa Gate, I wrote this in my journal:
I am sitting in Teddy Park, watching Orthodox children play as their parents visit. The girls’ long, restrictive skirts don’t slow them down. On a bench next to me, a family of four (soon to be five) eats sandwiches. The woman, beautiful in the turban many young Israeli women wear, is pregnant. Two little curly-headed girls appear to be perhaps two and four. The man is handsome, and his suede boots are fashionable.
It is a beautiful spring morning, and the park is quiet and clean. The mess and noise and energy of the West Bank recede quickly when one enters West Jerusalem.
I cannot begrudge the people in this park their lives here. But I cannot accept what their lives here have cost the Palestinian people.
That old man who had to get off the bus this morning – what was his crime?
My point is that what I saw in the park that day was exactly the life that I have wanted for myself and that I want for my daughters and their families: lives of peace, safety, freedom, and reasonable prosperity. And it is the life I want for both Israelis and Palestinians.
I cannot, personally, conclude that one people’s claim to the land outweighs the other’s, or that one people’s grievances are greater than the other’s. But in the midst of my ambivalence, I can conclude this: that human rights violations are wrong and cannot be justified.
I once read these words, and copied them down because it has always been so and they so succinctly capsulize what I saw in the West Bank:
Occupation brings foreign rule.
Foreign rule brings resistance.
Resistance brings repression.
Repression brings terror and counter-terror.
The victims of terror are usually innocent people.
Israel’s 52-year military occupation of the West Bank batters Palestinians, corrodes its young Israeli enforcers, compromises Israel in the eyes of the world, and has not and cannot lead to peace and security for Israel.
I have sometimes heard it said by Israel’s defenders that when it comes to human rights, the world holds Israel to a standard that it doesn’t apply to other nations. And upon hearing this, I’ve thought, “Well, yes.” Because it seems to me that this is both true and fitting.
First of all, I believe that Israel claims a special status for itself, by basing its existence on God’s promise to Abraham. Whether one believes the Biblical narrative or not, this is a powerful claim to a unique and exalted position. And even aside from the story of Abraham, Israel is often cast, by itself and its defenders, as a modern-day miracle: braver, better, smarter, with a distinctive role and singular justification on the world’s stage.
Second, Israel aspires to be a vibrant modern liberal democracy. As such, it seems quite right to me to want it to live out its modern and liberal ideals in a way that I wouldn’t expect from Saudi Arabia or China or Cuba.
Finally, here’s my personal, visceral cri de coeur: I deeply admire many things about modern Israel, and I deeply admire Judaism, the wellspring of my Christian faith. And I know what our shared holy book says about the nature of God and God’s message to the ancient Hebrew people: to remember the stranger in their midst, because they had once been strangers – and captives – in Egypt, to show justice and mercy and compassion, in a world where those traits were in short supply. I want to see Israel live out those ideals because I want to admire Israel wholly. Just as I want my own country to truly be the land of the free and the home of the brave, the nation that says “Give me your tired, your poor” and really means it, the defender of civil discourse and the rule of law.
Yes, I hold Israel to a higher standard than autocracies and dictatorships, but I don’t hold it to a higher standard than I do my own country, which, like Israel, often falls short.
But why do I care about this issue, among all the world’s miseries? Why should any of us care?
As an American, I care because unless and until this conflict is resolved in a way that leads to a just peace for both Israelis and Palestinians, it will continue to be a flashpoint and a contributing factor to instability and conflict in the broader Middle East and the world.
As an American, I care because the citizens of the USA send $10 – $12 million of our tax dollars to the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) every day. That’s $3.5 billion per year in support of an occupation that is antithetical to American ideals of equality, democracy, and fairness. One day while in Bethlehem, I got to sit down with the chairman of the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce, a charming man with a twinkle in his eye and a Ph.D. in Economics. And he said, matter-of-factly, “US citizens finance the occupation with their taxes.”
As a Christian, I care about human rights in the land of Christ’s birth and ministry. I care about free access to Jerusalem’s holy sites for all people. I care about the survival of the Christian Church in the Holy Land and think that I should privilege the voice of those Christians who live there over American evangelical voices whose support for Israel and its policies is unwavering. In the words of leaders of Christian churches in the Holy Land, We declare that any use of the Bible to legitimize or support political options and positions that are based on injustice, imposed by one person on another, or by one people on another, transform religion into human ideology and strip the Word of God of its holiness, its universality, and its truth.” (Kairos Palestine 2009)
But what can I – or you – do? I can call my congressman and senators and let them know how I feel about legislation that impacts Israel and Palestinians. I can travel responsibly, recognizing when I am being propagandized, spending time in the West Bank, and seeking out opportunities to hear a variety of voices. I can consume news critically, prioritizing unbiased sources, and recognizing the ways in which the words that a writer or commentator chooses influence me. I can support organizations that work for and promote peace.
What can I – or you – do? I share a reflection from Abraham Oz’s little book called How To Cure a Fanatic. Oz, an acclaimed Israeli novelist who grew up in war-torn Jerusalem, understood the consequences of extremism. How To Cure a Fanatic consists of two powerful essays, in which Oz offers his own reasoned and respectful approach to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Oz called this reflection “The Order of the Teaspoon.”
I believe that if one person is watching a huge calamity – let’s say a conflagration – there are always three principal options. Option 1: Run away, as far and as fast as you can, and let those who cannot run burn. Option 2: Write a very angry letter to the editor of your paper, demanding that the responsible people be removed from office in disgrace. Or for that matter, launch a demonstration. Option 3: Bring a bucket of water and throw it on the fire, and if you don’t have a bucket, bring a glass, and if you don’t have a glass, use a teaspoon – everyone has a teaspoon. And yes, I know a teaspoon is little and the fire is huge but there are millions of us and each one of us has a teaspoon.
Heavenly Father, thank you for individuals like Susan who are willing to share their experiences and the discomfort that exists as we hold multiple beliefs in tension with one another. Without first-hand experience, our perspectives are narrow. Thank you for the EAPPI program that gives individuals the opportunity to live in the Holy Land and bring their experiences living in an occupied land home. We pray for a deeper understanding and for peace to prevail. Amen.
Susan Brogden became involved with Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) following a three-month term with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine & Israel (EAPPI). While serving with EAPPI, Susan lived in Bethlehem as part of a three-member team whose work involved providing a protective presence for children as they arrived and departed from school; observing and reporting on issues at Checkpoint 300; meeting with leaders and residents of local villages to learn about the effects of the occupation on their daily lives; and supporting the Christian community. Susan is retired from a career in higher education and non-profit administration. She is an Ohio Regional Coordinator. CMEP is very thankful for the writers who contribute Spiritual Resources. However, CMEP does not necessarily agree with all the positions of our writers, and they do not speak on CMEP’s behalf.