Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Another post from our good friend Michael Ramos

Rev. Joshua Liljenstolpe, Michael Ramos, and Rev. Sandy Brown outside the Council's bus during the Israel-Palestine trip

“A small stone can carry a big rock.”
--Bishop Munib Younan

Bishop Munib Younan (Lutheran) insists that the right of return for refugees is much more than a matter of compensation. “The city of Beer-sheba (where we met Bedouin communities on Sunday) no longer has any Christians.” Twenty years after my family was displaced from there, “in 1968 my father came back to see his house. He had hoped to see his room, but he was told when he arrived only to ‘go away’.” Heartbroken, “he couldn’t eat or sleep for 2-3 days.” It is hard to imagine what it is like “to lose your house you have built.”

“Confirming the right of return would be an acknowledgement of my ‘nakba’ (or ‘catastrophe’, the loss of a way of life, including land),” Bishop Younan concluded. “Because we are broken doesn’t mean we have lost everything. We will continue to work for peace and justice. The cross is my dignity.”

The theater/dance performance of “The Last Supper in Palestine” began with the six Palestinian performers balancing a small stone over a large one on their heads. Stones were a prominent symbol later in the performance as the actors passed an Israeli checkpoint, presumably in the West Bank. Some had them in their pockets; all were flushed out. Were they planning – as goes the stereotype – to throw these at the military police? Yet, they were allowed to keep the stones. A ritual cleansing began, each washing his or her body with the stones.

Suddenly, one of them lay stricken, killed it appeared, no stone ever tossed. His companions lay stones on top of him, anointing him and sealing his resting place at the same time. Is his fate final? What is the fate of the others? Will they dance together again?

These stones give power. They suggest the building blocks of life and life in abundance. Placed one on top of the other, even a small stone can carry a large one, bearing many times its size and weight. In the spirit of Bishop Younan, the small stones of the actions of education, training and advocacy can carry the big rocks of humility, love and justice. “The cross is my dignity,” says the bishop. In bearing it, the Christian community in Palestine collectively carries the large rock of nonviolent transformation.


Our journey has come to an end. It is with a great deal of gratitude that I head home. My prayer as we left Seattle to begin the trip was “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; O Lord, hear my voice” (Psalm 130). Our prayers have been heard. The trip was safe and everyone returns healthy. I am full.

My devotion on the trip was built upon the Sh’ma (Deuteronomy 6:9), “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is One,” and the prayer of Archbishop Romero about the Reign of God. These both still sit with me as we depart the Holy Land. Somehow, the intimacy with which all the people, Israeli and Palestinian, embrace the land, is reflective of a shared understanding of God as being One, our Ground in whom we live and move (breathe) and have our being. This is the reality that they are living into, two peoples sharing one land (even as two states), learning to live together in dignity and justice.

The horizon toward which we look from the land is the Reign of God, the reality that is our hope beyond hope, yet emerging in the Person of Jesus Christ. We feel small and insignificant in the face of the conflict on the ground, the pain and suffering of the people and the years of political failure to achieve peace. Yet, despite the dwindling number of Christians there, the seeds of peace are being sown, the resilience of people who know the cross leaves them undeterred, and stones are being used to lay a non-violent path for a future beyond our imagination.

Queen Rafia of Jordan said in an interview with CNN that leaders need the “political willpower and sincerity of spirit” to craft a solution that offers a measure of peace with justice in Israel/Palestine. Her prophetic words came in the context of commenting on the humanitarian disaster in Gaza while attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Countries of the world were discussing the spreading of wealth, while people like Bono and Bill Gates were suggesting global, market-based strategies to address malaria and poverty. Such collective, world-class thinking ought to be applied, with similar tenacity and creativity, to fostering peace. This is especially the case in the place – more than any other in the world – where the religious convictions of the three Abrahamic faiths converge. The Old City of Jerusalem is that melting pot, where people criss-cross each other in pilgrimage and tolerance begets hospitality begets conversation over strong Arabic coffee.

In the heart of Jerusalem, on the last day of our trip, I got lost in the heart of the Old City. Up and down one set of market stalls on narrow cobble-stone streets, then another, I could not find my way to the church where we were having a meeting with a bishop. I had learned to put my self-reliant bravado aside and ask for directions. Eventually, I found my way and my destination. For decades, efforts for peace have proven just as vexing as trying to make your way through the Old City. Still, Israelis and Palestinians, as evidenced by those whom we encountered, have the wisdom to “make a way out of no way.”

Clarity and courage were two hallmarks of the people whom we met. There was agreement, even among people coming from very distinct perspectives and world-views, about the basic framework of a peace initiative. Genuine movement toward forging a two-state solution, addressing the rights and needs of the displaced, preserving the sacredness and centrality politically of Jerusalem, enhancing the integrity of the borders of the Occupied Territories to that of 1967 in forming a new state, tackling the obstacles of settlements and the security wall, while leaving all people more secure, are understood (with some differences in detail) as necessary, urgent overlapping issues. Physical security for all is needed, while recognizing that it is linked to political, social and economic security for all. The best and really only option for genuine “security” is the accomplishment of a secure peace that bears the honoring of two peoples on one land as two nations emerge.

Advocates need to step forward from wherever they call home and create conditions for this political will to be unleashed. Otherwise, the cycle of suffering, unrest and repression will continue as the predominant facts on the ground. Candidates for office and elected officials in all the relevant countries need to be challenged to bring these issues to the forefront rather than consign them to the back pages.

From a faith perspective, I find myself returning to the phrase “sincerity of spirit.”. It connotes for me the “pureness of heart” that Jesus calls us to in the Sermon on the Mount, with the promise that we shall “see God.” Sincerity of spirit also suggests the Beatitude, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). These combine the single-mindedness of conviction with the humility to explore truth before God and neighbor regardless of the consequences. Pursuing this truth steadfastly (“samat” or “sumut” in Arabic and Hebrew respectively), is the grace we Christians in the United States are invited to seek, while affirming and upholding these gifts in the brothers and sisters we met.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Holy Land Extremists

Dick with "the Rev" in Bethlehem's "Tent" restaurant, overlooking Shepherd's Field

The following is a reflection on our Israel-Palestine trip by Rev. Dick Gibson

I recently traveled to the Holy Land with the Seattle Council of Churches group to listen to religious and civic leaders and see the situation between Palestinians and Israeli’s for myself. We spent time talking about extremists. The following is my
summary of what I heard and saw:

Religious extremism has a fundamentalist base and a doctrinaire belief system. People hold strong beliefs in God and hold literally to some written word, and they want everyone else to agree. Once held, they will not deviate, adjust, modernize or change.

Muslims extremists appear to be held by the mystic of past ages, locked into cultures of previous centuries with regard to women, education, movies/TV/books, culture. They tend to choose violence to enforce their beliefs and preserve their perceived cultures.

The Orthodox Religious appear to be different from the Extremists. The Orthodox hold onto deep religious beliefs in many literal ways. The Extremists seem to focus on the Land of Israel. They hold a deep belief that God gave them the land –they read it in the Bible - and no one else should be there. They draw a map of their land and are unwilling to compromise. “Move the Palestinians to the desert or other countries. This is OUR land.” They erect Walls to block out distasteful views of other people or villages. They beat/kill children and adults who walk/farm/graze on their land. Many of these Extremists have moved into Settlement Blocks on Palestinian Land in the West Bank, throwing things down on passers- by from apartments overlooking the shopping streets of Hebron. Christian Peacemaker Teams are there to escort children to school, men and women to market and work. Others have poisoned wells and livestock in an attempt to drive out Palestinians who have lived on the land for centuries. These extremists also tend toward violence to make their point. It should be noted that land deals written in a religious book 3,000 years ago are not valid in modern nation states. Also these extremists miss the caveat that God will give the land as long as the people are faithful and keep the Covenant. (Gen 17:8,9, Num 14 etc)

Right wing Christians (Zionists) read their Bibles and believe many mixed up things about the Middle East. They hold that
if a new Temple is built in Jerusalem, Jesus will return and take them up to heaven where they will have a front row seat, peering over the clouds, to watch non-believers writhe in torment here on earth. They want a war to end all wars, the Jews to convert and Armageddon to arrive. Thus they want the Middle East to remain in turmoil. They do not advocate any kind of peaceful solutions, and keep stirring the pot to keep it bubbling. They support Settlement Building as a way of increasing tensions and producing the end violence for which they wait. Many of these Zionists are Americans with deep financial pockets
who give generously to causes which support the state of Israel and its military might. They are also involved in politics and keep the pressure on legislators to support Israel with no questions asked.

You may meet Zionists in your family, at work or school, in church or in your neighborhood. It is difficult to reason with them or explain other points of view and yet it is vital that we try, for their convoluted beliefs could stir up enough confusion to start a war! You probably will never meet Jewish Extremists unless you travel to Israel. You will hear about Muslim Extremists because they have become the new enemy for our day, and every Arab or strange looking person is quickly labeled a terrorist, isolated and dismissed. Then “we” do violence without thinking or investigating –they wear a turban, dress in unusual garb, read the Koran, etc.

People of Good Will tend to be MODERATES, willing to explore a variety of views, willing to compromise and change their opinions, even beliefs, when presented with new information.. This brief page is designed to help us think and talk about extremists and begin to recognize the trouble in the Mid East is not RELIGIOUS but political. It will take political insight and leadership to solve the conflicts and religion: love, forgiveness and care for each one as a child of God, will help us get there! Rev. Dick Gibson 2/1/08

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Our final lectures in Jerusalem

Bishop Younan speaks to our group at the Lutheran synod offices in Jerusalem. Younan clearly is a brilliant man and brings a passion for his people. He's fireball!

Akiva Eldar of Ha'Aretz next to yours truly

On Monday morning we had the joyful opportunity to meet with Bishop Maneb Younan of the Lutheran Synod of Jerusalem. Younan is an small but very energetic man, passionate and prophetic.

When he's been in the U.S., Younan says, he's been dismayed at the way Palestinians are portrayed in the media. Based on what Americans see, he feels, all Palestinians are terrorists. The sympathy of Americans toward Israel is reflected in many ways, among them the recent General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. Younan kidded us that the PCUSA assembly could easily have been confused with AIPAC. As you can tell, he's a passionate supporter of Palestinian concerns.

Younan made the following points: 1) The U.S. is incorrectly viewing Israeli/Palestinian issues as a small part of a larger, regional struggle. In reality, Hunan said, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is at the heart of regional difficulties and unlocking this problem will also unlock positive relations with the Arab world. 2) Extremism is growing in the region. Younan sees himself, now, as a moderate, and voices at the table who are currently being heard are much more extreme in their outlook. One major problem of extremism is American Christian Zionism, which colors much of Christianity as ultimately anti-Palestinian. "Christians United for Israel" are building a $30 million settlement on the West Bank, which promotes to Muslims the idea that the Christian viewpoint is synonymous with American foreign policy. Ultimately this is destruction for local Palestinian Christian leaders trying to work with Palestinian Muslims. 3) Jewish extremism is growing. Sharon is now seen as a moderate, and forces calling for complete annexation of the West Bank are now more mainstream. Jewish settlers have increased in their attempts to take additional Palestinian land in the West Bank.

Bishop Younan believes the best and only solution has already been agreed to by majorities both in Israel and Palestinian, i.e. a two state solution. The current problem is the need for charismatic leadership that can help both sides achieve this goal.

A myth that needs to be dispelled is that Palestinian Christians are being persecuted by Palestinian Muslims. In reality there has been only one murder of a Christian by Muslims that is even suspicious, and that was the recent murder of a Christian man in Gaza. No one yet knows who is responsible for that crime. Otherwise Muslim and Christian relations are very close and harmonious, with Christians and Muslims having lived side-by-side for hundreds and hundreds of years. Relations with Jews are not always so positive, and Bishop Younan reported having been spat upon by Jews on visiting the Western Wall.

A sign of hope is a recent statement by the Chief Rabbi of Israel that Palestinians have suffered as a result of the occupation. At the same time as that statement was released, a prominent Mufti from Jerusalem issued a statement that, indeed, Israel needs security. This interfaith act is an important step ahead for a region whose people have been divided along religious lines.

I must say our two visits with Lutherans were the most impressive presentations during our Israel-Palestine.stay. Both men, Bishop Younan and Pastor Raheb, operate out of a strong theological position, are passionate about their faith, committed to the well-being of their people, and visionary about the future. Lutherans can be proud that they're well-represented in the Holy Land by capable and talented clergy.

We could have enjoyed Bishop Younan for many more hours, but the bells of the Lutheran church began to ring, which signaled him to move to his next appointment. Several of us head to Papa Andrea's restaurant nearby for a quick lunch before heading out to shop in the Old City. I hope Gail enjoys what I bought her!

In the early evening came one of the highlights of our tour, a visit with Akiva Eldar, an author and journalist with the Ha'Aretz newspaper. Eldar shared his own background as a Palestinian Jew -- an uncommon title -- who was born in Israel prior to creation of the State of Israel in 1948. Eldar since has closely studied Palestinian-Israeli relations and, in addition, has served as correspondent for Ha"Aretz in Washington, D.C.

According to Eldar, Israel originally believed that occupation of the West Bank would be in the best interests of the Palestinians - a sort of enlightened occupation that would bring health care, education, and economic development. A conversation years ago with a Palestinian reinforced in his mind that the reality was far different. An elderly Palestinian told him he'd lived under 4 occupying forces - Turkey, Britain, Jordan and Israel - and that the Israeli occupation was the best and the worst. It was best because israelis did bring some benefits and did, at least at first, care for their Palestinian neighbors, much more so than Turks, Brits or Jordanians. The Israelis were the worst, however, because they are the first occupiers to take away Palestinian land.

Eldar sees Israel and Palestine as being at a critical juncture, but with an unusual set of disadvantages. Olmert, Abbas, and Bush are all in weakened states. This means that the agreed-to goal of a 2-state solution will be much more difficult to achieve. While everyone recognizes the inevitability of a 2-state solution, Eldar feels the parties are now arguing over the remaining 6% - that part not yet settled by previous agreements. Olmert wants to exchange the 6% of the West Bank currently under negotiation for a highway or railway between the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinians are demanding more actual territory, as well as a safe passage between the two portions of the Palestinian state.

Israel and Palestine need to take some chances, Eldar believes. Israel should break the current stalemate by repeating what it did in Nablus - giving the Palestinian Authority control over public safety. The result there has been a great success, where 350 police maintain law and order. If this were repeated throughout the West Bank, there would be far less need for Israeli walls, security barriers, and checkpoints. This would allow more freedom for economic development among Palestinians.

The U.S. has a critically important role in resolving this conflict, since the U.S. has available to it both a carrot and a stick. Only when the U.S. is firmly engaged in creating a just solution will be see a final resolution of the conflict.

Eldar is a delightful man, and I look forward to reading his new book, Lords of the Land: The War for Israeli Settlements. Here is a man who, like many we've met, sees how "stuck" this issue is and is advocating creative ways to move his people into a better future.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

More photos of our trip

Sitting with Israeli soldiers in the Old City. They're just kids.

Michael, Joshua, and Lloyd at the West Wall

Goats herded through Jerusalem just outside the Church of All Nations

A glass blower in Hebron. Fascinating to watch.

Bedouins - Israel's lowest underclass

Sultan Abu-Abayyid shares with our group about Bedouin issues

Eating lunch in a Bedouin tent is for the flexible among us

After our visit to Hebron we headed to Kibbutz Krameem in the Negev for an overnight. The kibbutz is in a quiet, agricultural area and our rooms were individual cabins spread out over a gentle slope.

In the morning, Huda Giddens introduced us to Sultan Abu-Abayyid, a 50ish Bedouin man who comes off as well-educated and professional. He described for us the historical background and current conditions of Bedouin peoples in Israel, Jordan, and Gaza.

Bedouins have inhabited this region for hundreds if not thousands of years. These semi-nomadic people live in tents and have an economy based on goat and sheep herding as well as farming and orchards. Virtually all are Muslim and over 120,000 live in Israel, while 700,000 live in refugee camps in Jordan. No modern government - Turkey, Britain, Israel - has ever quite understood the traditional customs and stubborn libertarian ways of the Bedouin. Israel has tried many times to settle Bedouins in established villages. Instead, most Bedouins live in unrecognized villages consisting of ramshackle tarps and corrugated metal siding. The families are desperately poor, and although they pay income taxes as all Israelis and have full vote, they do not receive commensurate services like education, streets, health care, etc.

After Sultan's excellent introduction, we headed to several Bedouin villages, including Al-Quilya, where we had a delicious lunch seated on carpets. Huda was justifiably proud that the weaving industry she helped restart while she was here some years ago is doing a good job of helping support many Bedouin families. Many of us purchased rugs from the village's carpet shop.

Although we were in the far south of Israel, it was a short, 2-hour drive back to Jerusalem. I was relieved finally to be back online and able to send and receive e-mails home.

After a short break we met with Anglican Bishop Suheil Duwani, a friend of ours since his trip to Seattle last year. Bishop Suheil described his diocese, which consists of about 30 churches and 37 Anglican institutions (hospitals, homes, schools, etc.). There are 7,000 Anglicans in the diocese's five countries - Israel, Jordan, Syria, Palestine, and Lebanon.

Bishop Suheil's focus is on supporting the Christian community, which has been under extreme pressure, in the Holy Land. He hopes to build housing, provide education, and create all the conditions necessary to maintain a strong community here, which is important given that, pre-1948, Christians comprised 1/3 of Palestine's population. The number has slipped to just about 1%.

Interfaith cooperation has also been an important hallmark of Bishop Suheil's ministry. He meets each month with a group of Muslim and Jewish leaders to discuss ways in which they can help build peace in Israel/Palestine. Although ecumenical cooperation in Jerusalem seems scant, given the well-publicized fisticuffs between clergy at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Bishop Suheil's opinion is that the Christian community at the grassroots is strongly united.

Christians are often a bridge for peace and reconciliation between Muslims and Jews, according to the bishop. We pray that his ministry will help that role to flourish in the years ahead.

Some posts by Michael Ramos

Michael Ramos caught a big one


Talk about courageous people. Rabbi Arik Ascherman from Rabbis for Human Rights and Jean Zaru from the Friends International Center are at the top of the list in this increasingly fragmented land. Rabbi Ascherman, a Reform Jew with roots in Erie, PA, and Jean, whose Quaker organization has its international headquarters in Philadelphia, are at the forefront of nonviolent efforts for justice founded upon transformational community action.

Ascherman, inspired by Rabbi Abraham Heschel, recalls his phrase, “some are guilty, all are responsible,” to mean that he must stand in the way of the demolition of Palestinian homes when it is almost impossible for Palestinians to build a home legally. In 2004-05 alone, 246 buildings in East Jerusalem, some 4-7 stories high, were destroyed by Israeli governmental authorities. The Rabbi believes that his organization, joined by 400 rabbis from throughout the country, have at least slowed down the demolitions.

On April 15, 2004, where the erection of separation barriers was being challenged by a Palestinian village, a 13-year old Palestinian boy was beaten by border police. Ascherman could not morally stand by. In the face of tear gas fired by soldiers and rocks hitting him from Palestinians reacting to the beating, Ascherman made himself a human shield and helped save the boy’s life. Not knowing what would happen with the boy, Ascherman found out that the boy testified in court: “A tall Jewish man in a kippa came to my rescue and told me not to be afraid.” Demonstrating great moral strength, Ascherman modeled the justice and compassion that befits a hope for the “repair of the world” or tikkun olam that he wishes for in his country.

Jean Zaru is a Quaker who has been struggling non-violently for most of her life. “I don’t like violence qualified. All violence is bad.” Living in Ramallah in the West Bank, she laments that millions of Christians come to the Holy Land without touching base with Christians here locally. She would tell them (as she told us) that she has to have a permit to go to Jerusalem (just a few miles away); she has to have an outside organization apply for her and deliver it to her. She would say that her people suffer from structural violence. With hundreds of checkpoints, people, including members of the same family, cannot connect with one another. Palestinians are unable to sell their goods. Strawberries and other produce may rot in people’s cars trying to get to market. Unemployment, an exploited water supply, loss of land, and lack of labor protections all are part of the economic injustice she sees. Rabbi Ascherman views the struggle for economic justice as a matter of human rights and a living out of his faith. Jean would concur. “My faith inspires me to act to transform society. If all are created in God’s image, then we cannot destroy any (of God’s people). Unjust structures dehumanize and oppress both oppressors and oppressed.”

Zaru’s spirituality is grounded in dignity, equality, liberation, non-violence and the transformation of society. The Arabic word, samut, or perseverance, sums up her commitment: resisting what is unacceptable and transforming it. It is being “pro-justice” and “finding a way to lift us all together as equals,” so that we might all “live together as neighbors.” Her book, Occupied with Nonviolence: A Palestinian Woman Speaks, will be published in July.

Ascherman and Zaru both live out what the latter proclaimed to our group: “faith without action is dead; truth without being tested in one’s life is worthless.”


Yesterday, we heard two different proposals for peace but emerging from the same basic analysis. This was our experience in talking with two prominent Palestinian political figures, Hanan Aswari, Director of the Miftah Center for Global Democracy and Dialogue, and Mustapha Barghouti, Director of Health and Development in Palestine. Dr. Barghouti analyzes the Palestinian social situation as follows. Since the Oslo Accords in 2003, the Palestinian reality has significantly worsened. The GDP for the average Palestinian is $800-1000 per year. For an Israeli, it is $24,000. Water flowing from the West Bank region is limited to $137 million cubic meters per year, less than one-seventh the water flowing out to Israeli settlements and other parts of Israel. Because of over 700 roadblocks and checkpoints in the Occupied Territories, farmers have trouble getting produce to market and many workers cannot get to their jobs. This leads to the need to purchase more expensive Israeli goods. Yet, Palestinians are still paying their share of taxes to Israel. The Israeli government says that roadblocks and checkpoints are needed for security reasons, including to prevent violence against settlers, who are Israeli citizens, in the Territories.

The wall, sometimes called the separation barrier, complicates the situation on the ground further. Built often further into the West Bank than the proposed Green Line (marking the boundaries of the West Bank), the wall, 8-9 meters high of solid concrete, will surround 850 kilometers of the West Bank upon completion. The wall moves in and around certain cities, creating a patchwork of towns, that if made permanent, would seriously damage the idea of Palestinian contiguity within the West Bank. The city of Qualquiya, for example, is a city of 40,000 completely cut off by the wall from other villages and cities. Without a permit to travel, the vast majority of Palestinians have been unable to leave their districts in the last six years.

Jerusalem is a discussion by itself because of its religious significance for the three Abrahamic faiths. The discussion will be affected by the annexation of East Jerusalem by Israel and the massive building of settlements there which has the effect of reinforcing the decision and impacting the lives of this traditionally Palestinian area.

What Barghouti and Aswari (who will speak in Seattle in April for the World Affairs Council), represent are two prongs of an effort already under way to prepare for a viable and just two-state solution that will not condemn both sides to decades more of conflict. Mindful of the need for reform within the Palestinian political movement itself, Aswari notes that a broad social and economic agenda is needed for the Palestinian people in addition to a changed political reality. “We have to present Palestine with a better agenda with a commitment to a peaceful solution,” she says. These would be based on democracy, pluralism and good government. She believes that the Fatah party needs to learn from the last Palestinian elections.

Barghouti has started the Palestinian National Initiative to engage citizens in a non-violent struggle for an “independent, viable, democratic and prosperous Palestinian state that guarantees security, justice and equality before the law for all Palestinians.

Time is of the essence. Serious efforts from all sides, with the United States engaged actively, is vital so that - in these two figures’ estimation - no more time is lost. As one Palestinian member of our delegation said to the Jewish family with whom we shared a Sabbath meal: “As humans, we want the same things: to raise our children and provide for them through stable employment, an opportunity and hope.” Preparing for such a future for Palestinians and Israelis through negotiations toward a transformed political reality is a dream that these two Palestinian politicians are eager to shape.


Two evening presentations were added to our schedule yesterday. Although we were tired, I felt energized and hopeful, more so than at any other time on this trip. The first meeting was with Tom Garofalo of Catholic Relief Services (CRS).

CRS walks the talk. Working in conjunction with the UN World Food Program, they serve 125,000 people per month, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Most of these people have lost their livelihoods because of the conflict. Working in 140 villages, their immediate task is to enhance food security at the community and family level. Families contribute workers to teams to distribute food. Plans are set up based on priorities articulated by a local council.

Experience in the area since 1961 has led CRS to shift its strategy in the area from that of emergency services to one of development. But by development here is not meant what we might first associate with the term, for example, building water and electrical plants and introducing modern agricultural methods. CRS’ strategy in the face of the proliferation of poverty in a context of extensive security is that of “democracy and governance.” CRS is engaged in addressing the cumulative impact of a generation of suffering by preparing young people for peace. They intend to develop youth leaders through building on home-grown values in order to express them in civic engagement. Earlier experiments included encounters of Christian and Muslim students to engage in peace building among Palestinians.

The task is daunting. In Nehalin, CRS intended to build a school in a fertile town with crops traditionally sold in the main urban centers in the West Bank and beyond. But, now with the town surrounded by a wall, the school cannot be built.

Garofalo assesses the Palestinian situation through the following three reference points. First, there is an economy in dire straits because of restraints on movement and access. He assesses that even if 20% of the roadblocks were removed, people’s economic security would be improved. Second, there is a danger to the long-term viability of the economy due to the continuing of settlements and the wall. Third, there is the crisis in Gaza, closed off by Israel after Hamas took over after winning elections in 2006. Israel had withdrawn from Gaza the previous year. Just this week, the main power plant was shut down by Israel in an effort to stop violence against its border region. This will make food and fuel scarce.

A political solution, in his view, has to be found. This is why Garofalo has been involved in advocacy, in conjunction with the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and in communication with groups such as Churches for Middle East Peace. The first step is to change the dynamic. CRS is on the ground helping to make it happen.


“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”

Matthew 5:9

In 1994, Abuna (“Father”) Elias Chacour, the Melkite Byzantine (Greek Catholic) Archbishop, had a dream. A school for children so that they could build a future for themselves and their people. No Arab-Israeli college existed at the time; Chacour decided to go ahead, believing “asking for forgiveness later was easier than asking permission” ahead of time. The school began with 100 students. But, this school would be different. It would be open to young people from all religions: Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Druze. “We accept you as you are,” said Michael Chacour (nephew of Abuna Chacour) who oriented us and led us on a tour. In the school, children learn to “accept the other as they are.”

Today, 5,500 elementary, high school, college and university students plus teachers updating credentials, energize the campus in the town of Ibillin (northeast of Haifa and northwest of Nazareth). Abuna’s dream of paving the way of peace by engaging the future through education is being realized. The magnificence of this achievement cannot be overstated. Abuna and Michael Chacour are refugees living in their own country. From more than one-half million Christians in the Holy Land in 1948, there are only 135,000 Christians left in Israel and the Occupied Territories. Our bus guide noted the significance of the “rootedness of the Palestinian people.” Arab land in Palestine was given from father to son. In 1948, Michael Chacour said, “We had to let go. The olive trees were uprooted (and they still are today). This symbolizes the uprooting of our families.” He added, “We can feel deep feelings about our situation, but still accept you as you are.”

The Archbishop put it this way in an article by William Raspberry in the Washington Post on December 22, 2003: “If I wanted to be bitter, I could be. I was deported from my village of Biram in 1947, though I remained inside the territory. I’m still not allowed to live in my village. I can attend church there and, oh yes, I can be buried there…But, my parents never believed in hatred and violence. They always taught us that the only way to dispose of an enemy is to turn him into a friend.” Michael concluded: “If you become afraid of another, he becomes your enemy. (Our duty) is to love God and to love our neighbor as our self.”

“Peace is every step.”

Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh

We walked into the church passing over a Buddhist design meant to convey a spirit of welcome and peace to all who enter. Even before, we admired the beautiful sculpted door showing a Native child at the knees of a Palestinian priest, faces of children from different parts of the world and Jewish and Palestinian child with their arms around each other. Where did this come from? From Spokane, WA, through donations of the Methodists and Presbyterians churches and created by Dorothy Farrell. This door was an inspiring glimpse of the people we seek to be.

We went into the school auditorium and turned around. A marvelous peace mural with champions of the work of justice was at the center. Scenes of local life were bordered on either side by the Jewish rabbi and Palestinian landholder who confronted each other when the latter’s land was taken over in the 1940s. At the top of the very center was the depiction of their dramatic, tearful embrace some 40 years later. Peace is every step. Peace is the way.


The prayer today in our devotions was, “Where do we see hope so far on this trip?” I personally found hope today in our three meetings in and around Bethlehem, each representative speaking in a different way about the development of young leaders. In the later morning, we arrived to the Aida refugee camp, populated by 4,500 people, from the original families of displaced people whose homes were taken in 1948. They exist with few alternatives of movement, except to leave the country and move to the United States. Sixty percent of the residents are children. What future do they have? People showed bullet holes from when their “village” was occupied by troops in 2002. We confronted the separation barrier or wall that we understand will soon surround all of Bethlehem. Yet, when we met the brother of a Seattle-based Palestinian who led us on our tour of the camp, there was only pride for the Al-Rowwad Cultural and Theater Center and what their community organization has accomplished and where they are going. Children are trained in various media, including camera and film. Children taking part in theater, including through puppets, both locally and abroad teaches others about their reality and helps prepare these young people with skills for life. Women especially are encouraged to develop to their full capacity, through among other things, making hand-made goods.

The goals of the center are to: promote “beautiful non-violent resistance,” defend humanity and to show duty. Hohni describes it this way: “Nobody is born with the genes of hatred or violence.” We are about constructing ways of self-expression. There is no health clinic in the refugee camp. But, the leaders say they are better off than most of the others in Palestine. A heap of rocks stands in front of the wall where a local denomination hopes to build a church but cannot get permission from the government. Al-Rowwad would like to have a permanent playground there; renting it would be fine. “It is possible to make beautiful things out of garbage.”

The Wi’am Center for Reconciliation began in 1995 and serves Bethlehem and surrounding villages through training in non-violence, civic education and peaceful resolution of conflicts. They specialize in furthering the art of su’ha, the Arabic art of mediation, which allows couples and people having difficulties in their relationships, to resolve the situation through compassionate, thorough listening to both parties. Often the presenting issues are not the only issues at play: such influences as clan and economic deprivation often need to be addressed as well.”

Another prong of their work is with young people. In workshops with as many as 60-80 people Wi‘am implements their motto, “to understand the other is to meet the other.” Here Wi’am puts their “civic education multiplier” into action. They want to train role models so that other young people will have someone to look up to. In another part of their programming, younger children from all backgrounds come and us the center to play.

Finally, Wi’am seeks, like Al-Rowwad, to empower women. Knowledge about their rights helps the women come to know themselves as equal partners to men. Women learn to do embroidery and arrange flowers. All the money that comes in from what they produce goes directly to the women themselves. Recently, 40 women from neighboring villages came to Bethlehem, many for the first time, to meet their urban counterparts. The women felt so empowered that some were talking about running for the local council. These encounters, according to our host, Imad, “uplifts their spirit and personality.”

Though people are “squeezed” by the occupation, opportunities for international meetings of young people brighten the path for those who are becoming leaders. “Violence outside reflects itself at school, (but) empowering the weak brings harmony to the Palestinian community.”

“Making Peace by Creating ‘Facts on the Ground’”

The Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, Pastor of the Christmas (Lutheran) Church in Bethlehem and the head of the Diyar educational consortium, was direct and honest about what was needed here and now in this troubled and historic land: peace makers and peace talkers. Perhaps no other discussion did more to pivot our responsibility (response-ability) than our engaging conversation with a minister who is sowing the seeds of a new reality through locally-rooted action.

“There is too much politics; and, too little care for the polis and the city.” Diyar reaches 60,000 people per year through its college, music and theater arts programs, from “womb to tomb.” “There is too much religion and too little spirituality.” There are a lot of speeches by pastors, he said, including statements by religious organizations (which are good), yet the situation is getting worse. “(Our religious talk) needs to be about the spirituality of Jesus.”

“There is too much humanitarian aid.” The United Nations has been spending money on immediate needs for 60 years, helping individual families. While this is important, “there is too little development; we want to be engaged in development.” Diyar is the third largest employer in the Bethlehem. The impression I was left with was that the best and brightest are here because of the vision of this place, and Pastor Mitri.

On the other hand, Rev. Raheb goes on, “our land needs vision, hope and leadership.” “All the talk is about managing the conflict” instead of ending it. “We provide hope, which is different from optimism. “Optimism is when we believe that (President) Bush will come and he will fix it.” Hope is knowing that tomorrow will be worse and still going out into society and creating facts on the ground. Some (Christians) are waiting for the Messiah. Our Messiah came 2,000 years ago and we don’t need another Christ. We can make it happen.”

Training future leaders of Palestine addresses a lack of leadership. “When they return, they don’t engage in peace talking but peace making….No one of us is a spectator. We are all actors. We are all part of the problem and we all can be part of the solution.”

We were invited to join Rev. Mitri in creating “facts on the ground.” This would be a reframing in meaning from the “facts on the ground” that native Palestinians perceive that settlements and the separation wall are creating (that is, in effect permanent establishments creating new, more constrictive boundaries to be codified when a peace agreement is signed; Israeli officials say that such barriers and settlements would be removed). The ’facts’ that Rev. Mitri is talking about are actions discerned in the light of faith (’praxis’) that manifest care for the city.

Prayer is important. Beyond that, personal visits to these areas encourage others to understand the situation. Rev. Mitri imagines, what if Palestinian businesses received more than the 2% of the expenditures that Christian groups pay for pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Or, we can support a school such as the one under the Diyar consortium. Seeing and discerning lead to acting for justice. Putting facts on the ground through our individual and collective action help to create a new reality. They confirm the sanctity of the land and pave the way to peace.

What if?

Mural at the Ibillin Mar Elias School depicting interfaith cooperation leading to peace

Many people have ideas about how to end this conflict. As we've traveled through Israel and Palestine these last two weeks, I've started to generate my own ideas too. It's clear there are few "practical" solutions, but it's also clear that some pieces are missing if there is to be a way out of this decades-long mess. Rather than focus on the past - all of the hurts and pains of 60+ years of living without peace and harmony - here are some thoughts about how to move into a new future:

Americans - This is what I'll be advocating for from my own government 1) All future aid to Israel should be made contingent on granting of full and equal human rights to all Israeli citizens and anyone under the authority of the Israeli government. 2) Support a return to the 1967 borders and demolition of any walls and separation barriers not on the Green Line. 3) Commitment to economic development in a new Palestine to ensure an end to Palestinian poverty and an increase in the economic well-being of Palestinians.

Palestinians 1) A full and unequivocal repudiation of violence against Israeli civilians and acceptance of a permanent state of Israel in the 1967 borders.2) A Bill of Rights for all Palestinian citizens granting such rights as due process, freedom from discrimination, etc. 3) Full citizenship in Palestine for all Israeli settlers who remain following an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders.4) Creation of a state police function and full judicial system to guarantee justice for all inside a new Palestine.

Israelis 1) Creation of a Bill of Rights guaranteeing equality to all Israeli citizens. 2) Withdrawal from all territories in the West Bank beyond the 1967 borders and demolition of all parts of the Wall not on the 1967 border. 3) Financial reparations to Palestinians who can show legitimate claims to pre-1948 property ownership inside Israel

Why should a plan like this work? First, it would do away with some of the most significant reasons for the conflict: lack of security for Israelis, lack of human rights for the Palestinians, etc. Why would a
plan like this not work? Because the enormous energy given to this conflict by its current participants may take generations to unwind, given the high level of investment by both sides in the current state of affairs.

But what if it could happen? The one player who could make this work is America. We're recognized by both sides as having a key role in resolution of the conflict. If we'd take a fresh look at it, enforce a fair solution, and stand behind partners on both sides who are
committed to peace it just might work. And what a wonder if it did. So many prayers would come true . . . . .

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Deep in the West Bank

Joy Ellison of the Christian Peacemaker Team in At-Tuwani

Our morning took us from Bethlehem, just inside the Green Line, to Hebron, the heart of the southern West Bank. Although I've traveled many times to Israel-Palestine, I'd not yet been to Hebron, which had
always been presented as being too dangerous to visit.

We picked up a member of the Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) from Hebron outside the village of Beit Omar and heard some about a recent episode of violence that had occurred right in the little village outside Hebron. Two Palestinian men had shown up with knives and a gun inside a settlement. They were both shot dead. Hard to say what had provoked them to the point of their violent confrontation with the settlers, but it's clear from hearing stories about Beit Omar and other villages that there is "history" between Jewish settlers and local Palestinians.

In general, Hebron's roots as home to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob make the place sacred to Jews and Muslims alike. Jews settled in Hebron prior to 1948, then returned to Hebron post-1967. Several settlements, including one right in the heart of the Muslim Old City, mean Jews and Muslims are living side by side. Coexistence is tense, to say the least.

Hebron's Jews apparently are the most radical of Jewish settlers, and Palestinian residents of the Old City have put netting over their streets to protect them from stones and garbage thrown by Jewish settlers. CPTs stand between Palestinians and Jews and attempt to protect both. As in many West Bank locales, Jewish encroachments on Palestinian land are unrelenting. The two groups are enemies, and harsh words and bitter feelings are shared. A few years ago a Jewish American doctor named Goldstein brought his gun to the Hebron mosque during prayers and sprayed bullets over the crowd. He killed 29 Palestinians that day, and the atrocity has not been forgotten.

Sometime after that tragedy, Israelis divided the Hebron mosque into a mosque/synagogue, where Jews can see the traditional resting places of the patriarchs on one side while Muslims can do the same on the other - neither side being able to see the other. Having forgotten it was the Jewish sabbath we took a couple snapshots of orthodox Jews leaving the synagogue, and one man shouted out to us, calling us "Anti-Semites" until we put our cameras down.

After lunch in Hebron we drove toward the village of At-Tuwani, near the southern border of the West Bank. CPTs there work in between Palestinian villagers trying to keep their land and radical Jewish settlers trying to expand their settlements. Joy Ellison, a bright young woman from Vancouver, Washington, walked out to our bus to explain the situation there.

At-Tuwani's 150 villagers trace their roots over 800 years to the land surrounding the present village. They graze sheep, raise olives, farm wheat, and grow almonds on the rocky land around their town. The nearby Jewish settlement of Ma-aon, however, has been expanding into the Palestinians' grazing lands, and the Israeli government has marked every building in the village for demolition. Villagers have "fought" back with non-violent resistance, faithfully abiding by principles espoused by Gandhi and King. They managed to force the Israeli government to tear down a wall and have successfully retained ownership and possession of much of their history property. Joy described for us the inspiration she has received from these villagers who have patiently resisted what has seemed an inevitable onslaught of hostility and, sometimes, violence from the settlers.

Friday, January 25, 2008

A Lutheran pastor speaks of hope in Bethlehem

Metri Raheb, pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem

This morning I finally had an opportunity to post my blog. Our hotel has no Internet access (it'll be fixed on Saturday, they say, the day after we leave) so I wrote several posts, then early this morning walked along the main drag in Bethlehem looking for an unattended WiFi signal. Sure enough I found one and sat for the several minutes it took the slow connection to upload 8 e-mail messages and photos.

Bethlehem is a bleak city. Our hotel is directly across from the Wall, which snakes through the city at odd angles and divides the town into odd segments. In our morning Bethlehem tour we learned that the Wall will completely surround Bethlehem when it is complete. Right now it is partly ringed by Jewish settlements - 29 of them. The roads, which are also protected by portions of the Wall, will complete the isolation of Bethlehem.

George Rishmawi, a Bethlehem native, toured us around neighborhoods affected by the Wall, showing us how former Palestinian farmland is cut off from the villagers who tended it, and how new Jewish settlements surround the town. George handed our group off to Husham Jubran, who walked us through the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, a forlorn village of poverty-stricken families displaced by the 1948 creation of Israel.

Afterward we headed to the International Center of Bethlehem (ICB), a program operated out of the Christmas Lutheran Church in the city's
downtown. Rev. Metri Raheb, pastor of the church, laid out a compelling portrait of his people's needs. Raheb told us his land has too much politics, too little care for the polis; too much religion and too little spirituality; too much humanitarian aid and not enough development. The ICB has created a school and college that focus on giving people vision, hope and leadership to help see Palestine through this crisis. He asked our group to pray, to make personal visits to Palestine, and to pick a project to support. The tiny support given by mainline Protestant groups to Palestinian missions was a source of concern for him. He hopes mainliners will become peacemakers, in Jesus' image, rather than mere peace talkers.

Ten days into our visit, I'm beginning to identify with those who feel there's little hope for a solution to the problem of justice for Palestinians and security for Israelis. I am given hope by the existence of people like Metri Raheb. Calm, well-spoken, dignified, and focused, Raheb is the kind of leader a nation can be built on. I pray for him and his work and hope God will grow more like him out of this troubled land.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Photos of the Wall in Bethlehem

Here are miscellaneous photos of the Wall in the West Bank town of
Bethlehem. The artwork is full of irony, pathos, and sometimes beauty.

A priest teaches nonviolent resistance to Palestinian Christians

Yad Vashem, the Jewish Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem (no photos allowed inside)

Naim Ateek (left), Anglican priest and director of Sabeel, an ecumenical center for liberation theology in Israel-Palestine

During the morning our group toured Yad Vashem, the enormous and tragically beautiful Holocaust memorial in Israel. Since I was there last the memorial has been greatly expanded, including a long, triangular gallery that contains a multimedia presentation much like the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C. The event, as always, was deeply moving and painful to endure.

Afterward we headed to the offices of Sabeel, an ecumenical liberation theology center founded and run by Fr. Naim Ateek, and Palestinian Israeli Anglican priest. We shared in communion, followed by a delightful luncheon with Sabeel volunteers. Then we spent nearly 2 hours talking with Naim about the political, theological, and moral situation facing Palestinians.

Naim's viewpoints are amply described in his books, primarily Peace and Only Peace. New to us were some hopeful signs Naim pointed out which primarily come from Israeli Jews. He pointed to the book by Elan Pappe, former professor of history at Haifa University, called The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. This book apparently has set off a wildfire in Israeli society since Pappe is a prominent academic and historian. Another new book has been written by the former Speaker of the Knesset called Hitler Has Won in which Israel is taken to task for its inhumane treatment of Palestinians.

Ateek now believes (contrary to his stance a few years ago) that the only way to find peace will be to create a 2-state solution, with Israel and Palestine side-by-side. Even this won't answer his particular problem, though, since he has full Israeli citizenship but is a "last class" citizen in his own country as a non-Jew. 

When we asked Naim his views of the memorial at Yad Vashem, he said this, "I haven't gone there and I won't until a memorial is built to the Holocaust that is happening around me here in Israel every day."

The key for Ateek and for his followers at Sabeel, is to resist nonviolently, to educate people about the injustice and continually build pressure on Israel to become more humane and just in its dealings with Palestinians on either side of the 1967 Green Line.

Mar Elias School in Ibillin - a success for the church, a success for the people

The door of the Ibillin Greek Catholic Church. Note children from many cultures, including a Palestinian Christian and Jew together on the right.

The next time I come to Israel, I want it to be to Ibillin to work with Christians at the Mar Elias school there. Michaline Chicour, cousin of Abouna Elias Chacour, founder of the school, shared with us the remarkable success at this effort to feed the hearts and minds of Palestinian Christian children.

In 1982, the Mar Elias school opened with 22 students. Today there are 5500 students from Kindergarten through college. While most are Christian, there are also Muslim, Druze, Bedouin, and Jewish kids,
some of whom come from as far as Beersheva (southern Israel) to attend the school. In addition to educational basics, children are taught to live together with others in peace and to appreciate differences of language and culture. Abouna Chicour, now Greek Catholic Primate for Northern Israel, built a church that seats 1200 people - the largest and newest church in Israel.

The school welcomes mission volunteers from all over the world. There's been a special connection with United Methodists, and this is why I want to come here next. I'd like to bring a group to this school, show them that Christianity is alive in Israel, have them work each morning while they're here, then show them the holy sites in Northern Israel each afternoon.

The spirit of the place rubs off. We all came away excited about the hope of teaching cooperation, love of diversity, and understanding of cultures. This is hope for the future.

A different situation for Palestinian Israelis

Janan Simaan, Palestinian Christian Israeli, after our visit with her at Sabeel Nazareth

After some much-needed shopping in Jericho, our group headed to
Northern Israel to see holy sites in Nazareth and Upper Galilee. In Nazareth we enjoyed a fine lunch at a Christian restaurant, followed by a tour through the Church of the Annunciation.

In the late afternoon we met with Janan Simaan, representative of Sabeel Nazareth, who told us of the particular plight of Israeli Palestinian Christians. Janan described the status of Israeli Palestinians (Christian and Muslim) as "not second-class, but last class." There are 1.3 million Palestinians living in Israel, and although this population has the vote they do not have equal rights in the Jewish state. At the airport, for instance, Palestinian Israelis are sent to a different line and the security check there may take hours to perform. Schools and services in Israeli Palestinian villages are meager in comparison to Jewish Israeli schools and services. Israeli Palestinians are not allowed in the military, but for many jobs in Israeli past military experience is a requirement.

Janan shared criticism of the Church as well, which she sees as out of touch with the needs of everyday Palestinian Christians in Nazareth.

On a regular basis Israeli Palestinian towns are appropriated for Jewish settlements, with the Israeli government taking away Arab property for purported "security" reasons. This happens, according to Janan, even though the Israeli courts have ruled it to be illegal. She gave the example of the Arab village of Mashad, where the Israeli government is removing olive trees and giving the land away to Russian Jewish immigrants.

Janan lamented the support given Israel by Christian Zionists in America, who send millions of dollars to Israel to strengthen the Israeli government's work. This is interpreted by Israeli Palestinian Christians as a betrayal by the church and another attempt by ignorant or cruel Americans to stamp our Christianity in Jesus' native land.