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.”
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.