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.


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