It’s near the end of our trip. We’re on our way to Hebron on a day where there are no known protests scheduled. Looking out the window of the bus, I realize just how weary I’ve grown of looking at that wall – the physical symbol of a very broken world. The black water tanks on the roofs quickly tell me that we’re in a Palestinian neighborhood rather than an Israeli neighborhood. And the checkpoints. Soldiers board the bus and ask if there are any Palestinians on-board. The soldiers have their fingers always on the trigger – soldiers the age of my children. And we do have a Palestinian on-board today – he’s a Palestinian Christian, works at World Vision, educated at the Vatican. He has a “P” on his Israeli passport. We’re told that Charlie’s lucky—he’s got blue eyes. Could go back to the time of the British occupation or all the way back to the Crusades.
The thing that most hits me about the young soldiers is that they’re being put in this awful situation. They’re given authority over other peoples’ lives that they probably aren’t mature enough to handle and it’s a no-win situation that the government puts them in. There were two of them – a girl and a boy. And I say “girl and boy” because I think they weren’t much more than 18. In a couple of more casual situations, they seemed really young and almost casual about toting these guns around – kind of like they were playing soldier.
I became involved with the BelPres Israel/Palestine Peacemaking Team at its inception in 2013. We’ve hosted a number of forums and workshops designed to educate and involve people with what’s happening in the Holy Land. In February of this year, Becky Gonzalez, then the Global Mission Director in Mission + Serve at BelPres, asked if I wanted to join her on a World Vision Women’s Delegation for Peace and Justice in the Holy Land tour. We had just three days to decide if we would do it. Sometimes it’s good not to have too much time to think.
I still can’t quite put into words how this trip has affected me – almost too much to absorb. I grew up learning about the Holocaust and the need for a Jewish homeland and the story of Israel at Sunday school, but looking back I don’t recall ever hearing anything about the Palestinians who lived in that land, including the Palestinian Christians.
Snippets of what I saw and heard pop into my head daily: shopkeepers in the West Bank who asked us if we felt safe there (which we did). They asked us to tell people back home. I think of the headmaster of a Christian school who told us they felt deserted by the church in the United States. “Some day,” he said, “You will come here only to see the Christian Holy Sites as museums. There will be no Christians left.” When asked why they continued to work with Muslims, he said they refused to desert their Muslim brothers. I think of the village of Budrus and their school. Jews and Muslims protested there together to stop the taking of land by the Israeli government. When we asked the students what they wanted to say to us they said simply that they wanted the same things we want for our children. And that’s a pretty universal thing. Doesn’t much matter where you live or what religion you are, we all want the best for our children.
It is a false choice to have to side with either Israel or Palestine, despite what we hear and see in the media, despite the constant message of our culture to fear and hate one side or the other. For every inch of wall that’s built, every new concrete barrier erected and checkpoint added, every stone that’s thrown by an Israeli or by a Palestinian teenager, every humiliation inflicted, every time a street sign in East Jerusalem gets changed overnight from an Arab name to a Hebrew name, for every stabbing by a 17-year-old Palestinian teenager and the shooting of that teenager by the Israeli forces, fear and hatred win out. The extremists on both sides win. Leaders look to political peace processes, walls, blockades, and the military, but these have not worked to solve the problems. So, how can we have any hope at all for the Holy Land?
I had always planned to visit the Holy Land someday. I thought mostly of visiting the Holy Sites and especially experiencing the feeling of actually walking where Jesus had walked. But what struck me as we spent those ten days there just six months ago was that I was much less affected by walking where Jesus had walked and much more affected by the desire to walk the way Jesus had walked in that land. We are called to know and to love one another – to refuse the incessant calls to hate and fear. To simply talk to one another.
There is a coffee shop in Bethlehem called Stars & Bucks. We could not resist going in. When asked where I was from, I told the shopkeeper, “Seattle—where Starbucks was founded.” I heard laughter behind me and turned to see a Muslim woman in a hijab. To tell you the truth, Muslims used to make me a little uncomfortable. Not so anymore. We chatted briefly, mostly about her children and her desire for them to go to college in America. As we said good-bye and I walked out the door she said, “You are welcome in Bethlehem, you are welcome in Palestine.”