Journey to the Holy Land

Last year, I traveled to Israel/Palestine with BelPres members, Overlake Christian Church members and a Muslim couple. Our primary purpose was to learn about multiple perspectives on the current conflict there.  Our good fortune was to have Rev. Dr. Mae Cannon (Churches for Middle East Peace, Washington D.C.) as our sponsor and guide.  She arranged for us to meet with people from Israel and Palestine to hear what life is like and to learn how things became so very complicated ‘first-hand.’

Our two guides, an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian Muslim from the West Bank, were wonderfully qualified to provide rare, multidimensional views of two ongoing, diverse perspectives.  They were with us throughout the trip explaining their respective histories.  Together, Israel and Palestine are about the size of New Jersey, so we covered a lot in 11 days.  There are two stories to share.

The first involves two fathers who lost daughters in the conflict and whose stories are heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time. One is Jewish whose teenage daughter was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber and the other is Palestinian whose young daughter was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier.  The pain these two men have experienced is unimaginable. The temptation to react violently must have been overwhelming.  However, neither chose to respond with violence.  Instead, they chose peace.

They met after their respective tragedies and became very good friends.  Now, telling their stories together, they’re advocating for reconciliation.  The two men, like many we met, are weary of war and in sharing their heartbreak, their strength and determination, they are making a difference.

The Palestinian father said he believes people hate each other because they fear each other and they fear each other because they don’t know each other. For example, he didn’t know about the Holocaust until he was an adult.

The Israeli father said, after his daughter was killed, he asked what had happened to Palestinians to make them so angry they would destroy their own lives and the lives of children. As he uncovered answers to this, his heart was softened to the history and pain of Palestinians. The Israeli man closed by saying that occupation is not a Jewish value and standing against it is not anti-Semitic. Both men agreed the best place for Americans to begin understanding is to become informed.

My second story involves a man who served in the Israeli Army. During a quiet time in our travels, I asked him what he thought about U.S. presidential administrations’ actions related to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.  He responded with regret and sadness that it doesn’t matter who the U.S. President is; none of them has had the courage to stand up to the Israeli government.

My heart breaks for the horrors Jewish people have suffered, especially the Holocaust.  I have been to Dachau, Germany (a Nazi death camp) where many Jewish people were murdered.  I‘ve been to The Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. and to the Holocaust museum near Jerusalem – Yad Vashem.  While both memorials show the stark detail of unspeakable crimes committed against the Jews, anti-Semitism still exists in much of the world today.  I believe Israel has the right to have a State and to live in peace within the pre-1967 borders.  So, I am pro-Israel.

I am also pro-Palestinian.  On our trip, we spent a great deal of time on the Palestinian side of the “separation wall.”  The contrast between the Israeli side and the West Bank side is startling: limited access for Palestinians for basics such as water, health care, jobs and roads, is all controlled by Israel.  From what I saw, both sides continue to suffer and Palestinians seem to bear a greater share of suffering.  My heart also breaks for them.  I believe for Israel to prosper, Palestine must also prosper.

Our group continues to meet and act with a pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, pro-Jesus narrative at the heart of our work.  We pray for peace and we act for peace.  We invite you to join us.

People Building Bridges

“We refuse to be enemies.”

 

These words greeted us as we approached the Tent of Nations, a farm on a hill near Bethlehem, in Palestinian West Bank territory. The words are inscribed on a stone at the entrance to the property owned by the Nassars, a Palestinian Christian family, for over 100 years. Generations of Nassars have grown up on this land adorned with olive, apricot, and fig orchards as well as vineyards extending across rolling hills.

When the BelPres Israel/Palestine Peacemaking Team visited the Tent of Nations last February, we met around a conference table inside a cave in the hillside where Daher Nassar spoke to us about the farm’s history and ministry and taught us just enough Arabic to join him in singing a song of praise to God. The family then served us a delicious traditional Palestinian meal.

Daher told us about the family’s 26-year struggle to retain ownership of their farm. In 1991, the Israeli government threatened the Nassars with confiscation of their land. He said they were successful in opposing the move in court because his grandfather had registered the property in 1916 with the Ottoman government, which was in power then. They have retained documented ownership of the property spanning the Ottoman rule, the British Mandate, the Jordanian administration, and the current governing arrangement.

At this point, it seems the odds are stacked against them. In 2001, the Israeli government closed the road that leads to their property, and six years ago they gave them “demolition orders,” which means they cannot build anything on their property and they cannot have access to water or electricity.

According to Daoud, once when the Nassars told settlers who were trying to take their land that they had documents showing their ownership since 1916, the settlers responded by saying, “You have papers from here, but we have papers from God.” Over the years the Nassars have endured many types of intimidation, including damage to their property by settlers with heavy equipment and destruction of hundreds of olive and apricot trees.

The Nassars believe this action is designed to provoke them to respond with violence or give up and leave the country, leaving the land open to be taken over by Israeli settlers. Instead, they have responded based on Matthew 5:14 and 16. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden…In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

The Nassar family says they believe in justice and refuse to be victims, but they also refuse to hate. Their goal is to respond not as expected, but in what they call “the Jesus way,” which is “to overcome evil with good, hatred with love, and darkness with light.” They admit that it is much easier to say this than to live it.

I grew up on a farm and understand the challenges of operating a farm even when you have access to electricity, running water, and waste removal. I am fascinated at how the Nassar family has used this extremely difficult situation for good by creatively solving the problems that arise. They have made their farm self-sustaining by harnessing solar power to generate electricity, collecting rainwater to use for running the farm, composting and reusing much of the waste the farm generates, and by recycling wastewater.

Tent of Nations also provides education to children of the villages and refugee camps in the area. They hold summer camps where children learn about the farm, participate in arts and drama classes, play soccer, and take part in discussions about non-violence as a solution to the problems they face every day.

The Tent of Nations has become a model for how to respond to threats and violence with love. It is a center where people from many nations and religions gather to learn, share, and build bridges of understanding and hope. The Nassars invite Israelis to come see their land and hear their story. By simply working the land and inviting guests of all faiths and nationalities to participate, they have made their farm a symbol of peace and hope. Despite the difficult circumstances, the Nassar family continues to live and act based on their conviction: “We Refuse to Be Enemies.”