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.”