Fear has created a segregated society in Israel-Palestine that encourages ongoing ignorance, suspicion, and even hatred of the other. In this environment, shalom, just peace, is hard to imagine. In November of 2015, 15 persons, 13 of us pastors, spent 11 days in Israel-Palestine, guided by MCC staff in a Come and See Tour of Israel-Palestine. Come and See Tours are a response of Mennonite Church USA, with the support of Mennonite Mission Network, Mennonite Central Committee U.S., and Everence, to the plea for awareness and solidarity from Palestinian Christians in “Kairos Palestine: A Moment of Truth” (www.kairospalestine.ps). We listened to Israelis and Palestinians, to Jews, Muslims, Christians, and secular folks. We witnessed their lives, we prayed, and we sang together our lament and hope. Here are some of my reflections, written in my own voice, but reflecting observations I’m confident would be shared by all of our group.
I was most surprised by the degree to which Israelis do not see or know Palestinians. Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger told us that for 35 years as a settler, “I did not see them. They were invisible to me.” Of course, he passed Palestinians every day on the road, at checkpoints, in stores. But they were not human persons to him. They were Other. He assured us that this blindness to Palestinians was shared by 99% of settlers.
As a settler in the West Bank, Rabbi Schlesinger at least passed by Palestinians regularly. For Israelis living in Israel proper, it is quite easy to literally never see Palestinians. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are walled off and not allowed to travel into Israel. Those living in East Jerusalem are permitted to travel in Israel, and 20% of Israel’s citizens are Palestinian. But they go to different schools, do not serve in the army as most Israelis do, and are generally concentrated in the north of Israel.
This blindness encourages fear, and fear builds walls, literally and metaphorically. Because Israelis do not interact with Palestinians, they assume that most Palestinians are like the few who have turned to violent resistance. It becomes easy to label Palestinians as terrorists, and to assume that all Palestinians, if not terrorists themselves, support those who are. We heard many times from Israelis that Palestinians, and the Arab nations surrounding Israel, want to “push Israel into the sea.” We did not hear any Palestinian express anything like this sentiment.
Rather, Palestinians expressed their own fear. They unanimously expressed support for the right of Israel to exist peacefully as a nation alongside a Palestinian state, but they mostly expressed fear and frustration at the many ways in which Israel undermines the possibility of such a peace.
Palestinians cannot ignore Israelis as Israelis ignore them, because they are the occupied, rather than protected by an occupying military. They see the Israeli soldiers everywhere; they slowly move through checkpoints to travel from town to town, or to go to school, or church. They see the settlements continually encroach on their ancestral land.
Palestinians cannot help but see Israelis. But their seeing is also blinded by fear. Israelis are settlers bent on taking their land and soldiers who seize their young men in night raids to discourage stone throwing. It is easy to assume that all Israelis desire all of the land from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River, and support policies that encourage ethnic displacement. Most of the Israelis we spoke to would also like to see peace with justice for Palestinians in a future state of Palestine, and for those currently living within Israel.
Some of us on the tour have had some training in trauma counseling, or have some knowledge of family systems theory and the ways in which characteristics of systems can be passed on to successive generations. We talked about our sense that the trauma that the Jewish people have experienced throughout their history, and especially in the Holocaust, is being revisited upon the Palestinian people.
Rabbi Ian Pear told us that he became a Zionist who supports the nation of Israel because only as a nation-state can Israel hope to influence the world to accept the ethical monotheism that can form the basis for universal peace. And after the Holocaust, when the world did not protect the Jewish people and when they were turned away as refugees by almost all nations (including the United States), the realization grew that Israel needed to provide for its own security through military force. Quoting Isaiah 49:6, he told us that only Israel, secure as a nation, could be a “light for the nations” as God intended.
And yet because of its intensely focused reliance on military power, because it became a nation by expelling many of the Palestinian people living in the land, because it is an occupying power, Israel is not a light for the nations. And at some level, many Israelis know it…
The second biggest surprise I found in our interactions with Israelis and Palestinians was how deeply they desire the approbation and support of the international community. We heard this from many Palestinians, which I expected. Pastor Ashraf sent us from the Sunday morning service we attended at the Beit Sahour Lutheran Church with a passionate benediction: “We are your brothers and sisters in Christ. This is our most important identity. We are fighting for our existence. Please help take this message with you. This is your responsibility.”
But we also heard it expressed with deep emotion by Israelis. Our Jewish guide, Aviva, thanked us profusely, with tears in her eyes, for risking visiting Rachel’s Tomb, a site so close to the “dangers of the West Bank.” “You don’t know how much your support for Israel means to us,” she said, before our polite questions led her to wonder if our support was as fervent as she’d assumed. Other Israelis told us that U.S. support is increasingly important, as Europe and the rest of the world “have turned against us.”
At some level, Israelis recognize that the world has, in general, condemned their refusal to work for peace with the Palestinians who were driven from their lands to form the state of Israel in 1948. (What Israelis call Independence Day, Palestinians remember as Nakba (Catastrophe) Day when 700,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled from their land. Their refugee descendants now number several million, spread primarily throughout the Gaza Strip, the occupied West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria.)
I was surprised by how much Israelis feel besieged by public opinion, and how ardently they were concerned with making sure we understood they were in the right.
One of the most moving presentations for me was from Gerard Horton, of Military Court Watch, who detailed all the ways that the Israeli Defense Forces have “perfected ages old techniques of mass intimidation and collective punishment,” and ended by asking, “How did you think it was being done?” It was clear to all of our group that the injustices we saw and heard described were not primarily personal, but rather involved “cosmic powers of this present darkness.” (Eph. 6:10)
There is not primarily ill will between persons in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Primarily, there is fear and ignorance of the other, there is trauma not yet healed, there is hatred borne of these, and there are policies of segregation that rise above any individual’s personal feelings, and encourage and exacerbate them.
How then, may we hope to respond? I will boycott Israeli made goods, and explore whether I can divest retirement funds from Israeli companies and companies that profit from the occupation. I don’t believe that boycotts often work, but given how much concern I heard for the opinion of the world from Israelis, perhaps this one will. Israeli peace activists that we heard from had mixed feelings about the Boycott-Divest-Sanction movement, but several supported it as a nonviolent tool to bring pressure on Israel. I hope that Mennonite Church USA will pass the resolution on Israel-Palestine that we tabled in Kansas City, which while not fully endorsing BDS, expressed care about how our financial lives are enmeshed in policies of occupation.
But I have relatively little hope for such efforts. Indeed, I am largely drained of human hope. Ephesians 6 goes on to say, “Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication.” I sometimes find appeals for prayer trite, especially if they are accompanied by invitations for other types of “practical” support. I do not feel thus here. When I reflect back over our learning tour, I find myself prone before the cross that represents the depth of divine love and our call to such love. My heart throbs, my eyes burn with tears, and the only hope I can muster is my faith that God can do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine. (Eph. 3:20)
So pray. Pray that Israelis and Palestinians will see each other as children of God. Pray that God might heal the trauma that Israelis and Palestinians have suffered for generations. Pray that Israel would truly seek the peace of the nations, whether as a result of global pressure or because of Isaiah’s words. Pray that leaders will somehow find the imagination and strength to reach out to each other with hope rather than fear. Pray for shalom, for the shalom of Jerusalem and all it might be, a city shared by Israelis and Palestinians, Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Please pray.
This “Opinions” section of our website provides a forum for the voices within Mennonite Church USA and related Anabaptist-Mennonite voices. The views expressed do not necessarily represent the official positions of The Mennonite, the board for The Mennonite, Inc., or Mennonite Church USA.