This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Taking care of the land of milk and honey

Photo: The author’s son, Alex, with grandpa Jeff Halper at a Women in Black protest in Jerusalem. The Women in Black is a Jewish organization of mostly Jewish women that hold vigils every Friday across the country to raise awareness of the ongoing occupation. Alex’s grandma is part of the Jerusalem chapter. Photo provided. 

“When you besiege a city for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them. You may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Are the trees in the field human, that they should be besieged by you?” Deuteronomy 20:19 (ESV)

Being the father of an Israeli Jew comes with a hypersensitivity to raising my son so he understands his societal privileges and how those privileges have been formed in large part by 50 years of Israeli military occupation of the Palestinian people. Even at the small age of four, Alex is already becoming aware of the difference in the spaces that he occupies; how the landscapes and environment change as he travels between Israeli and Palestinian communities.

He’s quick to point out that that there are many more parks for kids in Jerusalem than in Bethlehem. He likes to point out the trees around him in Jerusalem and asks where all the trees are in Bethlehem. He notices that the streets are cleaner when he’s in Jewish neighborhoods than when he is in small Palestinian enclaves and that his mother never buys bottled water, while Palestinians almost exclusively drink store-bought water.

I try my best to explain it to him, but there is just so much to unpack.

One day, sitting out on my terrace, I asked Alex which he liked better: Jerusalem or Bethlehem.

He quickly responded, “Jerusalem, because they have playgrounds.”

It’s true. Every few blocks it seems there is an open, public space for children to play. It’s amazing and refreshing in many ways, but as we sat at my place near the western boundaries of Bethlehem, I pointed out to Alex the Israeli settlement of Har Homa, a settlement bloc established in the 1990’s to separate the Palestinian cities of Bethlehem and Beit Sahour from Jerusalem. I explained to him that since Palestinians were forced off that mountaintop, they had to build their houses where there could have been playgrounds and that once the apartheid wall was built around daddy’s city, the rest of the Palestinian kids could no longer play on the same playgrounds that he does in Jerusalem.

Last year, I took Alex to East Jerusalem for an olive harvest sponsored through our local church, the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer. Enjoying his day with all the other kids, he asked when we got back, “Why don’t we pick olives in Bethlehem?”

I told him that over time, picking olives with the Palestinians has changed and explained how hundreds of thousands of olive trees have been uprooted. I told him that when we stand for hours at the checkpoint trying to go to school in the morning, a lot of the Palestinians heading to work used to work in the olive groves.

I didn’t get into details of the heavy toll the olive tree destruction has taken on the culture and the local

The Qalandia checkpoint. Photo provided.

economy, nor did I tell him how the Israeli economy benefits by creating a surplus of labor that is routinely exploited. My son, at this age, wouldn’t understand that the Israeli government makes millions of dollars annually from Palestinians paying permit fees to work inside the Green Line (the 1949 demarcation line designating the boundaries of the state of Israel). I also left out the caveat that sometimes the olive trees are destroyed to make room for Israeli roads, which Palestinians aren’t allowed to use. A little guy like Alex just knows that olive trees are fun to climb on; a small gift from God for all the children to play on.

When we go shopping, Alex often reminds me that his mother doesn’t buy bottled water. I have to tell him that sometimes the water is dirty here, unlike the water in the Israeli neighborhoods, and that in some cases, when we see Palestinians with water bottles, it’s because they don’t have any running water in their homes. With a glazed look already on his face, I spare him a long lecture about the Israeli-owned Geshuri factory and the subsequent environmental disaster it continues to leave behind in the Palestinian governorate of Tulkarm.

The Geshuri factory, which produces an assortment of agricultural chemicals-a cocktail consisting of pesticides, insecticides, and fertilizers-was originally located on the Israeli side of the Green Line in the early 80’s, in the town of Kfar Saba. Because of environmental and health concerns, petitions by local Israelis, and subsequent court rulings, it was shut down in 1982. However, Israel’s policies regulating business activities on Palestinian lands opened the doors for Geshuri industries to be moved into the illegal settlement of Nitzanei Shalom (Buds of Peace in Hebrew) in the Tulkarm Governorate of the West Bank.

While the environmental and health issues aren’t unique to Israel or the Geshuri factory, what makes this particularly dubious is that the facility is allowed to operate as long as the wind doesn’t blow towards Israeli residents, effectively saying that the factory is only a health concern if the wind is blowing on Israelis and not Palestinians.

Naturally, the impact on Tulkarm, home to some 172,800 Palestinians, has been immense, ranging from the runoff of agricultural land-poisoning water cisterns to an increase in cancer. Geshuri is just one example of the dozens of Israeli factories and hundreds of settlements and outposts that have worked to impact the environment, particularly the meager water resources.

I’m sure Alex and I will have this conversation soon enough.

Creeping up on five years old in August, Alex continues to connect the dots in his little mind to make sense of the world around him. He’s developing his moral understanding and asking a lot of questions along the way, sometimes hard ones.

The other day, we were walking down the street and Alex saw a bottle on the sidewalk. He turned to me with a straight face and said, “I am going to pick that up and throw it away.”

And that he did, without hesitation and with conviction. Alex knows that this is land we all share; that we all have to take responsibility; that we are our brother’s keeper.

In that one brief moment, watching my son, the words of Jesus rang ever so clear: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

And within that statement, I could see the power of justice materialize by way of my son, through that one simple action: Unburdened from the fear of judgment, unformed by his national identity of being an Israeli Jew, unshackled from the notion that it wasn’t his problem, he simply followed his own spirit and did what was right.

Cody O’Rourke has been working in Israel-Palestine on and off since 2005 with the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions, Christian Peacemaker Teams and the Hebron International Resource Network. He is the father of an Israeli Jewish son and he lives in Bethlehem. 

Read more feature articles about the Christian call to care for the environment in the April issue of The Mennonite magazine. 

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