Eleven days in Israel/Palestine…eleven exhausting, eye-opening, life-changing days…so many defining moments, so many stop-dead-in-your-tracks encounters… And the take away?
Let me explain.
Put 110 Presbyterians in a hotel meeting room in Newark to prepare them for the Holy Land and you will have diversity: age, gender, ethnicity, big church/small church, urban church/rural church, pastors, laity. But you’ll find commonality, too. Most of us participating in the Mosaic of Peace Conference were traveling to Israel/Palestine for the first time. Most of us, as Western Christians, carried with us images of what we expected to see: the Church of the Nativity, the Western Wall, the Garden of Gethsemene.
Many of us carried other images, too, given to us by our Western media—images of Palestinians: teenagers throwing rocks, twisted, smoking metal and bleeding bodies carried through streets…the aftermath of suicide bombers, mothers wailing and shaking their fists at the death of their children. And many of us, I suspect, had we been asked as we departed for Tel Aviv, “Are you pro-Israel?” would have answered, even if we didn’t entirely know what it meant, “Yes.”
I now understand that pointing fingers is too easy.
Arriving in Israel, the defining moments, the stop-dead-in-your-tracks encounters began, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that everything I thought I knew—the images—about Israelis and Palestinians, about Jews and Muslims and Christians, I didn’t.
There was the Israeli Passport Control Officer who welcomed me to Israel – and then made it clear while I was briefly detained at immigration that my admission to the country was contingent on supplying all my landline and cell phone numbers, email addresses, and my father’s and grandfather’s names. There was the trip to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum, where a young woman dressed in Israeli Defense Force fatigues sat weeping as she watched newsreel footage of a bulldozer scraping a mound of emaciated bodies into a pit. There was the fork in the road as we approached the Separation Wall outside Bethlehem: Jews and visitors to the left, Palestinians to the right.
There was the mud squishing beneath my shoes as we walked the narrow alleys of the Dheisheh Refugee Camp because it was the first time in 10 days the Israelis had given water to the Palestinians living there. There was the path we walked to a site by the Jordan River where tradition tells us the Prince of Peace was baptized, surrounded by landmines and soldiers with machine guns and a souvenir shop selling I Was Baptized in the Jordan River T-shirts.
There was the mud squishing beneath my shoes as we walked the narrow alleys of the Dheisheh Refugee Camp because it was the first time in 10 days the Israelis had given water to the Palestinians living there.
There were the Palestinian kindergarteners in Jericho singing and dancing for our group of Americans with cameras around our necks, who then tried to teach them the intricacies of rock-paper-scissors. And there were the charts graphically illustrating how so much of what is being done in Israel/Palestine in the name of security is paid for with American tax dollars.
Learning that everything I thought I knew, I didn’t, explains the confusion I felt most of the time I was in the Holy Land. It explains why, when someone asked what I thought about what I was seeing, the only way I could respond was, “There’s just so much to process.” There was. And there still is. But, slowly, processing is giving way to understanding.
I now understand that being “pro-Israel” is not the issue. Nor is being “pro-Palestinian” or “pro-Jewish” or “pro-Muslim,” etc. The issue is being “pro-human rights” or, even more to the point for me as a follower of Jesus, “pro-Kingdom of God.” There’s no doubt that the challenge of peace between Israelis and Palestinians is about geopolitics…and it’s about religion and it’s about history and it’s about money. But before it’s about any of those things, I believe it’s about this: the basic right of all human beings to peace and justice, to livelihood and sustenance and security, to shalom. It’s about life as Jesus described it when he talked about the Kingdom.
I now understand that pointing fingers is too easy. The mind-numbingly complicated conflict between Israelis and Palestinians became less so when I began to label perpetrators and victims. Standing on the Palestinian side of the Separation Wall, I experienced an overwhelming sense of indignation: how could Jews, given their own history, build walls and laws to cleanse another people from their midst? Time and again, I found my sympathies falling with the Palestinians, my anger at the Israelis.
Scripture makes it clear: there is no peace without justice. But before there can be justice, there must be repentance.
And yet easy as it might be to demonize Israel, no party to this conflict has clean hands. The history of Israel/Palestine is a history bigger than that of Jews and Arabs. It’s a history of many peoples and agendas. At any number historical junctures, had the will to do what is just won out over the will to do what is expedient – or ideologically felicitous – Israel/Palestine may look very different than it does today. This is not to diminish the pain and suffering endured by any people. It is, instead, to acknowledge that reducing the conflict to arguments about perpetrator and victim, while perhaps easier, minimizes the possibility of all parties, ourselves included, taking responsibility for our own roles in this tragedy.
Scripture makes it clear: there is no peace without justice. But before there can be justice, there must be repentance. Most of the voices raised about Israel/Palestine, it seems to me, are calling for repentance. Whether voices of divestment or Christian Zionism, pro-Israel or pro-Palestine, Jewish or Muslim or Christian—all, in the name of bringing peace to Israel/Palestine, demand repentance of those taking positions contrary to their own.
The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement (BDS), about which we heard much during the Mosaic Conference, is a good example. Many have argued, convincingly, that companies benefiting from the Israeli occupation and the people who support them must stop and turn – repent – from these actions. But whether or not I support BDS—and for the record, I do—it seems disingenuous for me to insist on the repentance of others unless I, myself, have repented.
Oppression doesn’t just take the shape of separation walls and checkpoints, isn’t a product only of history or ideology. It is, first and foremost, a product of human brokenness, which is why the fight against it begins with human repentance.
Yet a day after returning from Israel, I was grocery shopping at a big box chain store. Not because it’s the grocery store closest to my house (it’s not) but because by shopping there, I can save $2 on a box of Grape-Nut Flakes There I was, trying to save $2, even as the business practices of said store enable sweat-shop conditions elsewhere in the world, even as many of the U.S. store employees are paid less than a livable wage. How righteous is my indignation about what is happening in Israel/Palestine if, in my own country, I make decision based not on their impact on other human beings but rather on how I can get a box of cereal for cheap?
Oppression, after all, doesn’t just take the shape of separation walls and checkpoints, isn’t a product only of history or ideology. It is, first and foremost, a product of human brokenness, which is why the fight against it begins with human repentance. And this repentance is necessary not just for corporations and governments, but individually, for each and every one of God’s children. It’s repentance that can begin with a box of cereal.
One of our last times together as a group before leaving for home, we worshiped in Ibillin at the church of Archbishop Elias Chacour. As worship ended, our group spontaneously began to sing, Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me. Whatever I do in the name of peace, of facilitating repentance, be it among my Jewish, Muslim, and Christian brothers and sisters in Israel/Palestine or within the four walls of my own home, I must, as we sang, begin with me…with my own life, my own need to repent.
Ultimately, this may not prove to be the most important lesson of my time in Israel/Palestine, but it is the place I—the place we all—must start.
AUTHOR BIO: David Barker is the Pastor of CENTRALongmont, a Presbyterian congregation in Longmont, Colorado. He also co-chairs the Zambia-Zimbabwe-Mozambique Mission Network for the PC(USA) and, as proof that we do indeed live by faith and not by sight, is a Chicago Cubs fan.
Click here to read the items of business concerning the Middle East coming before the General Assembly this summer.
Read more articles from The Road to Detroit: Issues of Social Justice Before the 221st General Assembly!