Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Summary and Closing Thoughts

I have been back in the USA for about a week now and am getting settled back into my comfortable American life. As expected many of my friends and associates have asked me about how I felt about my time there and more specifically the solutions for peace. Frankly the solutions are less difficult to articulate than the path to them. While three months of relationship building with Palestinians and Israelis clearly does not make me an expert on the situation I, like millions of others, have an informed opinion. I want to close out my posts to this blog with a summary of my experience as an Ecumenical Accompanier in Palestine and Israel, and my observations on the potential for peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

My three month adventure was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I am incredibly thankful to my family and my business partners who took on added responsibility to allow me to take a mid-life pause. It was not easy on them and I feel blessed to have their support. As I reflect on my experience I find that I most value the opportunity to have made so many new friends and meet so many interesting people. I met people from all walks of life, including doctors, lawyers and other professional people, religious leaders, shopkeepers, laborers, goat herders, politicians, peace activists and just plain good people. It is these people that will be etched in my memory long after the images of the places and events I witnessed fad away. I would love to introduce you to all of them but there are so many that I would need to write a book to tell all their stories. While Israel/Palestine can be a depressing place that is filled with anger and tension rooted in the oppression of occupation, it is held together by people with the optimism that a better day is possible. Many have dedicated their lives to that effort. They are the ones who give me hope for a just peace.

I found the Palestinians, almost to a person, to be genuinely warm, congenial people. They have a pervasive culture of hospitality that is disarming and humbling. They will readily share whatever they have and accept you as a friend until proven otherwise. While I found Israelis to be much more guarded and wary as a rule, I found many among them who are as warm and inviting as the Palestinians. I made many Israeli friends and find that they have more in common with their Palestinian neighbors than they realize. I was saddened by the fact that the crafters of the occupation have created a culture of demonization between these two wonderful groups of people that have so much shared history. Suspicion and fear is perpetuated by the very limited contact that takes place between Israelis and Palestinians. The social and physical barriers that have been erected over the last decade have only served to fuel the view of the other as demons who are some how less than human. I firmly believe that this, more than anything else is the barrier to peace. Peace must be rooted in one-to-one relationships that are built on a foundation of mutual respect and trust. I have seen these relationships develop and the power that they have. Goodwill is contagious and can overcome the fear that drives decision making on both sides today.

While I have worked very hard to understand both sides of this conflict I have found that at the end of the day it is an occupation not a bilateral conflict. It is easy to look back into history, point fingers and find rationales for actions both parties have taken that have escalated hostilities. Peace will not be formed or shared by those in the past. It will only benefit those in the present and future. It is with those people in mind, and with the current realities, that peace must be viewed. As long as people continue to justify their actions based on what happened in the past, the spiral of hatred will continue to escalate until we have the end of mankind in the form of nuclear war. A frightening graffiti on a wall in West Jerusalem that says, “War is forever” puts voice to the escalation. If war is forever, ultimately, mankind is not and that must give us pause

Some would argue that the conflict is a religious struggle. For the same reason I do not believe war is forever, I do not believe that Gods vision for his people includes escalating hatred and ongoing war. While I am a person of faith I also believe that God’s will is not ours to steer and that our call to be peacemakers and share the world God created for us trumps any efforts to see prophesy fulfilled. Those of any faith background who call on men to make decisions in the name of the fulfillment of the will of God, or call for “holy war” are acting out of human frailty and fear. As people of faith we are called to first love our neighbor as ourselves. This simple theme is common among all faith communities in the world. That fact alone should give us the clue that it is God’s highest expectation of all people on earth.

What is going on today is an oppressive and brutal occupation of the Palestinian people by the country of Israel. It is an ethnic cleansing initiative that is engineered to disposes the Palestinian people of their land and their dignity, in an effort to force them off of land that a Jewish religious minority believes to be the exclusive God given territory of the Jewish people. The fact that Palestinians have lived there as long, or longer than the Jews means nothing to these zealots. The harsh reality of today is that while it is clearly a one sided fight militarily, the Palestinian people have persevered. They are not, and will not leave. It is only because of the world’s indifference and the protection of the United States that the occupation has been allowed to plod on in a man made effort to fulfill prophesies. The increasingly brutal efforts of the Israelis to force the Palestinians out by demolishing their homes, restricting their movement with walls and checkpoints, bombing them, and generally making their live as miserable as possible, is not having the desired affect. The Palestinian population is growing. Perhaps that should be a sign that ethnic cleansing is not sanctioned by God as the perpetrators of these crimes have convinced themselves.

A significant driver of the Occupation is the historical oppression of the Jewish people. Like a battered child who grows up to become a child abuser, Israel is repeating history. They are doing to the Palestinians, what was done to their ancestors. I consider myself a Zionist. I believe in the need for a homeland for Jews to offer them a sanctuary of religious freedom. I believe in the right for Israel to be a religious state. I do not believe that right extends to the oppression of other indigenous people. While the occupation is an unjust dominance of the Palestinian people and should be ended based on that alone, it is also tearing at the fabric of Israeli society and the Jewish soul. For their own sake the people of Israel need to end the Occupation. It has spawned militarism within Jewish society leading to an acceptance of violence that is impacting family life and personal well being on a mass scale. The actions taken by young Israelis as a part of their required military service have called them to question the morality of their government and forced them to examine their own morality. This breakdown in the moral fabric of the society has lead to an escalation of the conflict and lead to an increasingly negative view of Israelis, isolating them as a member of the world community. I have personally witnessed the increasing impact of the occupation on both Israelis and Palestinians. For the sake of all of the people of the region and the world the Occupation must end.

So what does a peace settlement look like? In one of my very first posts here I introduced you to Gila Svirski, The Israeli peace activist who founded Women in Black over 20 years ago. I told you about her view of a just peace. Over these past three months I have talked with people of diverse views of the occupations, both the occupiers and the occupied. I have asked them what peace looks like to them and have found that Gila’s summary of the issues is representative of broadly held mainstream views on both side as to what a just peace looks like. The issues can be summarized into a few succinct areas.

Settlements - There are today 400,000 Jews living in illegal settlements in the West Bank, east of the green line. Of those 200,000 are in greater Jerusalem, including 30,000 in Ariel and another 30,000 in Mali Adumin. Clearly not all of these Jews can be relocated to Israel so there will need to be a land swap whereby Palestine would receive land that is currently part of Israel. This would require the relocation of about 200,000 settlers. Gila has a great idea for how to get them to move. Over a five year transition period you pay the settlers to relocate to Israel on a decreasing basis, i.e. full payment in year one decreasing to zero in year five. If after year five they choose to stay they are no longer Israeli citizens and they can become citizens of Palestine.

Jerusalem - The city of Jerusalem which is cherished by three religions needs to be shared, as it has for century's, and be the capital of both Israel (West Jerusalem) and Palestine (East Jerusalem). The best solution I have heard for this sharing is to make Jerusalem an “international city” similar to the Vatican. It would not be controlled by either Israel or Palestine but would be controlled by a unique international body formed to govern it under international law. The focus of governance would be religious freedom and equal rights for all inhabitants.

Refugees - In 1948 the Jews forced 700 thousand Palestinians into refugee camps in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Jordon and the West Bank. Since that time the Palestinians have continuously demanded a right to return to their homes under international law. Gila says this issue appears more difficult than it is. This issue has more to do with the acknowledgement of the injustice that was done to the Palestinians than their actual relocation after all these years. There are two components to the solution that she says is consistent with Middle Eastern culture where it is OK to say one thing and do another. The first step is the key which is to acknowledge the injustice and the right of return provided for under international law. A small number of Palestinians would become citizens of Israel based on family reunification needs. The remaining refugees would be made citizens of their host countries and paid reparations by Israel.

Water - Existing water resources need to be shared ratably by both countries and a major international investment in desalination plants needs to be made to assure water resources for both countries. Today Israel has gerrymandered the border in order to control both the water and tillable land. Palestine needs to get back the tillable land east of the green line and the water to produce crops on it.

As I said in my introduction, the solutions are less complex than the path to them. It has become clear to me that the two state solution whereby Israelis and Palestinians each have their own sovereign state on land they alone control is the only logical answer. The borders must be negotiated by the parties and agreed to by both sides and the peace agreement must be viewed by the Palestinians as just. There can be no peace without justice. Gaza has proven that “unilateral withdrawal” will not work. Israel can not define peace alone and the concept of ‘economic peace’ without justice simply will not work. Israel is in control of peace. Either they will formalize their occupation by making all of the West Bank and Gaza part of Israel and in keeping with the principals of democracy, give all the inhabitants equal rights and a vote, or they must negotiate with the elected leaders of the Palestinian people (including Hamas) to form an independent Palestinian state. The choice of a single state with equal rights for all would mean that it would have to be a secular state that respects religious freedom of all people because the Palestinian population is growing at a much faster rate than the Jews. Israel was founded on the principals of a religious Jewish homeland so this path would rock the very foundation of the State of Israel. It is for this reason that the two state solution is the only choice. Time, however, is running out. The increasing number of Israelis that would need to be relocated back into Israel from the Occupied Palestinian Territories makes the two state solution increasingly complicated to execute. This is exactly what these settlers who are the most fervent of the religious zealot minority that have driven the occupation to its current level, have been trying to accomplish.

The government of Israel does not have the will to make these decisions which is a major reason the Occupation has persisted. Israel’s international protector, the United States through President Obama must force Israel to make the hard decisions it must make to ensure its long term viability. Israel must have peace to survive. To get peace it must negotiate a just settlement with the Palestinians. A window of opportunity is now open. If those in the United States who have been looking to fulfill biblical prophesy through US foreign policy can be marginalized, peace is possible. President Obama must demand it as a condition of continued US support. I believe he has the understanding of the issues to execute a strategy that will lead to peace if Israel wants peace. If they make the decision that they do not want peace, our country must discontinue its tacit support of the Occupation and join the rest of the world in its condemnation of Israel for continuing it.

It is in the genuine interest of the United States and the world to see a just peace in the very near future. Ongoing conflict between the Arab and Western worlds will continue to escalate in the absence of peace between the Israeli’s and Palestinians. All of the terror groups that have threatened world peace have their founding in fundamentalists movements that point to Israeli and US support for the ongoing Occupation. It is time we worked to take the fuel out of this fire by solving the root issue.

In closing, I have been asked several times about the most memorable experience during my three months. I would have to say that waiting quietly in the olive grove on the top of the Mt. of Olives for the sun to come up on Easter morning would have to be it. Easter means new life for Christians and the rising sun demonstrates God’s ongoing commitment to that new life. A new day is possible for the people of Palestine and Israel if our government will commit to demanding it.

I want to thank those of you who have followed along with this amazing journey. I hope that I have been able to provide you with some small insight into the lives of some wonderful and interesting people, who like everyone else in the world want nothing more than a better life for their children. They deserve peace and I will continue to work and pray that they get it.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Easter Hope

As I wrap up my time here in the Holy Land and we pass the baton on to the next team of Ecumenical Accompaniers, I have been looking to find the hope in what seems to be a hopeless situation. I have found that hope embedded in many amazing people I have meet here. I have introduced many of them to you over the course of the last three months. I have met many wonderful people here and made many new friends that will live in my heart for the rest of my life. I have also had the opportunity to experiences things that I never dreamed I would do. This past week’s celebrations of both the Christian Holy Week and the Jewish Passover with some of those new friends are among the highlights of my time here.
A week ago Sunday I joined many thousands of people from around the world in a procession down the Mt of Olives with palms waving to commemorate the triumphant arrival of Jesus in this city. The mood would soon change from joyous to somber as this outsider was challenged by Jerusalem’s establishment but like the first Palm Sunday this day was festive and joyous.
This year in a very unusual occurrence the Jewish Passover landed on the Thursday of the Holy Week, the day Christian tradition marks as the day of the last supper which was believed to be in celebration of the Passover. Our team was invited to join our friends Gila and Judy at their beach home in Nahariya on the Mediterranean coast near the border with Lebanon for two days to celebrate the beginning of the Passover which starts with the Seder meal. I introduced you to Gila in the Article titled Woman in Black. Over twenty years ago she and some of her friends began standing on a street corner dressed in black holding protest signs opposing the occupation of the Palestinian people. They are still there every Friday. We learned a great deal about this Jewish tradition which commemorates the freedom of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. Most importantly we deepened our friendship with some really great people.
We arrived back in Jerusalem on Thursday to resume the Christian Holy Week activities with the a somber evening service in the heart of the Old City followed by a procession to the Garden of Gethsemane and a candle light vigil at the Russian Orthodox Monastery there. At 6 am Friday morning we, and about a hundred other friends, met at the beginning of the Via Dolarosa near the Lion Gate into the Old City, which is the gate closest to the Garden of Gethsemane. From there we processed through the Stations of the Cross with readings from the bible at each station and prayers for God’s intercession into our lives and specifically the conflict in the Holy Land. Like those who witnessed the death of Jesus in this place all those years ago, we could not help but end our time of sharing Friday morning with little hope. I can only guess that the Jews who were enslaved in Egypt for generations were also hopeless prior to the return of Moses and the events that led to their freedom.
Today, many express hopelessness related to the conflict between Israeli’s and Palestinians. It does seem bleak. I have felt the bleakness building during my time here but as I stated in my first letter in this Finding Hope series I have chosen to be in the camp that is looking for a solution and celebrate other who are doing the same. Like the first Easter, and the first Passover, it is darkest before the dawn. While it is dark right now I see glimmers of hope in many places and in many people who are committed to a just solution to the conflict. Both the Easter and Passover celebrations are rooted in hope. In the case of the Jewish people that hope is for a better life in the Promised Land. In the Christian tradition our hope is for our ultimate salvation in the risen Lord.
Early Sunday morning we were gathered again in the dark with our many new friends just a few steps from our temporary home here on the Mount of Olives to greet the new day and celebrate the risen Lord. Like the women on the lonely walk to the tomb before dawn we arrive discouraged. As I watched the sun rise over the Jordan Valley as it has done every day since that fateful day when the tomb was found to be empty and the scripture fulfilled, I could not help have my hope renewed. The God of the three Abrahamic faiths calls us, not only to be hopeful, but to work toward reconciliation and build respect for the other. One of the greatest parts of this Easter season for me was to join those of other faiths in sharing their faith traditions and learning about them. We are much stronger as a society by having the diversity that these traditions embody. The world would be entirely too boring if we were all the same. I am thankful for the diversity of the friends I have met here who have come together to work toward a just peace. In all of them, and the risen Lord I find Hope.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Finding Hope 3

This past Saturday our team decided to visit a remote place we had heard of from our Arabic teacher, Mary. Mary is a successful Palestinian Christian woman who measures her success by that of the children she has raised. She is a very happy grandmother. While she would love to have all of her grandchildren nearby she understands why some of her children have chosen to seek a new life outside of Palestine. One of her daughters lives in West Bloomfield Michigan very near my office. We have already decided to get together the next time she comes to Michigan.

Mary’s story is an interesting one. She grew up in a cave, living like Palestinians have for centuries. She grew up south of Bethlehem on 100 acres of land that her family bought during the period of the Ottoman rule of Palestine. Unlike most Palestinians, her father had the foresight to carefully document their ownership of the land and as the rule of the country changed, they re-documented their ownership. Mary’s brothers, Daoud and Daher, now own the property and they are thankful to have documents proving their ownership from the Ottoman Period, the British Mandate period, and the time of Jordanian Rule. While you would think that with all of this documentation they could live quietly on their land and raise their olives and grow wine grapes as their family has for centuries, perhaps somewhere else, but not here. The state of Israel and the seven illegal settler communities that completely surround them have been trying for decades to take the land by any means possible.

Daoud has spent over $100,000 on lawyers to defend various legal actions, some from the settlers and some from the government of Israel. They are still going on. He is restricted from improving the land or the buildings in any way. He has no water or electricity in spite of the fact that power for the settlements is all around them. The Israeli army has bulldozed his road and put huge rocks in the road to prevent him from getting to his property, all in an effort to make it so miserable for him that he will agree to sell the land or abandon it even for a day. If he does they will take it under one of many pretenses that have been used to expropriate the land of all of the families around him. Because of this they have homes in nearby Bethlehem, but one of them, and their international friends, must stay on the property at all times. The latest effort has been to offer to buy the property. They brought him a blank check and told him to fill in any amount he wanted. They would quietly pay any amount he named for the land. He refused.

You might think that the family would be bitter and angry about their situation but these are amazing people. Daoud and his family truly live their Christian values. Daoud’s motto is, “we refuse to be enemies”. A sign at the gate says exactly that to all visitors. He went to a university in Germany and returned to Palestine to take up the cause of saving the family land. He is a very creative and resourceful guy. He is protecting his property by developing it into an international retreat center called the Tent of Nations ( He has converted the caves into classrooms for summer schools for Palestinian children. He has converted one of the old buildings into a group kitchen for international guests who stay in tents on the property as well as the caves throughout the year. Last year 3,500 people came to Tent of Nations to help plant olive trees, dig more caves, tend the grapes and learn about life under occupation. He is trying to, “keep it simple and focus on the land”. They have built underground cisterns to collect rain water and they have a diesel generator to provide electricity. He has even figured out how to install wireless internet in the caves. They have built several outdoor worship spaces that look out across the beautiful landscape. One of them features a large platform that has their logo in a stone mosaic so the army will know who they are when they take their pictures from the air.
Daoud speaks many languages which allow him to tell his story to many people. He is very articulate; one of those people who you could listen to for hours. His goal is to build bridges between people and land, and people and people. He said, “We do not give up hope because the problem is complicated. The sun of justice will rise again. For our part, we are creating our own ‘facts on the ground’ by planting trees. We want to create a new prospective for people. Peace will never come from the top down. A state will never come as a gift from God. We need to build it together.”
Daoud has invited all of his settler neighbors to come to the Tent of Nations to discuss reconciliation and peaceful co-existence. Some have come. He is thankful for them. Some have said that the never realized they had neighbors and were very upset that Israel has refused them electricity and water. They said, “We have swimming pools and you have no water at all!” In his calm peaceful way he is convincing Israelis, one at a time, that Palestinians are not terrorists and that there is a possibility for co-existence if they (Israeli's) will choose that path.
In Daoud I find hope.

60 Minutes - Is Peace Out of Reach?