I have had the recent privilege of pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine, not just once, but twice (November 2014, and March 2016). In both cases, I participated in learning tour experiences courtesy of Mennonite Central Committee. In both cases, I was able to tour important sites for Christians: Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Hebron, Capernaum, Tiberius, Nazareth. I been to Bedouin encampments and the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. I’ve been welcomed into the homes of Jewish settlers, Rabbis, Palestinian Christians, and Muslims. I’ve sat in a coffee shop in the Old City of Jerusalem, drinking strong Arab coffee and fresh Pomegranate juice, watching people and talking with the owner. I have been to the Ibrahimi Mosque and the Garden of Gethsemane. I’ve watch Jewish men celebrate the Torah with dancing in the street. I’ve heard Christian hymns sung in St. Anne’s church – a 12th century church built by Crusaders, with the most amazing acoustics. And I’ve walked along a wall that separates Israel from Palestine. I’ve crammed a lot of doing into two trips, totaling eighteen days – so I’m no expert on the Middle East, and I have no formula for peace between Israeli and Palestinian – but I do have at least three observations:
First, zeal of faithfulness should never be confused with domination over others. Perhaps the single greatest problem we Westerners have in understanding the Middle East is that we tend to be not so zealous about faith and life. We are, in this culture, far too comfortable with a religiosity that covers our zeal for securing material reward. It seems to me, from my limited point of view, that the Middle East is caught up in a form of religious zeal that becomes competitive. Faithfulness is not well served by displays of unilateral power. As an evangelical, I am committed to the Mission of God for the redemption of all Creation under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. But I cannot allow my witness of Christ as Lord to denigrate into human efforts to control and dominate my neighbor. The medieval (the Crusades) and modern (Partition) histories of Palestine have been histories of taking land and wealth from others, not invitations to give hope and Shalom. Maybe I’m naïve, but true, zealous faithfulness ought to compel us to offer hospitality, not to take from another.
Second, Western media has only one narrative about modern Israel and Palestine. If Winston Churchill (or Walter Benjamin) is correct, and “history is written by the victors” – then the modern State of Israel has clearly won the day. On my second trip to Israel, there was an incident in Tel Aviv where a Palestinian attacked and killed a 28-year old American near where Vice President Joe Biden was giving a speech. Between November 2015 and March 2016, at least 28 Israelis were killed by Palestinians in attacks…and 176 Palestinians were killed by Israelis in the same period. I recognize the moral calculus is not about the numbers killed…one is far too many. The problem, again, at the risk of naiveté on my part, is that a narrative that cannot see the both Israel and Palestine as both perpetrator and victim, is an incomplete narrative – a half truth. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), who was in the running for President, has spoken with eloquence of his desire to end oppression against Christians around the world. Yet he has also spoken of the need to give Israel a blank check, insuring that the largest population of Arab-speaking Christians, namely Palestinians, will continue to be oppressed. If the truth matters, we will need to tell a larger narrative, a more complex reality, and a more difficult to resolve story.
Finally, we need to support the grassroots efforts of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) like Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). MCC is involved in a wide variety of partnerships across Israel and Palestine. Acting, “in the Name of Christ”, MCC works with local partners to secure water rights in the Jordan Valley; to experiment with low-cost strategies for capturing and retaining water for farming; to assist with a child development center and community garden in a refugee camp (Mad Streeters take note!); and on and on. These grassroots efforts are highly relational interfaith dialogues of the best kind. MCC and other NGOs in the Middle East deserve our continued prayers, our financial support, and our regular engagement. MCC in Palestine has reached out to Anabaptists across the USA and Canada, and encouraged us to visit. Already, over 60 leaders from Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada have taken a learning tour to Palestine. West Coast MCC sponsored a group of 10 Brethren in Christ (4 of whom are from Madison Street Church) and Mennonite Brethren leaders to visit in March 2016. Another such trip is being contemplated, perhaps in 2018.
Israel and Palestine are complex in their shared histories of pain, oppression, violence, and victimization. My two visits to this Holy Land over the last eighteen months have taught me that no easy answers are evident, but that there are people of faith and good will on both sides of the separation walls, and so there is always hope. We in the West must do our part to encourage hope – by being zealous without controlling, by telling a larger, truer story, and by supporting efforts on the ground to make peace by breaking down walls and eliminating checkpoints.
by Jeff Wright