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Weeping and Hoping In The Holy Land; Reflections on A Visit to Palestine/Israel

by Jane Fisler Hoffman

 As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you,
had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!”(Luke 19: 41)

     Part way through our ten day visit, our group of about a dozen United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ folks stood on the Mount of Olives and looked out over the city of Jerusalem.In our few days in Israel and Palestine already, we had seen and heard so much about the illegal and unjust occupation of Palestinian land by the nation of Israel that when we looked out over the city we felt the same sort of deep ache that Jesus must have felt and our own tears flowed. 

     Then, on our last day, most of us went to the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem and wandered separately through that solemn, sorrowful memorial.As I moved through, heart aching as I saw and read once again the horror story of the Holocaust but now in the context of having seen the occupied Palestine,I neared the end and gratefully spotted signs for a synagogue where I turned in.Sitting there in that sacred space alone, the tears I had (mostly) bottled up during our visit, poured out as my wordless prayers whispered in despair to heaven. 

     You may ask how could a visit to the land of our faith ancestors, the land where Jesus walked, the land where the church was born be a place for tears today?  I want to share with you some of what we saw, heard and learned to answer that question, but first I must begin with an acknowledgement that I am not an ‘expert’ on the complex history or present of realities in the Middle East.There are many other sources you can turn to for the ‘full story’.  See some of those here .What I will be sharing here are some stories, observations and a few facts gleaned from experts we did meet. But even as I share the concerns, I am also eager to share the fragile signs of hope we saw, particularly through our Christian, Jewish and Muslim partners who live and work in Palestine and Israel.My intent here is to increase your own passion to claim God’s power in you to pray for, write (Congress and the President) for and work for our own nation’s efforts toward a just peace in the land our heritage calls ‘holy’. 

     Lest you think our group missed the traditional biblical sites, we were blessed to visit many of them.In fact, to get somewhat oriented to this land, we began there. Like most Christian tourists, we went to Nazareth where diverse global images of Mary reminded us of a global Christ; to the Sea of Galilee and to Capernaum, where Peter’s mother-in-law lived and was healed by Jesus; to the sites associated with the Beatitudes, the feeding of the 5,000, and the risen Christ’s breakfast with his friends; to the Jordan River (where the gift shop is run by a Jewish kibbutz, interestingly) and to Cana, site of two ‘signs’ of Jesus in the gospel of John.We rode a boat on the quiet Sea of Galilee, one place where one truly can feel a sense of having been where Jesus was and we ate “St. Peter’s Fish” at the shore.[see slide show at end of article] 

     Then we ‘turned our faces’ to Jerusalem and Bethlehem. And yes, there too we visited traditional sites—Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity; Gethsemane; the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; and more.[see slides] But beginning in Jerusalem, we began to go deeper into the stories of the ‘living stones’, the people of Palestine and Israel in our own time. 

     Most of our days were filled with visits planned by our own Middle East expert, Peter Makari, a wonderful gift to our church who knows ‘everyone’ and planned our meetings.Most of the people we met and learned from work in projects and organizations that you help support because you are part of the United Church of Christ (or Disciples of Christ).Each one added new layers to the story we were beginning to grasp.Without going into the complicated history of wars, agreements, broken agreements, refused agreements, etc., let me just summarize the basic reality about which we are so concerned. 

     The issue is the military and otherwise multifaceted illegal occupation of land that the United Nations and courts, including at times Israeli courts, have found rightfully belong to Palestine or Palestinians– as part of a two-state solution prescribed by the U.N. even before the establishment of the state of Israel and subsequent events.In describing this situation, I want to make it very, very clear that the protest I am making is against the policies of the government of the state of Israel, NOT against the Israeli people and most definitely not against people of the Jewish faith. I further want to emphasize that our concern for the people of Palestine is in no way intended to suggest that those who govern Palestine are without responsibility.There is plenty of responsibility to go around but the simple truth is that in this situation at this time Israel, with the considerable help of the United States, has the dominant military, political and economic power and is using both to repress and oppress the people of Palestine in order to claim their land and resources. And yes, all of that is happening with the massive financial help of the United States.Israel is the largest recipient of direct U.S. aid in the world—almost $3 billion per year, all of which is military aid. 

     Among the strategies being used to control, confine, repress and even eliminate from the region the Palestinian people (these goals are documented in statement by various Israeli leaders) are these that we saw with our own eyes: 

  • Establishment and expansion of ‘settlements’—these are large, modern, expensive housing developments that have taken over areas of demolished Palestinian homes and are filled with ‘settlers’ seeking either luxurious but inexpensive housing or expression of a religius/political agenda or both.The settlements are intentionally and strategically carving Palestinian territory into islands separated from each other. Checkout this graphic view of how Palestinian land has been taken and divided.(the ‘white’ parts are Israeli occupied lands).The 1947 view is closest to recognized agreements. 
  • Home demolitions.20,000 Palestinian homes have ‘demolition orders’ and demolitions happen without sufficient warning.This keeps families in fear, controlling dissent.Shockingly, even after a home is demolished the family is billed for the cost of the demolition.A Jewish Israeli woman told us that these are part of an intentional ‘ethnic cleansing’ (her words) of East Jerusalem, so there is no chance of it becoming the capital city of a two state agreement.
  • The “Separation Barrier”, a.k.a “the security fence,” a.k.a. “The Wall”, which also separates Palestinians from each other.Though allegedly built to separate Palestinians who would do violence against Israel, the wall in many places separates Palestinians from their families, their farms, employment, etc.The ‘Wall” is built in many places beyond the ‘Green Line’ which was the 1949 armistice line recognized in international law and by UN resolutions as the de facto border between Palestine and Israel, illegally intruding into and dividing Palestinian territory.           

  • Armed military presence at more than 600 checkpoints where Palestinians seeking work, supplies, education or health care in the cities must wait in long lines to gain entry.Heavily armed young Israeli military men and women are visible everywhere—at the wailing wall, at checkpoints, etc.

That’s a very basic outline of the surface situation.But more compelling are the stories. 

     Perhaps the most moving experience for our group was the unexpected opportunity to visit in a Palestinian home in a refugee camp near Ramallah.(Refugee camps are really villages that have evolved from the more temporary ‘camps’ to which Palestinians where relegated when Israelis forced them out of their homes–sometimes twice—in 1948-49 and in 1967)This camp sits next to an open plot of ground leading up to a fence and on the other side of the fence is a ‘small’ Israeli settlement.The home we visited was that of a mother whose 15-year-old son had been shot and killed by settlers as he walked across that field.  She told us that he had no weapon and was no threat but he was shot by a ‘sharpshooter’ (“If they were going to shoot him, they could have only injured him…”).Furthering the pain, the settlers pulled his body into the settlement and would not release it for hours to his grieving family.He was one of three children from the camp under 15 killed in the last year. 

     Another 180 children under 18 have been taken from their homes to detention or prison camps. 

     The mother and her daughters told us that the military go through the streets of the camp and if any young people are found out, they may be arrested with no warning. They can even enter the homes and take them away.Some of the boys from this camp are incarcerated in a Negev desert prison with little shade, she said.Life here, she said, is like an “endless nightmare”…. 

     Another story came from the tiny village of al-Nu`aman where 200 people live in a sort of limbo.Israeli law says it is a Jerusalem municipality but they receive no services—‘except demolition’ as the village leader said.However, they have identity cards for West Bank residents, different from those of Jerusalem residents, having lived in the village for generations.The children here used to attend school in Jerusalem but now every day they must walk down a long hill, cross an Israeli checkpoint, walk up another hill to school in another village and then return at the end of the day.  One day a child new to the process got her hand caught in one of the turnstiles and, according to the village leader, the soldiers did not call for help and finally the child had to have a finger removed to get out of the thing.The people must bring in most of their food from Bethlehem, again passing through checkpoints, and may only, for instance, bring in two chickens at a time.They can’t have propane delivered by truck or donkey from the outside.The residents believe this is all part of Israeli effort to force them out and thus control all of Jerusalem and its surroundings so a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem is impossible.A court has said they are living illegally on what was their own land so they are fighting in higher courts.Visiting with these folks, we couldn’t help but wonder why they stay but it is clear they see themselves as fighting for a future for their children, in their own land. 

     A third story comes from Hebron, one of the most ancient continuing cities on earth, at least 6000 years old.Hebron is a mostly-Palestinian city supposedly self-governing within the Israeli occupation. But the occupation is not only visible but tragic.Until 1967, this was a thriving city with good relationships among the people of the three major faiths.Grapes and beautiful pottery created a thriving economy.Since 1967, the city has been more and more divided and damaged by the occupation. There are 101 concrete block street closures erected by Israel.Five hundred shops have been closed by military orders but 1100 because of the street closures which deny access.An Israeli ideological settlement (as opposed to economic settlers–those who live in ‘settlements’ because it is great low cost housing, often ignorant of the impact on Palestinians) in one area has positioned settlers where they can and do dump garbage from their windows onto the Palestinians shopping in the streets below.Palestinians have placed nets over the street and we saw for ourselves the litter thrown from above. 

     These are only a very few of the human stories behind the severe impact of the Israeli occupation, the expansion of settlements, the “Separation” Barrier, and military control.The effects are psychological —weighing heavily on the individual and collective spirits of the people who have little access to mental health care.The effects are economic, diminishing the economy of any potential Palestinian state. The effects are social and familial, giving differing ‘privileges’ to spouses; separating families from one another; hampering quality education for children and more.The effects are political, in Israel and Palestine, with confused information or lack of it contributing to political control.And the effects are spiritual, to the good by bonding Palestinian Christians and Muslims and Israeli Jews to their faiths but, for some, pressing them to the radical edges. 

     All of this our group saw with our own eyes and heard with our ears from people living in the situation.And we could not even go to Gaza where the occupation is even more oppressive.Yet with what we did see, our hearts and spirits were weighed down.When we asked people if they had any hope, some said simply ‘no’.Others said they had limited hope in a different approach by the Obama Administration.Even so, there were signs of hope like this painting on a refugee camp wall. 

     For our group, the greatest glimpse of hope came through meeting some of our Global Ministries (UCC-DOC) partners, people of our interfaith relationships, and others.Though we went partly in hope of encouraging them and assuring them that they are not alone, they encouraged us to see God’s possibilities. 

     Among the first who witnessed to us that Israelis are not united in their support of the occupation were the “Women In Black”.  Though my photo shows mostly our group when we joined them one day, the woman under the umbrella is one of about a dozen Israeli Jewish women who have met on this Jerusalem corner on Fridays at noon for more than 20 years to protest the occupation.They persist even though regularly abused verbally—something I actually heard from one man going by.Amazing faithful courage and persistence for justice! 

     Another Jewish leader with whom we met was Rabbi David Rosen, founder of Rabbis for Human Rights and International Interreligious Director of the American Jewish Committee. He lunched with us and shared the important insight that ‘everyone’ in this region sees themselves as victims—Israelis, Palestinians, all.With that thinking, the problem is always and thus irresolvably about the other—it is a ‘zero sum mentality’.The work of his group is focused on seeking the welfare of all the people.To do that he urged us to work for support in the U.S. government which, he said, alone has the political and financial ability to influence the Israeli government. 

     The third Jewish justice seeker who made a terrific impact on our group was a young Israeli woman named Maya.  She works for the Israeli Committee Against House Demolition and for Rabbis for Human Rights and escorted us on a deeply disturbing tour that explained the realities of house demolition and demonstrated the locations of the Wall in Jerusalem that clearly have nothing to do with security but everything to do with claiming land and pushing Palestinians out.At one location she pointed out that the wall does not there separate Israelis from Palestinians but Palestinians from Palestinians, with the goal of simply disrupting their lives. 

     Maya is nineteen years old but has already served time in prison for refusing to serve in the Israeli military.Her knowledge of the history of the Israeli-Palestine struggle was extensive and helpful. But perhaps most impressive was her own story of being raised in a conservative right wing family where she heard only the traditional and limited versions of what is being done by Israel.She said her life began to change when she heard a 15 year old Palestinian girl tell what Israeli soldiers did to her father.From then on, she learned all she could and came to “feel cheated by the lie”—about the reason for the wall and more.She too roots the Israeli actions in centuries of persecution and resultant victimhood mentality but says this explanation does not defend the behavior.Unfortunately, we learned, most Israelis do not know what we saw and heard.So this and other organizations are trying to get the Palestinian narrative and the Israeli power dominance into school curricula and more, to help shift from that victim mentality. 

     Maya’s final plea to us still rings in my ears as my anger rises at this unjust situation.Her plea was not to leave with full anti-Israeli sentiments, hating and judging the people of her country. Many in Israel, she reminded us, truly do not know what their nation is doing because travel is restricted and information controlled.She appealed that we instead help to get the story out, to support groups like hers and especially in the U.S. to tell the truths we have seen.She herself was heading to a fall tour of the U.S. to tell American Jews that the occupation is bad for Israel. 

     The Women in Black, Maya and Rabbi Rosen all helped us to know that many in Israel and the Jewish community are indeed working for peace with justice for all people in the region.But there are still more reasons to hope and YOU who read this are part of that reason because you are part of the United Church of Christ (or the Disciples of Christ).As such, you support the work of our partners in Israel/Palestine.Here is some of what you are part of in growing hope in the Holy Land. 

¨   Hands of Peace.A UCC local church member, Gretchen Grad, in a Chicago suburb was moved in 2001 to want to ‘do something’ constructive and she was led to form this organization which brings Palestinian, Israeli and U.S. young people together in ‘safe space’ in Chicago for in depth dialogue and relationship building.Gretchen was part of our group and we were able to meet some of the outstanding young people whose lives have been transformed by the Hands of Peace experience.  It became clear to us that this is one clear example of a program supported by Our Church’s Wider Mission ‘changing lives’.Hands of Peace is now one of our Global Ministry partner organizations that is growing hope and which you support. 

¨   The YMCA in Beit Sahour (outside of Bethlehem, and site of one of the “Shepherd’s Fields”) provides profoundly needed mental health assistance to Palestinians deeply traumatized by Israeli shelling (2002) and all effects of the occupation.The Y was damaged in an Israeli attack (fortunately at a time when the children in day care were not present) and its logo made up of shell fragments witnesses to the story. 

¨   UCC-DOC (in partnership with the Lutheran Church) personnel teach theology and Spanish (as well as other subjects) at the Lutheran International Center in Bethlehem.These are dedicated and caring folk who blessed our group with their presence much of our time in the area. 

¨   The YWCA of Palestine is another of our partners. Their work in the region dates to the 1870s.Their work includes a Women’s Cooperative and Kindergarten at a refugee camp in the Ramallah area.At the Women’s Cooperative women with few other opportunities do beautiful needlework while engaging in support and education. 

¨   Also in Ramallah one of the UCC-DOC Global Ministries ‘best friends’ (my statement) is Jean Zaru, clerk of the Quaker (Friends) meeting in Ramallah and as such the first woman head of communion in the region.Along with sharing about the Friends’ ministries for peace, she told her own story of living in “absurdistan”.Recently she was being taken in an ambulance to Jordan for medical care and was held in the ambulance in searing heat at the border for 3 ½ hours…Jean spoke with passion about the Palestinian who “Cannot endure the suffering any longer” and drew on scripture to say “Let my people go!” 

¨   The Middle East Council of Churches is one of our key partners in the entire region (including Lebanon, Iraq etc). Bernard Sabella is the Executive Director of the MECC’s Department of Services to Palestinian Refugees.Sabella is also a member of the Palestinian Parliament, holding on of the Christian seats, but unfortunately the Parliament is not fully functioning due to internal Palestinian challenges and restrictions on movement imposed by the Israelis.But the ministry for Palestinian displaced persons is active particularly in Gaza where 1.5 million Palestinians are “caged in” to 235 square miles.The Christian community there is approximately 2500.Sabella stated what was becoming a familiar refrain, asking us to appeal to the U.S. government and the U.S. Jewish community and tell them that peace here is in Israel’s best interests as well as Palestine’s. 

¨   The Sabeel Palestinian Liberation Theology Center is headed by Naim Ateek. Following our meeting with Ateek, one member of the group affirmed that he believes history will view Ateek as the “Palestinian Desmond Tutu”.Ateek spoke of what can be hoped and acknowledged a sense of being at an ‘impasse’ that only the United States can alter.He says “America can stop the occupation if America has the will…” so he urges us to “flood” the White House and Congress for appeals to stop the settlements and end the occupation.He said “there is hope ONLY if America helps” and acknowledged that the U.S. risks Israel drawing on its victim identity and calling the U.S. anti-semitic if we act strongly and stop siding with Israel in the Security Council.Among the work of Sabeel supporters is the Thursday noon “wave of prayer” that goes around the world by internet. 

¨   Finally, the primary focus of our trip was Rawdat el Zuhur, the “Garden of Flowers School” where my husband and I and many other UCCs sponsor children—in fact, all of the more than 200 children in the school have sponsors to assist their ability to attend this excellent school—but 120 applicants had to be turned away because of lack of space and resources.[see slide show]The school was founded in 1952 as a school for Palestinian girls who had to live on the streets.Later it became co-ed.An emphasis on character (see photo of the ‘character tree’ used to teach the children elements of good character) and on the arts—music, drama, art and dancing—help these children deal with their anger and repression from the occupation while building a positive peace-seeking character.The children at the school learn English from pre-school on (often through singing, which we heard) and French from Grade 1.Respect for all faiths is another central tenet of the school. Teachers are both Christian and Muslim. 

     The principal of the school is Salwa Zananiri, a passionate and dedicated woman who treasures these children, balancing grace and discipline in all aspects of their education.She was excited about taking a small group of children who do folk dancing to Washington D.C. for another group that supports the school. 

     During our visit we visited classes—Susan Brecht and I had the pleasure of teaching the ‘hokey pokey’ (at the principal’s request!) to kindergarten children.Those of us with sponsored children were able to meet them briefly but care was taken that no child was made to seem more special than others. 

     I left the school frustrated at the terrible conditions and limitations placed on these beautiful young people but full of hope for a future with children from a school like this leading their people in the future.(A side note:We heard later from Linda Lawrence, our Child Sponsorship coordinator, that she receives frequent requests to sponsor these children because of the outstanding program.Much as I love supporting Rawdat el-Zuhur, we may shift our sponsorship where there is greater need so another family—perhaps yours?– can have the joy of learning about this school….) 

     Our trip ended as this article began and now ends, with a visit to Yad VaShem, the moving Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem.There I wept for the wrongs done throughout history to the Jewish people and most dastardly in the Holocaust.But I wept as well for what seemed an apparent disconnect between that memory of wrong done unto them and what is happening now by the state of Israel against Palestinians.It pains me deeply to even hint of this comparison and I know it is offensive to many in the Jewish community with whom I personally and we of the United Church of Christ have such strong, valued and important relationships.But to us who saw the Wall and checkpoints, the destroyed homes, the expansion of settlements, and the segmentation of a people, the analogy seems tragically and necessarily stated.And again I remind all who read this:this is not about being anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish, it is about opposing the illegal occupation and practices of the state of Israel. 

     As our group moved through the memorial, various quotations from that time seemed to us unavoidably and painfully relevant to the situation in Palestine-Israel now.The experience of Jews in Europe then was described in this way, eerily echoing what we had seen in Palestine: 

     “They progressively began banishing them from economic life, and, in 1938, established confiscation of their property into law…”And this:“They incarcerated them in severely overcrowded ghettos, behind fences and walls.They cut them off from their surroundings and their sources of livelihood..”And speaking of Hitler’s objectives, this statement sadly reminiscent of claims by Israel of making space for their people:“His military ideological objectives included obtaining more living space for his people…”What a tragic echo…. 

     Now I close by simply asking you to pray for peace with justice for all of the people in Israel-Palestine; to learn more (using some of the resources identified at the beginning) and tell the story to others in your congregation and community, including engaging your Jewish neighbors in respectful but honest conversations; and to contact your Congressperson, Senators and President, encouraging a strong U.S. stand on behalf of an end to the occupation with a ‘two state’ solution justly negotiated with international oversight (as advocated by the UCC and Disciples, and promoted through Churches for Middle East Peace [www.cmep.org]).Please do not forget that our country has poured incredible financial resources into the state of Israel and thus supports their actions.That gives us great responsibility in this reality and great potential. 

     A final statement seen at the Holocaust Memorial speaks not only to Israel and Palestine but also to us in the United States:“A country is not just what it does—it is also what it tolerates…”How long will we tolerate funding an oppressive occupation that does harm not only to Palestine but also to Israel, the region of the Middle East and the world? 

There is no Way to Peace, Peace is the Way
(seen at the Ramallah Quaker Meeting House)


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