The morning call to prayer had not yet resounded through the walls of the Old City when the Interfaith Peace Builders delegation started to pack luggage bags onto the tour bus and offered final goodbyes to those who were staying behind in Jerusalem.
Under the haze of halted sleep and the glaze of a blank itinerary ahead, I departed from the delegation with which I had shared one of the most emotional experiences of my life. As the bus pulled away, I bid farewell to a second family, and as I stood absorbing the sounds of a stirring East Jerusalem, I asked myself: what is it that I took away from my experience?
For a while, I was not able to fully condense my experience into a few words, and I still believe that I am not able to truly express the fullness of this immersion. I came here with a goal; to see the conflict with my own eyes, to listen to Israelis and Palestinians with my own ears, and feel the rhythms of the pain and suffering in this tiny stretch of land with my own heart. I left successfully imbibed with personal truths and core insights that will undeniably shape my interaction with this conflict, and the world, for the rest of my life.
While I an neither Jewish nor Palestinian, I can not claim that this conflict is a separate reality from my daily life. I am integrally and deeply connected to what happens in Jerusalem, Ramallah, Sderot, Bil’in, Nabi Saleh, and the whole of Israel/Palestine.
I am an American. My tax dollars directly fuel this conflict, and while “aid” is given to both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the continuance of an unrestricted financial funnel to Israel helps sustain a status quo of failed peace talks and painful Occupation.
I am a Christian. My brothers and sisters in faith, the Palestinian Christian communities, suffer through Israeli Occupation yet receive little support from Christian communities in the United States.
I am a human. I stood by and witnessed the blatant suffering of other beings and saw the pain labeled as a mere political impasse, as a secondhand situation that was the concern of politicians who had enough time and college students shopping for social issues.
As an American, a Christian, and a human, I cannot separate myself from the conflict and continued Occupation.
There is deep pain that exists in the collective ethos and memory of both Israelis and Palestinians, and this pain cannot be ignored, underemphasized, or delegitimized. The mother who lost her daughter in a rocket attack in Sderot is just as broken as the mother who lost her son in a raid in Nabi Saleh. Many Israelis feel deep connections to the memory of the Holocaust and sense that, in one way or another, the pain of the Holocaust is deeply connected to the existence of the State of Israel. The Palestinians feel the deep sorrow of years of exile and hostility from former neighbors and friends. They are continual strangers in continually strange lands, and they cannot return to their homes. This pain must be acknowledged and accepted, and this foundational cooperative recognition has been missing from many political and individual conversations.
More than in any other situation, how terms such as “Zionist,” “Occupation,” and “Resistance” are used takes on the vitality of a brutal murder. There are many definitions for these terms; some true, some false, and there are many associations that accompany such words and ideas. How terms are framed and defined in the context of a particular situation is critical, and a taboo has developed around such words due to the malleability and range of potential associations. Likewise, this malleability contributes to the anxiety and fear of discussing the issue of Occupation. Such open-ended arguments deter those who know little about the situation from pursuing further understanding.
There is a deep and powerful human element of this conflict that is not covered or shared by the media. My most powerful experiences came when sharing a simple meal, drink or game with a young man, a family, or a child. I met both Israelis and Palestinians that I would consider good friends, and while our political opinions were not always aligned, we shared the simple gift of human company. The presence of such humanity serves as a painful paradox. Discerning any potential political solution becomes significantly more challenging, while common human bonds establish a foundation that seems to make the solution as clear as ever.
There is a foundational misunderstanding regarding the “other” among both Israelis and Palestinians. A general and common characteristic among Israelis is a deep-seated existential fear and a constant weariness of the Arab “other,” a general mistrust of the Palestinians that inhabit the land only a few miles from their homes. They are so frozen in fear that no answer seems reasonable other than control and occupation, and any discussion regarding the Palestinians is avoided and snuffed. Likewise, the Palestinians often perceive all Israelis as oppressors, but they do not hear about the efforts of Israeli activists to end the Occupation and fight for the human rights of the Palestinian people.
In any case, a lack of dialogue, caused by both the restrictiveness of the Occupation and a general lack of foundational trust in one another, has contributed to the extended absence of cooperative efforts. While these may be generalizations, and while many may agree with me, these reflect my own personal experience in Israel/Palestine.
There is an obvious disparity of force in the conflict that cannot be ignored or denied. Israel has far more military capability and geographic control than the Palestinian people, and the force exerted from nonviolent or violent Palestinian protestors, Hamas attacks, or rebel extremists is not met equally by the unstoppable Israeli military machine. Nonviolent protests are often met with a hail of teargas, Palestinian children’s sense of safety is breached by night raids and security screenings, and farmers’ lives are halted by denied building permits and unjustifiable road blocks. The Palestinian people are domesticated within their own homeland, and they are not allowed to travel freely even in the entirety of the West Bank. There is disproportionate force, and there are actions Israel executes that cannot be justified for security or safety, but instead, for greed and fear.
The “Occupation” can no longer be thought of as a buzzword or political phrase, but as a reality that is affecting the lives of millions of people and claiming human lives, not political points, as its fodder. This calls for a dramatic reevaluation for the repercussions of the continued reality of the Israeli Occupation.
While people staunchly claim that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a strictly secular conflict, we cannot ignore the profound influence that religious ideals and organizations can have in the lives of these people. Faith is not alien to Israelis or Palestinians, and these elements cannot be ignored as potential catalyzing agents for peace and social action.
Most importantly, I came to this experience hoping to learn more about the tools for dialogue and building bridges. While this was not a direct result of this delegation, and while I plan to continue to work to build bridges and to establish those foundational conversations that have been lacking in our approaches and evaluations, I learned a great deal about opposition to traditional dialogue.
Dialogue assumes an equal footing when coming to the discussion. Dialogue assumes that both parties are equal participants engaging in a discussion where the outcome may be contingent on this equality. For many opposed to traditional dialogue, Israelis and Palestinians are not assumed to be on equal footing. Dialogue assumes equality of circumstances, and the whole call to dialogue, from many parties, fails to fully embrace the reality that there is a stark inequality.
Similarly, dialogue encourages the process of normalization in which a false sense of security and identity is created and the issues are ignored, as if attempting to paint a portrait over a chipped and cracked slab of aging drywall. The only dialogue that some will accept is a dialogue that is based in the common value of ending the Occupation and ending the human suffering that is a direct result of the Occupation. This insight was new and fresh, and I could fully empathize with this, but as an interfaith leader and as a student committed to fostering dialogue, where was I to go from here?
While I learned and experienced a great deal during the delegation, there were also questions that fatefully developed and brooded over time and continue to do so.
A big concern of mine involves communities of faith. What role do faith-based institutions play in this conflict, and what role should the Christian community play in this situation? As a Catholic and as someone deeply moved by the social justice advocacy of St Vincent DePaul and the Vincentians, how do I advocate for my faith community to take a firmer stance and have a stronger opinion in opposition to the Occupation?
As an interfaith leader, I have grown concerned with the usefulness of interfaith efforts in the conflict. What role should interfaith cooperation and interfaith social justice initiatives play in the conflict, if any? What role would it have in the community and the community ethos? At what point does dialogue turn into advocacy, and advocacy into selfless action?
As a young person, I see great potential in the global connectivity of the youth and the energy of the Arab youth strengthened by the continuing Arab Spring. What role will American youth serve in the alleviation of this conflict? In what ways can we urge the Palestinians and Israelis to peace, to establishing a foundation that only they can construct with their own hands and hearts and words? How can we fully and effectively support Palestinian youth in nonviolent resistance efforts?
Lastly, is dialogue possible? I am returning to campus hoping to spur a long-overdue dialogue around this issue. This is something that has been missing on campus, as indicated by the recent lack of honest exchange in DePaul University’s Sabra Campaign, and has not addressed the real issues and deep core of the argument, as indicated by the dissatisfaction of many students with past efforts. Can an honest, powerful dialogue exist, and can college students and campuses embrace this call to truthful awareness and dialogue that goes beyond simple understanding but seeks to mutually and creatively address, acknowledge, and mend the deep cracks at the core of who we are as beings?
As one can see by the number of questions I pose to myself and the larger universe, I have not become an expert on the conflict by spending three weeks in that corner of the globe. While I have become more informed, more engaged, and more aware and critical, I have not solved, nor do I intend to single-handedly solve, the conflict. What I experienced was deeply personal but reflects several deep realities of the situation in Israel/Palestine.
I now transition back into my life back home in Chicago. While I may fall into the lull of a summer job and while the encroaching academic quarters may loom over me from afar, I know that I will never be the same. The suffering is too real, the complacency, too blatant. I intend to continually improve and shape my own understanding of current events and the ever-malleable future of the region, and I invite you all to be co-adventurers, and co-writers, in and of this profound journey.
Saturday, June 11, 2011 – Chicago