Palestinian Christians and a Prayer for Healed Eyesight

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“The perseverance of small, powerless drops of water dripping on the same rock, in the same place, ends by breaking the rock. In the same way, the power of faith with perseverance can break walls of hatred, of rejection, and of violent injustice.”*

The book sits on our book shelf, old and dusty with pages breaking out of the binding. The inscription on the first page says only this:

God does not kill! 

It is signed by Elias Chacour – the author of this small paperback.

The book is titled Blood Brothers and I read it in 1990. Some books influence you for a week, some for a year, others for a lifetime. This book is in the last category.

Blood Brothers healed my eyesight.

Prior to reading it I had sympathy for Palestinians but held to my minimally researched view that saw things quite simply. The Jews, as the chosen people set apart for God, had a right to their land. It was the Abrahamic Covenant. Therefore, whatever they did to protect their country, their land was okay – the ends justifying the means and all that. Not completely okay – I would have twinges of doubt when I read news reports on the plight of Palestinians but in the big, eternal scheme of things okay. To think otherwise would be disloyal.

Or would it be disloyal? Was the situation for Palestinians really okay? 

Blood Brothers tells the story of one Palestinian Christian and his struggle to reconcile what happened to his family in 1947 – 1948, a time when they were exiled from their home of generations. It captures his struggle as a Palestinian Christian and Israeli citizen who loved God and the word of God, and struggled with how to live at peace in the midst of conflict.

At the time I read the book we were living and working in Egypt and felt close to the conflict. I wrestled mightily with my feelings. Was I blinded by my surroundings? What about “chosen people?” What about covenants? It was during this time that my husband took a new job in Cairo starting a brand new Middle East Studies Program for American Christian students who wanted to learn about the Middle East. In directing this first ever program, he was tasked with several things. One of them was to give students a more balanced view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than the one narrative that they knew. He began to travel regularly to Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, and Golan Heights. Each time he returned he had more stories of the conflict, more tales of meeting with both Israelis and Palestinians. With each story I heard and each book I read, my eyes began to open and my vision began to heal.

A Short History

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict dates back years ago. Contrary to what many think, the conflict is not religious. It began, and continues, over land. The land that both Jews and Arabs claimed was called Palestine until 1948. Between 1948-1949, the land was divided into three parts: The State of Israel, West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. The West Bank and Gaza Strip were separate territories and movement between the two was difficult. Until that time Palestinians were in the majority and had lived peacefully, owning land, houses, olive groves, and vineyards for centuries.

As Israel became a nation, over a 2-year period they carried out a mass eviction, driving over 700,000 Palestinians from their homes. Over 85% of Palestinians were evicted from what then became the state of Israel. Palestinians call the 1948 event “alnakba” literally meaning “the catastrophe.” Refugees by the thousands had to leave homes, families were separated and many lost their lives. To this day, the displacement of Palestinians has created a massive and near forgotten refugee crisis. In fact, Gaza is considered one of the worst places to live in the world. It is an overpopulated food desert with 60 percent of the water undrinkable, purposely kept this way by the state of Israel. In the years following al-nakba, laws were created that denied citizenship and previously owned land to Palestinians.

Common Beliefs

Many Christians have historically held to a belief in Israel as a blessed land, a land that has a unique place in history. They see the modern-day state of Israel as being much like the ancient land of Israel. I was much like one of those Christians. Yet, the modern day state of Israel is a secular state, and could hardly be described as a godly nation. It is not an example of biblical righteousness. In holding to this viewpoint, Western Christians have ignored what scripture says about the aliens and strangers in the land, they have ignored the breaking of a covenant relationship, and they have not questioned Israel’s policies and history.

In believing this way, Christians ignore the bigger story. We forget about Palestinian Christians – Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant. We forget about justice and peace and do  not hold the nation of Israel accountable to a history of wrongs committed against Palestinians. The prophet Isaiah had strong words for a people who cared more about a nation than loving God and pursuing justice.  

A Challenge

In Blood Brothers, Chacour challenges these beliefs, gently and patiently pointing to a way of justice. While he begins with his own story, he moves on to talk about the bigger picture. In his words, Western Christians visit Israel to see holy stones and holy sands, all the while ignoring the living stones – Palestinian Christians. His call is not to demonize Israel or Israelis, but rather a call to reconciliation, peace, and non violence.

Five years after I read Blood Brothers, I had my own opportunity to travel to Israel and Palestine with the group of students in the Middle East Studies Program. It was my husband’s 8th trip to the region and I got to experience first hand the stories I had read and heard. One day we would be sitting in a synagogue eating a Shabbat meal with Israeli Jews, the next day we would be in the home of Palestinians hearing their stories. The conflict became even more difficult because it now had faces and names. We visited ancient churches and we met those living stones that Elias Chacour talked about – Palestinian Christians. Despite all they had experienced, they still hoped for justice. They still hoped and longed for others to see what the Israeli Occupation was doing to Palestinians – both Muslim and Christian. They still hoped to live as equals in the land of Israel. I was deeply moved by the faith, resilience, and perseverance of these people of God. I began to see why Father Elias Chacour says to people “Don’t choose sides! Learn what it means to be a common friend to both Arabs and Jews!”

I began to see that true justice and peace is to believe that both Jews and Palestinians should be able to live side by side in safety and freedom, with Palestinians enjoying all the rights of citizenship including homes, land, jobs, freedom of movement, education, and hope. Demonizing either side was not the answer. I began to pray that this would become reality.

A Prayer for Justice

The contradictions between biblical nationhood and the modern state of Israel are profound. Human rights abuses, an exclusivist state, arrests and detentions, destroying homes, stealing land are just a few of those contradictions detailed by Dr. Gary Burge in his book Whose Land? Whose Promise? And whether we be Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant Christians, we need our eyesight healed and our vision restored. We need to see the nation of Israel for what it is – a nation deeply in need of grace, forgiveness, and restoration; Jews for who they are – a people who have experienced unconscionable genocide and should not have to fear suicide bombers and rocket attacks; Palestinian Muslims for who they are – a people who are rightly angry at living conditions and past and present injustice, some who have committed inconceivable acts of terror that do not help the cause of peace; and Palestinian Christians for who they are – people saved by grace, living in oppression and injustice, yet continuing to love the Lord their God and seek His peace – our brothers and sisters in Christ.

I don’t know much about politics, but I do know that God cares more about those living stones than he does about nationhood. He cares about reconciliation and weeps at oppression and injustice.  I do know that he cares deeply about us being agents of peace. From the ancient words of Isaiah we hear this:

“A bruised reed He will not break
         And a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish;
         He will faithfully bring forth justice.

“He will not be disheartened or crushed
         Until He has established justice in the earth;
         And the coastlands will wait expectantly for His law.”

Today is the 70th anniversary of El Nakba. It is a day to remember and to think about the importance of looking at history, remembering an injustice that continues daily in the lives of Palestinians. It is a day to pray for peace and justice. It is a day to ask that our eyesight be healed. 


*We Belong to the Land p.207

Reading List: 

Also, take a listen to this beautiful, poignant video sent to me by an Israeli friend:

#Gaza

Gaza

I have stayed away from discussing Gaza but I cannot anymore. There are too many dead and others wounded. A school harboring moms and kids was attacked – a UN Safety Zone and it’s all too much. But I have no words. So here are the words of Reverend Naim Ateek – from the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, Jerusalem written on July 30, 2014. Please read them and as you can pass them on. 

For the sake of the burning children of Gaza

One of the most common refrains repeated by President Obama and other western leaders since the beginning of Israel’s massive military offensive against Gaza is, “Israel has the right to defend itself.”  This refrain is not new and has been declared so often, it has become a cliché.  Some leaders parrot it without even thinking.  Israel has used such clichés as a justification for its actions as well as an excuse to further its carnage.  As of July 29, the death toll in Gaza is over 1100 people, mostly civilians, and includes 243 children (http://www.ochaopt.org).  In addition, around 53 Israeli soldiers and 3 Israeli civilians have died.

Under these circumstances, is Israel able to justifiably claim this right to defend itself? 

First, we should consider that there is no clear “self” for Israel to defend.  Israel steadfastly refuses to define its borders.  Israel’s expansionist policies under the pretext of security have extended its “borders” deep into the Palestinian territories and the Syrian Golan Heights, in contravention of international law.  Furthermore, as a state that is occupying another state that includes Gaza for the last 47 years, Israel stands in violation of international law and humanitarian law.  In light of the fact that Israel has no defined borders and is occupying another state, it is not even possible to define the “self” that Israel has a right to defend.

Second, it is important to note that Israel does not have a moral or legal right to claim that it is “defending” itself so long as it is occupying another state. Let us take the Iraq-Kuwait war as an example.  Suppose after Iraq occupied Kuwait, some of the Kuwaitis started firing rockets at Iraqi cities as their way of forcing Iraq to end its illegal occupation.  In such a circumstance, would we consider Iraq as having a right to “defend” itself?  Or would we rather see Iraq as the instigator and aggressor?

Morally speaking, so long as international law and the United Nations consider Israel as occupying Palestine, Israel is not defending itself, it is defending its occupation and its Zionist project.  When the occupation ends, Israel possesses the legal and moral right to defend itself, and with that we can all stand.  But so long as it is defending its occupation through collective punishment and disproportionate military might, which is illegal under international law, its claims appear deviously deceitful and hollow. Furthermore, Israel can get away with impunity.

Finally, are Obama’s words about Israel’s security and her right to “defend itself” credible in the presence of the burning children of Gaza?   Is the war Israel is conducting credible in light of these children, held captive and unable to leave Gaza, killed for the crime of being born on the wrong side of an arbitrary border, killed while hiding in their homes, playing soccer on the beach, and taking refuge in UN safe spots?  Nothing can legally or morally legitimize the indiscriminate killing of a captive civilian population. No statements, no claims, no actions, no matter how profound, can hold up in the presence of the burning and torn up little bodies of innocent children.   They are utterly meaningless, reprehensible and blasphemous.

 Therefore, it is important to emphasize the following points:

  1. The international community needs to empower the UN to resolve the conflict between Israel and Palestine.  We have been caught in a destructive cycle.  Every few years the situation reaches its boiling point, warfare begins, and thousands of Palestinians are killed and injured, mainly civilians – women, children, elderly, and disabled.  The international community has been lethargic, impotent, and unwilling to implement its own resolutions on Palestine.  The international community has the responsibility to resolve this seemingly intractable conflict.  The UN needs to be empowered to do its work.
  2. International law unequivocally gives occupied people the right to shake off the yoke of the occupier through various means including the armed struggle. While this is true and needs to be remembered in considering this situation, Sabeel has always stood for the moral right of liberation through nonviolent means.
  3. The Palestinian rockets from Gaza have an important message that Israel refuses to understand and the western powers, especially the United States, are unwilling to comprehend.  The message of the rockets addresses the core issues and the root causes of the problem – STOP THE ISRAELI OCCUPATION AND FREE PALESTINE. If this does not happen, the war will occur again and again and again, and the casualties will be mainly women and children.  This conflict will continue to flare up, despite anyone’s best efforts to contain it, unless the systemic injustice of occupation is dismantled.  A recent statement from Israeli academics cuts straight to the point: “Israel must agree to an immediate cease-fire and start negotiating in good faith for the end of the occupation and settlements, through a just peace agreement”

(http://haimbresheeth.com/gaza/an-open-letter-to-israel-academics-july-13th-2014/statement-by-israeli-academics-july-2014/).

  1. Our plea is to all people of conscience in Israel.  You need to become engaged.  The present political course is driving Israelis and Palestinians further apart and is leading us to an impending disaster worse than we are witnessing today.  We all must stop nurturing extremism.  Israelis and Palestinians have to live together in this land.  God has put us here, we need to share it.  The alternative is untenable.
  2. A stable peace can only be realized when justice, in accordance with international law, is achieved for both Israel and Palestine.

Let anyone with ears to hear, listen!

 The Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek

Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, Jerusalem

July 30, 2014

Women in Hebron by Stefanie Sevim Gardner

My daughter Stefanie returned from a 3-week study trip to Israel and Palestine this past Monday. We have delighted in her stories, oohing and ahhing over her pictures, and in general vicariously taking part in this amazing trip. Today she has given me permission to use an essay she wrote for her team. May you enjoy this piece as you travel with her to Hebron, a place where people like Layla daily face the realities of occupation. Please feel free to interact with Stef through the comments. 

Hebron - Stef with LaylaWomen in Hebron by Stefanie Sevim Gardner

On any given day, the winding alleys in the city of Hebron are full of shopkeepers selling scarves, spices, and everything in between. The colors, smells, and sounds keep your senses busy. There is so much beauty and life to soak up. One shop in particular doesn’t catch your eye at first glance, but the story behind the shop is unforgettable. The shop owner’s name is Layla Hasan. She is Muslim, a mother and a grandmother, and she happens to be the only female shop owner in Hebron.

Layla works with Women in Hebron, a non-profit that employs a few hundred women through the production of handcrafted goods. Women in Hebron’s website says the following: “Our work is based on the idea that developing Palestinian handicrafts is more than just an income-generating project. It is in of itself an act of community-strengthening, of honoring the role of women in our society, and a means to show sumud – steadfastness – in the face of the occupation of Palestine and the harm it has done to the people of Hebron.”

Our group spent the day in Hebron and saw this quote personified through Layla and the life she has created. Layla led us to her home, made of old stone that kept us cool from the Middle East heat. We sat on intricately designed cushions that lined the room as she served us a home cooked meal made of rice, chicken, cauliflower, and potato. With each empty serving, Layla would come over and pile our plates with double the amount that we had already consumed, insisting that we continue eating. She sat and talked with us as her granddaughters snuck peeks through the doorway and laid their heads on her lap.

Hebron - Layla's home

Layla’s genuine Arab hospitality came through serving us food and tea as well as entertaining us with laughter and good conversation. Layla told us about her family. Her daughters live in nearby villages and her sons are in jail for attempting to work in Israel proper, because finding jobs locally can be difficult. She told us that her father and husband never approved of her working, preferring her to remain a homemaker. Layla defied their expectations, however. In jest she quoted to us a phrase that is embroidered on hand purses in her shop: “Men can do something. Women can do anything.” Though laughter accompanied this statement, it is one that holds true to her life. Layla said it is not easy to be the only female shop owner nor is it easy to work when the prominent male figures in her life do not want her to do so.

Layla helps provide life and prosperity for the women she employs, despite the fact that the odds are against her in a male-dominated society. Layla doesn’t brag or boast, but happily speaks about her life and shares her stories to those who will listen. Every day, she works in her shop and carries out the mission of Women of Hebron: to provide a place for community strengthening where the role of women is honored and represented. Despite the tumultuous state of Hebron, Layla brings hope to her community, and as the hand purses that she creates assert, no matter what odds are against them, “Women can do anything.”  

Hebron - This is Palestine

To read more about this organization and the work they do head to Women in Hebron: A Palestinian Women’s Embroidery Cooperative. Also stay tuned for more photographs from Stef in a future post.

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