A learning tour

Earlier this summer I was accepted to be a part of a twelve day learning tour in November to Israel/Palestine.  Mennonite Central Committee has been leading these tours for the last few years, giving church leaders the opportunity to become acquainted first hand with the daily realities of life there.  Historically Mennonites have worked especially closely with Palestinian Christians and Israeli peace groups.

This will be my third trip to that region, also 2000 and 2004.  Because I find it easier to sympathize with Palestinians, who continue to be on the receiving end of so much injustice through home demolitions, middle of the night house raids, harassment at checkpoints, bombings of residential areas, etc, part of my preparation for the trip includes gaining a better understanding of Israeli/Jewish perspectives and their version of history.  One way will be to initiate some conversations with a few rabbis in the Columbus area.

Another will be through reading a highly recommended book called My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel (2013).  The author, Ari Shavit, is from a family with long ties to the Zionist movement, himself a complex mix of Israeli journalist, peacenik, historian, and poetic storyteller.  I’m about a quarter of the way through the book, just at the point when the Zionist Jews in Palestine are hearing rumors of Hitler’s implementation of the Final Solution for exterminating Jews across Europe, which went into full motion in 1942.

Here are the opening words of the book:

For as long as I can remember, I remember fear.  Existential fear.  The Israel I grew up in – the Israel of the mid-1960s – was energetic, exuberant, and hopeful.  But I always felt that beyond the well-to-do houses and upper-middle-class lawns of my hometown lay a dark ocean.  One day, I dreaded, that dark ocean would rise and drown us all.

And some words from the following page, after Shavit recounted a conversation as a nine year old with his dad in 1967, when he feared the Arabs would destroy Israel.

For as long as I can remember, I remember occupation.  One a week after I asked my father whether the Arab nations were going to conquer Israel, Israel conquered the Arab-populated regions of the West Bank and Gaza.  A month later, my parents, my brother, and I embarked on a first family tour of the occupied cities of Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Hebron.  Wherever we went, there were remains of burned Jordanian jeeps, trucks, and military vehicles.  White flags of surrender hung over most houses.  Palestinian children my age and younger had fear in their eyes.  Their parents appeared devastated and humiliated.  Within a few weeks the mighty Arabs were transformed into victims, while the endangered Israelis became conquerors.

I find it important to resist the false choice of whether to be pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian, as well as the false choice of whether to be a bridge builder (and thus, somehow a “neutral party”) or an advocate (and thus, somehow, choosing sides).  I would hope to be pro-Human, pro-peace, pro-justice, and perhaps more concretely, pro-story.  To be a witness.

Because the trip is in November, the experience will be fresh as we enter the Advent season.  I hope to incorporate stories of Palestinian and Israeli families, and those struggling for a just peace, into our worship together as we enter that season of hope and anticipation of love’s birth in impossible places.

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