Today I write as a weary traveler waiting for my final connection home. During the flights today I had hoped to review my notes from these past 10 days, read the books I bought, and put together some reflections, but MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) staff advised us to pack these subversive materials in our checked luggage, wrapped in underwear. Sorry, no pictures of that.
What I share here are a few general reflections. More will be shared on Sunday and in the days, weeks and years following.
MCC staff made it clear from the beginning that this learning tour was first and foremost about lifting up the voices and experiences of their partner organizations. This meant visiting people who are working toward conflict transformation in creative, sometimes radical and subversive ways.
And so, we met engineers working to give people and their animals greater access to water. We met people who are challenging the militarization of Israeli society, we met people who work with traumatized children and youth in Palestinian refugee camps, and we met many Palestinian Christians who are seeking to live out Jesus’ teachings of justice, compassion and non-violence. This also meant we found ourselves off the well-traveled paths most days: in Palestinian and Israeli homes, walking through checkpoints, walking through farms, standing next to the separation wall singing hymns and praying, standing on rooftops and waving (or trying not to wave) to the hundreds of security personnel stationed nearby, walking through deserted alleyways, markets and restaurants, visiting detention centers, prisons, refugee camps, as well as a Bedouin village situated in the Jordan Valley on what is known as a “military firing zone.” Our various tour guides would often point to the large charter buses of tourists and say things like, “most tourists stick to the main roads and only hear part of the story of this land and people.” And most tourists probably don’t get questioned and detained in the middle of the Jordan Valley for over an hour!
This tour was also about following in the footsteps of Jesus. So we started in Bethlehem, his birthplace, then north to Nazareth and the Galilee and then in the final three days we turned our face toward Jerusalem, the place of his death and resurrection.
During many of the long and windy bus rides and during the Sea of Galilee boat ride I thought of the following things:
1. This region of the world that we call the Holy Lands is so small and intimate-feeling and yet so segregated and hard to get around. There are so many children and adults who live in the West Bank and Gaza who have never seen the Sea.
2. Nations continue to stream to these lands. People of all ages and nationalities continue to be riveted by the events and prophets 2,000 years ago.
3. There are so many histories and experiences in this place and people render their histories so differently. There are radically different interpretations of facts and histories. For example, Israel would celebrate the events of 1948 as its independence whereas Palestinians call those same events the great catastrophe, nakba. This, according to the Palestinians we visited,created a refugee crisis not a wave of immigration as Israelis often describe it.
4. Events that happened 100-200 years ago are considered contemporary. The events of 1948 would be considered a current event, at least by many. There is layer upon layer upon layer of history which you can see in the very architecture. Mosques used to be synagogues and/or churches and vice versa. Wow.
5. People (Israelis and Palestinians) have such complex, multi layered identities, and such a profound connection to this land.
6. To what degree is this a religious or political conflict? And what role, if any, will religion serve in helping to usher in a more just and peaceful Middle East? And to what degree has religion been co-opted by extremists on all sides?
7. Finally, we were reminded several times that it is not our job as US citizens to come up with a solution. What we can do is ask ourselves and our government these tough questions: what role has the United States had in perpetuating these conflicts and what would a conditional support of Israel look like?