Thursday, February 10, 2011

"You will be my first Palestinian friend!"

On our trip in Israel and the Occupied West Bank, and since returning from the trip, I have been asking the questions, what are roadblocks and barriers to peace (what keeps peace from happening)? and what does it take (and mean) to pursue peace?

One day on our trip we stopped in to visit the Holy Land Trust (, and to hear about their work. We started our time by viewing the documentary film, "Little Town of Bethlehem" (, which highlights the stories and peacemaking efforts of three men: Sami Awad (a Palestinian Christian), Ahmad Al’Azzeh (a Palestinian Muslim), and Yonatan Shapira (an Israeli Jew). It is an excellent film, which should be viewed by anyone who has concern for understanding and resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

One of the barriers to peace that the film highlights is fear. The film argues that the Israelis are so militaristic, worshiping strength, because of their fear. They view themselves as weak, surrounded by enemies. They live with the memory of the Holocaust (as well as a long history of mistreatment by "Christians" in the West), and see and use it as a symbol of what Arabs want to do the the Jews now (rather than as a symbol of what should never be allowed to happen to anyone, anywhere). Their fear leads them not to know the Palestinians (in their midst, or under their occupation), and not to trust them.

And the fear extends to those on the Palestinian side, as well. In a situation of conflict, especially, people on both sides fear the different other, who they usually do not know (or who they know only in caricature, as a stereotype, and based on the worst behavior and actions of someone on the other side, like a suicide bomber, a religious fanatic who opens fire on praying people in a mosque, etc.).

The question, then, becomes how to break through the barrier of fear? "Little Town of Bethlehem" highlights Yonatan Shapira's journey into the Courage to Refuse movement ( - a group who, in pursuit of the IDF mottos of "human dignity" and "purity of arms," came to refuse to attack civilian areas or to serve in the occupied territories. In addition, Shapira highlights the need to "reach out to your enemy," to "try to correct the wrong" that has been done.

This is another step in "fighting" against violence and for peace (and highlighted in the film) - working against the dehumanization of the other, working to reclaim your understanding and commitment to their humanity. And for the Palestinians, they emphasize that a point of their nonviolent resistance to the injustices of the Israeli occupation, is to help the Israelis recapture their own humanity (since oppressing others always dehumanizes the oppressor as well as the oppressed). But that's another story, another theme.

To return to the theme of overcoming fear: one of our Palestinian guides told a story that changed his life. He was invited to attend an event at a kibbutz. The invitation, he said, stirred his fear. Growing up, he had always seen the kibbutzim and those who lived on them as the most dangerous of Israelis, the most anti-Palestinian. He felt certain, as he considered the invitation, that if they found out he was Palestinian, they would harm or even kill him. But on the other hand, he believed (in theory) in working for in the end he decided to attend the event. While he was on the kibbutz, though, he avoided talking to people, not wanting to be discovered as a Palestinian. His worst fears seemed about to be realized, near the end of the time, when one of the leaders of the event came to him, introduced himself, and asked where he (the Palestinian) was from. He said he swallowed hard, prepared himself mentally for whatever horrible fate awaited him, and said he was from Beit Sahour. The Israeli's response totally caught him off guard - he thrust out his hand and said with a large smile, "then you will be my first Palestinian friend!"

Needless to say, something changed for our Palestinian guide that day. A fear was conquered, as an unknown "enemy," in the form of a real person, offered to become a friend.

How can peace be achieved? By individuals facing (even walking into) their fears, stepping into the unknown, and establishing human contact, friendship, with those on the other side of the barriers (whether real or imagined).

A final thought from "Little Town of Bethlehem": the Israelis must come to the point of deciding to take down the wall. How many small steps of relationship building, of overcoming individual and collective fears, will it take to get to this point?

1 comment:

AmelMag said...

I think it was Yonatan Shapira's story that struck me the most strongly when we watched "Little Town." Partially because it's a story about challenging, and transforming, all you believe -- all those deep rooted ideas about heroism, and courage, and honor, and homeland ... all of the catch phrases utilized in every war and by every empire. People love to use the "boys will be boys" excuse to explain the perpetuation of violence in the world, but I think it's so much deeper (and more complex) than that. It's rooted in the very legends we live through, the mythmaking that grants our stories meaning. And being willing/able to step outside of that, and admit that the human being suffering and dying is more true, more real, than our longings to be part of a glorious struggle ... that I think requires a radical type of integrity. We need to learn to tell new stories.