Knowing and Not Knowing

As a member of the delegation whose trip inspired Stanley Zarowin’s article, "A Visit to Israel by a Quaker Jew Born in Palestine," (FJ Sept.) and as a member of one of the "several U.S. Quaker groups . . . making sizable financial contributions to Ramallah Meeting to improve the little-used meetinghouse," I have experienced Stanley’s challenges on that issue as an invitation to revisit the question, "Why?" On one level it didn’t make sense when Philadelphia Yearly Meeting made its decision at our Sessions in March of 2002 to commit significant funds for that purpose. It made even less sense shortly thereafter when very active fighting, destruction of Yassir Arafat’s compound, and curfews made it clear that the situation in Ramallah and the entire area was very dire and unstable. When the first $50,000 was sent there was no assurance that a restored meetinghouse would not again be significantly damaged by the fighting (as it had been in the first Intifada). Yet we also knew that if a new roof were not in place before the next winter season, the increased damage from the rains would make the situation far worse.
My experience has taught me that when the Spirit moves us to a significant decision it does not always "make sense." Perhaps the not making sense is because the action is one of faith. It is following the leading of the Spirit to that place which often the powers and principalities of the world fear to go: a place characterized by vulnerability, a witnessing to the worth of every living thing and a readiness to listen. There is no defense in that place except in knowing that the only thing, in the end, that will transform our world will be the power of love at work. It is the choosing of what we Friends know to be essential—the living of lives of integrity in which there is congruity between our inward knowing and our outer actions.

Yet, if there is anything which a conflict such as that which goes on daily in Israel and Palestine puts solidly in front of us, it is the challenge of how we make our testimonies real in the face of suffering, violence, and injustice. How do we speak out clearly against wrong acts which daily deepen the hatred which fuels the conflict, yet not demonize (nor dehumanize) all those trapped in the conflict? How do we take seriously the charge made frequently that Quakers are pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli (which often is translated into anti-Semitic)? How do we allow ourselves to be truly touched by the suffering that is occurring when that awareness leads us to a feeling of helplessness because we cannot alleviate the suffering? How do we take care that our commitment to working against injustice in other countries does not serve as a diversion keeping us from seeing the injustices in our own communities and country, injustices in whose perpetration we have a role? How do we keep from being overwhelmed and disempowered by the questions themselves, given the reality that there is no way in which we can ever know the answers—though that does not excuse us from seeking them?

My sense is that continued effort to grow into a place of greater humility is the path which will lead us to greater faithfulness. Jean Zaru, clerk of Ramallah Meeting, addressed us at our yearly meeting Sessions in 2002. The minutes of that Session state in part, "[Jean] pointed out that crucial to transformation is the public cry of pain. The communication of grief and anguish is necessary to penetrate the numbness of history and open the way for newness of life, justice, and peace. She called on us to listen and to create the space where this grief, this truth can be brought forth."

Please God, anything but this. Many in our country are ready to take up guns and risk their lives trying to wipe out the perpetrators of injustice. Many of us are ready to work hard for peace from inside our cocoon of denial. Isn’t it enough to let in the anguish in little pieces? Those of us old enough to remember a Vietnamese child running down the street aflame from our napalm know what it is like to have the numbness shattered. The Iraqi boy this spring who wanted his hands back so he could fulfill his dream of being a doctor did it too. But to lay aside our numbness and our privilege and to walk hand in hand with the oppressed and the suffering, feeling their anguish and allowing them to be our teachers—that is what Jesus did. Is that what’s being asked of us as well?

It would not be truthful for me to say that I thought members of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting had all of this in our thoughts when the Spirit led us to our decision to commit funds for the rehabilitation of the meetinghouse in Ramallah and, if the way opens, to partner with our Friends in Palestine. But, I do believe that in leading us the Spirit has given us opportunity to grow into that awareness. I do know our action has brought some hope through offering employment in the face of an impoverished economy and through our saying symbolically that we believe this (Palestine) to be a place of worth. I do know that a small international group of Friends (including some associated with American Friends Service Committee) is working in partnership with Friends in Ramallah to think about ways in which the meetinghouse can be a vital place of coming together as concerned Palestinians and Israelis continue to seek peace.

The meetinghouse is essentially complete, but has no bathrooms and no smaller meeting spaces until the annex is also rebuilt; the funds for these improvements have not yet been found. I believe the question for each of us to address is: What is the opportunity in front of me (us) for making the Spirit manifest in this moment and in this place? What is my contribution to keeping hope alive in the darkness that surrounds us?

Arlene Kelly

Arlene Kelly is a member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting, and recently stepped down after four years' service as clerk of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.