Israel-Palestine and the Call to Faithful Action


A journey that began 20 years ago with the decision to spend time walking in the pathways of Saint Paul has continued to shape my life. The journey has opened and nourished my spirit and taken layers of dust from my eyes.

A chance encounter with an elderly man 20 years ago led my husband, Ted, and me to visit the village of Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam (the Oasis of Peace), specifically to spend time in their primary school. The village sits on the Green Line in Israel. The love child of Father Bruno Hussar and his prayers, the village lives his vision of equal numbers of Israeli-Jewish and Israeli-Palestinian families who live, learn, and work together in equality and mutual respect.

As a Friend, I wanted to know how it was that the beloved community was there before my eyes, children and their parents committed to living the answer to the conflict, and yet I hadn’t seen it before. It isn’t a utopia but a living laboratory where everything that is outside comes in and then gets worked on. It is a place committed to the equality and mutual respect of two peoples, both descendants of Abraham and committed to the same piece of land; nobody is taking his or her marbles and going away.

When Sunday came, Ted and I found the only Friends meeting in the region and drove there with the familiar anticipation that we might be privileged to meet the Spirit, to be in blessed communion with fellow Friends. Meeting for worship in Ramallah is like and unlike meeting anywhere. The small space fills with those who, like individual heart cells, are compelled to come together in order to beat as one. We worshipped, went for lunch and ice cream on the street and returned to Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam.

What is different is the way in which the occupation of the streets of Ramallah, and indeed the whole West Bank, affects both the worship and what comes after. To be the underclass in your own land, to be afraid of those who patrol the streets, to know that everywhere there are cameras filming you and that your only real sanctuary is within the meeting, connects us with early Friends who found themselves against the powers and principalities of their time.

Our worship could not be separated from the suffering outside, and yet worship in Ramallah is actually never political but centered in the Spirit.

Photos courtesy of the author.

Over the years, and through our increasing engagement with both the Ramallah Meeting and Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, we have come to know the ordinary people: the laborers in the vineyards who share their wages and the Israelis and Palestinians who work together, across the borders and beyond their fears. They create a sense of right-ordered living in the small piece of land on which they all stand. They are many. When they speak of justice and peace, they speak as people who know the cost of such talk; they have lost work, health, home, family, land, and security, and some have lost their lives.

For all these years, I have taken care to learn the roots of the conflict among and between Israelis and Palestinians (both Christians and Muslims), to let love and worry grow in me while I met with peace workers and settlers; with imams, pastors, and rabbis; with teachers, doctors, and shopkeepers; with children and retirees; and with farmers and mechanics. I have spent time every year—from two weeks to two months—on both sides of the divide, serving the boards of Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam in Israel and the Friends of Ramallah Friends Meeting in Palestine. And over and over, I have responded to the call to “tell both sides of the story.” I have learned that the question isn’t, what is the other side of the story? Instead the questions is, what is it we are called to do to live more mercifully, more justly, more peacefully, to be agents of transformation where there is fear, hopelessness, and suffering?

During these 20 years, I have learned of the ever-present privilege provided by my international status: moving freely around the occupied territories, going to Gaza, driving from Israel to Palestine and back, never fearing that I might be detained for longer than an hour and never being told that I couldn’t go where I had planned. When we had a medical emergency, I had no fear that I’d be prevented from seeking necessary care in the hospital best suited to the need.

And yet today, it is as if I have seen the privilege in clear sharp lines as never before. While internationals come to be in solidarity with the Palestinian farmers during olive harvest (offering the protection from the settler violence and being extra hands for the impossibly limited hours that Israeli soldiers give farmers to go into their fields), there is the reality that the Palestinians may not travel to assist others; may not get into a van and go to visit friends in Israel; and may not go to Jerusalem or to Gaza—not to visit, to worship, nor to be with family.

Internationals like myself return to our own native lands and give reports, because the Palestinians cannot leave their own country with any assurance that they will be allowed to return or that that their property will be there when they do. Thus, they often cannot be the experts present to report on their own conditions and sense of things, and Friends, like everyone else, begin to look toward other internationals for a true sense of how things are and what needs to be done. Those whom we come to love, to be in solidarity with, to learn from and grow with slowly but surely, become people for whom we make choices, and for whom our own government will decide.

Returning to meeting for worship—to the mystery of truths slowly revealed—present to all who worship in spirit together, we find that we can be saved from our own hubris. We find that together we all may yet be bringers of peace and healers of nations. And that brings me back to meeting for worship in 2014 in Ramallah.

The quality of worship here is deeper these days than I had experienced before, due in part to the increased pressure of the occupation and in part to the meeting itself being a loving and worshiping community. It is drawing in seekers like butterflies to flowers. Singing, praying, and worshiping in silence—on our feet, on our knees—Friends from six countries are drawn together by the Spirit to the old stone meetinghouse in Ramallah to see what the Spirit would make of us this day. We are led to acknowledge the reality of the Palestine in which this meeting is located, and we are faithful to the commitment to living as Friends in this region: to be the hands and feet of the Spirit that guides, informs, comforts, and challenges.

I am led to call out to Friends to be open to the leading of the Spirit in matters of Israel and Palestine. It is not enough to be still and quiet in the face of suffering, not in Germany, not in Rwanda, not in the Confederate South, not in Palestine/Israel. It can be given to us to be instruments of reconciliation, to be listeners to stories that are not ours but which are true, to be present to the suffering and to be humble enough to believe that there isn’t one answer out there that will fix everything.

It can also be given to us to speak for the world that we want to see for the grandchildren of Israelis and Palestinians. I am led to call out to Friends to recognize our part in sustaining the occupation of Palestine, often as a result of our own fears and memories of Holocaust. And yet, looking back never allows us to be open to way forward, and our own fears and histories are not those of the other side with its own history of loss and suffering.

I ask Friends, urgently, to join with one another in actively discerning our roles and our leadings to action—individually and corporately—in responding to the suffering and loss resulting from the occupation and its ongoing U.S. legislative, financial support.


Deborah First

Deborah First retired from the faculty of Nazareth College in elementary and science education. A member of Fredonia (N.Y.) Meeting, she serves the boards of American Friends of Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam and Friends of Ramallah Friends Meeting. Eleven grandchildren, traditional rug hooking, and music take up available time.

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