For years I vowed never to return to Palestine, my birthplace, because, as a Jew—albeit a secular Jew—I felt a sense of outrage and shame for Israel’s inhumane response to the Palestinians’ desire for a homeland. Somehow I expected the people of a nation that endured the Holocaust and gained its own homeland to respond less brutally to the Palestinians’ quest. But at the same time, I also felt outrage with the Arabs for their multiple attempts to drive the Jews into the sea and the subsequent terrorist activities. As if that were not enough, as a convinced Quaker, I’ve long been dismayed that Friends, despite our Peace Testimony, have never undertaken a serious peacemaking role in the Middle East and have shown a bias in favor of the Palestinians.
Yet in February, I found myself among 26 Quaker “leaders” on a pastoral visit to Israel and Palestine’s violence-torn West Bank organized by Friends United Meeting (FUM). For FUM, the goals were to provide support for its Quaker school in Israeli-occupied Ramallah and to show us evidence of the suffering Palestinians experience under Israel’s military rule. Because I maintain strong emotional ties to my place of birth, I went with a different goal: to seek ways to bring the warring parties of my Palestinian-Jewish heritage to a place of peace. My American parents had settled there in the late 1920s—my mother to teach nursing and my father to manufacture aluminum pots and pans. I was born in Jerusalem more than a decade before Israel’s birth. With World War II spreading into the Middle East, my parents decided it was prudent to abandon their home, property, and careers and return to the United States.
Both FUM and American Friends Service Committee, the service organization that as a stand-in for U.S. Friends shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947 with British Friends Service Council for providing humanitarian help after World War II, have active humanitarian and political programs in Palestine designed to educate and empower Arabs in their quest for independence. While those efforts are laudatory, regrettably few of their programs have been designed to bring Palestinians and Israelis together in peace—an omission that I believe contradicts our Peace Testimony and has vexed me as a Quaker and as a Jew.
In my view, Arab and Jew are both victim and perpetrator, and, as a result, both suffer—each in a different way. The role of the true peacemaker is not to demonize either side in a dispute; nor to support only the underdog. After all, while might does not make right, weakness does not necessarily make right either.
I was in a quagmire: displeased and disappointed with the Palestinians, the Jews, and the Quakers—three groups that, in part, define my identity. And like the Pogo cartoon, I found the enemy; it was us.
I often wondered how Jesus would have dealt with these contradictions. Would he have been as judgmental and upset as I am? I asked many such hypothetical Jesus questions for many different reasons during the visit.
The Israeli trip was made more poignant by something that happened about a year earlier. I have long been involved with the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), with many years of facilitating antiviolence programs for men imprisoned for violent crimes. By training and experience, I learned to see beyond individual criminal acts and anger to recognize that of God in the people with whom I worked. Because of my experience, a Quaker group asked me to facilitate antiviolence training workshops for Palestinian schoolteachers. I accepted the invitation with enthusiasm and envisioned eventually enlarging the activity to bring together in one AVP workshop both Arabs and Jews—hoping I could help them to look beyond their anger.
But that dream was quickly dashed. When my would-be hosts learned that, despite the fact that I have been a Quaker for several decades, I was an ethnic Jew, the invitation was withdrawn because it was believed the Arabs would find it hard, if not impossible, to work with a Jew—even a Quaker Jew. At first, the cancellation stung. But in time I realized that the rejection was a gift: I could—and must—find a way to return as a Quaker peacemaker.
When I received the surprise invitation from FUM, I felt guided by a spiritual leading (if not a spiritual shove) but I also knew the trip would be difficult for me—emotionally and physically. What a load of baggage to bring on a pastoral visit.
At first, the ride from the airport in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was rural: olive groves on rocky, steep-terraced hillsides; small herds of sheep grazing on wisps of grass that sprout from the boulder-strewn countryside; and mile after mile of forests planted by Jews over the past 50 years. But then our guide pointed out the carcass of an Israeli tank or the wing of a downed Israeli fighter plane—memorials to the several unsuccessful Arab invasions in the short life of this nation. He also called our attention to high piles of rubble blocking the entrance to several side roads—part of the Israeli military’s strategy to thwart access to isolated Palestinian villages.
Why did the Israeli military block the roads? Security. The word security be-came the most frequent explanation for every Israeli use of force or humiliating action imposed on Palestinians. One West Bank Arab joked later when I complained about the cold, wet weather, “Blame it on security.”
The next day we toured Jerusalem’s Old City. Soldiers were everywhere, with automatic weapons draped over their shoulders. When we arrived at the Western Wall, the most sacred spot in Jewish religious and national consciousness, we had to submit to a search. Although I had no intention of praying (I had never learned Hebrew prayers or been bar mitzvahed), I found myself being drawn to it. Suddenly a gun-toting soldier who had just finished praying intercepted me and, pointing to my head, said, “You must cover your head.” At that moment a Hasidic Jew in black overcoat and hat came from behind and handed me a yarmulke. The soldier, sensing my embarrassment, said, “It’s okay.” I took advantage of the opening and asked, “So, how is it being a soldier here?” He thought a moment and said gravely, “I just want to go home.” Tears misted in his eyes, and I felt a deep connection with his emotion. As he walked away, I wondered: What had he been praying for? His family’s safety? Shame for the way many of his fellow soldiers were treating the Palestinians? Shame for his own actions? Or did he simply pray to go home?
On my living room wall at home is a photograph of the stone house my grandfather built in Jerusalem. I never knew the address—a piece of information I considered totally irrelevant since I had no interest in returning to my homeland. But the image of the three-story building of rough-hewn stone is burned into my memory. During the daylong tour of Jerusalem I kept searching in vain for that house. When we returned to the hotel late in the afternoon, I took a stroll—to spend some time alone to process the emotional events of the day. Behind the hotel I happened on an old stone building; a brass plaque identified it as the British consulate, dated 1921. Suddenly a flood of memories overcame me: this must have been the building where my father was frequently hauled in by British soldiers for interrogations.
While nonpolitical, my father was an anomaly to the British—and to some Jews and Arabs, as well. On the one hand, in the 1930s he covertly assisted the Haganah, the secret civilian Jewish security force, by smuggling guns to those who were defending civilians against a band of Arab radicals the British were secretly arming. The British, anxious to remain in control of this strategic strip of land, sought to foment disputes between Arab and Jews as a way to justify their continued presence. On the other hand my father was a strong supporter of Arab independence—economically as well as politically. When he introduced the first labor union into his small factory, other Jewish businessmen were aghast. And the British, suspecting him to be a member of the Haganah, were baffled by his strong pro-Arab stance.
Although he never became involved in direct violence, he confessed to me his one-man smuggling operation, which also baffled and amused his closest friends, many of whom were Palestinians. Although he was never imprisoned, the British harassed him, arresting him for minor violations (and then immediately releasing him when his Arab lawyer friend intervened) and, at one point, confiscating his motorcycle for parking in a restricted zone.
That evening two members of the Christian Peacemaker Team met with us and described how they canvass neighborhoods in occupied cities; when they come upon Israeli soldiers harassing an Arab they intervene nonviolently. They admitted it was often difficult to see that of God in the molesting soldiers, and that daily group prayer sessions helped overcome their outrage. I was impressed by their candor, faith, and courage, but I was discouraged to learn that team membership is limited to Christians—no Jews or Muslims allowed. What a missed opportunity to forge bridges of peace.
I wondered whether Jesus also would have been angry and judgmental, and how he would have dealt with the contradictions.
In the morning we were taken by bus around the outskirts of Jerusalem, where many illegal Israeli settlements have sprung up. The tour was conducted by the Committee Against Home Demolitions—a Jewish group trying in vain to halt the bulldozing of Arab homes condemned because a family member was identified as a terrorist. Our guide, a secular Jew, could not hide her rage. When I questioned her later, she said fear has driven many Israelis to irrational, inhumane acts. So, she said, her rage was mixed with sorrow and compassion—and again, as with the soldier, I felt a deep connection with her complex, contradictory emotion.
In the afternoon we drove to Abu Dies, a Palestinian village where Israel is building a 25-foot-high concrete security wall topped by barbed wire, floodlights, and electronic detectors. It will eventually extend 250 miles through the West Bank. Most of it will be built on vacant land, but in Abu Dies, and probably in other places as well, it will bisect the village. The villagers were still able to scale the unfinished wall. We watched in silence as old men and women with bundles, and young children hanging on to mothers slowly climbed in single file over the unfinished barrier. In a move of support, several of us joined the slow-moving line. In silence we returned to our bus.
That night, back in Jerusalem, we met with a panel of human rights activists: a rabbi with the Rabbis for Human Rights; an Arab lawyer from Al Haq, an organization that works on human rights issues and international law; and an Israeli who heads the Committee Against Home Demolitions.
In later talks with Israelis I met in shops and on the streets, I got the impression that, while many are in general agreement with these activists, most still support Ariel Sharon, the prime minister and mastermind of the brutal military occupation. When I pointed out the obvious contradiction, they responded that while they would prefer a peaceful settlement, they still support Sharon’s iron fist because they believe only such a ruthless response will provide security. When I confronted them with the reality—that Sharon’s harsh tactics are not only not stopping the terrorists but likely are inflaming them—they shook their heads in frustration. I even sensed their anger at me for pointing out the obvious. On more than one occasion it was explained to me that foreigners can’t appreciate what Israelis are going through—not only the constant fear of suicide bombers or sniper attacks, but the ultimate Arab threat to drive them into the sea.
The next day we traveled to Bethlehem, which is in the Palestinian West Bank—”enemy” territory—so we had to go through our first heavily armed military checkpoint. There are hundreds of checkpoints at strategic locations on highways throughout the West Bank and Gaza. We were told stories by Palestinian activists about how, on occasion, Israeli soldiers made Arabs disrobe and stand in the cold while their vehicles were searched.
In Bethlehem we visited a Franciscan counseling center for war-traumatized children and parents. We were told stories of children who had become distraught from the gunfire; many became mute and depressed. Now, however, just a few months after the latest military episode, we saw children playing and singing joyfully—a tribute to the success of the center. We joined them in singing, but many of us left misty-eyed.
That evening, back in Jerusalem, we met with a sad-eyed Israeli who coordinates fundraising activities with the Jewish Federations in America. While he said he prayed for peace and questioned the legality of the new settlements, he apologetically endorsed the military’s actions. Why? Again, for security. The more he responded to questions, the sadder his eyes became. I could feel him squirm as the questions he received forced him to face his own contradictions. I wondered whether the delegation could empa-thize with him—how this decent man agonized over the pain of his ambiguity. My instinct was to tell him I understood his agony, but my own contradictions paralyzed me.
That evening after dinner, we assembled to hear Father Naim Ateek, a Palestinian who heads a group called Sabeel, preach what he labels “liberation theology.” I expected his presentation to suggest programs designed to achieve peace with Israel and economic growth and stability for Palestine. But instead his presentation was a well-crafted but one-sided retelling of the last half-century of the Arab-Israeli conflict and a graphic itemization of atrocities committed against Palestinians. When he dismissed the work of Rabbis for Human Rights and Al Haq as ineffectual, hypocritical, and nothing but public-relations stunts, I wondered how the delegation was receiving his message. I wanted to fill in the critical history he omitted, but for the first time during the trip, as the only Jew, I suddenly felt isolated from my Christian Friends and, for the moment at least, lacking the courage to speak.
But then something happened. Most of his rapid-fire talk left few opportunities for questions. Just as I was resigned to silence, he hesitated and drew a deep breath. Without thinking what I was going to say, I rose to my feet as if I were in meeting for worship. I felt the anger drain, and in a steady voice I told him how disappointed I was with his message, that I had hoped it would have advocated peace, tolerance, and understanding, but it appeared designed instead to inflame Jews, Christians, and Muslims—not something I believe a man of God should be advocating. With that, I sat—and began quaking.
Clearly, he was surprised, and he launched an attack at me. I remained silent, and the more he prodded me, the more centered I became. Afterwards, some Friends allowed how they, too, were uncomfortable with his acerbic message. I felt less alone. That night, as I waited for sleep, I again asked myself how Jesus would have responded.
The next morning we left for Ramallah, where each member of the delegation was to be housed for the next several days with a Palestinian Muslim family, all parents of Friends School children. I now had to face a decision: do I reveal to my Muslim host that I was not only a Quaker, but also an ethnic Jew? I had considered revealing myself on the last day of the visit, not only to give my hosts time to see me as a person and not to just profile me as a Jew, but also for my physical safety. I finally decided to disclose my birth religion in a letter after I returned home. I must admit, however, that my lack of courage to disclose the truth while I was there troubles me still. However, I have since received a loving letter from the family accepting me as a Quaker and a Jew.
When we reached Ramallah, Yasir Arafat’s headquarters, which has been under constant Israeli attack, I expected to see a war-torn city of crumbling buildings and empty streets. Instead, while Arafat’s old headquarters is a pile of rubble, the rest of the city is a thriving commercial metropolis with monumental traffic jams. Streets were crowded with pedestrians, and shops overflowed with merchandise. De-spite the crowding, everything seemed to flow civilly.
That afternoon, we broke into small groups and visited classrooms of the Friends School. The students, who study both Arabic and English, quickly warmed up, and when we invited questions, they tossed us some political hot potatoes: “Do you like President Bush?” (“No, although he is our president and I respect the office, I do not like many of his decisions.”) “Do you like Arafat?” (Gulp! “I don’t know. I’ve never met him.”)
In the afternoon, we visited a medical rehabilitation center where many of the patients, we were told, had been wounded by Israeli gunfire. Before the tour, we were entertained with a musical program staged by students and then a fiery anti-Israeli speech by a parent. Later, at school assemblies, I witnessed students delivering similar messages, but more nationalistic in tone. I asked a school official whether this kind of angry rhetoric was usual, and whether the Friends School seeks to influence the students or the parents with teachings about Quaker testimonies. I was told the school did not directly intercede; it was felt the students need opportunities to vent their anger.
I thought about it and said this may indeed be a wise decision for a secular school, but this was a Quaker school. Shouldn’t teachers do something to promote Quaker values? The school official reluctantly conceded that Quaker testimonies were not stressed in the curriculum, although the school did give classes in “ethics.” After I asked for details, the official conceded the ethics syllabus was too abstract to address the students’ anger. The picture of one student who had been killed by the soldiers hung on the wall of one classroom and it was often referred to by students and teachers.
Again, I wondered how Jesus would have responded.
Late that afternoon I met my Palestinian host. Husan, the father in the family, greeted me warmly, though not aloud because his English was only a mite better than my nonexistent Arabic. So our “conversation” included a lot of smiles and head-nodding. To my relief, his wife, Asma, and older daughter, Maysa, spoke enough English for us to complete the introductions, and within an hour we were able to laugh easily at our cultural and linguistic stumblings.
The next day the delegation visited a play center for youngsters living in a refugee camp. To call it a “play center” is an overstatement; it’s a one-story makeshift stone building with no heat and a tiny play area. The building, owned by the United Nations, which supplies relief food for the poorest of the poor in the refugee camps, is on loan to the center as a temporary replacement for one that recently burned down, and there is some question about how long the arrangement will last.
Some days later, while meeting with members of Ramallah Friends Meet-ing, I asked whether their old stone meetinghouse, which stands empty most of the time since the meeting has only a handful of members, might house the refugee children during the week. The suggestion was immediately rejected with the explanation that the historic building would not be suitable. “Plus, it’s in a noisy neighborhood.” I wondered—and finally, after some hesitation, asked out loud—is the cold, temporary, makeshift building that now houses the 30 refugee children any more suitable; and would laughing, noisy, playing children really mind a little traffic noise? Later I learned that several U.S. Quaker groups are making sizable financial contributions to Ramallah Meeting to improve the little-used meetinghouse.
Another tough question for Jesus.
As I sat with that contradiction, I recalled that in the United States some old, historic meetinghouses are lovingly restored or kept in mint condition at great financial cost. Are these old buildings being revered as icons of our faith? Is that not a contradiction of our Testimony of Simplicity?
Yet another question for Jesus.
A stone wall separates the play center from the Amari refugee camp, one of several established by Israel for the Palestinians displaced by the many wars. Once a family is given refuge in such a camp, it rarely can rise above the poverty level to escape. As a result, the camp is a breeding ground for malcontents and terrorists. And although the camp’s size is fixed by the stone walls, its population continues to grow; three generations of residents were born there. So the only solution is to build up—two, three, and even four stories high. The current buildings are spaced only some 15 feet apart, and as the buildings rise, they create cave-like alleyways that tend to be strewn with garbage.
A visit to a refugee camp was not on our group’s schedule, but once I got a glimpse of one from the outside, it was on mine. From that day on, with few exceptions, I set my own agenda, even if that meant traveling separately from the rest of the delegation. I was determined to see how Palestinians live. I wanted to talk to those trapped in the camps. I wanted to understand the politics, fears, and hopes of the disenfranchised; and, most of all, to understand their nationalistic determination—something I felt in most every Palestinian I met. Most wanted peace, but a few wanted revenge first.
That evening, I mentioned to my hosts my wish to see more. Asma conferred with the family, including a relative who works for the UN in the refugee camp. They agreed to show me everything I wanted to see—and, as it turned out, things that were not on my list—for they wanted this American to see what the occupation was doing to Palestinians.
We started with a tour of the apartment, where bullets had torn through two bedroom walls. The apartment was only a temporary lodging for the family. Their permanent home, a one-story building on the same street, had been commandeered by Israeli soldiers during the last invasion, and the interior was so severely vandalized that the family had to move to this apartment. On the night of that invasion, the troops gathered some 60 people from near-by homes and crammed them into one large room for three days. The reason: security. During the lockdown, some of the soldiers vandalized the other apartments.
That night I heard what sounded like machine gun fire. The next morning I learned that soldiers had broken up a peace rally in the middle of the city. That action led to stone-throwing, and the soldiers fired above the heads of the crowd and arrested several young men, charging them with terrorism. I was told about the event with no emotion—as if it were a weather report. The other stories—about the takeover of their house and the herding of all those people into one room for three days—also were told without emotion. That, I concluded, is a way the Palestinians cope—suppress the emotion. I was to see more innovative coping during my visit.
The next day was cold, windy, and rainy. Our delegation was scheduled to visit Birzeit University, which is only a short distance outside the city, but because the route is intersected by a military checkpoint that permits few vehicles to pass, the trip can take several hours. We took a taxi to the checkpoint, whereupon we walked a kilometer in the rain up a steep muddy road through the checkpoint and down the hill to a swarm of taxis waiting anxiously for fares. On our walk through the checkpoint we were joined by scores of Palestinians and Bedouins carrying bundles, pushing makeshift carts and bicycles. Both sides of the road were lined with improvised shelters, where entrepreneurial Arabs sold snacks, hot drinks, and various merchandise. It was heartening to see how the Arabs had turned the humiliating checkpoints into a commercial bazaar.
To my surprise, at no time did the soldiers stop and search us or anyone else, for that matter. So what was the purpose of the checkpoint—surely not security? “To debase us,” our Arab taxi driver said without emotion. “Just another act of contempt for the Palestinian.”
That evening Husan invited me to meet his friends. Although tired, I readily agreed. We walked through a rubble-strewn lot to a lean-to covered by a sheet of corrugated iron. Inside, a homemade potbelly stove blazed, keeping the clubhouse cozy. But because the lean-to had no chimney, smoke from the wood fire filled the room. Contributing even more smoke were nine cigarette-smoking men—Husan’s friends— who, I learned, meet every night in their improvised clubhouse to talk about their favorite subject: politics.
I was invited to sit in an old easy chair whose exposed tufts of stuffing indicated it was lovingly rescued from the junk heap. A large couch and a few other well-worn easy chairs completed the interior decoration. When I began to choke from the accumulated smoke, one of the men graciously tried to wave it away from my face, but the chain-smoking continued. I nodded a thank-you for his hand-waving efforts and determined to suppress any further choking by sheer willpower. I didn’t realize it then, but Husan noticed my smoke aversion, and from then on, whenever we were in the apartment he smoked in another room.
One man, with a cigarette poised delicately between fingertips, spoke with such arm-waving gusto that ashes spilled on his neighbors. Although his English was rudimentary, I easily understood him.
His major points: An independent Palestinian nation is the only way to remedy our fury. Israelis are trying to destroy our will, our soul. But they can’t. The more they step on us, the more we are determined to survive.
He appeared to be the club’s spokesman, but that did not stop the others from coaching him, tossing in an occasional English or Arabic word to augment his position.
A boy delivered cups of hot, strong Turkish coffee, and as we sipped I was asked for my political analysis. I was unprepared for the challenge. How could I explain my position—Quaker, Jew, American, Palestinian-born—using one-syllable words? And then I thought: As a guest, can I even share with them my criticism of Arab terrorists along with my criticism of Israel? Would I be embarrassing my host if I spoke my mind? Would I be endangering myself?
To my surprise, I found the words to explain the futility of an eye-for-an-eye mentality. I suggested that both sides—Muslim and Jew—must put aside the hate from the past, to look to a future of peace or they will be murdering not only themselves, but their children and their children’s children.
Although they listened politely and, I think, understood me, several, including the orator, clearly did not fully agree with me. At one point I cited a survey I had read the week before that said 78 percent of both Israelis and Palestinians favor a settlement of coexistence; it was only the 22 percent on both sides who thwart the peace. That impressed the orator, and he sat back, drawing deeply on a new cigarette. That freed the others to talk. They helped each other as they groped for English words. Some repeated the orator’s position, others tiptoed around coexistence—a land with a shared homeland. It was a friendly, loud, animated, and deeply felt discussion. I had not embarrassed my host and I was not going to be stoned for suggesting peace with the Israelis.
After two hours, Husan suggested it was time to leave. I shook hands with each man in turn, and said, “Salaam al-leh’hem, Shalom Alehem”—the Arabic and the Hebrew words for “Peace be with you.” They, in turn, repeated both expressions, which I took to mean that they did indeed hear my message of peaceful coexistence.
As we walked to the apartment, I thought about the evening and the contradictions multiplied. Many of the men said they were either unemployed or under-employed and had been for some time. Yet they dressed nattily, lived in homes nearby, chain-smoked, and several had cell phones, expensive items in Palestine. Just more contradictions in this land that was full of them.
The next morning we left on foot for a grand walking tour of Ramallah—to the refugee camps, the UN food distribution center, Arafat’s headquarters, and the grand prize: the Izmigna children’s 100-year-old great-grandfather, who heard of my visit and insisted on meeting me. Our first stop was the local hospital parking lot. Asma pointed out a small garden in the rear. “They are buried there,” she said. Maysa, with her better English, explained that when the soldiers invaded Ramallah, many Palestinians were killed and their bodies dumped in the hospital parking lot—18 corpses just piled on the pavement.
After a few days, the bodies began to rot in the hot sun. Husan and his friends asked if the corpses could be placed in the hospital morgue or buried in a cemetery just a few yards away. The Israelis refused permission, citing security. A few days later, the stench was overwhelming and, without asking, the men dug two large plots, burying the men in one and the women in the other. Some time later, they added a stone border and flowers. I found myself saying, “I’m sorry . . . I’m sorry.” Although I lived 6,000 miles away I somehow felt responsible. Another contradiction.
Before entering the Amari refugee camp—easily recognized by its high stone wall topped with barbed wire—we detoured into a old stone house. Sitting in a large chair was the family patriarch—the 100-year-old great-grandfather. He was dressed in the traditional Arab headgear and flowing robe. To my surprise—and maybe his, too—we shared Semitic features. After the introductions, he beckoned me to sit next him and he gently pulled me closer, suddenly kissing me on both cheeks and promptly began to cry. I don’t know why, but I found myself joining him in tears. It was as if we were long-lost relatives and we embraced joyfully and tearfully. The whole family stood around beaming as these two bearded men, he and I—strangers, yet spiritual friends—hugged. Asma, who inquired of me every day during my stay, “Are you happy?”—meaning, “Is everything OK?”—turned to me and, seeing my tears, asked, “Are you happy?” Yes, I told her, I was happy, but to this day I cannot explain why. Maybe it was simply that this old man was my link to my childhood some 60 years ago.
We then entered the refugee camp. The narrow main street had a handful of sorry-looking shops. Skinny live chickens in wooden cages clucked and pecked at the bars. Men stood idly in clusters; others sat on makeshift benches. Surely they were unemployed. We walked up the side streets that smelled mostly of raw sewage, with the occasional relief of cooking fragrances. In one doorway children were playing with a tank and a gun-mounted jeep. I hesitated, feeling guilty, then reluctantly took their picture. Asma perceived my discomfort. “Children don’t know any better,” she said. I thought of the children in Bethlehem made mute by the Israeli guns. In one moment guns are a toy; in another, instruments of terror.
We approached the UN office. Some 100 people—men and women—were pushing and shoving in an attempt to get through a narrow doorway where the food stamps were issued. Until recently, only women applied for food stamps; the men were too embarrassed. But hunger has a way of bending even proud men. Beyond the doorway, UN clerks processed each person’s papers, eventually giving food stamps to some and turning away others who were judged not to be poor enough. As we watched the mob scene, an elderly woman approached me. I had a camera around my neck and was talking into a tape recorder, so she assumed I was either an official or a member of the press—either way, I was her target. She grabbed the front of my jacket and in halting English begged me to appeal her case to the UN for food stamps, saying the UN was not issuing the stamps fairly. She went on for several minutes in a mixture of English and Arabic, crying and pulling on my jacket. Asma came to my rescue, telling the woman that I could not help. Later, Asma said the woman could be lying. “They do that, you know.”
Although most of the homes in the camp were bleak, some were elegant. The variation baffled me: How can both exist in a refugee camp? Other refugee camps, I was told, were far poorer—where there is no hope of escape from poverty.
That night, back in the apartment, Asma took me aside and asked if I would like to meet Yasir Arafat. I fumbled, not wanting to be ungracious, but also not particularly anxious to get involved in what could become a political problem. Without waiting for my response, she said she’d take care of it.
After dinner, several guests, including a minister in the Arafat government, arrived. As usual, we talked politics, and we agreed on one thing: peace was essential. But—the minister added, waving a finger at me—not peace at any price. He insisted that Palestinians must be treated fairly, not as third-class citizens. He said the United States is the only power strong enough to impose peace on the Middle East.
I told him I doubted that. If there is to be peace, I said, Israelis and Palestinians must work it out themselves; they must build the bridges, and only the moderates and the reformers on both sides can do it; together they must curb the extremists.
“How can we curb the extremists?” the minister asked. “Is not the elimination of Israel the dream of the extremists? And is not the takeover of all of Palestine—because the Bible says so—the dream of the Jewish extremists?”
“But still,” I responded, “then we must build the bridges.”
The minister shrugged and rolled his eyes. “You are an idealist,” he said.
“So,” I added, “if you are a realist and I am an idealist—working together we can make it happen.” He laughed.
Maybe it takes such dialogues to plant seeds of peace.
As he was leaving, he reached out to shake my hand, saying, “Salaam al-leh’hem,” in Arabic, and I answered, “Shalom Alehem. Salaam al-leh’hem,” He nodded and smiled again, in seeming acceptance of my message of unity.
Near midnight, after many cell phone calls, Asma told me that Arafat would like to meet me but that he was involved in emergency negotiations for a ceasefire with the Sharon government and could not meet tonight—maybe tomorrow. Unfortunately, I was to leave in the morning. I was relieved.
The next day I visited Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. The visit left me shaken—dedicated as this Holocaust memorial is to the dead but designed so that the world will not forget. For days afterward, all I could think of was the cry of the Holocaust survivors and Israeli pioneers: “Never again.” Yet I had just spent ten days visiting a war zone created and endorsed, however reluctantly, by those who once cried, “Never again.”
I returned home with an invitation to return to Ramallah and conduct Alter-natives to Violence Project workshops at the Friends School. And maybe the workshops can be expanded to include Arabs and Jews.
Since returning to the United States, I have been invited to speak to groups. Here is what I say:
To Jews: Criticism of Israel does not necessarily spring from anti-Semitism. Maybe it’s time for Jews to examine their unconditional approval of Israel’s military occupation in response to Palestinian
To Quakers: Look into your hearts and ask whether you need to reach out to both Palestinians and Israelis in the search for peace. After all, to see only the pain of one side in this dispute and to ignore the other side is to deny the real tragedy.
And to Palestinians and Israelis both: It is time to look beyond hate and fear and to begin to build bridges of peace—and only you can do it.
As I look back on the trip, it strikes me that I was able to identify the two overpowering emotions that nurture the bloody dispute. For the Israelis it is fear—of terrorists’ snipers, of suicide bombers. For the Palestinians it is fury—triggered by bulldozed homes, the humiliating tactics of the brash young military, attack helicopters that fire rockets at terrorist and innocents alike. The shame of it is that fear and fury turn the language of reason and peace into gibberish—a new Tower of Babel. After all, this is the land of the Bible.