Is There Hope for Palestine?

by Bruce Fisk, Professor of New Testament

Aerial view of residential Palestine

Aerial view of residential Palestine

The Difference Between Night and Day

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Daytime in Nablus, a Palestinian city surrounded by refugee camps, hides its nightly war games fairly well. Markets bustle, children play, horns honk, trucks belch. The signs of conflict are easy enough to spot — buildings destroyed or damaged (by shelling, bulldozers and tanks), ubiquitous martyr posters, stone shrines to the fallen— but people here, like other peoples in crisis, have an uncanny capacity to project a sense of normalcy. Maybe they do it for the kids. Maybe for their own sanity.

This evening our walk in the old city spanned that perfect time of day when the waning sun paints the world in amber hues. Everything, even rubble and garbage, takes on an exquisite glow. In that light we threaded through Ottoman alleyways, toured an aging soap factory, greeted friends in the street and stopped for kanafeh at a small shop. Children giggled, “How are you?” or wanted their picture taken. For a brief, sun- drenched moment, all was right with the world.

But, of course, it isn’t. Earlier today I sat on the small balcony of our second-floor apartment. Just minutes from the old city, it’s a flat for Project Hope volunteers like my daughter and I. This organization links international teachers —English, French, first-aid, art, photography, circus —with eager Palestinian youth and adults. I’ll be teaching English here for the next month.

From our lookout I watched the city’s white, stone buildings cascade down the valley and climb the other side— the southern slope of Mount Ebal, one of the highest peaks in Palestine/Israel (3,084 feet). Clearly visible at Ebal’s summit is the silhouette of an Israeli military outpost, reportedly the largest in the West Bank. Military incursions into the city are a nightly routine; last night’s action apparently included an assault on a restaurant with percussion grenades and bullets. Here in our apartment we heard nothing, saw nothing and felt no threat. My only source is a somewhat confusing report from the Maan News Agency. Whatever happened, you can bet it won’t get picked up by the New York Times or the BBC. But that too is part of normal over here.

What About the Bond?

Monday, May 26, 2008

Sporting our spiffy volunteer’s vests yesterday, my daughter and I ducked into the old city to buy fresh vegetables. On our way we paused to chat with a young man whose English was better than average. Immediately his uncle offered coffee, Arabic coffee, the good stuff. Moments later we were balancing on sketchy plastic chairs surrounded by a dozen young men who wanted to practice their rudimentary English. We learned several new Arabic words, laughed a lot and gave them our vitals: where we were from, why we were here and, of course, how old we were.

One young man had a deep scar in the crook of his arm. Two wore necklaces displaying small pictures of dead family members: a brother, a cousin. An older man pulled at his shirt to reveal what looked like a pair of bullet holes in his neck. Neither our Arabic nor their English was good enough to solve the Middle East crisis, but it was obvious to us that these young men— or many of them — were active resisters. With us, they were polite, hospitable, gracious, even jovial. Yet when Israeli soldiers come to call — soldiers equally youthful, equally volatile, equally in over their heads— they are deadly serious.

What strikes me in retrospect is the strength of their fraternal bond. Some young men seek brotherhood on a sports team or fraternity or in the ranks of the military. This band of brothers is united by blood— blood of both the inherited and spilled varieties. They fight and sometimes die beside cousins, nephews and brothers. It’s a bond nothing will break. The more Palestinian arrests, injuries and deaths that occur in places like Nablus, the stronger will be the communal resolve to resist.

If Israel’s strategists think they will break the resistance by stepping up incursions, closing more checkpoints, imposing more closures and knocking down more buildings, someone needs to explain to them about the bond.

WWJBB? (Where Would Jesus Be Born?)

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

I went to Askar camp to observe an English class for young children. The teacher, another volunteer with Project Hope, was nothing short of brilliant. For each new topic (days of the week, adjectives, greetings, etc.) she had a song, an activity, a puppet, a funny sound effect or a picture — and sometimes all of the above. The kids were delightful as well as squirmy, shy, exuberant and mostly eager to learn. I’m guessing the teacher would stand out in any high-end suburban school in the U.S., but there she was teaching at her own expense in an unofficial refugee camp in Palestine, offering hope and opportunity to kids trapped in a cycle of poverty and despair.

The camps surrounding Nablus are three of 20 in the West Bank. Thirty-nine more dot the map across Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. I visited Jerash camp in Jordan in 2004 and have stayed several times in Deheisheh on the edge of Bethlehem. Each camp has its stories to tell. Older residents are glad to reminisce over the cherished farms and villages they had to flee some 60 years ago. Many yearn to return.

There are certainly darker places on earth to raise a family. There is clearly more deprivation in parts of Africa, Latin America, the Indian subcontinent, the Philippines and elsewhere. I wonder, however, whether you’d find anything similar in countries as developed and sophisticated as Israel, with its world ranking as 22nd highest in gross domestic product per capita (U.S. $33,299).

What if Christians on holy pilgrimage to the site of Jesus’ birth were to include a side trip to nearby Deheisheh or Aida camps? What if they paused to listen to a few of these displaced Palestinians tell their stories? It is there, I suspect, rather than in the gilded shrine of the Nativity Church in Manger Square that they would see most clearly what it must have been like for Jesus to embrace humility and to identify, from the very beginning, with “the least of these” (Matthew25:40). Perhaps it is there as well that we would find there is much to be done in the cause of mercy and justice.

Water Wells and Water Wars

Sunday, June 1, 2008

A few hot, dry days ago, on the edge of Nablus and across the street from the entrance to Balata Refugee camp, I lifted a tin cup to my lips to drink cool water from a well said to be 3,700 years old. The 40-meter-deep well is in the crypt of a church that rests upon earlier churches going back to the fourth century. It’s called Jacob’s Well (Genesis 33:18-20, John 4:12). Gentle Jamal will let you draw water for yourself with a rope and bucket. The usual tourist kitsch— icons, crucifixes and postcards— clutters a nearby table, but there is something undeniably magical about connecting to a place featured in both Genesis and John’s Gospel.

I’m hardly qualified to opine on the politics of regional hydrology. But I can say that all sides of the Israel/Palestine conflict agree that water access and availability is a major flashpoint. I passed through a village in the north yesterday where the town well was surrounded by donkey droppings because the locals still transport their water on the backs of animals. According to the U.N., there is a huge gap between Israeli and Palestinian per capita consumption of water, with the Israelis using up to five and half times more.

In ancient tradition, Jacob’s Well is where Jesus met the Samaritan woman and, at high noon, scandalously asked her for a drink (John 4:6).

It’s a compelling story about ethnic tension, patriarchy and gender, sexual infidelity, competing religious claims, prophecy and fulfillment and more. Rereading the story lately I was struck by something else: Jesus’ promise to quench the woman’s thirst.

“Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’” (Jn 4:10, 13-14)

Not even a Biblical well can keep physical thirst from returning. But Jesus’ dramatic claim here, interpreted literally by the dusty Samaritan, is that his loyal followers will find a deeper thirst quenched once and for all. For folks over here who must daily draw water by hand and schlep it home on the back of a donkey, this is good news indeed.

Is there something in the water of Jesus’ Gospel for these sons of Abraham— here in Nablus and in nearby Ariel —whose parched souls thirst for peace? Is it foolish to think that the message of Jesus could end a 60-year-old drought in this land? Is it naïve to think that Christians could play a reconciling role between Jews and Muslims in the Holy Land? I don’t the westmont college magazine summer 2008 14. know. Perhaps the water we have to offer is simply too muddied— by Crusades and anti-Semitism — to be drinkable, let alone thirst-quenching. What do you think?

Student Daydreams

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

I’m teaching several English classes here for university students and young professionals. Among my students are two lawyers, several engineers, and a few studying education and nursing. One is an aspiring novelist. Another is a talented artist. In the evenings I’ve started tutoring a professional who commutes daily to Ramallah to work for the Palestinian National Authority and its president, Mahmoud Abbas. Since most of these students have a basic understanding of English, we use a lot of class time to read and discuss news stories drawn from a BBC educational Website.

I’ve never lived more simply and felt richer. I delight as my students grow in their language skills and connect through me to a larger world. Beyond this, class discussion opens for me a wide window on Palestinian and Arab culture. Their dreams for the future, personal loyalties, ethical perspectives, analysis of the news, expressions of anguish and anger — all this and more tumbles out in our discussions. They are teaching me far more about life here in Palestine than I am teaching them about subordinate clauses, popular idioms and proper (i.e., Canadian) English pronunciation.

Here are a few insights and observations, in no particular order, which I’ve gleaned from teaching:

  • The most desired superpower here is the ability to become invisible — to pass through military checkpoints.
  • My students do not think McCain, Clinton and Obama differ substantially with respect to their views on Israel and Palestine.
  • Students— ordinary, non-militant, non-violent university students — casually refer to the Israelis as the “enemy.” There is very little for young people to do here. They long for a change in the sameness of their daily routine. They express very little hope for positive change in the political situation.
  • Notwithstanding Yasser Arafat’s death in 2004 and the political victory in 2006 of rival party Hamas, Arafat — whose picture is displayed prominently in the town square—remains an iconic figure among Palestinian youth. For them he is a father figure who epitomizes their struggle against occupation.
  • Although most women on the streets of Nablus wear the hijab (covering their hair and often neck), my students make it clear this is a choice, not a requirement as it is in Saudi Arabia. They see the current popularity of head coverings in Palestine and much of the Muslim world as symbolic of a general conservative reaction to the influence of Western /American culture and values. A generation ago Palestinian women did not cover their heads.
  • Students here are extremely respectful and grateful to international volunteers and generally very serious about their education.
  • If students were granted one wish, most would choose to travel. None of my students has the proper ID to let them go to Jerusalem, let alone beyond.

I was deeply saddened by the news this week that exit visas had been denied to seven Gaza students who had won prestigious Fulbright scholarships to study abroad. These gifted students don’t need money; all they need is some bureaucrat to sign and stamp a form.

When the story broke, we learned that the State Department simply canceled their Fulbrights. More recently, the status of these scholarships has been changed to “deferred.” Assuming Israel lifts the siege of Gaza, next year the students may be able to pursue their advanced degrees — and their dreams.

Sages and Nihilists

Monday, June 9, 2008

Yesterday my daughter, returning from teaching in one of Nablus’ three refugee camps, was walking through the city with two local volunteers. Whenever we internationals move about the city we wear vests that display the name of our NGO: Project Hope. A local man approached them from behind and, as he began to cross the street, uttered one brief sentence in English: “There is no hope.” That was it — nothing further. He was gone.

After teaching English today in a building downtown, I boarded the elevator to leave. A young man in the elevator looked at my vest and said earnestly: “Hope. Hope for whom?” I replied cautiously: “Hope for Palestinians.” Then, hesitating, I added: “Do you think there is hope for Palestine?” My caged companion immediately became philosophical. I can’t recall his precise words, but I will long remember his message.

A sage and a nihilist

There is no hope without vision and mission, he said. He offered as Exhibits A and B the twin countries of Germany and Japan in the aftermath of World War II. To recover from the war’s devastation, he explained, the people of these nations required clear vision, a sense of direction, a shared purpose. The Palestinian people, he said, have no clear vision. How then can they have hope?

The elevator-philosopher was right, of course: hope, like faith, is meaningful only when directed at an object. One must hope in something. Hope is not sunny optimism nor a function of personality. In this sense, hope is like a vector in mathematics: it must have both magnitude and direction. It is motion toward, not feeling about.

But what about the first man, the nihilist on the street? Was he right as well? Is there no real reason for Palestinians to hope? Is theirs a failed state? Are they fated to remain under occupation for the next 40 years? In my view it wouldn’t be too great a distortion to reduce the conflict in this region to precisely this question: Is there hope for Palestinians?

Aaron David Miller, in his new book, “The Much Too Promised Land” (Bantam, 2008, p.7) describes what he finds so compelling about so many of the Arabs and Israelis he worked with over two decades of advising the U.S. secretary of state: “Hardened by conflict and their own natural prejudices and biases, they managed to struggle on, preserving a sense of humor, fairness, and, most important, hope for the future. In the end, this struggle is about good people caught up in a nasty conflict who managed, however imperfectly, to preserve their humanity and faith in the future.”

Will a Palestinian statesman or woman emerge, like Moses from the desert, to show the way away from violence and corruption toward statehood? Will the nation of Israel dare take the risks necessary to embrace a just peace? Will the next American president implement policies that offer Palestinians reason to be, or become, hopeful? If not, I fear that more and more Palestinians will slide from profound discouragement into despair. There will be fewer and fewer sages on elevators and more and more nihilists on the street.

Four Evangelists on a Balcony

Monday, June 16, 2008

Yesterday evening I was invited to the home of a local imam (one who leads prayers in a mosque). A student in one of my classes, his stilted English was balanced by his unstinting hospitality. Three other locals joined us on his apartment balcony: a British-trained medical doctor, an expert in Islamic civil law and the owner of a pastry shop. High on the Mt. Ebal side of Nablus, the balcony offers stunning views of the urban sprawl, the old city and, above it, Gerizim, home to the Samaritans.

Most of the two-hour conversation was theological, with regular detours into politics. Here, as in much of the world, to quarantine religion from politics is to defy gravity. Without waiting for my questions, they eagerly listed the marks of a good Muslim, narrated the events of the last days, and extolled the wonders of the Qur’an. Fueled by juice and watermelon, coffee and chocolate, we traveled the theological landscape, discussed differences between Judaism and Islam and pondered the intractable antagonism of the modern conflict.

Equally fascinating were both the substance of their comments and the tone they adopted; it was as if they were praying to see scales fall from my eyes so I could see the truth and spontaneously convert. This uneasy evangelical was being evangelized.

Notwithstanding my Christian intransigence, these four friends were uncommonly generous tutors in (local) Muslim thought. Here are a few highlights, offered without commentary:

  • The fact that Muslims worldwide read the Qur’an in Arabic is proof of its divine authority.
  • The Qur’an has been miraculously preserved by Allah; neither omissions nor additions have crept in.
  • Jesus did not die. God insured that another man resembled Jesus, allowing Jesus to escape while the other died in his place. God took Jesus to heaven where he now lives.
  • Jesus is a Muslim. When he returns, an imam will invite him to be the new imam, but Jesus will refuse. When Christians see Jesus praying behind the imam, they will all convert to Islam.
  • To be a good Muslim, one needs to believe in all the prophets without exception (including Jesus), as well as the angels and “the Day After.” Most Muslims in the world today are not good Muslims. This does not simply mean they do not observe the five pillars; it means they are not seeking God.
  • Islam is a religion of peace, not violence. Non-Arab converts over the years (e.g., in Asia) have embraced Islam in response to the integrity and example of Muslims, not in response to violence.
  • Both practicing Muslims and religious Jews agree (the doctor explained) that the conflict between these two peoples will continue until the end of history. Any treaty or negotiated settlement will at best offer only temporary reprieve. The two-state solution — peaceful, side- by-side co-existence— is, they assured me, not possible.

This last point caught me by surprise. I hear this sort of resignation from Jewish Zionists and know that Christian Zionists believe the conflict will get worse and worse until Jesus returns. But I’d not heard this same perspective advanced so clearly by non-militant, practicing Muslims.

I’d like to think that my quartet of tutors is out of touch with the mainstream. Most locals I’ve met are profoundly pessimistic about a long-term solution to the occupation. But they are not fatalistic. For them peace is possible but politically unlikely. By contrast, these four men were resigned to the status quo; ultimate vindication will come in the last days, but not before.

Our conversation ended rather abruptly as the sun set and as minarets across the city summoned the faithful to prayer. Walking with the imam to his mosque, I listened and watched through an open window as he, donning a robe, head-covering and lapel mic, sang the evening prayer before a single line of two dozen men. It lasted about 15 minutes, after which he insisted on walking me the mile or so back to my apartment and bidding me God’s peace.

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