LOUISVILLE — Every Palestinian has a story.
That’s what a Palestinian pastor from East Jerusalem said during an early session of a national Presbyterian training event that began Feb. 10 on peace in the Middle East.
But the telling of those stories — painful and personal ones, for example, of the difficulty of teaching one’s children love for all people when those children are routinely humiliated by Israeli soldiers at checkpoints — opens the door to layer upon layer of complications.
Can the Palestinian stories be told without telling those of Israeli Jews? What about Muslims from the region? And how can Presbyterians have fruitful conversations with American Jews if the story the Palestinian Christians tell is so powerful and so negative?
This event was scheduled by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in the aftermath of the General Assembly’s controversial decision last summer to approve a process of phased, selective divestment in some companies doing business in Israel, in protest over Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. More than 200 Presbyterians have come to Kentucky, where the denomination’s national offices are located, to learn more about what the assembly did regarding divestiture and about the history of PC(USA) involvement in the Middle East, in part to help prepare them for conversations already taking place across the country between Presbyterians and Jews angered by the assembly’s action.
In one of the first day’s sessions, four Palestinian Christians came to tell their stories — their words making international politics seem real and personal as they spoke of the impact of the Israeli occupation on their jobs, their children, their homes and their sense of self worth.
But at the first two sessions of this meeting — this one, and at an earlier presentation giving an historical perspective of the conflict — questions already were being raised about fairness, about which voices or stories should be listened to, about whether hearing one point of view required listening to all the others as well. These questions show that for Presbyterians too — some of whom have been involved in those contentious discussions with American Jews, or have traveled to the Holy Land, or have been involved in mission work there or have personal connections to the region and its people — their views are not monolithic. They have hope for the recent peace negotiations. They care about peace and justice, and about the rights and lives and faith stories of all the people who live in the region.
They are trying to find a way.
This particular discussion, on the evening of February 10, was moderated by former General Assembly moderator Fahed Abu-Akel, who has his own story, who was born near Galilee and whose mother stood on the roof of her house in the 1948 war, waving goodbye to her husband and seven children, refusing to leave her home as the fighting drew near. Their home was saved, her family returned, but other Palestinian villages nearby were destroyed and the people became refugees.
A century ago, about 30 percent of the Palestinian people were Christians; today, it’s less than 3 percent, Abu-Akel said. American Presbyterians have been involved in mission work in the area since 1823. And a half-million Arab Presbyterians live in the Middle East that, in the United States, “we know zero about,” Abu-Akel said.
Here are the stories of their lives that four Palestinian Christians told.
She is a Christian from Jerusalem, the mother of three teenagers, who works at Sabeel Ecumenical Theological Center, which stresses spirituality based on justice, peace and reconciliation.
“Being a mother, it’s not easy,” Bitar told the Presbyterians. “And being a Christian in the Holy Land, it’s not easy as well.” Bitar said she tries to teach her children to love others and accept them as human beings regardless of religion, but “honestly speaking, sometimes I feel I have failed.”
Bitar said one of her children, a son, traveled every day to Bethlehem to study, passing through an Israeli military checkpoint each time, coming home day after day to tell her of being humiliated and harassed. She listened, until the day he called on the telephone saying only: “Come to the checkpoint,” then hanging up.
She went, hurrying and anxious, knowing the violence that can shake these checkpoints, and found her son and other teenagers sitting on the floor. When she stepped forward to ask him what had happened, a soldier pushed Bitar back, hard.
“I told him, `He is my son,’ “ and asked what her son had done, what had happened, because “I need to know.” The soldier told her to leave. When she tried to contact an international group that monitors activity at the checkpoints, a soldier heard her on the phone and told her to take her son and leave. Bitar said the other children being detained were looked at her, their eyes asking for help, but “honestly I couldn’t do anything for them” except to keep the watchdog group involved.
As they left, her son did not want to discuss the red marks on his face, but “I knew that he got slapped,” Bitar said. “He dared to stand up and ask the soldier, `Why are you doing this to me?’ “
Bitar said she has taught her children that violence leads to more violence, to “use your tongue” and not force. But “he gets humiliated. I get humiliated. What kind of nonviolence am I going to talk about to my kids anymore? I don’t know.”
Said is a biology student from Zababdeh, a small, mostly Christian village on the West Bank. He’s studying in the U.S. now, but his mother, three sisters and two brothers endure what he called a “miserable life” in Zababdeh because of the occupation.
When he was about 15, Said got involved in peace programs that brought young people from different areas together. Before that, he thought “the Jews are my enemy,” but that feeling disappeared, Said explained, when he got to know some Jews individually. But normally, while he had Muslims as friends, he had no day-to-day interactions with Jews, except for what he called dehumanizing encounters with Israeli soldiers at checkpoints.
Said said he expects the PC(USA) divestiture vote will help, and said: “If you want to work for peace, you have to work for justice,” which sometimes means taking hard positions. “We Palestinians, we are not trying to destroy a neighbor nor an enemy,” he said. “We are just trying to be a neighbor, living side-by-side with Israel.”
Khoury, who lives in Bethlehem, is deputy director of Dar al-Kalima Academy, an institution that tries to give students educational opportunities and supports democracy. In Louisville, she held up her U.S. passport.
It allows her to travel the world, Khoury said. But in Israel, where she’s also required to hold a Palestinian identity card, it doesn’t get her very far. “As an American, I’m free,” Khoury said. “But as a Palestinian, I have another passport which says I’m not.”
As a Christian in America, “you can drive forever,” she said. “You can drive to California . . . and nobody stops you, unless the police — you’re drunk or something.”
But her American passport won’t get her out of Bethlehem if the soldiers at the checkpoints won’t let her through. “Under occupation there is this deep sense of humiliation that you can never explain to anybody,” Khoury said.
Even in the U.S., with all its freedom, she catches herself thinking, “Where is the next checkpoint? Where am I going to be searched?” internalizing the humiliation.
For a Palestinian Christian, Khoury said, “the biggest challenge is to live Christian values. Jesus said love thy enemy.” But she has stayed awake at night, listening to the rumblings of five tanks on the street outside her home. (“American technology is wonderful,” Khoury said. But when it’s an F-16 missile, “you don’t want it next door.”)
She’s heard the distinctive whizzing noise the F-16 makes, prayed instinctively that the child in her house wouldn’t be hurt and that she wouldn’t be injured. When she hears that sound, “your first instinct is to go on the floor,” Khoury said. “We learn. And so to love thy enemy is a challenge.”
Half the population on the West Bank is children, she said — more than half of whom don’t have enough to eat, whose families can’t afford even a glass of milk for them a day. “You learn not to sell cheap hope,” she said. “And you learn to teach children they deserve every good thing . . . They deserve the best.”
But some children become so angry they turn to violence. “Occupation is not made for human beings,” Khoury said. “I wish it on nobody, not even the Israelis . . . It’s not good for the occupier. It’s not good for the occupied.”
And she continued: “We live in hope that occupation is not our destiny. We were not born to be slaves.”
Awad is dean of students and teaches at Bethlehem Bible College, and is a United Methodist missionary and pastor of a Baptist church in East Jerusalem.
By listening to the stories, Awad told the American Presbyterians, “you are growing close to the people in the Middle East, to Palestinians and Israelis, and you are feeling their pain, you are hearing their cry.”
He was born in 1946. Part of his story is that his father was killed in the 1948 Israeli war, his mother left as a widow with seven children. His family was forced from their home and they became refugees.
His mother went to college and became a nurse — Awad said that when his father was killed, his mother didn’t ask, “Why, God?” but “How, God,” how would she survive?
Awad said he can forgive what happened in 1948 and in the 1967 war — it was so long ago. “Yesterday’s humiliation I can forgive.” But today’s, “it is so fresh. So pray for us, that we can always forgive.”
Even though he holds a U.S. passport — he was studying abroad during the 1967 war and was not permitted to return for more than a dozen years — Awad said the Israelis can force him to leave their country whenever they determine his visa has expired, as they did in 1987 in the middle of a school year, when he was the director of a boarding school. But he keeps returning to his homeland, or trying to, pulled by a sense that God wants him to minister to his own people.
“Christianity in the Holy Land is eroding at a very fast pace,” Awad said. He stays because “we want a lot for Jesus Christ to continue to be in the land of his birth, his death and his resurrection.”
After the presentations, Presbyterians in the crowd asked for more information, about unemployment and malnutrition among Palestinians, about the security barrier that Israel has built, about the lives of Muslim Palestinians, about the political tactics of Palestinian leaders.
But there was also some discomfort with what had been said. Gary Cecil, of Tropical Florida presbytery, said his region has a large Jewish population, and he’s already been involved in conversations with local Jewish leaders. “What am I supposed to do with this?” Cecil asked, referring to the stories he’d just heard. How can they help his dialogues with his Jewish neighbors, he asked, when those stories depict Israelis as oppressors who inflict humiliation, “who push women and detain youth with no good reason,” who put tanks in front of Palestinian homes.
Awad responded that many Israelis are committed to peace and justice and he would not say that “all the Israelis are terrible and all the Israelis are oppressing Palestinians and all the Israelis are indifferent to human life — no.”
But these are real stories, Khoury said, and in Palestine, “reality is ugly.” If Presbyterians tell American Jews — some of whom disagree with Israeli policies themselves, she said — that “occupation is ugly, you have done them a favor.”
And Abu-Akel ended the conversation with this, a challenge for Presbyterians to come to the Middle East (Khoury, for example, argued that to understand the psychological impact of the 30-foot-tall security barrier Israel has built, one has to see it, watchtowers and concrete and all.)
“Don’t believe what we say,” Abu-Akel said. “I want you to come and see for yourself.”