23 October 2008

in the words of Jason Pollack

Jason was one of my first friends at university. We had some interesting times together; in particular a really bad break up from my end and some weird friend issues from his. I can still remember the long talks in the Mayfield Lobby. Jason is now married to a wonderful woman, Sarah, and they have a beautiful daughter, Hiba. The three of them make their home in Palestine.

I have found that even the word 'Palestine' can burn bridges. Some one believes it should only be refereed to as Israel while another doesn’t even acknowledge the word Israel let alone the nation. My country relentlessly aligns itself with Israel, it seems most Christians support Israel. Some refuse to even accept there is another side. I have had numerous debates over the past year with both pro and anti Palestinian sides. And whilst I am usually very strongly opinionated one way or the other, this is one issue that has taken me a while to get my head around. Even now there is so much I don’t understand.

But what I do understand is that extremism under any guise is not acceptable. Injustice in the name of God, faith, religion, rights - is still injustice. I also know that blindly accepting something as fact, aligning yourself politically and spiritually with an issue because your family, church, country etc… do so is equally as wrong. and even though the following post is long, read it. It is the first of a series of articles (which will all be posted here) written by my dear friend Jason Pollack. He believes strongly enough in his cause that he is willing to fight. Not fight in the metaphorical sense that I fight for things. But actually make a stand in the face of real adversity. even to the point of arrest by the Israeli army. I think its safe to say no one reading this would want to be arrested by the Israeli army. If not for any other reason than that, this is worth a read:

"Many people come to the part of the world in which I live in order to “follow the footsteps of Jesus.” These people walk along the Via Dolorosa. They have lunch at the Sea of Galilee. They pray in Nativity Grotto. Mostly, they look for new insights in Jesus’ life and teachings by visiting the places that he lived and taught.

Living in Palestine, I am on the same mission: to follow the footsteps of Jesus. I honestly don’t have much use for holy sites, but the words of Jesus are a different story. Since I live in an area of significant racial, ethnic, political, and religious conflict, one passage in particular is often on my mind:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:43-45)

Until I moved to Palestine in the summer of 2006, I was a typical middle-class white American as far as enemies were concerned: I never had any. Sure, my neighbor was really loud late at night, and sometimes a coworker would take credit for my work, but those people weren’t enemies. If I were in real trouble, they would come to my aid. If push came to shove, they would try to smooth things over with me rather than exacerbate conflict. In theory, I should be able to love, bless, and pray for those kinds of people without any significant psychological or spiritual hang-ups (not that I always did).

About four months ago, that all changed. I now have real enemies. People that hate me, spit on me, call me names, and tell me that I am a worthless human being. Sometimes I lay awake in bed imagining ways to hurt these people and fearing what they will do to me. It is a wholly unfamiliar and unpleasant experience.

These enemies are people with whom I would have ignorantly aligned myself only five years ago, before I was exposed to life in the Middle East. They are a group of Israeli Jews who believe that all of the land that made up ancient Israel should be controlled by the modern day state of Israel. They believe that the Palestinians who live here (and have lived here for thousands of years) should be forced out through economic pressure, bribes, or military action.

These individuals are part of the Israeli settler movement, which seeks to move Jewish people into the West Bank and Gaza in order to have Jewish control over as much land as possible. The settlements that have been built on Palestinian land since 1967 have caused economic hardship and restricted the freedom of all Palestinians who live in these areas. Violence between Israeli settlers and Palestinians is quite common.

I believe that settlers should not steal Palestinian land in order to build homes for themselves. I believe that settlers should not destroy Palestinian shops, farmlands, and homes in order to frighten them into leaving. I believe that settlers are standing in the way of peace, because their settlements break up the Palestinian territories into non-contiguous chunks of land that cannot possibly make up a real nation. I have had opinions on the subject since I began studying Middle Eastern politics over two years ago, but I was never forced to deal with these people directly until May 15 of this year.

On that day, a group of settlers descended upon a former Israeli military base that directly borders the adventure recreation center where I work (The Jack Forrest Adventure Gardens). The group’s stated purpose was to start a new Jewish settlement on the land, because they wanted to prevent the Palestinians from building a children’s hospital on the same spot. A number of Palestinians and internationals gathered in the area to see what the Israeli Army would do in response. After all, there were signs posted on the road leading to the area that inform Israeli citizens that their presence is illegal in the area (since it is a Palestinian town). The army did nothing. Eventually, the settlers left on their own, but they promised to come back.

They have come back over a dozen times since that initial foray into our lives, and they show no signs of stopping. They have stated their intentions to start a settlement in a number of right-wing websites and newspapers. Each time they come, the settlers spray paint the base with racist and nationalist graffiti, hang some Israeli and right-wing flags, and leave. Each time, we paint over the graffiti, remove the flags, and leave.

Until recently, the only direct contact we have had with the settlers occurred when a small group showed up and attempted to prevent the children in our summer camp from entering the gardens. When I tried to introduce myself to the leader of the group (Women in Green), she refused to shake my hand, saying that her religion forbade her from touching men, and walked away. We have learned that their group has sent letters to various government ministries, accusing Paidia International Development (the organization I work for) of bringing left-wing activists and anarchists to fight against Jews and of working toward the destruction of Israel.

Our last two encounters with the settlers were more directly confrontational. The first occurred about a month ago, and began with a group of internationals and Palestinians painting over settler graffiti from the week before. A group of about 70 teenagers came onto the site and started shouting at us to leave, that the land was only for Jews. They threw at least one paintbrush and a rock at us when we ignored them and continued to paint. The soldiers who were present just watched. Rather than risking injury, we decided to abandon our painting project.

The second encounter began with an ecumenical prayer and worship service. The former military base is located next to ruins of a Byzantine church, so the base seemed an appropriate location. We knew in advance that the settlers would be holding an event that evening, and we thought we might get kicked out early in the night. We decided, however, that some prayer is better than none, and we went ahead with our plans for the service. Approximately thirty internationals and Palestinians gathered to pray, sing songs, and talk together about our longing for peace and justice in this land.

Sometime in the middle of our service, the settlers decided that they did not want us there anymore. A dozen children put themselves in the middle of our group and started chanting nationalist slogans as we tried to sing. The soldiers sensed trouble was brewing and lined themselves up between our group and the main group of settlers. Their “efforts” to keep the settlers away from us proved futile, and we were overrun by 100 or so angry settlers who pushed, hit, kicked and prodded us back into a corner. At one point, the leader of the group, who had previously refused to shake my hand because her religion forbade her to touch men, shoved me in the chest and stomach and shouted at me in Hebrew. The English speaking settlers shouted at us to “go back to Europe” and “get off Jewish land.” One man taunted our minister for his belief in Jesus, saying “if he comes back, we’ll kill him again.”

Now I have real enemies. They make no bones about what they think of me, and since they want to destroy my work, deport me, and ruin the lives of my friends, I have no problem labeling them as my enemies. I can say that as a follower of Jesus, he never said not to have enemies; he just said to love them. Now I just have to figure out how.

In the aftermath of these confrontations with the settlers, a couple friends and I sat together and talked about the idea of praying for our enemies. We decided we wanted to pray for the individual settlers with whom we have interacted. It was our hope that by praying for them, we would begin to see them as individuals, and not just as the angry mob; that our wrath and anger would be tempered by God’s love. I haven’t done it yet.

I have tried, but with limited success. To actually look at a picture of someone who hates me and ask God to bless that person - to fill them with His love, and to do it without an agenda - is a tall, tall order. To respond to taunts of “Jew-Hater,” “Euro-Trash,” and “Nazi” with blessings seems downright unreasonable. In fact, I have found that I usually end up day-dreaming about ways to “get” the settlers when I sit down to pray for them, and before I know it, I’m angrier than when I started.

I believe part of the answer lies in one of the most incredible realizations that I have made since I moved to Palestine. A cultural realization that has shed light on what it means to follow Jesus: Christianity is a communal religion. Many of us in the west have grown up in a culture that stresses our individuality at the expense of our commonality. This feature of western civilization is relatively unique in the history of humanity. By nature, humans are communal beings, and the longer I live here, and see the community orientation of Middle Eastern culture, the more I realize that Jesus commands are not meant for me. They are meant for us. Let me write out the love your enemies passage again, but this time using the only second person plural we have in English, one that is native to my home state of Texas.

Y’all have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell y’all: Love y’alls enemies and pray for those who persecute y’all, that y’all may be sons of your Father in heaven. (emphasis and pronouns mine)

When I try to sit alone, and pray for my enemy, it does not work. When brothers and sisters in Christ sit together to pray for our enemies, the effect is much more powerful. If I see my friend, who was offended and hurt the same as I was, pouring out his heart in prayer for the one who hurt him, how can I withhold forgiveness? If I hear words of love and blessing all around me, how can I daydream about revenge? It may not cleanse my soul of bitterness. It may not make me into the kind of person who can, like Jesus, ask for forgiveness for my tormentors. But it will put me on the path of following in Jesus’ footsteps by opening my heart to forgiveness.
I am not certain that I have found the answer. I am certain that it will not be easy. But I believe that this aspect of Palestinian culture has helped me understand the instructions given in 1st century Palestine to lead me in my attempts to live as a follower of Jesus in today’s Palestine."

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