“Daddy, what’s Palestine?”
Those were her words that rang through the chilly air. Her father’s eyes and mine met, and a small, strained smile appeared on his face. “Well…that’s a bit complicated.” Her young voice pressed onward, “But daddy, are we in another country? Did we cross a border?” “Well, yes, yes we did. Did you not see that we traveled through a wall?”
On Christmas Eve, I had the opportunity to travel to the place where the Christian story began, that little town of Bethlehem so oft sung of. It is now a city, built up and bustling, but hollow. Buildings lie half-finished. Tensions flare up regularly near the Aida Refugee Camp. A weight presses down on all that live here, a similar weight that I see in each of my Palestinian friends.
This weight could be felt in the play called New Middle East I saw in October at a local theatre in Haifa. In the play, a masked man is in the process of burying a woman alive (with real dirt). The entire dialogue is centered on her plaintive cries to know exactly WHY she is being subjected to such a terrible fate. Satisfying answers are never uncovered, and a tragic story of love lost and suffocating pressure rules the day.
That same night, after getting some drinks and food, our motley crew made up of five loud Americans and one Palestinian made its way back to campus. There are security checks at each entrance to the dorms, and we opened the door and began to proceed through as usual. People are almost never stopped. I think in my entire three months at the university, I was told to show my ID two or three times, and only then when the guard was new. However, he told my Arab friend to stop and show her ID. Only her.
This weight can is seen in the scar that marks another close friend’s arm, a scar left by a sound grenade that detonated at her feet. She acquired it a couple years ago at a protest, which was pushing back against the Prawer Plan, a bill that (if passed) would allow for the depopulation and destruction of thirty-five Bedouin villages in the Negev Desert. Dubbed, “Anger Day,” this protest comprised thousands of people, from teens to Knesset members. Obviously, it ended in violence.
I was shocked by it when I saw a monument in a neighborhood not far from the university. On it were emblazoned the words, “Haifa Liberation 1948.” What is disturbing about this phrase is that what is cast as “liberation” to one group is another’s el-Nakba (catastrophe). This disparity in experience and historical lens is staggering.
And, perhaps most plainly, this weight can be tangibly tasted when confronted with The Wall. It is a short walk from where I am currently staying in Bethlehem, standing as stark reminder of the systemic separation that plagues this piece of dirt which I have begun to call “The Unholy Holy Land,” as a result of the, frankly, ungodly actions people perpetrate against each other in the name of God or any other myriad of religious or secular reasons. Graffiti marks The Wall’s surface, which artists from Banksy to unnamed locals have added to the collective voice calling for justice.
I had the unique privilege of spending the summer in the Galilee on an archaeological dig with Dr. Byron McCane of Wofford’s religion department. He is a man that I highly respect and admire, and I am unendingly thankful for his influence and wisdom concerning this land and the many problems that perniciously press on the people, both Jews and Palestinians, that live here. I will never forget his advice as we asked him about how to relate our experiences to people at home that possess stalwart opinions about Israel/Palestine. “Sometimes all I can say is, ‘I have been there, and it is not that simple.’”
It is not simple. The brokenness runs deep. So deep that it takes my breath away at times. People on both sides of the conflict have committed heinous acts of violence, from the burning of a Palestinian family (with their newborn son) alive last summer, to the random stabbings of Jewish civilians going about their daily lives that has characterized life here for the past few months. I could list example upon example of atrocities committed by both sides, all which point to a sobering reality: unless changes are made, the people here will continue to suffer.
However, Alhamdulillah (thanks be to God), the story does not end here. I have seen with my own eyes the beauty that still lives in this divided land.
I have seen the lasting ripples that the faith of Kamil and Agnes Shehade, and their life’s work, House of Grace in Haifa, has left on the community at large. Their vision of working to selflessly serve ex-convicts (who are also recovering addicts) as an outpouring of their Christian faith’s mandate to serve the “least of these” has touched the lives of thousands, and given hope to the most hopeless individuals and families.
I see how the House of Grace plods on, faithfully working as the only halfway house for the Israeli Arab population (on request of the government), in the midst of Kamil’s death in 2000 from cancer, governmental threats to cut funding, and the ever-shaky political climate.
I see a Palestinian woman who grew up as a refugee as a result of the creation of the State of Israel who now refuses to pick sides, based on the belief that a “Pro-Israel” or “Pro-Palestine” stance necessarily excludes the other. Instead, she has chosen a path of “compassionate listening,” one that has helped her overcome deep-seated wounds and truly see the humanity behind each “side.”
It was tasted in our inaugural “Arab-American Thanksgiving,” in which the cuisines of the “East” and the “West” (phrases that I generally like to avoid, because they can insinuate a kind of irreconcilability, but for the sake of artistic flair, I will utilize here) met. Pita was defrosted and hummus olive oiled (yes, “olive oiled” is a verb now), pesto pasta with chicken was scarfed, and salata (Arab salad) added some balance to the carbs being consumed. Finally, it was topped off with what I have dubbed the “pecan loaf,” my failed attempt at baking a pie in a toaster oven that, surprisingly, turned out fairly well.
I have also seen this beauty, this hope, in one of my dearest friends here. She has sought out relationships with both internationals and Jews, seeking to share her story and heart with each of them. This quest has put her in places like local salsa dancing nights in Haifa, where she is (as far as I can tell) the only Palestinian present. It has led her to share personal and collective stories and histories about this region with people from every place and walk of life, being faithful to her cause and her people, yet open to listen and answer each difficult question with patience and conviction.
I believe that this kind of embodied engagement, undergirded by humility, is desperately needed in this place at this time. The barriers that exist here are insane: be it from language and cultural differences to the governmental mandatory military service from which Arabs (except Druze, which introduces many new nuances) are exempt. Furthermore, media creates fissures ideologically, and dangerous political discourses heap dry wood and gasoline onto already-blazing flames.
The people here, both Jews and Arabs, do carry a weight. I have experienced a bit of this reality first-hand. It is not pleasant, but it has changed me…for the better, I hope. The lives that have invited me in have taken a piece of my heart, and I have grown to truly love individuals and groups on both sides of this murky conflict.
Therefore, my answer to the questions, “What is Palestine?” or “What is Israel?” is this: people. People with hearts, hopes, dreams, fears, and yearnings for peace. People who enjoy good food, beautiful music, and the company of those they love as much as any of us. People who desire for a safe environment, a home, in which they do not have to worry about rocks or knives when they send their children to school.
I could go on and on. However, I will close with this. Which people do you and I need to strive to see as this: simply people? What kind of change could come if we could look in the eyes of the “other,” be they brown or blue, and see a mirror image of ourselves?
This world will not change in an instant. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not be solved in a single moment. However, I posit that something beautiful could come to pass. Let us compose a song. Let us paint a picture. Let us write a story. Let us create beauty, and, hopefully, thereby walk into new measures of shalom, salaam, and peace together.
Phifer Nicholson, Presidential International Scholar at Wofford College, CIEE Haifa Fall 2015