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Two Sides of the Hope Coin

May 20, 2009


Wednesday, 7:15 am local time


A trip like this takes a toll on you. There’s so much to say, but never enough time to say it. I’m a seminarian, so I’m used to staying up late writing and waking up early for lectures, but the intensity of this journey has made me tired – has made all of tired. We’ve listened to six passionate people in the last two days talk about their struggles and joys and woes and fears and it’s getting to me. This is our last full day in Israel, though. The space between now and our first jaunt to Tel Lakish is simultaneously too vast and too narrow to measure, and much has fallen through the cracks. And we’re not done yet.

We met a man named Daoud – the Arabic spelling of David – outside Bethlehem yesterday. He owns about 100 acres of farmland on the top of a hill outside the city. On a clear day, you can see the Mediterraean Sea over the hills to the west of his land. You can also see Israeli settlements in a circle around its perimeter; Daoud is being systematically penned in by illegal housing developments. The land has been in his family for generations, since 1919, and yet Daoud has spent over $140,000 since the Six Day War trying to prove his family’s ownership of the land. The government, it seems, is desperate to take the land that he works, and the fact that he holds ownership papers that go back all the way to the days of the Ottoman Empire seems not to matter.

Caroline remarked afterward, as we were standing atop the hill and commenting on the urban sprawl below us, that she would have given up years ago. I concurred; Daoud is not allowed to build even a tent on his land, he has been shut off from the electricity and water given to the settlements, and the cisterns that he keeps to collect rainwater have been deemed illegal. He’s had settlers uproot trees on his property and tell him to his face that, though he has ownership papers from the Ottomans, they have ownership papers from God – this said while holding up the Bible. And Daoud is Christian. And he stays, and fights.

There is a stone on his property that says, “We refuse to be enemies,” and Daoud is doing everything humanly possible to live up to that. He started an organization called ‘Tent of the Nations’ that brings people together on his land in order to start the process of reconciliation – even as he still fights in court to prove his legitimacy – because Daoud will not give up. Period. It is a land issue, yes, and maybe even something akin to the Palestinian pride that we saw in Taybeh, but it’s also something much more than that: Daoud has hope that goodness shall still prevail.

Last night, Debbie from Kefillit Yadidiah, the synagogue that hosted us for Shabbat, brought one of her congregants to talk to us, a reporter named Gershom Gorenberg. I will to being a little skeptical (not to mention tired); we’d heard the hard-line Jewish perspective from Edna the City Council member, and the stark tennis match between Israeli justification and Palestinian anger was starting to make my head hurt. And then Gershom spoke, and I’m sitting here now with his book next to my computer.

Gershom is an Orthodox Jew who has written books and newspaper articles, and keeps up a blog called South Jerusalem – and after two weeks of having Gordon and Chip look at me sideways everytime I’ve said the word ‘blog,’ I was impressed that someone over 30 had even heard of blogging, much less kept up with it – that he says is a “progressive, skeptical blog on Israel, Judaism, culture, politics, and literature.” Gershom talked to us about the history of the conflict, but from the perspective of shared spiritual space. Interestingly – and I didn’t know this – Jerusalem exists not because it’s on any major trade routes (it isn’t), or because it’s easily defended (it’s not), or because it has a great water source (it doesn’t); the only thing that’s ever made it significant, dating back archaeologically before even David, is the spiritual significance of the place.

Gershom acknowledges that both sides of the conflict have made mistakes, awful mistakes. The book that sits next to me is about the history of the Jewish settlements, and it looks decidedly anti-settler, but he won’t allow the Palestinian side to escape responsibility for their acts of violence under the guise of freedom fighting. He seems to want to hold the differences in the conflict in tension and allow them to speak to one another rather than trying to parse them all out.

As a reporter, Gershom covered Pope John Paul II’s visit to the Western Wall in 2000. A group of Ultra-Orthodox Jews protested, saying the Pope should convert to Judaism in order to pray there, citing Micah 4 – “My house shall be a house of prayer for all the nations.” When the Pope finally did visit, one of the Israeli Cabinet Ministers – who also happened to be a rabbi – welcomed him with open arms, citing the exact same verse. Gershom pointed out to us that the differences in this conflict aren’t just between Israelis and Palestinians – they’re between and among Israelis and Palestinians themselves. The situation is complicated, he said, but there is still work to be done.

Being here has made me tired, and I’ve only been here 12 days; I can’t imagine what it’s like for those who actually live this. We leave tomorrow, and while I’ll be said, I’ll also be grateful for the rest. It’s hard to keep holding the different perspectives we meet in tension with one another, and my tendency is to dismiss the more hard-line voices. I’m indebted to Jeremy Hutton for calling me out on this; having seminary professor who take the time to teach even through blog comments is amazing. Jeremy pointed out that the Biblical witness is full of angry voices, of laments that give no credence to the other side. These voices deserve to be heard, and to be understood, and for me to dismiss the tiredness of Dr. Raheb or the anger of the ARI-J is to miss the point of reconciliation entirely.

What I appreciate about Daoud and Gershom, though, is the unabashed hope that they have. Even in a land that continually beats them down, in different yet oddly similar ways, they keep fighting. They keep trying. They keep looking for another way. It’s impossible to maintain such a perspective long-term – Dr. Raheb is evidence enough, but so am I. I am tired. I am weary. I don’t think I can keep this up much longer.

But I don’t have to.

The point of reconciliation is that you lift up all sides, that sometimes we need to carry each other for a time. Right now, Daoud is carrying a family that wants to quit; Gershom is carrying a synagogue that would rather not think. One day, they will fall, and the best that we can do is lift them up. They’ve certainly done the same for me.

More on this later. Which is the point, I think.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Leslie Dobbs-Allsopp permalink
    May 20, 2009 5:17 am

    Ryan, thank you so much for your sustained thoughtful reflection over the course of this trip. It was a gift to me to know in detail what was happening with you all each day. Blessings, Leslie

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