Wineskins Archive

January 27, 2014

The Hopes and Fears of All the Years (Sep-Dec 2007)

Filed under: — @ 11:50 am and

by Phillip Morrison
September – December, 2007

I was a college student directing a mock United Nations Assembly when I first became aware of the ancient tensions keeping Arabs and Jews apart. A Jewish student from a famous university gave a passionate speech in favor of the Jewish homeland which had been created by U. N. mandate just six years earlier, in 1948. He fervently defended the U. N. action because it “fulfilled the promise God made to our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

The next speech was given by an Arab student from a small, liberal arts college. He made an equally passionate speech in favor of a Palestinian homeland. But the specific words I remember, after all these years, are the calm and deliberate words of his opening sentence: “May I remind you, My Dear Sir, that my ancestors are as historical as your ancestors.”

When Zionism, the movement to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine, was crystallized under the leadership of Austrian journalist Theodor Herzl in the late nineteenth century, one of its aims was to “move the people without a land to the land without a people.” That slogan conveniently overlooked the fact that the land was never without a people. From the time of Isaac and Ishmael, descendants of Abraham had inhabited the land. Jews and Gentiles alike lived there in the time of Christ. And, despite the efforts of the Romans to disperse the Jews in the first and second centuries A. D., and the efforts of the Crusaders to drive out the Muslims in the twelfth and thirteen centuries, at least remnant groups of Jews and Arabs continued to occupy the land until the present.

The birth of the State of Israel in 1948 displaced hundreds of thousands of Arabs and created artificial, if not arbitrary, boundaries. In the 1967 war, Israel won the victory and claimed all the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Many more thousands of Arabs were displaced, but more than a million remained, largely in designated areas such as Gaza and the West Bank. Since 1967, an uneasy peace has existed, with unresolved disputes between Arabs and Jews at the heart of the conflict.

Though it is little more than a passing thought to most of us, the conflict is a daily reality in many Holy Land cities, including Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus. Nights in Bethlehem are seldom silent, never calm, and made bright largely by security lights. Located in the West Bank, just six miles from Jerusalem, Bethlehem is surrounded and controlled by Israel, though the Palestinian Authority is allowed to handle routine police matters within the city.

Surrounded on three sides by a grotesque concrete wall almost thirty feet tall and a yard thick, Bethlehem is virtually isolated. (Other parts of the West Bank are similarly being isolated by the wall, planned to be 450 miles long and now more than half finished.) Passage into and out of Bethlehem is strictly regulated by the Israeli military, and passing through a check point can take more than an hour for Palestinian residents.

A checkpoint in the road to BethlehemJust a few days ago, on December 12, a group of eight American tourists had a brief taste of what the Palestinians experience daily. We had spent the afternoon helping Santa Claus distribute gifts to more than 600 patients and community children at a Bethlehem hospital. It was just after dark when our twenty-passenger bus with its Palestinian driver approached the check point. The Beit Jala check point has five lanes, but only two were open that night. All vehicles with Palestinian license tags were being funneled into one lane. Private cars, buses, concrete trucks, and all kinds of vehicles with horns blaring were jockeying for position. Suddenly an Israeli soldier boarded our bus and ordered the driver to pull out of line. He claimed to have seen a camera flash, and that someone on our bus had taken a photograph. (There is nothing to indicate that photographs are forbidden. I have dozens from previous trips, and Christopher Anderson has a dramatic check point photograph in the December 2007 issue of National Geographic.)

The claim that someone had taken a forbidden photograph was obviously spurious, as the soldier made no attempt to examine or confiscate cameras. He did take the opportunity to harass our Palestinian driver, taking his identity papers and driver’s license. After conferring with other soldiers, he returned and directed us to a different parking place, this time claiming that the driver’s license had expired. Actually, he had renewed his license the week before, and the dates clearly showed that it is good for seven more years. Nevertheless, after several more consultations with other soldiers, the final determination was, “You can’t leave; you must turn around and go back.”

Bethlehems security wallThinking we might have to spend the night in Bethlehem (and maybe even Christmas Eve in Bethlehem!) we Americans were completely at the mercy of our Palestinian driver and an Arabic-speaking Anglican priest who had hitched a ride with us. We marveled at the patience of our driver who calmly endured the delay of almost an hour, got the bus turned around, and headed back to Bethlehem. We made our way back to the city, approached another check point (contrary to published reports, there is more one way in and out of Bethlehem), and this time were waved through without stopping or showing any papers.

Can you imagine living like that every day? My Palestinian friend (I am withholding names to prevent reprisal) who is a shopkeeper in Jerusalem recently moved some cousins into his ancestral Bethlehem home and moved his own wife and three sons to a one-room apartment in Jerusalem. He could no longer depend on getting through check points in timely fashion and keeping his store open on any kind of schedule.

Another friend took us to an office window overlooking a large hillside and olive grove that has been in her family more than 600 years, yet she is not allowed to go there because she is Palestinian. A legal document in a bank vault says the land belongs to her family, but there is no one to enforce their claim.

Santa dandles one of Bethlehems children on his kneeI have Palestinian friends who laugh about the creative ways they get past the wall and its check points to join other Christians for worship. But the decline in the Christian population of Bethlehem is no laughing matter.

Tonight, on Christmas Eve, we will watch services from around the world, including those from Bethlehem’s Manger Square, the Church of the Nativity, and St. Catherine’s Church. Our hearts will ache for our friends, and we will join them in longing for the fulfillment of the heavenly proclamation of peace on earth, good will to men.

If you would like to read some balanced perspectives on conflict in the Holy Land, I recommend the following:

Cain’s Field, Faith, Fratricide and Fear in the Middle East, by Matt Rees.

From Beirut to Jerusalem, by Thomas L. Friedman.

The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, by Sandy Tolan.

Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, by Jimmy Carter.

New Wineskins

Phillip MorrisonPhillip Morrison was, for many years, managing editor of Wineskins Magazine and wrote the column “AfterGlow” opposite its inside back cover. He was also the former managing editor for Upreach magazine, and worked as a fund-raising consultant and conducted study tours to Bible lands.

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