While in Israel recently I had the opportunity to spend a day in Bethlehem. I’ve been there several times before, always to see the Church of the Nativity and to shop in a favorite place for souvenirs. But this was a new opportunity to spend the day with some new folks and to learn about everyday life there.
Bethlehem is part of the West Bank and is therefore under Palestinian rule even though it’s just a few miles south of Jerusalem. To go there means going through a checkpoint between the Israeli and Palestinian guards. On this particular day, our driver was a Palestinian Christian who lived in Jerusalem, which allowed him to have the necessary credentials for access without the usual waiting and red tape.
We had two appointments on this day. Our first was to meet with Pastor Jack of the Bethlehem Bible College. The BBC was founded in the late 1970’s as a Christian college providing education to the Bethlehem community which is overwhelmingly Muslim. When we first arrived we were invited to attend their chapel service. A Palestinian woman, modernly dressed, was on stage teaching passionately from the bible in the Arabic language. Through our interpreter, we listened as she used Old Testament examples to point to Jesus Christ and the changes He wants to make in our lives. When she finished we listened as 50+ young college students sang a worship song in Arabic. While we couldn’t understand the words, the devotion was evident.
After chapel we had the opportunity to meet Pastor Jack. He gave us a tour of their campus and greeted students along the way. While it is certainly small by American standards, he pointed out the dorms, classrooms, and gave us an up close look at their media center where they are producing programs for the community on both secular and religious topics. We were able to spend time with him in his office and later over lunch to discuss the work they are doing there.
What I haven’t mentioned so far is that Pastor Jack is a Palestinian Christian. He was kind and gentle, incredibly welcoming to us and took time to not only explain but to listen to our views and experiences as well. The woman preaching in chapel earlier that day was his wife. Together with others on staff, they are reaching other Palestinians in Bethlehem, regardless of their faith, to create relationships that will lead to peace. Maybe peace on a world-wide or nation-wide scale is a big goal; but if they can begin to live in peace with the people in their city and in their neighborhoods, if they can help to meet the needs of those around them out of love, then perhaps peace in a divided land is reachable.
Our second appointment on that day was with another gentleman named Marwan. Marwan is a Palestinian Muslim who was volunteered by a mutual friend to take us into one of the Palestinian refugee camps in Bethlehem. I didn’t even know there were refugee camps in Bethlehem, but there are three.
I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I’m just beginning to realize some significant details in the Israel/Palestine conflict. While I have for years heard about how Israel became a nation in 1948 when the British Mandate allowed them to return to the land, there is one fact that I had missed. When the Israel people moved into the land, there were folks already living there. Before 1948, Muslims, Jews and Christians lived in the land beside one another. In 1948, Arabs were told to move out so that Jewish folks could move in. And they moved right into the homes previously occupied by the Arabs. This was supposed to be for a short period of time – weeks – but continues still today.
Marwan did a great job of showing us around and explaining the current and historical situation as he sees it. (I say that because there are so many sides to this story.) He became quite passionate when he walked us through the “neighborhood” and reviewed for us the way the people are made to live and the losses they have suffered – property, dignity and the loss of life in the ongoing military conflicts. As he talked, we watched children playing in the streets, traffic bringing people to their daily activities, school girls coming home in their school uniforms. The housing is a mix of do-it-yourself styles that you would expect where there are no building codes and people are left to create what they need to survive. Much of the walls are covered in “graffiti” type paintings depicting their history and social struggles. The longer Marwan talked, the more passionate he became, and I must admit the less comfortable I felt.
As we returned from the refugee camp, Marwan began to speak of a group of American and British Christians that have begun to come to Bethlehem during the olive harvest to help the local people. These folks come with no other motive than to help with the harvest and to establish relationships with the Palestinian people. I was amazed to see the change in Marwan when he spoke of them. He called them angels. His voice softened and he smiled as he talked about what an honor it was to have these people in his presence and how he invited them to his home. The same man who so passionately ranted in the streets of the refugee camp about violence and fighting and who was at fault, now smiled and spoke with genuine love for those who had come to help him. How incredible to see the change in his demeanor when he was approached with love and respect.
I must confess that my mind and heart were changed on this day. Over the years I have developed a mental image of what all Palestinians/Arabs look like. It wasn’t pleasant and it was scary. The combination of reading Genesis 16 – that Ishmael would be a wild donkey of a man, that he and his descendants would always be fighting with everyone – and watching the evening news have created a picture in my mind of a people I should fear and distrust. And while that may be true of some, it certainly wasn’t what I experienced that day.
I understand God’s promise of the land and I certainly want the Jews to have what God promised. But is it fair for others who were living there to be arbitrarily thrown out of their homes? Surely when a government comes in and tells one family to leave a home so another can move in the same home, there will be resentment between the two. When the resentment isn’t just two families, but two neighborhoods, then two people groups, the feelings begin to be stereotyped. Resentment turns into violence, which is then answered by reciprocal violence.
My best understanding is that God gave Israel a land. He promised it to Abraham back in Genesis. And He said the land would be theirs forever. Forever means forever. But, can no one else live in the land with the Jewish people? After all, God’s purpose for choosing them wasn’t just so they could be land owners. He chose them to bring people to him. To share their faith in God. God who forgives us when we repent and trust Him. How can they bring the world to God if they are isolated in a land? I know the situation is much more complex than I’ve described. I just peeled back one layer of an onion to discover there are hundreds more layers. But within each of these layers of issues are people. People who mostly just want to have a job and a place to live, a place to raise their children so that they can have a better life. I don’t understand all the politics. And I don’t think our media, no matter which channel you watch, is doing us any favors in understanding the situation. Politically, I don’t think I want to be pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian. I just want to be pro-people.