For Easter, here is a portion of a great piece by Alicia von Stamwitz published on America, a Catholic weekly, in February. It describes her conversion in college to Zionism as a born-again Christian, and her trip to Israel and Palestine last year, in a faith-based tour for Christian journalists. And in the occupied territories, she had an awakening. Here's an excerpt. Her amazement at the settlements is just what James North said stunned him when he went to Palestine: nothing in the American press prepared me for this. I don't care about the politics, by the way, von Stamwitz is on the road. Once you're on the road, well just ask the disciples what happened on the road to Emmaus... von Stamwitz:
A tour hosted by Palestinians?
I was skeptical at first, but a few e-mail messages confirmed that it was a legitimate event backed by the U.S. Agency for International Develop-ment. It was part of a new initiative to revive the Palestinian economy, beginning with the tourism industry. Even the Israelis were on board under the banner of “economic peace” in the Middle East.
So I went. But almost immediately I found myself fretting about unexpected things. Like the Jewish settlements. When the guide announced that our bus was passing a settlement on the left, I leapt out of my seat on the opposite side for a better view. At first, I couldn’t locate it. Then the guide pointed to a massive compound straddling a hilltop in East Jerusalem.
It was disorienting. My mental image of a settlement was of a humble farming community in an uninhabited desert place, not a modern city of 40,000 on prime real estate. It is probably an exception, I thought to myself. But I could not help wondering: Is this where my Zion tree ended up—on one of these “fallow hills”?
Then there was the separation wall. The 440-mile concrete and coiled wire barrier was an arresting sight from either side. The guide claimed it choked commerce and isolated Palestinian families: “It’s like living in a prison or a ghetto.” I bristled at his choice of words. A more balanced account would have allowed that the wall prevented terrorist attacks, I thought. Still, it was an eyesore.
As the days passed I grew increasingly irritable. The guide’s monologues on the suffering of the Palestinian people, confiscated lands and bulldozed trees were annoying. I was here to see the holy sites of Judaism and Christendom, not to listen to propaganda.
By the time Israeli soldiers boarded our bus at a checkpoint outside Ariel, I was in no mood for political games. At all the other checkpoints, soldiers had merely glanced at our passports and waved us on. This time we were asked to disembark with all our personal belongings.
Grumbling, I collected my bags and followed my companions across the steaming asphalt to a cinderblock security station. We queued up to file through the lone metal detector, then waited to be interrogated by a stone-faced senior officer as she rifled through our bags. “Where have you been?” she asked. “Where are you going? Why are you going there?” An hour later we were permitted to return to the bus but were denied passage.
“Why wouldn’t they let us pass?” I asked the U.S.A.I.D. representative accompanying our group as we headed back to our seats.
“They won’t allow our Palestinian guide through,” he said carefully, picking his way through the words. “There are Jewish settlers up the road, and the soldiers believe our guide could be a threat.”
“So what’s the problem,” I blurted impatiently. “Can’t we just go on without him?”
I regretted my words at once. After an awkward silence, the U.S.A.I.D. rep answered, “We don’t want to do that. He hasn’t done anything wrong.” He was right, of course. I reddened and slunk into my seat.
What was happening to me? My ire should have been directed at the Israeli soldiers who had blocked our passage in order to protect the—for the first time I saw the need for a descriptive adjective—illegal settlers. Instead, I had turned on the Palestinian guide.
I was tired and a long way from home, yes; but a more accurate explanation of my agitation is that I was much further from the familiar stories of my college days. My misty Zionist narrative did not mention fortress-like settlements, graffiti-streaked walls and checkpoints. And it did not include indigenous Palestinians. In fact, it had explicitly denied their existence: “A land without people for a people without land.”