We stayed one block from the Shepherd’s Field at the Sahara Hotel for the southern leg of our trip to Israel Palestine because it is the host hotel for those who help with the olive harvest. Beit Sahour is the official headquarters for YMCA’s Keep Hope Alive program. This was the second time I’ve led a group of U.S. Presbyterians (with some Unitarians and Baptists) on a Keep Hope Alive trip. The first time was to plant olive trees in February 2014 (which I described here) and here. This trip was to pick olives, but not from the trees we planted, because an olive tree takes at least six years to start producing. One day the Palestinian farmer told us the trees we were picking were 400 years old.
When you spend time in Palestine, one of the things you discover is how well educated Palestinians are, and Beit Sahour is full of people with many different advanced degrees. All of this is owing to the fact that long before 1948, education has always been a high priority in Palestinian culture. Palestinians are the most highly-educated oppressed people I have encountered anywhere I have traveled in the world. One of our stops this year was to visit a Bedouin village. The Bedouins are a nomadic people who live in tents. Originally they followed the herds. Now, though, they have to move around because they live in the “seam” between the Palestinian West Bank and the State of Israel and, after their tent villages have been set up, the Israeli military comes in and makes them pull up stakes after so many months. Then they have to find another place to live. They have no rights in Israel, and they have nothing in Palestine (and find themselves at the bottom of the Palestinian pecking order). Even so, the young woman speaking to us after we had lunch in her family’s tent has a degree in English translation and hopes to get a job teaching English, although she is always at the bottom of the waiting list because she is Bedouin. I was awed by how articulate she was, and I remembered that when we visited Bedouins in 2014, my daughter Tina, who was also on this trip, developed a relationship with a young woman who also had an M.A. degree in education. These friends in Palestine remind me of when I was a teenager and my dad insisted that I go to college, saying: “Remember, in this life you never know… the world can take everything away from you, but it can never take your education.” As I said, Palestinians value education.
Palestinians also value peace. While we were staying in Beit Sahour, the YMCA held programs for us every night after our days of olive picking and touring. One night we were mesmerized by the Palestinian film, “The Wanted 18: A Story of Bovine Resistance.” It is very creative and has won many international awards. It tells the story of the very beginning of the First Intifada (“intifada” means “uprising”), which was a peaceful uprising of economic resistance to oppression against the Israeli government. Up through the 1980s the Palestinian people were dependent upon Israel for most of the goods they could not produce themselves (and for the most part still are today). Therefore Beit Sahour city councilors decided they did not want to depend on Israel for dairy products any longer, so they bought 18 cows from Israeli farmers to start their own dairy. The humorous part of the story is that these were people with businesses and/or advanced college degrees, who knew nothing about taking care of cows. So they sent a young man from their community to the United States to work on a dairy farm for months and he came home ready to set up a milk barn. They got the cows and began production. As the First Intifada took hold, with growing economic resistance to Israel throughout the West Bank, the Israeli military told the Beit Sahour city council that it had to get rid of the cows or have them confiscated. The city council decided not to comply and hid all the cows in separate locations. With that came the spectacle of Israeli soldiers looking for 18 cows throughout the city every day for weeks to no avail. All Beit Sahour soon joked that the Israeli soldiers would search forever for “terrorist cows.”
The Oslo Accords brought an end to the First Intifada, to the dismay of many Palestinians, including residents of Beit Sahour. They felt that Yasser Arafat sold out their program of non-violent resistance by making a political deal of convenience. Unfortunately those Accords, along with ending Beir Sahour’s program of non-violent resistance (they sold the cows), eventually led to the Second Intifada, which was very violent. I remember it well because I visited Israel Palestine in 2001 while it was raging.
During this last visit to Israel Palestine, there were many demonstrations in the streets. They actually began peacefully—we even attended one in the middle of Nazareth Square on one of our first nights there. But Palestinians—whether they are Israeli citizens living in Galilee or people with no status living in the West Bank—are not allowed to demonstrate (either for very long or not at all depending on what side of the wall you live on). The clashes resulted from the fact that the Israeli military chose to come into the middle of Palestinian cities and forcibly end non-violent protests. Given the physical force the Israeli army used on the people–spraying teargas and even spewing sewage–on the crowds, demonstrations turned violent. If the military had not shown up, the demonstrations would have occurred peacefully then ended peacefully with everyone going home, and you would not have heard about it in the U.S. media. But that is not the way it happened.
I likened the demonstrations to last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests in cities across the United States. Most people were there to engage in non-violent protest, but some (not the majority) created havoc. Like those demonstrations, the ones in Palestine have been spontaneous and do not seem to have any single group organizing them. As we walked with the demonstration in Nazareth, or watched others from a distance in Bethlehem, with the signature burning tires in the middle of the street, I noticed how many Palestinians were running their shops and going about their daily routines even while young people protested just a blocks away.
I found it interesting that, while receiving e-mails and texts from home asking if we were safe, I was watching CNN World News on the hotel television reporting on the shooting (1 dead and 4 injured) in downtown Ft. Myers, Florida, at the “Zombiecon” event. This is only a mile from the Presbyterian church where I serve as pastor. In the last few months, Ft. Myers has experienced a lot of shooting violence and unsolved murders. I have been to Zombiecon in previous years. Given the events in my own hometown I wondered if I were safer in Beit Sahour.
As we were told repeatedly while we were in Palestine, this is not a religious conflict, but a political one. Seeing Palestinian Christians and Muslims living together peacefully and well (as well as can be expected under those conditions), as well as being conducted around for a day by an Israeli Jew who seeks peace and justice, of this I have no doubt. American professor Norman Finkelstein, a prominent Jewish voice for peace in Israel and justice in Palestine, recently co-wrote an article about the present unrest in Palestine and Israel and mentioned the non-violent First Intifada. He observed that right now Palestinians are in a very important position because this unrest could once again give rise to an effective non-violent uprising that could make a difference. The article reads like a playbook on how Palestinian leaders could take hold of this present energy in a positive way. It is my prayer that this indeed might come true.
As with our first trip to plant olive trees in 2014, everyone on our recent trip came home greatly impressed by the quality and perseverance of Palestinian people and their ancient culture. Many of us found ourselves wishing that we Americans could retain the best of our historical cultural practices as well as they. One person remarked, “I haven’t encountered a Palestinian I didn’t like!” Hearing from me about the injustices in Palestine has become routine for members of my congregation and some have complained. But now they do not need not take my word for it, because those who have gone with me on these two trips have seen it with their own eyes, felt it in their hearts, and returned home changed by what they now know is true. The motto in Palestine, among the leaders with whom we lived and worked for two weeks, simply is: “Come and See!” They say it, confident that when we do, we will understand. My two trips with Presbyterians who knew little about Palestine except for what is shared by the American media did exactly that and their lives have been changed in the most profound ways.
All you really have to do is go and see….