A group of us from Bloomsbury have just returned from a couple of weeks visiting Israel-Palestine, and I can honestly say that from my perspective it was one of the most moving and thought-provoking things I have done in a very long time.
The thing is, I thought I understood the situation out there, with the tensions over land between Palestine and Israel. I mean, it’s not as if we haven’t covered this stuff before here at Bloomsbury.
One of our Deacons, went over there a year or so ago to do voluntary work with Children in the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, and told us all about it when she came back. And we had an evening here at Bloomsbury last year with the Welsh singer Martyn Joseph, the comedienne Grace Petrie, and the Alrowad Palestinian youth drama group, which finished with everyone on stage singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ whilst holding the Palestinian flag. And Amos Trust, who focus specifically on promoting peaceful reconciliation and justice between Palestinians and Israelis, were our charity of the year recently. And people from the church have served as Ecumenical Accompaniers to protect people at risk through their nonviolent presence. And going back a bit further we’ve hosted a Palestinian Carol Service. And I think I know the political history reasonably well - I know what the Balfour Declaration is, and the Israeli War of Independence, and the Six Day War.
I thought I knew this stuff. And then I went there, and saw it with my own eyes, and suddenly I realised how little I actually knew. And do you know what affected me most, to the extent that I frequently and unexpectedly found myself with tears in my eyes? It was the unswerving commitment of the people we met to a path of nonviolent resistance, and peace-making, in the face of unjustified and unprovoked violence and oppression against them.
I’m thinking of meeting the head of the family at the little farm, now known at the Tent of Nations, who has been told he must surrender his farm, but who has a paper saying it’s been in his family for centuries. He won’t move, he won’t leave, but he has painted a sign at the entrance gate which says ‘We refuse to be enemies’. I’m thinking of his daughter, who told us about their protracted legal struggles to keep their own land, and how their 1400 olive trees were uprooted one night by bulldozers, but how they just keep replanting the trees, one at a time. One of those trees now has our name attached to it.
I’m thinking of the man who showed us around the West Bank, who told us of the time when one day he going through a check point in the wall and was told to get out of his car, and was then hit in the face by the butt of a gun, and who thought he was going to die. He says that he will never hit back, but he will never give up.
I’m thinking of the beautiful valley with ancient vineyards and a monastery that makes very fine wine, which one day soon may find itself the wrong side of a wall that will mean the people who currently farm the land cannot any longer get there to harvest the grapes. And of their commitment to continuing to trade and bring much needed money to impoverished communities.
I’m thinking of the residents of the refugee camp, whose grandparents were forcibly evicted from their homes in 1947, and who went to live in tents just outside Bethlehem, which became concrete bunkers, which became a shanty town with no infrastructure, which is now the Aida refugee camp. And their hope that one day, even now, they will return to their historic land and build new homes for their families.
I’m thinking of the children of that camp who play in the play park provided by Christian Palestinians in the shadow of the partition wall, but who are sometimes shelled by tear gas grenades or soaked by skunk water from the soldiers in the watch tower on the wall.
I’m think of walking through Hebron, and discovering that there were streets where some people were not allowed to walk anymore, because they are the wrong ethnicity, and how those whose houses and shops used to front onto those streets have to access their houses by ladders to the rear, climbing in through bedroom windows.
And most of all I’m thinking of the Jewish man who sat and told us how his daughter was killed when a Palestinian terrorist blew himself up in a market, and how he decided that rather than revenge or retaliation, what he wanted was understanding, and how he now works with other bereaved parents on both sides of the conflict, to bring a voice that calls for peace, and which shows the futility of perpetuating spirals and cycles of violence down the generation.
And here’s the thing, this is a hard message to hear when the injustice is so real, so imminent, and so capricious. When you meet people who have experienced such pain, loss, and oppression, the power of words of forgiveness and peace becomes raw in its intensity. But, as the Jewish father of the dead daughter said to us, what is the alternative?
We had a private audience with Archbishop Elias Chacour, who is the former head of the Greek Melkite Church. He is a Palestinian, and welcomed us to his church. He told us his story of how his boyhood village was occupied, and how this led him to seek a path of nonviolent resistance to the evils of occupation.
He was very clear that this is not about a binary situation of Israel vs. Palestine where one side are 'good' and one 'bad'. Rather, he said to us that his message can be summed up in two sentences: God is love, and God does not kill. His encouragement was for us to have the courage to speak those truths wherever they need to be heard.