Episcopalians find few signs of hope in visits to Middle East

May 31, 2002

'The situation in Israel and Palestine is worse than I thought,' said Bishop M. Thomas Shaw of Massachusetts on his return from a 10-day ecumenical peace pilgrimage to the region with 23 people from his diocese and the Diocese of Olympia. 'I saw the fear in the eyes and faces of Israelis because of the awful suicide bombings. At the same time, the Palestinians have suffered enormously from the occupation and the military actions of the Israeli government against the infrastructure of the Palestinian governmental authority,' he said.

'The Palestinian people I met seem to have lost hope and they are angry with what the Israelis have done,' he said. 'On both sides it seems to me that there is a sense of hopelessness and little idea of how to move forward.'

In a statement prepared for a May 23 press conference, Shaw said that it was clear that the situation wouldn't change 'unless the United States government becomes more directly involved with the faith community. We have to intervene directly because the mistrust between the Palestinians and Israelis is so deep that I do not see a way for them to live together without our support.'

Traumatized people

Bishop Vincent Warner of Olympia agreed that there was a deep sense of despair permeating their encounters. 'A lot of people in our group were shocked, especially those who were visiting the area for the first time. People are polarized--more than we have seen before.'(Warner was part of an ecumenical peace delegation that visited the region in December 2000.)

'Everything points to a loss of hope but I cling to hope because of the stubborn efforts by peace activists on both sides who are just not willing to give up,' Warner added. 'If they can have hope so can I but it is a hope based on telling the truth, appealing to a sense of justice in people and then hoping that people respond accordingly.' He admitted that 'nothing is going to happen soon but there is the beginning of a shift in opinion.'

Janice Warner, who accompanied her husband on the earlier trip and this one, said that situation is 'just a nightmare.' In her contacts with women and children she said that 'they are not holding up very well. They are so traumatized. Everyone is concerned what will happen to the children, growing up in such violence.'

With a peace process that is at 'a dead standstill,' she said that people 'get frustrated and weary and yet they have great resilience. Even for those of us who have been following the situation it was shocking.' She described an encounter with a woman in the Jenin refugee camp who took her into her demolished home to show her the filth and destruction left behind following the recent Israeli military incursion. 'The kids were traumatized, walking around in a stupor, finding it difficult even to respond,' she said. 'Yet when I broke down in tears, a small Palestinian girl came over and took my hand, trying to comfort me.'

Jewish perspectives on peace

Three Israeli Jewish speakers offered their perspectives to the group. Rabbi David Rosen, international director of the interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, describes himself as a religious Zionist with a strong concern for the human rights of Arabs.

'If the Jewish state were to disappear, Jewish life would not recover,' he told the group, according to an account by Bo Fauth and Philip Jacobs of Massachusetts. He believes that secular Jews view Israel as 'simply a political solution for the Jewish people,' and that the settlers see themselves as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy with the settlements an example of the revelation of God's destiny 'by bringing the land back to the Jews.'

For Rosen, however, Israel is 'the fulfillment of the millennia-old desire to practice Jewish ways in the ancestral homeland.' He believes that unjust treatment of the Palestinians 'corrupts Judaism [by its] failure of justice' and represents 'idolatry in regard to the land,' repudiating the God and faith they claim to follow. He believes that the peace process thus far has failed to recognize the religious nature of the peoples involved. He describes the Israeli and Palestinian religious mindsets as 'pre-modern ones that see 'only one path to truth. Pluralism runs against the cultural context.'

Rosen said that the region is 'not a place of natural dialogue' but rather 'a land of religious conquest.' What is needed, he said, is an outside influence that is truly neutral and one that can show sympathy for the suffering of both sides without giving allegiance to co-religionists. With these reservations he said that 'Christianity has a unique destiny in the peace process,' and he welcomed the role of Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey in the recent Alexandria Declaration of religious leaders calling it a remarkable document that could be the beginning of a renewed peace process.

God chose Israel for the Jews

Rabbi Uriel Simon, a professor of Bible at Bar-Illam University near Tel Aviv, said that there is a 'territorial imperative in the theology of Judaism,' arguing that God has chosen the Jewish people 'for the benefit of the world--that the world may be blessed.' And he has chosen Israel for the Jews. He also believes that 'anti-Semitism has turned into anti-Israeli sentiment.'

Simon argued that 'Zionism means reentering history and claiming power,' defending the Israeli military because 'were it not for a strong Israeli army the Jews would all be killed, the victims of ethnic cleansing.'

Speaking to the group at the end of the trip, Wayne Firestone, director of the Anti-Defamation League's Israel Office, was even more blunt. He sees absolutely no justification for targeting a civilian population, calling it 'a violation of morality and international law.' He said, 'I don't have room in my heart for suicide bombers,' adding that they 'don't volunteer out of the blue, they are incited.' He finds it difficult to see the current crisis stemming from an occupation. His greatest concern is 'the glorification of violence' and the 'belief that death is preferable to life.' He rejected the premise that Palestinians have turned to violence as their only choice and questioned the value of a peace conference. And he said that the 'continued teaching and preaching about hate…effectively ruins the next generation.'

Firestone spoke for many Israelis when he said that 'fear and nightmares have become more a part of our daily lives.' He defended the destruction caused by the recent Israeli military incursions into the West Bank, insisting that bomb factories had been hidden in homes, municipal buildings and even hospitals. While admitting that there were 'mistakes made in the heat of battle,' Israel was justified in doing what was required to halt terrorism.

Visit to a war zone

When the group tried to enter Bethlehem they got a dose of the restrictions Palestinians face every day. 'The checkpoint experience is surreal,' wrote Ron Harris-White of Seattle in daily accounts on the diocesan website. 'I feel like I am in a war zone--not only to reassert Israeli political domination but to assault the integrity of the Palestinian people caught in the grips of a larger battle,' said the Rev. John Boonstra of Seattle. 'And it is horrifying.'

In his May 15 account, Harris-White noted that the delegation was the first to enter Bethlehem and visit the Church of the Nativity since the 38-day siege ended a few days earlier. 'The smell of the blood and wastes of the standoff are cleaned but we can still smell the fear.'

In a visit to the Deheishe refugee camp, home to 11,000 Palestinians who were evicted from their land in 1948, the group encountered the brother of a suicide bomber who expressed pride in what his brother did. Warner challenged him, asking why this young man, who took innocent lives, could be considered a hero. 'We love life as much as anyone else but we have no other way to stop what is happening to us,' he responded. Warner countered by arguing that 'violence is not the way.'

A broken little Palestinian town

'Established in 1953 as a makeshift tent city to host thousands of Palestinian refugees, Jenin breeds defiance and tenacity,' said Harris-White in his account. Home to 13,000 refugees, he said that Jenin is now 'a broken little Palestinian town.' The devastation they encountered was shocking. 'You can smell the death in the air, and the odors of human was cannot be mistaken,' he wrote.

At one point the delegation is surrounded by a group of more than a hundred young men 'filled with anger and despair.' Warner tells the leader, 'We do not condone violence of any kind, from either side. There are solutions that don't involve bombs and missiles. The Palestinians deserve their own state and control of their own destiny.' He tells them that 'we are here to witness conditions here in Jenin and here in your hearts. We walk with God and we will tell the world your story as we see it.'

After some tense stares and silence, the leader said, 'Thank you--this is all we want from you.'

Arafat welcomes visitors

Despite the high level of tension, the delegation was able to meet with Yasser Arafat in his compound in Ramallah on May 20. Moments before they arrived there was another bombing, opening the possibility of an Israeli response and increasing the doubts and fears of the group. 'The Palestinian people live with this fear daily, we can live with it for at least one day,' said Bishop Warner.

The compound was a mess, strewn with demolished automobiles. Large sections of the buildings were torn open and scarred from fires. In the account of Mark Larson on the diocesan website, the group crossed open ground to the entrance of the offices and passed through security screening. 'We were lead through a short maze of sandbag fortifications and up a flight of stairs to a conference room,' Larson wrote, where Arafat 'warmly greeted each person.'

Bishops Shaw, Warner and Riah Abu el-Assal of the Diocese in Jerusalem and the Middle East 'informed him of our Christian witness of the suffering of both Israeli and Palestinian people throughout the region. President Arafat acknowledged our witness and elaborated in some detail the history of the conflict between the Israeli and Palestinian people,' Larson wrote. Arafat emphasize the important role the U.S. could play in the search for peace, recounting the failure of past peace negotiations but adding that 'the Palestinian people have nothing left to negotiate away,' according to Larson. At the end of the meeting, Shaw asked Arafat to offer a prayer for peace in Arabic.

Cycle of violence and revenge

Bishop Arthur Walmsley, retired bishop of Connecticut, was part of an earlier delegation of church leaders organized by the National Council of Churches (NCC) that visited Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel and the West Bank in mid-April. In an April 30 statement, they said, 'We condemn equally and unequivocally both the suicide bombings and Palestinian violence against Israeli society and the violence of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. All are counterproductive to achieving peace with justice…Both societies are caught in a cycle of violence and revenge.'

In an interview, Walmsley said, 'Everywhere we went people wanted to know why the religious community was silent. American policy is perceived as totally subservient to Israel. The solution seems obvious,' he added, 'withdrawal to pre-'67 borders.'

Walmsley joined representatives of relief agencies in a harrowing trip to the Jenin refugee camp heavily damaged by the Israeli military incursion. 'It took six hours, circling around the countryside, with harassment at the many checkpoints,' he said. But finally the convoy was able to get to a warehouse of a local relief agency and unload 1,500 boxes of food for a family of five for at least a week--as well as blankets and medical supplies.

Building bridges

As the group walked around the camp, stopping for conversations, they were challenged about U.S. policy. 'We tried to assure them that some Americans stood with them in their suffering,' Walmsley said. In this 'human tragedy,' camp dwellers in Jenin waited patiently while backhoes dig through the demolished houses, looking for lost relatives.

The group concluded that 'there won't be a political solution until there is a religious one. Peace among religions lays the groundwork,' according to Walmsley. 'We can't let the fundamentalists of the three religions gain ground because they offer only a military solution.'

He is convinced that 'the challenge for us is building some meaningful bridges, some honest bridges, to the Jewish world.' Although the situation seems hopeless, he pointed to 'the miracle in South Africa where apartheid was demolished.' Yet he admitted that the fears of a clash between the West, mainly the United States, and the Muslim world could not be discounted.

'I sensed a weariness on all sides--and some heroic attempts by those who still care, especially the relief agencies working under very dangerous conditions,' Walmsley said. 'There is a tremendous concern for future generations.' He described an encounter with a psychiatrist in Amman who used the image of someone who has been regularly abused.' He asked, 'what's the chance of the victim becoming a victimizer?'

When pressed, Walmsley said that he agrees with the observation of Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa who said, when there is no grounds for optimism, we must live in hope. 'Hope rests in the resilience of people who maintain humanity and faith under the worst of circumstances.'

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