What’s Your Name?

The game, if I remember correctly, began with Peter Makari, the co-leader of our trip, at the YWCA center in the Jalazone refugee camp near Ramallah. It wasn’t really a game, but a group of children crowding forward, shouting, “What’s your name?,” then waiting for our answers and for our return question: “What’s your name?” Their exuberance and energy and brightly colored t-shirts were at odds with the surrounding bleak streets of the camp we had just walked through. I learned a lot of names very quickly — I could hardly keep up — and I learned that there is joy in names. I knew that once.

I thought of those children when Mitt Romney’s analysis of the “dramatically stark difference in economic vitality” between Israel and “the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority,” made during his visit to Jerusalem, hit the headlines yesterday. Romney cited the power of culture, an innovative business climate, the Jewish history of thriving in difficult circumstances, and the hand of providence as the reasons for the difference. He said nothing about the history here. He said nothing about the occupation. He said nothing about the separation wall. He said nothing about water restrictions. He said nothing about land theft.The reader comments following the article in which I’d read about Romney’s explanations were just as bad. Several of them revealed an inability to consider Palestinians in any other terms but terrorism. “What’s your name?” No need for names; the label gives you all that you need to know and want to believe.

I remembered an experience I’d had in the Old City. We were walking through the narrow streets filled with shops when I spotted a display of head scarfs. I quickly ducked into a shop to purchase one. I had obtained some shekels in previous transactions and even though I now knew the exchange rate, I looked at the shekels and still had no idea how to count them. When the proprietor of the shop said the scarf was six dollars, I opened my wallet on the counter and asked him to take that amount from the mix of shekels, dollars and coins I had there. He seemed surprised. I think he felt awkward, but he saw that I really had no idea how much to give him. So he took the amount from my wallet and then he tried to teach me to count shekels, laying them out on his store counter, telling me the amount of each of them, and explaining the denominations of the coins.

My group was waiting. I thanked him and he said, “Be careful. Not everyone might be honest if you just give them all your money.” I thanked him again and picked up the scarf  from the counter to go. Then I stopped and held out my hand. I said, “Nice to meet you.” His face lit up with a delighted smile and he shook my hand warmly. He said, “Nice to meet you, beautiful woman.” It was not meant as flattery and I would not have taken it as such especially in my current condition, a downturn in health that caused extreme hair loss, including most of my eyebrows, in the months before the trip. But I took it as the human currency it was, naming beauty in the exchange of hospitality, a trust and a recognition between strangers. He was a Palestinian. “What’s your name?”

What is the way to break through the labels that have been assiduously applied by what passes for news but is blatant propaganda — but to meet? What is the way to break through the labels that have been taken up by Americans to suit our own prejudices and fears — but to meet? We use labels for Palestinians to hide from ourselves, what we can’t name about us. What should we call the act of declaring an entire population of people terrorists? Terrorism, maybe? And what should we call it when oppression is denied and renamed providence?

What’s your name?

— Kathryn


Do you remember?

I may have lost a friend over this, and I’d hardly even begun the conversation. I’ll call him Dave. We’ve been friends for over 20 years. It was a friendship that grew out of our common activism. We were advocates on behalf of animals and were no strangers to unpopular causes. We participated in a peace march together at the beginning of the war in Iraq.

The text message came when I turned my phone back on at the end of our trip. We were, in fact, still in Chicago, waiting for our connecting flight back to Minneapolis. It said, “Your name came up the other day and I haven’t heard from you in a while. How are you?” I replied that I had been in Israel and Palestine. He was quite surprised; he responded with something to the effect of “Wow!” and “How long were you there?” I explained that it was a global justice trip, with a brief explanation of the reason for our visit. By then we had boarded our flight to Minneapolis and I turned off the phone.

When I reached home, I fully expected to find a message waiting. There was nothing. I waited a couple of days, and then, seeing from his Flickr account that he had been in the U.K. — yes, we also keep in touch through photos — I sent a message asking him about his trip. He replied, briefly. Then, wondering if he had misunderstood something in my message about our Israel-Palestine trip, I explained that we had met with both Israeli and Palestinian groups during our trip. Again, no reply came. This was not like him. I sent another message to say that I sensed that it was not a good topic and I would not bring it up again. I have not heard back from him.

I am mystified, stunned; he is the last person I would expect this from. I have since recognized the folly of undertaking the conversation through text messages, but that is how he usually keeps in touch. And I didn’t expect it would be an issue with him. Not at all.

This conflict cuts across lines in a way that might surprise us. My friend is liberal, progressive, non-religious, cosmopolitan in his outlook (a world traveler). So, you could say, is Bill Maher and I bring him up because he is a comedian with some influence among progressives, who has commented on a lot on this conflict. His 2008 “documentary,” Religulous, which I have not watched but I plan to soon, mocks religion and from what I have read in reviews, at the end of the movie the Muslim faith is conflated with terrorism through several images. Maher then calls for an end to all religions if we are to save ourselves.* In an earlier interview with Larry King, Maher responds to the complaint he has heard from a Palestinian schoolgirl about the attitude of Israeli soldiers at checkpoints with the comment, “Well, yeah, but that’s because a lot of your brothers are blowing up their pizza parlors. Sorry.”[1]

Sorry? This is racism; we know this. Somehow it is okay to mistreat people because they are Arabs or Muslims or Palestinians. Somehow that’s okay with a supposedly progressive comedian and a progressive audience. Maher, like many others, has said there was never a Palestine, so there is no occupation.

We forget our own history; we forget, for example, the Japanese concentration camps in our country during World War II, when a whole population became guilty by association, were considered dangerous, and were rounded up and held without cause. I can’t imagine anyone I know who would not consider that a terrible and regrettable thing in our history; but many simply shrug off similar treatment for Palestinians in their own land. History will judge us for this, I believe, but that doesn’t help the Palestinians now.

Meanwhile, I am heartbroken by the silence of my friend. I keep thinking about picking up the phone, but I am afraid. Will he let it go to voice mail? Will I ever get to explain? What is he thinking?  Has he bought the charge that criticism of the Israeli government is anti-Semitic? Does he know that there are Israelis who are firmly opposed to the occupation, too, and stand against it? Does he view me as terribly misguided and backwards? Can we at least talk about this? Does he remember that when we demonstrated on behalf of animals, wanting only to expose the plight of the terrible conditions under which they suffered, we were called terrorists?  Does he remember?

— Kathryn

[1] CNN Transcripts. http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0201/04/lkl.00.html

*I have since watched Religulous. The film seems calculated to find people who would be easy targets for cheap shots, truck drivers at a truck stop chapel, for instance, or visitors at a Holy Land theme park, or people who are enamored of the end times. People who were sincerely trying to express their beliefs when Maher asked were often interrupted and not allowed to speak: Maher put words in their mouths. It did seem that Islam was depicted largely in terms of violence, with Christianity a runner up. I have no issue with critical analyses of religion, but Maher picked his examples in a highly calculated way, generalized, and then came to a sweeping conclusion: that we need to end all religion. Based on a 90 minute highly selective “documentary” by one man, it doesn’t seem like a well reasoned conclusion for a self-described rationalist to make.

A Voice in the Wilderness

Last fall I took a class in the theology of Bonhoeffer, perhaps best known for his work, The Cost of Discipleship, with its critique of cheap grace and its contrast of costly grace. He is also known for his participation in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler, for which he was hanged. During the course, I scrutinized Bonhoeffer’s theology carefully, looking for clues to what had made him speak out and actively oppose the Nazi regime when so many others did not. Over and over in his theology, Bonhoeffer emphasized concrete responsibilities and he resisted abstractions; he said that we were responsible to the concrete realities of history. In Toward A Jewish Theology of Liberation, Marc Ellis discusses solidarity and he writes: “Solidarity also means the willingness to enter into history with authenticity and fidelity. Entry into history is the willingness to engage in a critical dialogue with economic, social, political and religious issues….A lived witness means to make a choice within the critical dialogue, to plant one’s feet without all the answers, to choose a way of life in the mix of history.” Choosing responsibility without all the answers; as Bonhoeffer had written decades before: “Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior.”

If is often said that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is complex and it is in certain respects, but in other respects it is not complex, it is a matter of a fundamental injustice, of an illegal occupation and of egregious human rights abuses in violation of international law. But because a resolution seems difficult and the conflict at times intractable, because no one of us has all the answers, the inclination may be to opt out of critical dialogue. Or we may opt out because of criticism for speaking out, charges of anti-Semitism, questions of our loyalties. But we bear a responsibility to the concrete realities of history, to what we know is occurring now, a situation that I believe history will charge us with if we fail to address it. I believe history will ask: how could they have let this go on?

I take my baptism in the Jordan River seriously, and I have decided not to call it a rededication; with all respect to those who had me baptized at birth, this is not a choice that can be made by proxy. I am a quiet person and I want nothing more than to walk off into the sunset and live a gracious life at home and in nature; to read, write, bake bread, care for my family, and for animals. But I walked into a green and ancient river, and although I did not hear an actual voice crying in the wilderness, I felt it. I knew that I was agreeing to walk in wildernesses whose ways I don’t yet know.

Of the many images and moments I take away from this trip, one that keeps returning are the faces of Palestinians who told us: “We are not terrorists.” One is Salim, the man whose home has been demolished five times by Israeli bulldozers, who after the first demolition found his frightened son eight hours later hiding among the rocks, whose daughter knows that her father can’t protect her; she says: “I saw what the soldiers did to you.” Another is the face of a man from the Bereaved Families circle, who in spite of the senseless shooting death of his father by Israeli soldiers wants to dialogue with Israelis who have also lost family members in the conflict. It is not about forgiveness, he says, but about choosing reconciliation, to understand the path of other side. He says, “Our case as Palestinians is about justice, not revenge… we are not met as human beings.”

And the Separation Barrier, the Wall reinforces this every day. On one side are the alleged terrorists, on the other, those who allegedly are not. But when you hear the stories, those distinctions prove to be muddled. And the Wall is ugly — not as though one would expect beauty — but it rises like an insult into the air with its crown of barbed wire. It has boxed some Palestinians in on three sides. That, to me, is terror, to have the horizon barred, the sunrise and sunset imprisoned, to be in a barbed and concrete wilderness. Yet on the wall of that wilderness, a voice emerges. Someone has written, “The dirt whispered, child, I’m coming home. Love conquers all.”


Born Under Occupation

“Jesus was born under occupation, lived under occupation, and was killed by occupying forces,” said Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek, Director of Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem. Sabeel services the Christian churches and Muslims in Palestine. Palestinian Christians represent 1-2% of the Palestinian population and suffer under the same occupation as Palestinian Muslims. It’s racism. More than one representative we met with calls it apartheid. This became clear when we walked through a checkpoint, something Palestinians in the occupied territories must do daily to get to work or school or a doctor. We walked through long, narrow metal grates, had to pass two by two through a turnstile, put our bags, belts and watches on a belt to be scanned, walk through a scanner ourselves, show our passports, wait, and finally, we were able to proceed. Taxis wait on each side of the checkpoint because the drivers don’t have the right license plates, so they can only go as far as the checkpoint and then they leave their passenger, who must walk through and find another taxi on the other side. Some Palestinians begin lining up at checkpoints at midnight so that they can be first in line at 5 a.m. in order to make it to work on time in Jerusalem. If they are late they can lose their jobs.

Yesterday we visited a refugee camp with Dr. Mira Rizek, General Secretary of the YWCA-Palestine. We walked through streets filled with dusty rubble. Some Palestinians have known no other life than life in these camps. The YWCA serves women and children of the community and tries to meet their needs on many levels: education, health, vocation. Some women produce crafts in their homes that are sold through the YWCA. Several Palestinian women were taking a class while we were meeting with Mira. After our meeting, we began to speak with them. They were eager to talk, warm, and friendly. One of them showed us how she ties her head scarf. Soon we were laughing together.

That is a scene you won’t find on the evening news in the U.S., not on Fox news or probably any other major news network. You won’t know that Christian and Muslim Palestinians live and work together peacefully in these territories. That doesn’t serve the narrative that Palestinians are terrorists and that they hate people of other religions, narratives that are used to continue this apartheid. Nor will you hear in many American churches that Jesus was born under occupation in this land, and that this narrative is closer to what the Palestinians are living through than what the churches are teaching.


A Deep Place

There is an intensity here. No matter how much I try to tell myself that religion isn’t geography, that the essence of faith has nothing to do with land, when I saw the Sea of Galilee, shimmering through the haze of humidity and dust in the air, I felt tears at the corners of my eyes. The stories of Jesus have been with me since my earliest childhood; familiar as my own name, but distant, and well… old. Somewhere in another time. But here it was: sparkling faintly in the muted sunlight, the Sea of Galilee, real and blue, with a boat moving along its shore. Of course.

There is a passion in place. I have seen it in the crowds of people at the holy sites, a family moving its eldest member forward so she can touch the place at the Church of the Nativity where Jesus is said to have been born. The woman is frail and seems somewhat confused, yet the joy on her family’s face as they move her forward touches her and she smiles, too. “Once in your life you will be here,” I hear someone in the crowd say quietly.

In this land one sees synagogues, churches and mosques, often clustered together, and calls to prayer and the ringing of church bells rise over the sounds of buses, car horns, and conversation. On a warm evening as the sun begins to slant across the city, you could almost imagine that there is peace. You could almost forget that an ugly wall has risen in Jerusalem, a real, concrete wall, gray, not a metaphor.

In some cases, theology is being used to justify taking land, as if human rights is the least theological priority and land the greatest. But it would be facile of me to say that land doesn’t matter.

How can I say what it meant to see the location where Peter denied Jesus before the high priest? For me, it is one of the most moving moments in the gospels. Peter has vowed that he is willing to follow Jesus anywhere, even if it costs him his life. Yet now Jesus is accused and when Peter is questioned about being seen with him, three times he insists that he doesn’t know Jesus. Three times. It is dawn. Somewhere a rooster crows. Jesus looks at Peter. And Peter weeps.

Now it is 2,000 years later and in the late afternoon sun, I sit on a ledge over the site where Peter denied Jesus, and I hear children playing at an apartment building below me. Firecrackers go off in the distance, most likely celebrating a wedding. A dog barks.

I turn to go, then I look back one last time. It happened here, I think. Farther on, I can see the wall of the Old City, and across a valley, the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane. So much history. So much passion. I turn to go. It happened here, but Peter and Jesus are not here. 

This is a deep place. Like everyone, I wish for peace in this land. I don’t have the answers. But walls do not bring peace. They never have. We know this.


Stop the Occupation in Three Languages

The Women in Black* carry signs in three languages: Hebrew, Arabic, and English. In each language the message is the same: “Stop the Occupation,” printed across signs cut in the shape of a raised hand with palm open, the gesture indicating “stop.” When I asked Gila, a leader of the group, how long they have been demonstrating on a street corner in Jerusalem, she replied, “Twenty-four years.” And the counter-demonstrators across the street? “Six months,” she said.

A young woman stopped to argue with Gila. They were arguing in Hebrew and in their impassioned conversation, I understood only one word, “democratic.” Suddenly I noticed that one of the the men in the counter demonstration had crossed the street and was standing directly in front of some of my fellow students, individually snapping their photos. When he came to me, I dodged his camera several times, but he continued to stand directly in front of me, trying to get my photo until finally I asked, “Why are you taking my photograph?” He snapped it at that moment and replied, “For Facebook, to go on a page of shame. You are a Nazi.” He said this with utter conviction.

I was completely taken aback, too stunned to answer. We had learned in our readings for the course that criticism of Israeli policies regarding Palestinians may be interpreted as being against Israel and against Jews. But “Nazi” is a word I had never expected to hear applied to me. It didn’t matter that several of the Women in Black we were standing with are Jewish. After my initial shock, I realized that the man’s use of the term was meant to be provocative and that it reveals the level of intensity in this conflict.

“Oh, I’m sure my face is on many pages all over the place,” Gila said, when I told her what had happened. Yet for 24 years these women have stood here every Friday to say, “Stop.” Stop the occupation, the human rights abuses of Palestinians. I wondered where they found the endurance to continue. I wondered what their stand might have cost them in terms of relationships with friends and family. But there was no time to ask. A police officer had arrived and wished to speak with Gila, called to the scene when one of the counter demonstrators came over and grabbed a sign away from one of the Women in Black and appeared to be trying to provoke her into a confrontation.

We had been in Jerusalem for only a couple of hours. Although our readings for the course had prepared us for the layers of conflict that exist here, seeing interactions between Israelis who have taken different positions on the occupation of Palestinian territories was a different kind of education, one that became concrete in the faces of women and men and young people, all standing passionately in support of their views.


*Please see the previous post by Pamela Cook for more information on the organization, Women in Black.


Preparing for the Trip: The Ear (and Eye?) of the Heart

As I think about landing in Tel Aviv next week, I am both concerned and excited about being so far from home. I am concerned because I think about a family member or two who are going through difficult times and how I don’t want them to feel I am distant. I also think about how last summer I began to have a longing to visit Nazareth, which was not something I had ever thought about before. I had always hoped to go to Ireland someday, and this sudden longing to visit Nazareth surprised me. Finding out recently that our first two days will be spent there fills me with anticipation.

My greatest fear is that fatigue may prevent me from being as present as I want to be. It hurts my pride to even say so, as I used to run and hike long distances, but I am recovering from some health issues and I don’t have a lot of stamina. I think I can manage this by making an effort to get a good night’s rest, and finding some moments here or there for quietness. I want to be present and engaged throughout the trip.

My purpose in participating is to learn about the experiences of people in this region that is so dense with history and conflict. I hope to gain a sense of how people are working for reconciliation in a situation that is so complex and has many layers.

The parts of myself that I would bring and that I would leave behind: I would bring along my sensitivity and my capacity for listening. “Listen with the ear of your heart” is a Benedictine precept that I have tried to follow for some years, and I hope to bring that sense to this trip. The part of myself I would leave behind is that I sometimes have a quickness to judge things. I like to get to the heart of matters and I sometimes perceive explanations for why things are the way they are as obfuscations. Again, I need to listen with the ear of my heart, and to expand on the Benedictine thought, to see with the eye of my heart.

I am hoping to receive from others openness and a willingness to see me above all as a fellow human being rather than to view me as the politics and policies of a nation. I am hoping to extend to others this same openness.

— Kathryn