Israel

Messenger of Peace

For years, Yousef Bashir was a prisoner in his own home. He and his family suffered the indignity of having Israeli soldiers occupy their house in Gaza. At age 15, Yousef was shot by an Israeli soldier and continues to live with bullet fragments in his back nearly a decade later. Yet through all this, Yousef has become a messenger of peace.

Check out “Profiles in Courage” (Sojourners, February 2014), where Jim Rice shares Yousef’s remarkable story of reconciliation. The video below also features Yousef’s hopes for peace between Israel and Palestine.

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Moriel Rothman's Spoken Word Poetry

It’s not every day you hear a peacemaker admit to being drawn to violence. But that’s exactly what happens in “Confessions of a Violent Peacemaker” (Sojourners, February 2014), as Moriel Rothman—an Israeli-American resister—writes candidly about his spiritual journey to eschew violence. After nearly a decade of wrestling with his “peacemaker-soldier-student dilemma,” Rothman finds peace with himself by refusing to serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Read more of his story here.

Also, listen to Rothman recite spoken word poetry about his decision to not serve in the IDF.

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Profiles in Courage

Yousef Bashir: Victim of violence, advocate for nonviolence. Photo courtesy of Northeastern University

THE ULTIMATE BRAVERY might well be the courage to forgive one’s enemies and hold on to hope.

Nelson Mandela famously emerged from 27 years in prison as a reconciler and uniter, somehow free from bitterness and hatred. He was able to put into practice Jesus’ call to love our enemies—and thus became the father of the new South Africa.

Far from the upper echelons of power and fame, forgiving our enemies can be a difficult task, since “enemies,” by their very definition, aren’t easy to love. But in places of oppression, occupation, and routine violence, it’s even harder.

Take, for example, the story of a young man named Yousef Bashir. He grew up in the Gaza Strip, near an Israeli settlement known as Kfar Darom. In 2000, Palestinians rose up in protest against the Israeli occupation in what became known as the Second Intifada. In response, Israeli soldiers came to Yousef’s house and told his family to leave.

His father had dedicated his life to teaching Yousef and his brothers “how to coexist with the Israelis,” Yousef explained over lunch in Philadelphia early this winter, and he insisted on staying in their long-time family home. As a result, Yousef said, Israeli soldiers moved into the Bashir family’s house when he was 11 years old. They occupied the house until he was 15.

“Every night the soldiers would come down, gather the whole family, and put us in the living room,” Yousef said. “Then they locked the door—sometimes for days or weeks. I had to ask the soldiers for permission to go to the bathroom and the kitchen. I was imprisoned in my own living room.”

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Confessions of a Violent Peacemaker

What a relief it would be to dwell in [faith] communities where we acknowledge our shadows in a healthy acceptance of ourselves as containers of all the opposites! It may prove beneficial to be forced to face, daily, the humiliating fact that some of us are no less violent than those whose policies we oppose.

—Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers

I AM A conscientious objector, and I am drawn to violence. My attraction to violence is both innate and learned. When something frightens me, my hands clench into fists. When something angers me, I want to inflict pain upon that thing. But a person cannot inflict pain upon a thing, so I seek out those whom I deem responsible for said thing and my desire to inflict pain upon a thing morphs into a desire to do violence to another person. Since I was a child, I have fantasized about using violence to stop what I see as bad and thereby become good.

It is from this point—from these fantasies of righteous violence—that I begin this essay on my journey to principled nonviolence and conscientious objection. This is a story of change and choice, but it is not a story of transformation: I am who I have always been.

In fall 2012, I spent three weeks in Israeli military prison for refusing to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces. (Every Israeli citizen, except for the ultra-Orthodox and Palestinian citizens of Israel, must serve in the military.) My sentence was brief, but the process that brought me to the prison’s gates took almost a decade.

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Pope to Visit the Holy Land, But Details Spark Debate

Maysa Al Shaer via Wikimedia Commons/RNS
Overlooking view of Bethlehem, photo courtesy of Maysa Al Shaer via Wikimedia Commons/RNS

Christmas is the one time each year when much of the world turns its gaze to Bethlehem, the West Bank town at the heart of the Gospel account of Jesus’ humble birth in a stable.

But Bethlehem may be in for a second round of global publicity in the span of a few months with the expected visit of Pope Francis in May.

In an interview earlier this month, Francis confirmed rumors that he planned to travel to the Holy Land — probably stopping at sites in Jordan, Israel and the West Bank in the Palestinian territories — and said preparations were underway.

Then last week the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, the top Catholic official in the region, revealed that the visit was set for May.

Given the political and religious combustibility that attends almost any event in the Holy Land, a papal trip was bound to be fraught and a debate over the visit quickly erupted as Israeli newspapers reported that the preliminary itinerary for Francis’ pilgrimage has him spending just one full day in Israel proper — probably arriving in Jordan on Saturday, May 24, traveling to Israel on Sunday morning, then celebrating Mass in Bethlehem on Monday before heading back to Rome.

Pax on Both Their Houses

EVERY SO often an extraordinary book appears with potential to bring change—or at least advance justice by mitigating nationalism or prejudice. Rabbi Michael Lerner’s Embracing Israel/Palestine: A Strategy to Heal and Transform the Middle East is such a book. The appeal is clear: Be both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli and pray for the best for each.

The book is a gut-wrencher as it describes the results of cyclical violence and reaction that fuels descent into paralyzing trauma and anger for both Arabs and Israelis.

Lerner, an advocate for Middle East justice and founder of Tikkun magazine, speaks truth about the human-made tragedy of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. His transformative counsel about what people and nations can do to participate positively is desperately needed. Social justice advocates have been offered a candid and honest reprise of the tragic thinking and actions of oppressed people who should have known better than to visit the same on “the other.”

Lerner’s way toward peace is grounded in many years of living in and traveling to Israel/Palestine, loving the two protagonists equally, and constantly exploring his and others’ souls. In spite of the victimizing and traumatizing of both Jews and Arabs, he remains hopeful. Embracing makes for a compelling and even inspiring read. I devoured most of it in two sittings, captivated by Lerner’s vision.

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Saving 40,000 Lives in Under 3 Minutes

How can we save 40,000 lives in under three minutes?

That question served as the provocative title of Israeli medic Eli Beer's TEDMED talk. Beer is the founder and president of Israel-based United Hatzalah (which is Hebrew for "rescue"), a rapid response team of 2,000 skilled volunteers — EMTs who range professionally from "expensive lawyers to people who sell fish or shoes," he said to CNN Health.

Beer answered his question this way, "The average response time of a traditional ambulance is 12 to 15 minutes — we reduce it to less than three minutes. Our response is the fastest in the world. We call our approach a lifesaving flash mob. On motorcycles, traffic doesn't stop us. Nothing does."

The Peace Process

Dome of the Rock and Western Wall, Ryan Rodrick Beiler / Shutterstock.com
Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock and Western Wall, Ryan Rodrick Beiler / Shutterstock.com

What do you do with critical information on intractable justice issues when reputation, methods, or prevailing propaganda make it difficult for people to believe the truth? How does one find ways to strengthen the fragile line between democracy and the lurking dark social disorder? Limiting or reversing anarchy in the U.S. and abroad may depend on finding ways to persuade and protect the common good.

A current question is in regard to the 20-year Oslo peace process (which was to be completed with separate States after 5 years). When it failed, its successor peace plans promised to bring flourishing democracy and a just peace that would hold back the winds of war and be good for Israelis as well as Palestinians.

The strategy of negotiations with prolonged periods of stalling has only widened the occupation and allowed Israel to strengthen its hold on Palestinian property. It has been conquest by a 1,000 cuts on people (1,500 Israelis and 15,000 Palestinians dead), as well as uprooted trees and bulldozed property. Less than 10 percent of 1967 war land area of Palestine is fully controlled by the Palestinian Authority. It is as though a volcanic cloud blocks the sun. Even with Secretary of State John Kerry’s vigorous efforts to diminish the rumblings and forestall an eruption, those who assure us there are signs of hope declare time is growing mercilessly short.

U.S. Jews Diverge on Israel: Strong Ties Despite Disagreements

Members and supporters of Women of the Wall pray with prayer shawls at the Western Wall. RNS photo by Michele Chabin.

Where once it seemed that uncritical devotion to Israel was the norm for U.S Jews, that Zionism and Judaism were hand-in-glove, new research finds that’s not the case today — if it ever was.

The Pew Research Center’s newly released, comprehensive Portrait of Jewish Americans not only delved into myriad ways people identify as Jews, it also probed their emotional connection and their theological and political ideas about the Jewish state.

A Dogged Pursuit of Middle East Peace

A young woman prays for peace at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Photo by Christine M. Anderson

GEORGE MITCHELL, the former U.S. senator who famously brokered peace in Northern Ireland, knows the path to peace is unpredictable. “Until it happens,” he said, “you can’t predict with certainty. ... You can’t take ‘no’ for an answer. ... You just have to keep at it until peace is achieved.”

After five years of stalled Middle East peace talks, Secretary of State John Kerry lured Israeli and Palestinian negotiators back to the peace table in July. Sadly, my desk is littered with articles by naysayers who seem more than willing to “take ‘no’ for an answer” when it comes to peace in the Holy Land.

Naysayers point to the expansion of Jewish settlements and the political power of Israeli hawks, as well as the divisions in Palestinian society that convince them there is “no true partner for peace.” Certainly years of disappointments and failed negotiations offer ample cause for skepticism.

But I agree with Faisal Abbas, who suggests that cynicism is a lazy option we can’t afford. “Negotiations may succeed or fail to achieve peace,” he writes, “but the alternative (not having these negotiations) is guaranteed to fail.”

He is not alone. For every pundit preaching pessimism, I find another betting on hope. “The deal is still workable. It is still politically viable,” writes Ben Birnbaum in The New Republic. He notes an increasing willingness to compromise in both Israeli and Palestinian public opinion, Kerry’s tenacity, as well as Arab League support for the peace process.

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