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The Voices of Israel and Palestine

I’ve just returned from an 11-day trip to the Holy Land, which was a collaboration among RCA Women’s Transformation and Leadership, RCA missionaries Sally and Josh Vis, and PhD candidate and RCA minister Dustyn Keepers. We climbed Mt. Arbel and walked the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem. We visited archaeological sites of Qumran and Magdala. We waded into the waters of the Jordan River, sailed the Sea of Galilee and floated in the Dead Sea. We opened our hearts and our minds as we listened to the stories shared by Palestinians, Israelis and foreigners who live and work in Israel and Palestine.

Stories became a central theme of this trip.  Being invited into the sacred space of storytelling by those who live the conflict in Israel and Palestine every day was a gift to us as Americans. We had the privilege of listening to numerous speakers as they discussed their lives in Israel and Palestine—the histories of the Israeli and the Palestinian peoples, the histories of their persecution and oppression, the intense hardships of the current day occupation and ongoing conflict. But, in the midst of so much pain and loss, they also shared their hopes, their desire for peace and reconciliation, and their ideas about how to end the conflict and heal the wounds of the past and present reality.

In eleven short days, we listened to the stories of the following people:

·       A British journalist who guided us through the streets of Nazareth and took us to the destroyed Palestinian village of Saffuriya

·       A Palestinian who opened a cultural café in old town Nazareth

·       An Israeli Jewish peace activist who was imprisoned for refusing to serve her mandatory military service

·       An American Jew who moved to Israel Palestine due to the Zionist movement, but now works for a peace organization

·       A Palestinian activist and tour guide who took us through a guided tour of East Jerusalem

·       A British lawyer and a Palestinian activist who explained the military courts, took us on a tour of one of the military court sites and translated as several family members of Palestinians, who had court appointments that day, shared their stories

·       A Palestinian Christian and a Jew from South Africa who have lived in Israel for many years, shared stories of the deaths of their loved ones due to the conflict and shared about their reconciliation work between Palestinians and Israelis

·       A Jewish journalist, originally from Iran, but now with Israeli citizenship, shared her story as a Mizrahi Jew

All of the stories were compelling and I am grateful to all of those who invited us into their lives through  their storytelling. At the same time, I had a growing sense of frustration and restlessness as I looked around at the faces of the people we saw in Israel Palestine. I began lamenting the voices and the stories we were not listening to. I would have liked to have heard stories from:

·       Ethiopian Jews (a population of approximately 140,000) who remain one of the most marginalized groups in the region, despite having Israeli citizenship and serving their mandatory military conscription

·       Bedouin (a population of approximately 200,000) whose way of life as a nomadic people has been severely impacted by the creation of the modern State of Israel and Palestine. Like Palestinians, the Bedouins have had much of their land confiscated by the State of Israel. They are not considered an indigenous people by Israel, thus they are not granted the right to statehood, access to water, electricity and other vital infrastructure. Bedouins are also not granted the right to prior and informed consent before the State of Israel comes to their villages to demolish them.

·       Druze (a population of approximately 138,000) are an ethno-religions group of Arab descent who practice a monotheistic religion with elements of Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and Greek philosophy intertwined. The Druze fought alongside the Jews during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Despite their past loyalties to Israeli Jews, the Druze have been subjected to discrimination and annexation of their land by the State of Israel.

·       Samaritans (a population of approximately 400) have held a unique position in Israel and Palestine as they are the only group of people to hold Israeli and Palestinian identity cards and have—for the most part—avoided the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

·       Christians living in Israel and Palestine  (Christians in the region number approximately 175,000, or 2% of the population, but represent many different Christian denominations). While we had the opportunity to listen to the stories of a few Arab or Palestinian Christians, we did not, for example, listen to the stories of Coptic Christians from Ethiopia or Eritrea.

·       African asylum seekers (a population of approximately 40,000) have been labeled as “infiltrators” by the current Israeli government and in 2018, the government attempted to rid Israel of these asylum seekers with a plan that gave asylum seekers three months to either voluntarily leave Israel and return to Africa, or be imprisoned for an undetermined amount of time. Israel is one of the countries that signed both the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol, yet they still do not have a legal system in place to accept refugees or process asylum claims from those who meet the legal definitions of refugees and asylum seekers as defined by the United Nations and the signatories of the two documents listed above.

These are some of the stories that are often missing when we, as global citizens analyzing the ongoing conflict in Israel and Palestine seek information or attempt to form opinions on the situation there. Perhaps, these are the stories we should be listening to, creating space for and honoring, as it becomes increasingly important that we stop viewing the conflict in such dichotomous terms as Israel vs. Palestine or Muslims vs. Jews. If there is any hope for a solution to the conflict in this region that creates safety and security for all, we must figure out viable ways to have more voices at a common table.

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