Our journey has ended and we’re all back home in the US. It’s only been a few days but I’ve been in touch with some companions and we’re all struggling with re-entry. It’s nice to be home, and those of us with spouses, kids and grandkids are happy to be reunited. But some of us feel bereft of our time together – it was intense and intimate for 2 weeks – and our experiences there. It’s early days but on the whole, I’d rather be in Palestine at the moment.
It wasn’t a “holiday” and it wasn’t even what I would call “fun” most of the time. We certainly had laughs (and plenty of wine) but fun isn’t what it’s like to be with so many people suffering and so much pain.
But we didn’t go to have fun. We went to learn and see and listen and experience and stand up against what we all believe is a great wrong occurring and for those there who are engaged every day in it. We didn’t want to go bubble-wrapped in our white privileged perspective, to the limited extent we could step out of that.
We planned the whole journey, we made all the arrangements, we did not have a guide and we followed an itinerary that we hoped would bring us right up against what is happening. It was not a holy land visit. The only times that even came close to that were visiting the Ibrahimi Mosque/Cave of the Patriarchs synagogue in Hebron and our private Way of the Cross along Via Dolorosa but using a liturgy that contemporized the walk for a Palestinian Theology of Liberation. We often used public transportation and we stumbled and fumbled our way along. We were often tired, dirty, thirsty and disheveled.
This is not a paean to our foreign magnificence and generosity. We were not either of those things. But we were sincere and as intentional as we could be to look for truth, walk right up to it and look it in the eye. Sometimes that was affirming and sometimes it was awkward and uncomfortable and even hurtful for some of us.
But there were magnificence and generosity during our time there in the heroes that we met. And we met plenty. Nawwal, a woman from a small village near Hebron who knew early on in her life that she honored what was to be her expected role of wife, mother and housekeeper, but also gave expression to something in her that was ambitious, clever, and resourceful, so she started a women’s sewing cooperative that now gives power to other women also. Issa, a man of about 30, husband and father, who works all the time at substantial risk to stand against injustice in his land. His heroism is in his courage but it’s also in the integrity of it, refusing to demonize or hate. I cried a lot in Palestine, usually in the presence of suffering but I also wept after our short time with Issa at the sheer enormity of his humanity. And the young Jews from Tel Aviv who go as often as they can to join the demonstration in Bil’in against the illegal appropriation of village land. It’s illegal for them to be there but they know wrong when they see it. They talked with wisdom beyond their years about their compulsory service in the IDF and how they hold that in perspective now that they’re older.
Bil’in is a West Bank village near the border with Israel. Several years ago the separation barrier came across the fields that villagers need for their work. Although it’s been declared illegal by the Israeli Supreme Court, the barrier still stands because “Security” trumps the law there. For several years, every Friday after prayers, there is a demonstration against the barrier. We joined them one day. We arrived a bit early, so Abdullah, one of the leaders, invited us into his home for tea and conversation. Abdullah has been in prison so much for his actions that once he was holding one of his children. She was asked who her father is and she pointed to a poster of him in the village and not to the man holding her.
The demonstration began and as the group of villagers and Israeli and foreign supporters walked toward the barrier, the IDF immediately shot a barrage of tear gas cannisters. An enourmous cloud was created that comes upon you quickly and invisibly. It hurts alot and makes it difficult to breathe. It’s hard not to panic. So it’s effective in disbursing the crowd. Still tearing and coughing, Iyad invited us to his home and from his roof we watched phase 2 of the process. Young Palestinian boys/men now get serious with the soldiers. Some throw stones (it carries a 20 year sentence for Palestinians) and shots are fired.
Iyad’s 16 year old son was shot in the leg during the demonstration some months ago and has residual nerve damage. Iyad didn’t want his other 15 year old son to join that day, as he normally would. We watched that younger son pacing on the rooftop, wanting to be with his mates and comrades. It was one of the revealing moments of the journey for me. His desire to resist, to join his brothers was organic; it came from a young but deep well of justice that he learned from his father and neighbors. It was not about violence or machismo, it was about defending his home and family. It was magnificent and generous.
In Bil’in that day I saw generosity and hospitality, courage, commitment, suffering, solidarity, injustice, violence and love. It was a living Gospel day.