Thursday, January 17, 2008

Hope, Not Hate

January 10, 2008
Non-Religious Persons.

“In the morgue that night, I looked down on the broken body of my 14-year-old daughter, and I knew that my whole world had been blown up into a million pieces.”

“They released my 18-year-old brother a few days ahead of his one-year sentence for throwing stones at soldiers. During the first few days of holding him, the soldiers beat a confession out of him. The damage those beatings did to his kidneys and spleen was such as to kill him.

The Israeli officials didn’t want him to die in prison so they released him early. He died three days after we got him home. I was ten-years-old, and from that day forward I began taking lessons in how to hate the Israelis.”

The first man is an Israeli Jew; the second is a Palestinian Muslim. Neither considers himself to be “religious,” but both are strongly connected to their ethnic and cultural ancestry – “non-religious person” is the term they use of themselves.

When they talk of each other though, they use the word “brother” - “My brother” this, and “my brother” that. They are brothers who are related through bloodshed, and the shared suffering and pain that comes with it.

Rami, the Israeli, said, “After the 7-day mourning period was over and the thousands of supporters left, I was faced with two choices: I could seek revenge, ‘an eye for an eye,’ or I could avenge my daughter's death by working to end this foolish shedding of blood. I chose to work for peace and reconciliation. If I kill someone else, does that bring her back? – NO! So I will not seek to kill, but rather I will seek to save.”

Aziz, the Palestinian, said, “For most of my life I learned how to hate. Then I went to a Hebrew class and in the class I was forced to speak to my classmates who were Jewish. I found that I had a lot in common with some of them, that I even liked them. One of them loved country music, something I could never hope to find in the Palestinian community. Then I was faced with two choices: I could continue to feed my hatred toward the Jewish people, or I could let myself love them. I chose love.”

Rami lost his daughter in 1997 when two Palestinian suicide bombers blew themselves up in Ben Yehuda Square, one of the most popular gathering places in West Jerusalem – think ‘Main Street” USA. Israeli soldiers literally beat Aziz’s brother to death. Yet, these two men are brothers bound together by shared pain and loss. They clearly love each other and want something better for their part of the world than what they now have. The good news is that they believe it can happen. They work to make it happen. And they refuse to give up hope that one day it will happen.

The organization they work with is called “Bereaved Families Supporting Peace, Reconciliation & Tolerance." What they do for the cause of reconciliation is staggering, and yet Rami said: “It is like trying to take water out of the sea with a tiny spoon that has holes in it. Still we keep trying.”

In the early morning of this day, I led a group of ten Western Seminary students, along with their theology professor, on the Via Dolorosa walk (the Way of Suffering). We stopped by every one of the 14 Stations of the Cross and read the scriptures that related. Later that morning we went on a tour with ICAHD, the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions. It was a cold, sobering trip around the highways and byways of Jerusalem.In the afternoon we visited Yad Vashem, the Israel Holocaust Museum. It was a cold, sobering trip down one of history's darkest memory lanes.

We were one emotionally whipped bunch of Jesus followers. Then Aziz and Rami showed up and told us their stories. We wept with them, a welcome release of a ton of emotional energy that had been stored up throughout the day. Later, one of the students sobbed as she described the sadness and anger she felt about what she had seen in the course of the day. Good tears though.As I thanked Rami and Aziz for coming, telling them that they were just what we needed after such a heavy day, Rami smiled, squeezed my arm, and said, “You needed a little hope, didn’t you?”

“Yes,” I said.“That’s what we try to bring to people, a little hope.”Brother Aziz added, “And if what we bring to people prevents the shedding of even one drop of blood, then we are happy.” I expect this makes God happy as well.Pretty good stuff from a couple of non-religious persons, huh? Kind of sounds like the Gospel, doesn't it? That's because it is the Gospel. Surprises us to hear the Gospel coming out of the mouths of non-religious persons, doesn't it? But isn't it a nice surprise?

Come on now, you don't think religious persons are the only ones through whom God can speak, do you? Well if you do, come to Jerusalem and I'll introduce you to Rami and Aziz and let you think again.

[With thanks to Marlin (Sally) Vis, from his Journal, January 10, 2008. and JRK]

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Can You Believe Olmert?

Believing Olmert
By Gideon Levy
Ha'aretz -- Sunday -
January 13, 2008

After listening to many of his statements, some of them very impressive, one comes to recognize that Ehud Olmert perhaps truly desires peace with the Palestinians. The fact that he has not zigzagged, not even once, that he only reiterates the same things, speaking like Uri Avnery (even if 40 years late), that he does not backtrack or stutter - only reinforces this feeling.

It is permissible, therefore, to succumb to the temptation and believe that the man who told Haaretz on November 28, "two states, or Israel is finished," indeed has undergone a profound change. However, there's a catch: This welcome change of consciousness has not yet been accompanied by any practical action.

The settlements are flourishing, 10,000 Palestinian prisoners are rotting in prisons, Gaza is starved and blacked-out, Shin Bet security service investigators are torturing, the checkpoints incarcerating and the acacias blooming in the territories. The conclusion: Olmert wants, but is unable. Or perhaps he wants, but is afraid. The common explanation: If he takes any practical step to implement his intentions, his government will collapse immediately. Olmert is imprisoned in his impossible coalition. If he only dares to do something, Avigdor Lieberman and Eli Yishai will quit, and Olmert will be left without parliamentary support.

Well, this is an illusion. Olmert's first test, if he survives Winograd, is to dismantle the coalition that is blocking him. He has a suitable alternative: Meretz instead of Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu, for a total of 60 Knesset seats. Another historic effort to bring the Arab factions into the government would create a stable coalition of 70 seats. A coalition that allows you to make peace. This step is not devoid of risks.

This type of coalition is liable to be fragile - what will Shaul Mofaz do? How will the Pensioners vote? And it is doubtful whether the Arabs would join. Perhaps they only would provide support from the outside. This coalition would also take a barrage of sharp public criticism. But someone who speaks in terms of "Israel is finished" cannot allow himself - or us - the luxury of preserving his cozy, safe and paralyzing coalition while Israel continues to slide toward the denouement he himself has envisioned.

How can Olmert himself rationalize his inaction in light of such a terrifying vision? He failed to save the state because of Lieberman? He did nothing because of Yishai? Enough of the futile courting of Lieberman, enough of fearing Yishai to the point of mobilizing the U.S. president to lobby them. The time has come to show the refusers of peace the door.

"Courage to Change before the Calamity" wrote Yitzhak Ben-Aharon in "Lamerchav" in January 1963 in another context, and never has this mighty and archaic sentence sounded more fitting and relevant. Yes, mister prime minister, courage to change before the calamity, which you yourself have so clearly foreseen. And this courage starts with dismantling your government and forming a different government instead, one that is more in tune with your views.

With such a coalition and with the determination Olmert expressed in his speeches, an assault could be mounted toward the political goal. Thousands of prisoners could be freed, changing at once the atmosphere in the relations with the Palestinians. A voluntary evacuation-compensation bill could be passed, outposts could be dismantled, funding for the settlements could be halted and the long journey of extracting the most dangerous abscess of all from the territories could begin.

The siege on Gaza could be lifted, and Hamas could be called upon to join the process, which would only benefit the miserable residents of the Strip. And it would even be possible to curry favor in the eyes of U.S. President George W. Bush, something that is of excessive importance, unfortunately, for the prime minister.

A new government in Israel, whose establishment would underline the seriousness of its intentions to generate a real change in direction, would herald a historic turning point. Olmert would take a risk upon himself in forming it, but what does he have to lose? What is the alternative? To survive another year, to make lofty speeches, to flatter Bush, to sit idly and go down in history as a footnote between one calamity and another? Now is the time and this is the step: a peace government for Israel.