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Otherworldly peace in a land of conflict

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“Never, never, never! We will never leave.”

Those words burned into my heart during Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) B.C.’s Palestine-Israel learning tour, Mar. 17–28, 2012. They had exploded at us from the lips of Ardie Geldman, a representative of the Israeli settler movement in the West Bank. “We will never leave.”

It wasn’t difficult to believe him.

Ardie was one of a score of groups and individuals our MCC guides introduced us to. He was to give us the settler’s take on the fortified Jewish towns being built in the West Bank. Ardie told us that, as a delegated spokesman for the settlers, he speaks to many “liberal Christian groups,” and that he was not impressed with the presuppositions we brought with us.

The learning tour’s purpose was to give us an understanding of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as well as MCC’s 60 years of involvement there. Although I follow the news, I was still not prepared for the barrage of conflicting messages we would hear.

Ardie’s narrative is built on the horror of the Holocaust. Jewish people must never again be without a land of refuge. He saw his mission clearly: on behalf of his race, he was ensuring a safe haven for Jews in a hostile world. Canadian and U.S. Jews, living in their comfortable suburbs, might not understand the settlements, but that only made his passion stronger. Others could argue fine points of international law; he knew his place.

On the other hand, from Palestinians we heard, “We will return! We will never relinquish the lands of our ancestors.” It was the counterpoint to Ardie’s declaration. It was made with equal intensity and determination.

This was also easy to believe.

Competing narratives

The Palestinian narrative is built on the stories of displaced and mistreated Palestinians. It is symbolized by the keys they carry with them – keys to the homes from which they have been evacuated since 1948. Keys, both symbolic and real, were everywhere.

And the displacement is not just historical. A program of demolition of Palestinian homes has flattened thousands in the past decade, with no intention to stop. On one occasion, we stood in fresh ruins with a father and his young daughter. It was heartbreaking.

I suggested to Ardie that, on the MCC learning tour, I felt like Solomon looking into the eyes of two mothers claiming ownership of the same baby. He knew the story and argued that it didn’t apply. I had to clarify: “But that’s how it feels to me – and I’m not Solomon.” There was no doubt he knew he was the “true mother of the living child.”

I also asked one of our Palestinian presenters what the plan would be if the occupation never ended, if the land were not returned. After all, I noted, the history of this part of the world tends to measure its occupations in multiples of centuries rather than years or decades. That question did not work for him either. His look suggested that I not follow it up.

Further complications

Reconciling the conflicting visions of Israeli settlers and displaced Palestinians would be overwhelming if nothing else were on the table, but that isn’t the case.

The tension of waiting for an Israeli/U.S. response to the Iranian nuclear program hung in the air.

“Arab Spring” is not an idyllic image there. To the north in Syria, an active insurgency rages. To the south in Egypt, the results of insurgency are mixed at best.

And the long-standing tensions within Islam, between the Shiite and Sunni, are never far below the surface.

As difficult as the two Jewish and Palestinian narratives are to reconcile, they are not the only stories in the Palestine-Israel conflict.

Resulting gratefulness

So what did I come away with?

I came away deeply grateful for the 60 years MCC has invested in Palestine/Israel and the insights that rise from that. Jesus came with the message, “my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives…” (John 14:27). This is the message we are told to offer. We are also told to offer it in places where there is no peace and no prospect for peace. The deep credibility of MCC in this region of conflict is something I’m very proud to be associated with.

Do I understand the Palestinian-Israeli conflict better for this learning tour? Yes, to the extent that I came away overwhelmed by complexity I didn’t have to face before going there. I think that is a gift, and I am thankful for it. After all, Jesus preached and healed in a Palestine-Israel just as broken as it is today. We need to be there.

—James Toews is pastor at Neighbourhood Church, Nanaimo, B.C.

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