By Lowell Brown
A month ago I was privileged to visit Israel and Palestine for the first time. I went to learn about the Israel-Palestine conflict. Instead, I learned about the United States. That place, seven hours ahead of my home time, made me feel like I was living in an America past.
When I rode past the security barrier separating Israel from the land outside, I wondered about the origins of Wall Street in New York City. When I saw Palestinians get off the bus at a checkpoint to have their documents reviewed while the border guard hopped on the bus to glance at my U.S. passport, I couldn’t help thinking of Rosa Parks. When I heard stories of how Palestinians lost their homes to demolitions, evictions, arson and unemployment, I thought about the Lenape who used to live where I live in central Pennsylvania—but over the course of decades were pushed to reservations in Oklahoma.
The guns are different, the land is different, but the ideologies are the same. People with power—people like me—use any means to take what we want. We talk a good line about laws and rights, but deep down we’re selfish, and fearful. We’re afraid of strangers, afraid of scarcity, afraid of death, and we do everything in our power to keep those fears at bay.
Israel also reminds me of America present. It is a vibrant, democratic society, with amazing cultural and educational institutions. But when I saw Bedouins, who were Israeli citizens, deprived of the public water that ran right past their door, I thought about sub-par schools and missing medical services in many poor U.S. neighborhoods.
In the U.S., as in Israel, human need is politicized. Contested. Justified. Ignored. People like me can pick and choose who we care about. We don’t have time to engage issues that don’t affect us. The world is full of problems. Someone else will figure it out; it will turn out okay in the end.
As my interfaith delegation talked to Palestinians and Israelis, I heard several themes emerge. The Israel-Palestine conflict is too big for any one person to solve, and yet I have come back with a few modest proposals to change myself.
- On the rare occasion that I have a conversation with someone who doesn’t agree with my values, I resolve to say what I think. As Protestant pastor Martin Niemöller said following World War II, “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist….” Or, as the New York gay rights group Act Up succinctly proclaimed in the 1980s, “Silence = Death.”
- Many people who my Christian Peacemaker Teams delegation met encouraged us to write to our U.S. senators and representatives. I admit that I often think the U.S. political process is unwieldy and ineffective. But if people in Palestine and Israel see the U.S. Congress as a way for their voices to be heard, then I will write. I used a link at the bottom of http://mcc.org/get-involved/advocacy/alert/stand-solidarity-susiya. The automatically generated letters (which reference a beleaguered Palestinian village we visited) can be edited.
- Finally, I’ve been thinking about the young settlers pictured here, walking to Friday evening Shabbat services in Hebron. They carry guns as they pass Palestinian women, who have been given a court order that allows them to use the same road because they live nearby. These young men don’t think of themselves as oppressors, or their home as stolen land. They’re just kids who grew up in Hebron. This is the only reality they know.
In the same way, my people have been in Lancaster County for more than a dozen generations. I don’t have any memory of pushing Indians out of Pennsylvania, or trying to make them Christian at the Carlisle Indian School. I just grew up enjoying the wealth that comes from land my people acquired in a variety of questionable, devious and disgusting ways. So I’m thinking about what my responsibility is to Native Americans.
If I don’t want to be like these kids, what do I owe to the Lenape?