Tears for Bethlehem by Jean White

Monday we visited Bethlehem, the city where Jesus was born.   It is governed by the Palestinian Authority in accordance with one of the many peace agreements negotiated of the recent past.  An 8 meter high wall separates the city from the rest of the West Bank.

 We spent some time in the Aida Refugee Camp,   listening to those who live there, visiting a community center, buying crafts made by the women of the camp and reading their stories. A man told us how difficult life is there; how all aspects of life is controlled by the Israelis and, that he was once jailed for 6 months for playing football with his brother after  a curfew.

We learned that Israeli soldiers at times break into their homes. There have been instances where mothers have been shot, as well as young boys. While there, an armored Israeli truck entered through an opening in the separation wall. Suddenly young boys were taunting the soldiers. There was a heightened sense of excitement as well as noise as the situation rapidly grew more intense. Our group was quickly whisked away by our guide.

Looking out on the camp from a roof top, it looked like a prison with the wall and several surveillance towers with machine gun stations.  And in fact, there are many of these located along the long stretches of the separation wall.

As we were leaving the city we heard two tear gas bombs explode and saw the smoke. It was reported that this happens around 4 PM almost daily as an act of intimidation towards the Palestinians. I felt sad as I prepared to leave Bethlehem. This was no longer the city of my childhood dreams of Bethlehem, the Christ child in the manager and the eager waiting for the magic of Christmas for a young girl, the singing of “ O ’Little Town of Bethlehem and “Away in a Manger”.   My beautiful Yuletide dream has changed. No longer the peaceful image of Christmas and the birth of Christ. It is now a walled prison where basic human rights are not available to its citizens, a place where Palestinians living there are not permitted to make the 6 mile journey to Jerusalem.

 As I walked along the wall on my way to the check point, where I was free to leave and journey to Jerusalem, I took notice of the graffiti and paintings on the wall along the way. One stood out for me.  It was a painting with these words of Scripture on it from II Corinthians:

                                “Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.”

I  hope for a day when there will be peace between Israel and Palestine.

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Slingshot by Luke Rembold

The young boy stood in the center of the road, his slingshot in his hand. Above him loomed the giant, a power that had defeated the boy’s fathers and grandfathers. Everyone else fell back behind the boy, fearful and scared to draw too close to the giant. Yet the boy stood his ground, calling out and jeering at his enemy.

Sound familiar?

David and Goliath, anyone?

The funny thing is, it is modern day Palestinians that are referred to as Philistines in the David and Goliath story of the Old Testament. And today, while in the Aida Refugee camp outside Bethlehem, I watched from a roof as a young boy played with a sling, aiming at telephone poles and streetlights, yelling out loud as he released stones at his targets. His actions gained the attention of the watchtower at the nearby security wall, and we watched as the gate was rolled open and an armored jeep began to roll out. The boy’s friends gained courage, still yelling and jeering at the Israeli Defense Force manning the jeep.

Our group was quickly herded to the bus, as our hosts were worried about our safety.

I worry for that boy. For Palestinians in occupied territories, resistance is life, and I applaud that young boy’s courage. Yet that boy will likely live his entire life in that refugee camp with no opportunity to leave, and in that situation, that frustration could turn into hatred. His heart could turn hard. How can he still have hope?

And what of those 19 and 20 year old young men and women of the Israeli Defense Force that are supposed to patrol that security wall and control the children? What of their hearts as they are charged with orders they may or may not want to carry out? How much of their fear turns into posturing with their guns and armored vehicles? What is happening to their hearts and their humanity?

The Old Testament David and Goliath had a clear winner. The modern-day story I saw today does not.

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Alternative Lyrics to Go Down Moses by Aric Clark

Leader:  When Israel was in Egypt land

People:  Let my people go!

Leader:  Oppressed so hard they could not stand

People:  Let my people go!

Refrain

Go down Moses way down in Egypt land

Tell all pharoes to let my people go

Leader:  “Thus sayeth the Lord,” bold Moses said
People:  Let my people go!
Leader:  “If not I’ll strike your first born dead.”
People:  Let my people go!

Refrain

Leader:  A cry was heard in Palestine
People:  Let my people go!
Leader:  Let no one say, “this land is mine.”
People:  Let my people go!

Refrain

Leader:  4,000 years they walked that road
People:  Let my people go!
Leader:  Now that way from Jericho is closed.
People:  Let my people go!

Refrain

Leader:  You can’t live with your West Bank wife
People:  Let my people go!
Leader:  And keep here the center of your life.
People:  Let my people go!

Refrain

Leader:  From men who held their dead child’s hand
People:  Let my people go!
Leader:  “Speak up for peace is our demand.”
People:  Let my people go!

Refrain

Leader:  Four times they wrecked their family home.
People:  Let my people go!
Leader:  Bedouin who cannot roam.
People:  Let my people go!

Refrain

Leader:  The people of Bil’in stand tall
People:  Let my people go!
Leader:  “Steadfast till you tear down that wall.”
People:  Let my people go!

Refrain

Leader:  Hey! All you Presbyterians
People:  Let my people go!
Leader:  Stop funding this occupation
People:  Let my people go!

Refrain

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Nothing Has Changed/Everything Is Different by Mark C. Johnson

So many things look familiar when I return to Palestine and Israel. This delegation has an ambitious agenda and is covering a good deal of territory. Friday we left Jerusalem for Nazareth and after visits in the Jordan Valley and a night in Bil’in we are on a short break in Ramallah before our drive to Bethlehem tonight. The roads are well trafficked. Stores in the town centers are busy. The group of 28 wanders off alone or in pairs for a couple of hours without concern, seeking out falafel, shawarma, fresh citrus, coffee. The pendulum seems to have swung to the time just before the first and the second intifada, frenetic but sober.

The holy sites have been refreshed for various celebrations, the Church of the Annunciation glows with a relatively new facade, hotels have been updated whether in East Jerusalem or Nazareth or Ramallah, streets bear Times Square like jumbotron advertising screens. Posters and graffiti are less common but still present.

The externalities reflect what Jonathan Cooke describes as a long term and largely uncontested Judaization of the nether reaches of the country. Enormous Israeli flags mark the entrances to Nazareth Illit or Moi’din Illit as well as to settlements in the West Bank and Jordan Valley. The wall, more seriously contested, especially where its 708km snaking through Samaria and Judea cut communities off from their cropland to further increase the footprint of illegal settlements, is a scar that has become all too familiar. Check points still operate like cattle pens, channeling movement through electronic sieves all day long, day after day. Jordan Valley kibbutz/settlements are surrounded by chain link fences with barbed wire coils, oases in cages.

The physical evidence of occupation are ever present and serve the slowly acculturated narrative of this 21st Century artifact of colonialism.

What is different is the conversation about where the resistance, the struggle for human rights and human dignity, stands today in terms of the way forward. Voices from three different communities seem to be moving toward a shared consensus, that of West Bank Palestinians and their families in the diaspora, that of Israeli allies working through awareness and advocacy collectives like ICAHD and the Boycott Within in Israel and their cognates abroad such as Jewish Voice for Peace, and Palestinian nationals living as citizens in Israel. There is a sense of a tipping point, a watershed.

The discourse over a Palestinian State has already abandoned the “two state solution” and is settling on a single state in which the struggle is for civil rights, equal access to societal resources including health, education, economic resources, mobility, full electoral participation and full municipal services (water, electricity, roads, garbage and waste disposal). The most blank statement of the position was offered by Sam Bahour in walking us through the analysis of his children and their peers at Bir Zeit University, or MIT, or the London School of Economics, or Hebrew University, Harvard, the Sorbonne, Al Quds: ” you win”. The 60+ years of conflict, occupation, cantonization, has convinced them that Israel has succeeded in acquiring full access and control of the land and peoples of this land from the Mediterranean to the Jordan, from Eilat to Nakourra.  Conceding that, the full responsibility for the people living under the State of Israel, as citizens or as occupied, will now seek for the full complement of civil and legal rights that come within a legitimate democratic state, without consideration for age, gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, national origin or religion.

Given the practices and legal constructs that discriminate against non-Jewish citizens of the current State of Israel, and some argued that similar discrimination’s are leveled against Jewish citizens who are not Orthodox Jews, no one is naive about the hurdles of extending the same rights to a fully annexed West Bank, Gaza and Golan Heights.   The thinking seems to be that as long as it may take (and for many this is on the order of decades not years) the moral clarity that has emerged from the last 65 years points to a struggle that is fundamentally about human rights comprehensively applied rather than about land ownership or ethnic identity. This is what is different.

We ended the day in Bethlehem receiving at just the right time in our journey, a refreshment of the call issued by our Palestinian brothers and sisters, and their beloved enemies, to be responsive to the moral, theological, political, economic and social imperatives that must be at the nexus of our faith, hope and love as Christians. Kairos Palestine issued in 2009 a statement from the 13 recognized Christian denominations to their compatriots urging patience, steadfastness and nonviolent resistance. Subsequently the statement was translated from Arabic and became the basis of a global discourse on the place of the indigenous Christian community in the future of Palestine and Israel. It continues to be an excellent resource for discussion groups and personal reflection.

The moment of Kairos, urgency and justice as a measure human accountability, may move at a different pace than our Gregorian calendar or Greenwich clock, but there is still an end time implicit in the counting of days, a time after which something that was still possible no longer is. Rifat Kassis’s growing fear is that the moment of the possibility of peace is passing, not just for the moment but forever.

This is what is different.

photo 1 photo 2 photo 1                photo 2

Mark C. Johnson

Bethlehem

January 13, 2014

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Yalla! By Rick Ufford-Chase

I remember one particular night in about 1990 on the US/Mexico border almost like it happened just  last month. The wars in El Salvador and Guatemala were almost over, though the death squads and paramilitary forces were still as brutal as ever in their repression. The flow of refugees escaping for their lives had slowed considerably, as the first wave of those targeted had mostly been killed or had already fled, and the Tucson refugee support group was smuggling a few of the remaining, high risk folks or their family members across the border each month, as opposed to the high numbers each week we had seen at the height of the US-backed wars earlier in the decade.

One night at about two a.m. we received a phone call at the house for young adult volunteers who worked in the church-based Sanctuary movement. One of the young women in our group was in northern Mexico, trying to bring a Salvadoran who had received a death threat and his wife and child north by bus through the US-funded checkpoints of northern Mexico that were trying to intercept Central American refugees before they could enter the United States to seek asylum.

All she had time to say from her pay phone in that tersely-worded phone call was “they checked the bus – we had to run – I’ll call you when I can.” We spent a sleepless night awaiting the next call, strategizing our next moves with too little information, second guessing the decisions we had made earlier, and sharing off-color humor in an unconscious attempt to blow off steam as we waited anxiously for news.

I thought about that night as we met earlier this week with a group of young, Jewish-Israeli activists who came to meet us in our hotel in East Jerusalem. They had an easy way with one another, with self-deprecating humor and thoughtful, honest analysis about their shortcomings. They were savvy and creative as they wondered what to do next to resist the violence of the Israeli Government in its unlimited construction of new Jewish Settlements and continued confiscation and/or destruction of Palestinian homes. It reminded me of our close friendships and camaraderie back in the dark days of our government’s complicity in the Central American Wars.

Like the Palestinians of Bil’in whom I met this week, these young Israelis know the personal costs of resisting the repression of the Israeli military occupation. One young woman served a prison sentence for refusing to serve in the military in the Occupation of the West Bank. Another, a musician, had his hand intentionally broken by Israeli police to keep him from drumming during a large demonstration of Jewish and Arab Israelis that took place to keep the Israeli Government from confiscating the homes of Palestinians in East Jerusalem and giving them to Jewish Settlers. All four have been arrested repeatedly, and each has dedicated his or her life to holding their government accountable for its illegal actions.

Those of us in the nonviolent, faith-based movement for justice in the US would do well to remember these acts of courage as we struggle with our own next steps. Too often we have found ourselves negotiating with the Capitol or Park police in Washington for an acceptable arrest. “You stand here,” we are told, “And we will arrest you when you cross this line.” In one demonstration I helped to plan against the war in Iraq, one of the officers helpfully brought signs across the street in front of the White House to hand to activists who wanted to be arrested but who weren’t carrying signs that made them arrestable. Plastic cuffs, a ride in the back of a paddy wagon to the police station, a few hours of inconvenience, a modest fine or a summons to court, and we’re back on the street and headed home.

Of course, not all the arrests have followed this pattern. Plenty of activists in the Occupy Movement pressed against real boundaries, and prisoners of conscience have served serious time in jail for demonstrating to close the school of the Americas. Code Pink has been leading our movement with great creativity for about a decade, and they have often taken serious risks. Environmentalists, often led by Native Americans, have walked and paddled thousands of miles to bring attention to environmental degradation that threatens us all. Still, it feels to me as if our movement in the US has been largely domesticated.

Jim Corbett, a mentor to many of us in the Sanctuary movement for Central American refugees, coined the term “Civil Initiative” to describe what happens when citizens take responsibility together to uphold human rights and international standards of law when their own government is breaking those standards. He believed that nonviolent direct action, grounded in communities that are open and transparent about their actions and deeply honest in holding one another accountable, is the best way to change entrenched, institutionalized, and government-sanctioned violence. “Be the Church,” Jim might say, “Don’t count on your governmental leaders to make choices that will honor your values for you.”

We in the United States are complicit in this Occupation. Our tax dollars support the Israeli government to the tune of four billion dollars a year, most of it paid for by contracts that come right back to defense companies and other corporations in our own country that profit from the Occupation. My pension is invested in companies like Motorola Solutions, Hewlett Packard, and Caterpillar which offer machinery and technology that has been evident as I have traveled throughout the West Bank.

We would do well to remember the price that those young Israeli activists have been willing to pay to hold their government accountable for the actions it is taking that violate basic human rights. We should ask ourselves what options Palestinians will have left without genuine solidarity in the international community from people like us if we choose not to take similar risks for a nonviolent resolution to this conflict.

Rifat Kassis, a personal friend and the coordinator of Kairos Palestine (a Christian Palestinian plea for action) told our group last night that he believes we are called to do this work not for him or for his people, but for our own souls as we seek to be faithful to the Gospel. Those moments of genuine risk twenty-five years ago remain the deepest moments of community, and of living my faith, that I have ever had. Hmm, perhaps a lesson for a church in decline?

 Yalla! Adelante! Loosely translated – “Let’s move!”

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Hardly Heroic by Aric Clark

Sitting in the top floor of the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center in Ramallah we listened to Omar Barghouti incisively dismantle our apathy. “In 2012 at the Presbyterian General Assembly we heard again and again how you have enough problems close to home to be dealing with and how can you possibly make a big impact on Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine? We’re not asking you to come here and fight the occupation for us. We’re only asking you to withdraw your support for oppression. It’s hardly heroic.”

Heroism is what they’re doing in the West Bank village of Bil’in. The Popular Committee of that community has been organizing weekly nonviolent direct-action for years. Every Friday they creatively demonstrate against the separation wall which cut their historic village land in half, confiscating arable land for Israeli settlers. They have dressed in costumes as historical figures known for their nonviolent resistance. They have assembled mock-barricades to impede Caterpillar bulldozers from tearing out ancient olive groves. They have put themselves in harm’s way again and again despite the fact that they are met every week by violent military suppression. People are severely injured, even put into a coma or killed by “rubber” bullets that are actually steel balls coated in a thin layer of rubber. They are sprayed with noxious chemicals that ruin clothing, beaten with batons, and bombarded with tear-gas. Even outside the demonstrations they are harassed in every conceivable way: nighttime raids, arrests without charges, detention without trials, steep fines, and curfews.

The community paid a high price in 2009 when one of their most beloved members, Bassem Abu Rahma, was shot in the chest by a metal tear gas canister designed to be launched over 500 meters through the air from about 20 meters. It tore a hole in his chest and killed him. Using these weapons directly on civilians in this manner is against international law, but no soldier has ever been convicted in Israeli court and no one in the international community is doing anything. That weapon, like all the others used to maintain the occupation, was made in the U.S.A..

No, divesting from the corporations that are profiting from the occupation isn’t heroic. It’s the minimal requirement.

Divesting won’t make us heroes but it will make a difference. One thing Omar Barghouti stressed in that interview in Ramallah is how effective the Boycott, Divestment, Sanction campaign (BDS) is proving to be. When boycotts started causing international security firm G4S to lose several major contracts in Europe they sold all their operations in the occupied West Bank. The Israeli government has acknowledged that BDS is already damaging their reputation and limiting their trade options and it is still a young movement. Every voice that joins the chorus helps build the momentum like a snowball rolling downhill.

Some will tell you that the PC(USA) is too insignificant to matter in this discussion, but Palestinians we are meeting in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Nazareth and all over the West Bank repeatedly assure us they are watching. Our denomination was the first religious organization in the world to begin exploring divestment as a strategy making our actions symbolically significant to the movement. There is a great deal of money and energy being spent by Zionist groups to keep Presbyterians from divesting, which wouldn’t be the case unless our decision could have an impact. Boycotts ended Jim Crow. Boycotts and divestment brought down Apartheid. We could have a role in ending this occupation.

We just have to stop supporting oppression. It’s hardly heroic. But it is an excellent beginning.

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Silent by Yenny Delgado

It is impossible to stay silent
 
When you know, it is impossible to stay silent
When you meet someone and recognize them, they become your neighbor.
When you know, it is impossible to stay silent
When you recognize your neighbor you start to care for them
When you care, you care as you would for yourself
Why do we do nothing-it makes us complicit in silence?
When you know the sins of your body and soul cannot be silent
When you meet, you accept the call
Because when you accept your neighbor, he becomes your brother and sister.
When you know, it is impossible to stay silent
In a land where we are all human brothers and sisters.

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