Looking out on the Mediterranean Sea from Tel Aviv is a good time for reflection when ending a study tour of Israel-Palestine. Just over two weeks here has made a few issues clear.
First, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is complex and does not lend itself to easy answers. Those that claim to know ultimate answers about how to end this conflict only make matters worse. It is also clear that most of the people of Israel-Palestine want peace (with peace being defined in different terms) even if political leaders do not. There is also hope here in the midst of fear during a difficult period.
Peace must come to Israel-Palestine because those that live here (Jew, Muslim, and Christian) have fought too long in ways that dishonor our faith traditions, and the situation is deteriorating under the failed policies of Benjamin Netanyahu.
It is not uncommon now to hear the treatment of the Palestinian people compared with Apartheid during the reign of white supremacy in South Africa. No one can question that Israeli Palestinians, those that hold citizenship, are second-class citizens, and those that live in refugee camps or Occupied Territories like the West Bank have their human rights trampled on daily.
U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro made this point during a speech this week. Speaking at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) conference in Tel Aviv, Shapiro said: "Too much Israeli vigilantism in the West Bank goes on unchecked," adding that "there is a lack of thorough investigations... at times it seems Israel has two standards of adherence to rule of law in the West Bank - one for Israelis and one for Palestinians."
Shapiro added that the two-state solution is the only way to prevent Israel from turning into a bi-national state, and said a way must be found to preserve its viability. He noted that the American administration is "concerned and perplexed" in wake of the Israeli government's policy on the settlements, "which raise questions about Israeli intentions."
Palestinians, even citizens, have a lack of access to water, electricity and jobs.
Your prime minister was a martyr for peace, but he was a victim of hate. Surely, we must learn from his martyrdom that if people cannot let go of the hatred of their enemies, they risk sowing the seeds of hatred among themselves. I ask you, the people of Israel, on behalf of my nation that knows its own long litany of loss, from Abraham Lincoln to President Kennedy to Martin Luther King, do not let that happen to you. In the Knesset, in your homes, in your places of worship, stay the righteous course. As Moses said to the children of Israel when he knew he would not cross over into the promised land, "Be strong and of good courage. Fear not, for God will go with you. He will not fail you, He will not forsake you."
Ultimately, Israel turned away from Rabin's policies, during a time of increased terror attacks carried out by radical Palestinians as determined as the Jew, who killed Rabin to derail the peace process, and the age of Netanyahu was born.
On my trip here - organized by the by the Center for Jewish, Christian & Islamic Studies at Chicago Theological Seminary and made possible by Pacific University - we have heard many conflicting narratives about the land and history of this place. Some have said peace will only come from increased engagement between ordinary Palestinians and Israelis while others have implored President Obama and the United States to take a more active role in forging peace. It seems realistic to say both local engagement and international pressure are needed.
Not long ago, President Obama spoke these words:
"[M]y assessment, which is shared by a number of Israeli observers, I think, is there comes a point where you can't manage this anymore, and then you start having to make very difficult choices. Do you resign yourself to what amounts to a permanent occupation of the West Bank? Is that the character of Israel as a state for a long period of time? Do you perpetuate, over the course of a decade or two decades, more and more restrictive policies in terms of Palestinian movement? Do you place restrictions on Arab-Israelis in ways that run counter to Israel's traditions?"
J Street, the U.S. based pro-Israel, pro-peace organization, is calling on President Obama to now: "...conduct a review of potential executive actions available to you including (but not limited to): giving force to US opposition to settlements; putting forth US parameters to guide future negotiations; promoting economic development and coexistence programming that move the conflict closer to eventual resolution, working from the ground up." Such actions on the part of the president would seem wise and more positive then the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement, which has been both lifted up and criticized by Palestinians and Israelis.
Earlier this week our group from Chicago Theological Seminary sat atop of the Mount of Beatitudes, read the Sermon on the Mount and reflected on the words in the context of our trip to Israel - Palestine. How can we be peacemakers, we asked?
Dr. Ken Stone, CTS's academic dean, noted the passage "Blessed are the meek" and suggested that part of what we should take away from this trip is a sense of humility. The situation in Israel - Palestine does not lend itself to easy answers. Those that claim to know "the truth" or "the way" forward may cause more trouble and difficulty. That doesn't mean we stop seeking peace. We just engage that process recognizing the complexities and that as Americans we have the potential to offer both hope and to contribute to the chaos.
After years of study around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I will leave this place after my first visit here with a deeper appreciation for the difficulties and pain faced by all the people of this land. If there is an easy and quick path to peace, it is elusive. Still, after meeting so many Muslims, Jews, and Christians committed in their different ways to creating peace, I leave here with a sense of some hope.