From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Episcopalians: Episcopalians find few signs of hope in visits to Middle East
Sun, 2 Jun 2002 19:25:23 -0400
May 31, 2002
Episcopalians: Episcopalians find few signs of hope in visits
to Middle East
By James Solheim
(ENS) "The situation in Israel and Palestine is worse than I
thought," said Bishop M. Thomas Shaw of Massachusetts on his
return from a 10-day ecumenical peace pilgrimage to the region
with 23 people from his diocese and the Diocese of Olympia. "I
saw the fear in the eyes and faces of Israelis because of the
awful suicide bombings. At the same time, the Palestinians have
suffered enormously from the occupation and the military actions
of the Israeli government against the infrastructure of the
Palestinian governmental authority," he said.
"The Palestinian people I met seem to have lost hope and they
are angry with what the Israelis have done," he said. "On both
sides it seems to me that there is a sense of hopelessness and
little idea of how to move forward."
In a statement prepared for a May 23 press conference, Shaw
said that it was clear that the situation wouldn't change
"unless the United States government becomes more directly
involved with the faith community. We have to intervene directly
because the mistrust between the Palestinians and Israelis is so
deep that I do not see a way for them to live together without
Bishop Vincent Warner of Olympia agreed that there was a deep
sense of despair permeating their encounters. "A lot of people
in our group were shocked, especially those who were visiting
the area for the first time. People are polarized--more than we
have seen before."(Warner was part of an ecumenical peace
delegation that visited the region in December 2000.)
"Everything points to a loss of hope but I cling to hope
because of the stubborn efforts by peace activists on both sides
who are just not willing to give up," Warner added. "If they can
have hope so can I but it is a hope based on telling the truth,
appealing to a sense of justice in people and then hoping that
people respond accordingly." He admitted that "nothing is going
to happen soon but there is the beginning of a shift in
Janice Warner, who accompanied her husband on the earlier
trip and this one, said that situation is "just a nightmare." In
her contacts with women and children she said that "they are not
holding up very well. They are so traumatized. Everyone is
concerned what will happen to the children, growing up in such
With a peace process that is at "a dead standstill," she said
that people "get frustrated and weary and yet they have great
resilience. Even for those of us who have been following the
situation it was shocking." She described an encounter with a
woman in the Jenin refugee camp who took her into her demolished
home to show her the filth and destruction left behind following
the recent Israeli military incursion. "The kids were
traumatized, walking around in a stupor, finding it difficult
even to respond," she said. "Yet when I broke down in tears, a
small Palestinian girl came over and took my hand, trying to
Jewish perspectives on peace
Three Israeli Jewish speakers offered their perspectives to
the group. Rabbi David Rosen, international director of the
interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee,
describes himself as a religious Zionist with a strong concern
for the human rights of Arabs.
"If the Jewish state were to disappear, Jewish life would not
recover," he told the group, according to an account by Bo Fauth
and Philip Jacobs of Massachusetts. He believes that secular
Jews view Israel as "simply a political solution for the Jewish
people," and that the settlers see themselves as the fulfillment
of biblical prophecy with the settlements an example of the
revelation of God's destiny "by bringing the land back to the
For Rosen, however, Israel is "the fulfillment of the
millennia-old desire to practice Jewish ways in the ancestral
homeland." He believes that unjust treatment of the Palestinians
"corrupts Judaism [by its] failure of justice" and represents
"idolatry in regard to the land," repudiating the God and faith
they claim to follow. He believes that the peace process thus
far has failed to recognize the religious nature of the peoples
involved. He describes the Israeli and Palestinian religious
mindsets as "pre-modern ones that see "only one path to truth.
Pluralism runs against the cultural context."
Rosen said that the region is "not a place of natural
dialogue" but rather "a land of religious conquest." What is
needed, he said, is an outside influence that is truly neutral
and one that can show sympathy for the suffering of both sides
without giving allegiance to co-religionists. With these
reservations he said that "Christianity has a unique destiny in
the peace process," and he welcomed the role of Archbishop of
Canterbury George Carey in the recent Alexandria
Declaration of religious leaders calling it a remarkable
document that could be the beginning of a renewed peace process.
God chose Israel for the Jews
Rabbi Uriel Simon, a professor of Bible at Bar-Illam
University near Tel Aviv, said that there is a "territorial
imperative in the theology of Judaism," arguing that God has
chosen the Jewish people "for the benefit of the world--that the
world may be blessed." And he has chosen Israel for the Jews. He
also believes that "anti-Semitism has turned into anti-Israeli
Simon argued that "Zionism means reentering history and
claiming power," defending the Israeli military because "were it
not for a strong Israeli army the Jews would all be killed, the
victims of ethnic cleansing."
Speaking to the group at the end of the trip, Wayne
Firestone, director of the Anti-Defamation League's Israel
Office, was even more blunt. He sees absolutely no justification
for targeting a civilian population, calling it "a violation of
morality and international law." He said, "I don't have room in
my heart for suicide bombers," adding that they "don't volunteer
out of the blue, they are incited." He finds it difficult to see
the current crisis stemming from an occupation. His greatest
concern is "the glorification of violence" and the "belief that
death is preferable to life." He rejected the premise that
Palestinians have turned to violence as their only choice and
questioned the value of a peace conference. And he said that the
"continued teaching and preaching about hateeffectively ruins
the next generation."
Firestone spoke for many Israelis when he said that "fear and
nightmares have become more a part of our daily lives." He
defended the destruction caused by the recent Israeli military
incursions into the West Bank, insisting that bomb factories had
been hidden in homes, municipal buildings and even hospitals.
While admitting that there were "mistakes made in the heat of
battle," Israel was justified in doing what was required to halt
Visit to a war zone
When the group tried to enter Bethlehem they got a dose of the
restrictions Palestinians face every day. "The checkpoint
experience is surreal," wrote Ron Harris-White of Seattle in
daily accounts on the diocesan
website. "I feel like I am in a war zone--not only to
reassert Israeli political domination but to assault the
integrity of the Palestinian people caught in the grips of a
larger battle," said the Rev. John Boonstra of Seattle. "And it
In his May 15 account, Harris-White noted that the delegation
was the first to enter Bethlehem and visit the Church of the
Nativity since the 38-day siege ended a few days earlier. "The
smell of the blood and wastes of the standoff are cleaned but we
can still smell the fear."
In a visit to the Deheishe refugee camp, home to 11,000
Palestinians who were evicted from their land in 1948, the group
encountered the brother of a suicide bomber who expressed pride
in what his brother did. Warner challenged him, asking why this
young man, who took innocent lives, could be considered a hero.
"We love life as much as anyone else but we have no other way to
stop what is happening to us," he responded. Warner countered by
arguing that "violence is not the way."
A broken little Palestinian town
"Established in 1953 as a makeshift tent city to host thousands
of Palestinian refugees, Jenin breeds defiance and tenacity,"
said Harris-White in his account. Home to 13,000 refugees, he
said that Jenin is now "a broken little Palestinian town." The
devastation they encountered was shocking. "You can smell the
death in the air, and the odors of human was cannot be
mistaken," he wrote.
At one point the delegation is surrounded by a group of more
than a hundred young men "filled with anger and despair." Warner
tells the leader, "We do not condone violence of any kind, from
either side. There are solutions that don't involve bombs and
missiles. The Palestinians deserve their own state and control
of their own destiny." He tells them that "we are here to
witness conditions here in Jenin and here in your hearts. We
walk with God and we will tell the world your story as we see
After some tense stares and silence, the leader said, "Thank
you--this is all we want from you."
Arafat welcomes visitors
Despite the high level of tension, the delegation was able to
meet with Yasser Arafat in his compound in Ramallah on May 20.
Moments before they arrived there was another bombing, opening
the possibility of an Israeli response and increasing the doubts
and fears of the group. "The Palestinian people live with this
fear daily, we can live with it for at least one day," said
The compound was a mess, strewn with demolished automobiles.
Large sections of the buildings were torn open and scarred from
fires. In the account of Mark Larson on the diocesan website,
the group crossed open ground to the entrance of the offices and
passed through security screening. "We were lead through a short
maze of sandbag fortifications and up a flight of stairs to a
conference room," Larson wrote, where Arafat "warmly greeted
Bishops Shaw, Warner and Riah Abu el-Assal of the Diocese in
Jerusalem and the Middle East "informed him of our Christian
witness of the suffering of both Israeli and Palestinian people
throughout the region. President Arafat acknowledged our witness
and elaborated in some detail the history of the conflict
between the Israeli and Palestinian people," Larson wrote.
Arafat emphasize the important role the U.S. could play in the
search for peace, recounting the failure of past peace
negotiations but adding that "the Palestinian people have
nothing left to negotiate away," according to Larson. At the end
of the meeting, Shaw asked Arafat to offer a prayer for peace in
Cycle of violence and revenge
Bishop Arthur Walmsley, retired bishop of Connecticut, was
part of an earlier delegation of church leaders organized by the
National Council of Churches (NCC) that visited Turkey, Lebanon,
Syria, Jordan, Israel and the West Bank in mid-April. In an
April 30 statement, they said, "We condemn equally and
unequivocally both the suicide bombings and Palestinian violence
against Israeli society and the violence of the Israeli
occupation of Palestinian territories. All are counterproductive
to achieving peace with justiceBoth societies are caught in a
cycle of violence and revenge."
In an interview, Walmsley said, "Everywhere we went people
wanted to know why the religious community was silent. American
policy is perceived as totally subservient to Israel. The
solution seems obvious," he added, "withdrawal to pre-'67
Walmsley joined representatives of relief agencies in a
harrowing trip to the Jenin refugee camp heavily damaged by the
Israeli military incursion. "It took six hours, circling around
the countryside, with harassment at the many checkpoints," he
said. But finally the convoy was able to get to a warehouse of a
local relief agency and unload 1,500 boxes of food for a family
of five for at least a week--as well as blankets and medical
As the group walked around the camp, stopping for conversations,
they were challenged about U.S. policy. "We tried to assure them
that some Americans stood with them in their suffering,"
Walmsley said. In this "human tragedy," camp dwellers in Jenin
waited patiently while backhoes dig through the demolished
houses, looking for lost relatives.
The group concluded that "there won't be a political solution
until there is a religious one. Peace among religions lays the
groundwork," according to Walmsley. "We can't let the
fundamentalists of the three religions gain ground because they
offer only a military solution."
He is convinced that "the challenge for us is building some
meaningful bridges, some honest bridges, to the Jewish world."
Although the situation seems hopeless, he pointed to "the
miracle in South Africa where apartheid was demolished." Yet he
admitted that the fears of a clash between the West, mainly the
United States, and the Muslim world could not be discounted.
"I sensed a weariness on all sides--and some heroic attempts
by those who still care, especially the relief agencies working
under very dangerous conditions," Walmsley said. "There is a
tremendous concern for future generations." He described an
encounter with a psychiatrist in Amman who used the image of
someone who has been regularly abused." He asked, "what's the
chance of the victim becoming a victimizer?"
When pressed, Walmsley said that he agrees with the
observation of Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa who said,
when there is no grounds for optimism, we must live in hope.
"Hope rests in the resilience of people who maintain humanity
and faith under the worst of circumstances."
--James Solheim is director of Episcopal News Service. This
article is based on accounts found on the web pages of the
Dioceses of Massachusetts and Olympia.
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