From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Episcopalians: Episcopalians find few signs of hope in visits to Middle East

Date 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 
our support."

Traumatized people

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 
comfort me."

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 
is horrifying."

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 
Bishop Warner.

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 
each person."

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 

Building bridges

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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