PEACE IN THE HOLY LAND
May I convey “Mazel Tov” to all who are celebrating Hahukah, and “Merry Christmas” to those who await for Christmas!
Israelis greet each other saying, “Shalom.” Palestinians greet each other, “Salaam.” Both words mean, “Peace”. Those words mean much more than mere absence of conflict. I am not a scholar of Semitic language, but I know another language of nomads better. It is a word for peace in the language called Sesotho in which I preached and taught in Africa. It has many similarities with the Arabic and Hebrew word for peace. It is one of the Bantu languages in Southern Africa, and is the mother tongue of Nelson Mandela and my former colleague at a University, Desmond Tutu.
When the Basotho meet, they greet each other saying “Khotso” with by raising both hands like an act of capitulation. They mean, “I come in peace.” After dinner, the hostess would ask you if you are well fed and happy using the same word, “Uena ka khotso?” “Are you satisfied, happy?” Not only do they wish the guests a peaceful state with happy stomachs, but also they believe that everyone is entitled to this state of affairs. So all Basotho children are taught to set aside some portion of dinner for unexpected guests who may show up at the door hungry. In other words, Khotso means both peace and justice. Where there is no justice, there is no peace. The search for peace in the Middle East must also be the search for justice.
I have been struggling with the question of peace in the Middle East for more than two decades. Positions seem to be so polarized that there does not seem to be a compromise nor a middle ground. One is always accused of being biased for one side or the other. I am often tempted to get away from it all. But I can’t, not only because of many friends in Israel and Palestine to whom I owe loyalty, but also to my Jewish son-in-law and two grand-daughters, who are half Jewish. Israel is important to them, so is it to me.
A revelation came to me during my last extended stay in Jerusalem and in a Palestinian village called Jayyous near Jenin in 2003. It was: there are people on both sides who are on the grass roots level working for justice for all. Daniel Barenboim for example is the world renown Israeli conductor of Berlin Symphony Orchestra. He is a Zionist but also a friend of Palestinians. He comes often to Ramalah to to teach at the Conservatory of Music. Another is Rabbi Erik Aschermann, a committed Zionist, who is Director of the Rabbis For Human Rights in Jerusalem. He and I picked olives together with many Isareli volunteers for Palestinian farmers when the gates on the wall opened only a short time during the harvest. It is without saying those Israeli peace activists work together with Palestinian counterparts. Obviously they were firmly against violence. They believe that peace can come only when Israelis and Palestinians become friends and good neighbours. They believe that it was the only way for both Israelis and Palestinians to survive in the region. They could not live as enemies forever. They must live as friendly neighbors. I saw hope in those peace activists on both Arab and Jewish communities. They may be small in number, but they are showing the way of a peaceful future.
There are other examples: There is a village called Neve Shalom, South-West of Jerusalem made up of a few hundred Arab and Israeli families. The children go to the same village school and the village council is represented by members from both communities. It’s existed for three decades.
During my 2003 stay in Jayyous, when I was on the gate watch to make sure human rights were observed and violence would not erupt, I always had a telephone number of an organization called HAMOKED handy. It’s an Israeli human right organization made up of Israeli and Palestinian volunteers. They help people with difficulties created by Israeli occupation of the West Bank with reliable information. Whenever the platoon of soldiers didn’t appear and the gate remained shut, I called Hamoked to find out why. They phoned around their network of informers and called back to tell me what the hold up was. Knowing the reason for delay, people calmed down and regained their composure.
A women’s organization called Bat Shalom (Daughters of Peace) form an alliance of women called Jerusalem Link. Their partner is a Palestinian women’s group called Palestinian Women’s Centre based in Qalandia between Jerusalem and Ramallah. They work together to in human rights and political advocacy. Women in Black demonstrate on every Thursday at noon in the centre of Jerusalem wearing black dresses and carrying cardboard signs. The sign says, “End Occupation.” They believe Israeli occupation of the West Bank is bad for the survival of Israel, because it is making more Palestinians enemies of Israel, and preventing them from being friends. I met a Montreal born veteran of Israeli Air Force, Moshe Altman, again a very committed Zionist, who represented an organization of Israeli veterans helping young soldiers to refuse to serve in the occupation forces. They are not conscientious objectors. They believe that the occupation is illegal therefore it is morally correct to refuse the order. They automatically go to jail for a few months, and suffer insults from the public. They call themselves “Yesh Gvul – Enough.”
I see a sign of hope in these Israeli movements, who believe that making friends with Palestinians is the only way for peace. They are constantly betrayed by their own people. It is not easy. But they are a light in the darkness. Theirs’ is the way of prophets.
December 21, 2006
At the Southern Alberta Council for Public affairs