Bethlehem Blues

No Talk, No Peace: How Israel's Separation Barrier Cuts Off the Conversation

09.25.13 8:15 PM ET

My job as a missionary in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is not to convert anyone to anything. The “accompaniment model” for missionary work, to which we subscribe, is defined as walking together in solidarity, practicing interdependence and mutuality.

What does that mean in the Holy Land, where less than 2 percent of the population is Christian? Who do we accompany? Jews? Muslims? Visitors to the Holy Land? Ex-patriots, working for peace?

All of the above.

And it makes for an interesting experience.

This past spring and summer, I spent some time with a fellow American who was here with a non-religious group: this doctoral student from North Carolina, studying at George Washington University, was spending time as an intern at the Israel Democracy Institute, a progressive organization, unabashedly lauded by advocates for peace from the Holy Land and abroad. His work there was funded by Masa Israel: “[We] connect young Jewish adults to 5-12 month immersive, life-changing experiences in Israel.” A secular Jew from the United States, he has such passionate energy for peace and justice that he introduced me to the bountiful marketplace Mahane Yehuda in West Jerusalem simply because he could not be still— an activist after my own heart.

After spending time in West Jerusalem, it seemed only right that we should give East Jerusalem equal time, and we did; we sat (for once!) in the shade of the olive trees on the campus of Augusta Victoria hospital across the street from my home, sipping coffee and watching the Palestinian men and women— nurses, doctors, patients, some in traditional dress, others in jeans and T-shirts— mill about the grounds. Then, a very important question was raised:

“I have Christian friends who are getting married. I want to bring them a gift from the Holy Land. What do you suggest?”

There are many complicated questions in this land, but this is not one of them.

“A hand-carved olive wood Nativity from Bethlehem that they can use this Christmas and every year after. Perfect. You can come with me and pick it out—I know the store, the shopkeeper…”

Yes, yes, and no.

When he signed his contract with MASA, he signed away the opportunity to visit the West Bank. A trip to Bethlehem, occupied Palestinian territory in the West Bank, would violate the terms of the agreement.

Of course I was able to go and purchase the gift on behalf of my friend. Of course he could find similar items in Jerusalem. But a trip together to Bethlehem, where my Jewish American friend could meet my Christian Palestinian shopkeeper friend, where both could see and interact with the other, was denied us. That fundamental opportunity to witness firsthand the divinely humorous personhood of the other was truncated before it could begin. Beyond the wall that divides Israel from the West Bank, there was a man—a man who had given his life over to carving, out of olive wood, sweet and humble images of a couple and their new baby, Jesus: a Palestinian man carving the likenesses of a Jewish family, to be sold to an American Christian and delivered to an American Jew.

Months have passed, and half-a-world away, immersed in graduate study, he reflects on the incident: “This organization [MASA] is bringing thousands of people from across the religious and ideological spectrum of international Jewry and we can't see a very large part of the conflict…if we aren’t talking to each other, we won’t get peace.”

To accompany is to walk alongside, and sometimes to be the only bridge that can connect until the walls are torn down.