Bethlehem Blues

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

Ian Walton / Getty Images

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

What does that mean in the Holy Land, where less than 2percent 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 fellowAmerican who was here with a non-religious group: this doctoral student fromNorth Carolina, studying at George Washington University, was spending time asan intern at the Israel Democracy Institute, a progressive organization,unabashedly lauded by advocates for peace from the Holy Land and abroad. Hiswork there was funded by Masa Israel:“[We] connect young Jewish adults to 5-12 month immersive, life-changingexperiences in Israel.” A secular Jew from the United States, he has suchpassionate energy for peace and justice that he introduced me to the bountifulmarketplace MahaneYehuda in West Jerusalem simply because he could not be still— an activistafter my own heart.

After spending time in West Jerusalem, it seemed only rightthat 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 Victoriahospital across the street from my home, sipping coffee and watching thePalestinian men and women— nurses, doctors, patients, some in traditionaldress, others in jeans and T-shirts— mill about the grounds. Then, a veryimportant question was raised:

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

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

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

Yes, yes, and no.

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

Of course I was able to go and purchase the gift on behalfof my friend. Of course he could find similar items in Jerusalem. But a triptogether to Bethlehem, where my Jewish American friend could meet my Christian Palestinianshopkeeper friend, where both could see and interact with the other, was deniedus. That fundamental opportunity to witness firsthand the divinely humorouspersonhood of the other was truncated before it could begin. Beyond the wallthat divides Israel from the West Bank, there was a man—a man who had given hislife over to carving, out of olive wood, sweet and humble images of a coupleand their new baby, Jesus: a Palestinian man carving the likenesses of a Jewishfamily, to be sold to an American Christian and delivered to an American Jew.

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Months have passed, and half-a-world away, immersed ingraduate study, he reflects on the incident: “Thisorganization [MASA] is bringing thousands of people from across the religiousand ideological spectrum of international Jewry and we can't see a very largepart 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 theonly bridge that can connect until the walls are torn down.