With the tragic recent escalation of conflict in Israel-Palestine, my thoughts have turned to experiences I had while living there, first as a naive undergraduate for a semester abroad at the BYU Jerusalem Center and then later as a visiting graduate student at the Hebrew University. My first experience was eye-opening and really life-changing in terms of providing an impetus to developing a more critical and reflective perspective on religion and my own faith in particular. Through merely a process of cultural osmosis, I had grown up with a traditional Utah Mormon view about the conflict in Israel-Palestine. I believed that the place was at the center of the eschatological drama that would unfold in the end times, that the wars and rumors of wars that had occurred during the last century only presaged more conflict and bloodletting to come, and most importantly, that the establishment of the Jews in Palestine was a fulfillment of prophecy and ordained of God. Before arriving in Jerusalem, I knew next to nothing about Palestinians. They were a dark, amorphous, and indistinct conception in my mind. For the most part I saw Palestinians (often conflating them with terrorists) as the opponents of the state of Israel and therefore in some sense the opponents of prophecy and the divine will.
What I actually found upon experiencing Israel-Palestine in person was disorienting and uncomfortable. Surprisingly, the Israel-Palestine conflict of myth that had been formulated in my mind had almost nothing to do with reality on the ground. I discovered through personal experience that Palestinians were a good and open-hearted people, a people with a rich and vibrant culture, a people who had been at odds with the aims of the state of Israel (some of them violently) but who for the most part wanted to live in peace and justice. On the other hand, I discovered that the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians had discernible political and historical causes. Palestinians were not the stereotyped “bad guys” in a sharply differentiated conflict of cosmic good and evil, but more than anything else victims of a terrible historical tragedy: suffering dispossession from the land of their fathers and mothers at the hands of a Zionist and British project to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine in the first half of the twentieth century and in recent decades experiencing the violent and deadly by-products of a colonizing military occupation.
The experience had a profound impact on my life. In addition to influencing my immediate choice after returning to BYU to pursue a major focused on the study of Arabic and the modern Middle East, I began to think deeply about why LDS culture had views about the conflict and about the state of Israel and Palestinians that seemed to be so disconnected from reality. Why had I been taught to believe that God was essentially on the side of the nation of Israel, that its establishment and continuing maintenance had been effected through divine providence, when it seemed clear that the construction of a Western-backed and ethnically Jewish nation-state in the modern Middle East has had such disastrous consequences for Palestinians, for other peoples of the region, and for Jews and Israelis themselves? Why do Mormons seem to automatically assume that Palestinians are in the wrong and Israel in the right?
I have since realized that LDS attitudes toward Palestinians and the state of Israel are complex and have been shaped by many factors, including ignorance of what life is actually like for Palestinians living under occupation, cultural and political affinity with the Westernized state of Israel, an American media that until recently tended to present the conflict largely from the perspective of Israel (focusing on dramatic Palestinian terrorist acts rather than the daily injustices and violence meted out against Palestinians), participation in the more general historic American/Christian prejudice against Islam and Arabs, and finally, perhaps the most important, a Mormon theological tradition that itself is an adoption of a long-held American Protestant theological interpretation of the Bible that sees Jewish control of Palestine and the state of Israel as the product of God’s will. As I do not have time to explain this latter tradition here, I will try to do so in future posts.
Fortunately, Mormons and the institutional church have gotten somewhat better in recent years in trying to take a more evenhanded approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some Mormons have been more outspoken in standing up for the legitimate rights of Palestinians, while the institutional church and the Jerusalem Center itself have become increasingly sensitive to how ones-sided attitudes have had a detrimental effect on the image of the church and its interests there and elsewhere in the Middle East.
But prejudice and misunderstanding are obviously still a real problem, as reflected in Mitt Romney’s quasi-theological rhetoric about supporting the state of Israel during his recent presidential campaign. When I was living in Israel as a graduate student at Hebrew University during 2006-2007, I would attend church with my family at the Jerusalem Center. On a regular basis I would hear statements from LDS tourists at sacrament meeting I felt very uncomfortable with, statements that were totally oblivious to the lives of real Palestinians in the neighborhoods surrounding the center, statements that referred to Palestinian violence in abstract, decontextualized terms, statements that took comfort in the fulfillment of prophecy in Israel’s blossoming as a rose, statements whose glowing descriptions of the “Holy Land” seemed so self-absorbed.
In the interest of helping to build bridges between Mormons and Palestinians, I thought I might share a particular experience I had shortly after arriving to live in Jerusalem for the second time. This is taken from an email (mildly edited) sent on November 6, 2006:
This weekend I had a special experience I would like to share with you all. Since Friday was my day-off from school (like our Saturday in the US) and the Hebrew U. library was closed, I decided to take the opportunity to go exploring near the old city of David. I had learned in my archaeology class that week that the modern old city, the well-known part of Jerusalem surrounded by archaic-looking walls, actually had nothing at all to do with the Biblical city of David. The Jerusalem where ancient Israelites lived from the time of David until well after Ezra (500 years) was in reality located on a hilly spur which climbed 120 meters from the bottom of the Kidron valley to the Ophel south of the temple mount. The area is now inhabited by Palestinian Arabs and is known as the village of Silwan, a densely populated and poverty-stricken neighborhood somewhat isolated from the wealthier west Jerusalem.
My goal was to explore without any specific agenda, to let my feet and heart guide me to what I needed to see and experience. As I climbed down into the Kidron east of the Temple mount and began walking down the wadi, I was, admittedly, somewhat cautious. My Arabic was limited (the colloquial Palestinian dialect is very difficult for me to understand) and tourists had generally avoided this section of Jerusalem since 9-11. But something inside me told me that this was where I needed to go. As I passed through a neighborhood where some people were out harvesting their olive trees, a little boy came up with a big smile and introduced himself in broken English. We conversed and I asked where the spring was. He responded in Arabic with “maim,” or water, and beckoned for me to follow. We walked a short distance to a building, unfortunately locked up, which housed what I knew to be the Gihon spring, the main water source for Bibical Jerusalem and ancient site of the coronations of Israelite kings. I could hear the lapping of the water and feel its coolness behind the metal gates at the bottom of the stairway. When I was about to turn away, my little friend called to a girl peering out of a window three stories above us, who produced a small booklet which fluttered to the pavement below. For 10 shekels, which I gladly paid, I got a helpful guide to the archaeological sites in the area.
I continued on my journey down the Kidron noting various archaeological sites and giving friendly greetings to the people I met. Eventually I came to the intersection of the Kidron and Hinnom valleys and decided to walk up the latter, as I had never explored it before. In the Hinnom, I immediately came upon what seemed to be a large and relatively well-groomed orchard of olive and fig trees, with several people harvesting the olives. I was fascinated with the process and wanted to learn more. One nice old man tried to explain to me what he did with his olives, how much money he made by kilo and its use for making oil for food, but I could hardly understand anything he said. His Arabic was so different from the classical Arabic I had studied at BYU! Discouraged, I left the orchard and began to climb out of the valley with the intention of returning to the old city, but then something told me that I should turn back and try to find someone else to talk to. I felt that I needed to move further out of my comfort zone. When I passed back through the orchard I happened to notice a small family made up of a young boy, girl, and mother on the other side of the road harvesting olives. As I approached, I could immediately sense a mixture of curiosity and slight discomfort. Why was this American interested in them? The woman, presumably their mother, moved behind the tree as if to avoid my presence and the boy and girl stared at me as if I was an alien. Fortunately, just at that moment the father appeared on the hillside above us and welcomed me with a gracious Ahlan wSahlan! (welcome, welcome!). He invited me into the shade and offered me tea, coffee, water, pickled olives, and a delicious fruit I had never seen before. His limited knowledge of English and my Arabic allowed us to converse to a considerable extent. I found out that his name was Omar, that he was a Muslim, had six young children, was poor but better off than many other Palestinians because his family owned the orchard, planted by an ancestor over two hundred years ago. He told me that he had been working in the orchard since four o’clock that morning! When I asked him if life was hard, he said that he was mabsoot (happy), which impressed me greatly. Shortly thereafter, his father came over and joined us. He could speak no English whatsoever and was partially blind, but I found him to be very gracious and hospitable. He called me habibi (a term of endearment) and made me feel like one of the family. Omar told me that his father had worked for years at the local Orthodox Christian church just down the road, which was interesting considering that he was a Muslim.
When they went back to picking olives, I joined them to get firsthand experience. The way it worked was someone (generally the father) would pull the olives off the limbs from above while someone below (generally the women and children) would gather the olives from a tarp spread out to catch them. Most significant to me was the respect that Omar had for his trees. Some people, he said, would beat their trees with a stick to get the olives off, but to him olive and fig trees were sacred, as both were mentioned in the Quran. He showed me how to gently and deftly pull the olives off without harming the tree. Around Omar I couldn’t help but feel that the olive trees were sacred. We moved to several different locations in the orchard, spending probably about an hour at each tree. At lunch break they gave me yogurt, pita bread, tomatoes and cucumbers, food which I knew they had brought for themselves to eat while working in the orchard. I stayed with them picking olives into the late afternoon until Omar invited me to his home to eat dinner. We began to walk up the hill, with him carrying a large bag of olives, when suddenly he tripped and fell down. It gave me the opportunity to carry the heavy bag (almost too heavy for me!) to the top of the hill until he could take over.
His house was tucked back in a neighborhood that was reached by stairs that Dr. Seuss would be proud of. We sat down on his porch and soon children from neighboring houses began to gather to see the strange visitor. Everyone was so friendly and interested that even I was surprised. I played soccer with the boys who thought I was quite the soccer star. Dinner was served, a rice dish wrapped in grape leaves and chicken, spicy but very good. After dinner I leafed through a Quran and one of the boys recited some of its suras (chapters). I can’t begin tell you how welcome I felt, how simple but happy a family they were, how beautiful their children were, how their values and way of life so closely matched what I feel to be our family-centered Mormon way of life. When I left, Omar invited me to come back again and made me feel like I had known him longer than one short day. As I walked back to the old city I felt inwardly gratified that my little attempt to show interest in a Palestinian family had been rewarded tenfold. I had gone hoping to share something of myself, to build bridges between different cultures, but it was I who had been inspired, humbled, and had received.