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Thinking Outside the Box: Reflections on My Experiences in Israel/Palestine

As we eat our breakfast with the sunrise each morning on the roof of our hotel, three distinct countries are visible: Israel to the far left, Palestine to the upper right, and Jordan’s mountainous silhouette deep and straight ahead. Over the course of these two weeks, I would be serving as an alumni presence in the group from my high school whose intercession travels have brought them to Israel/Palestine with the intent of, among an otherwise packed agenda in the Holy Lands, building an aquaponics system at the Tent of Nations, a farm right outside of Bethlehem in Palestine. The ultimate goal of the aquaponics system, being a form of sustainable farming, will be to have a fully functioning means of harvesting a full tank of tilapia and several grow beds of various types of plants. Although much more complex, put simply, waste from the fish tank will serve as the nutrients that water the plants, and the nutrient depleted water will then filter through the soil and eventually be the water that once again returns to the fish tank to sustain the lives of the fish. Interspersing our project, our group would get a chance to spend time with the two Palestinian Christian brothers who own and operate the Tent of Nations, conversing with them and listening to their stories concerning the history of the farm, the history of their land, and the history of their family.

But even this simple description of how I spent the first two weeks of the semester are ringing with political, religious, and socio-cultural complexity. It will probably anger some, confuse others, and appeal to yet another group of people. Because, as it became extremely apparent over the course of my time in Israel/Palestine, nothing is neutral.

One topic of conversation that naturally and inevitably arose time and again during my time abroad concerned the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. But even more than the more minute details concerning historical dates, geopolitical governmental planning, and anthropological nomenclature, the majority of our discussions revolved around one simple question with many complicated nuances: what is peace, is it possible, and what are we supposed to do in the meantime?

These questions, even when wrestled with in the exact time and space in which conflict is occurring, are not answered quickly or easily, if they can even be answered at all. We cannot take what the media reports as absolute truth, we cannot assume that one person can speak for an entire nation of people, and we cannot believe that our thoughts are fundamentally more correct than another’s.

As we listened and discussed together in, and among, our own group of high schoolers, teachers, alumni, and parents, as well as with different local neighbors from our immediate surroundings, and in light of the work that we were undertaking at the Tent of Nations, it became clear to me that in order for peace to even be an idea that can be entertained, the nature of our dialogue must be considered carefully, scrutinized courageously, and reshaped humbly. The nature of our dialogue cannot remain an argument over whether you are “pro-Israel” and “anti-Palestine” or “anti-Israel” and “pro-Palestinian.” As Christians, and even as humans who share this world with other humans, it is not productive to assume that by being “pro-one-type-of-human” and “anti-another-type-of-human,” peace will happen. When we think of Jesus, we think of one who became fully human in order that He might save, redeem, and restore humanity as the absolute symbol of shalom, or perfect peace. It would be outrageous if we were to say that Jesus strategically selected whom He would be for and whom He would be against. Yes, hatred of certain people who spoke against Him and ridiculed Him would have been justified for Jesus. But peace and love without reservation were what was required. And Jesus obeyed with a perfect love extended to all, so that in the healing He offered, people were freed to be all that they were created to be. Likewise, when we think of the nature of our dialogue as agents of meaningful discussion, thought, and action in our world, I think it is vital that our conversation reflect the same type of attitude that Jesus displayed: one that is against violence and oppression, because it is for humans and for peace, totally and without reservation.

But this mentality of being, in political terms, “pro-peace,” is not one adopted and enacted effortlessly. It requires an intense engagement with an ever-living past, in order to significantly reframe the perceptions of the present, with the hope of impacting the focus of the future. Over the course of our time and our work at the Tent of Nations, I began to associate the idea of being “pro-peace” with the idea of also being “pro-land.”

Perhaps due to my inclination to think anthropologically, over the course of my time in Israel/Palestine, I noticed just how much our world is situated, symbolically and spatially, more or less by boxes. From the way we categorize food (we group them into a food pyramid, or well-balanced plate, for proper nutrition), to the way we construct neighborhoods (we gate certain communities, we live within four walls that we call a house), we either implicitly or explicitly “box” much with what we interact. While there may be some justifications for the use of boxes, a major purpose for the box is to keep what we perceive as “good” and “safe” inside, while keeping what we perceive as “bad” and “dangerous” outside. The box acts as a barrier between what we fear and ourselves.

Right now in Israel and in Palestine, walls are being used as such boxing mechanisms. Whether it be the literal concrete wall around Bethlehem, the security walls in the form of checkpoints between different militarized zones, or the generational walls among different religious and ethnic groups, these walls are harboring sentiments of difference that perpetuate years and years of tension, conflict, violence. These walls are meant to keep the “good” and the “bad” apart, as if to suggest that by boxing out the “bad,” it will just go away.

The problem, however, is that people and all the complexities of their cultures, languages, religions, and lifestyles are not box-able. But, whether it is because of politics, economics, or socio-culture, when people are boxed, however literally or metaphorically, and when perceptions of “the other” contain nothing but bitterness, generalizations, and incomplete understanding, they begin to live in fear. Those inside the box fear what is on the outside, and those outside the box fear what is on the inside.

Fear is a fascinating phenomenon. Fear, this unsettling reaction to the uncontrollable, the unknowable, and the unexplainable, blurs our perspective so heavily, to the point that we use fear as an excuse to justify actions that are not in accordance with our responsibility to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.

I am under the firm impression that as created beings of God, people are not meant to live in fear.

But I am also under the firm impression that right now, on this side of Heaven, fear is a reality in which we unfortunately do live, and so when fear’s reactions become realities, we need to listen and respond. It has manifested itself in the ways that people outwardly react towards one another not with respect and care, but with hatred and violence. I am not just thinking about and referring to the violence that shows up in news stories, of people stabbing and wounding and insulting and killing and hating their neighbors and entire groups of people. I am also talking about violence that perpetuates minds and hearts to the point where we find it acceptable to state, problematically, “I am pro-(insert people group here)” and “anti-(insert other people group here,” and where we find it acceptable to ask “whose side are you on?”

By making these statements, which are statements that once again create and perpetuate compartmentalizing boxes, we are claiming that fundamentally, there is a group of people who are meant to be kept “in” and another group of people meant to be kept “out.” And peace is utterly impossible when, by taking sides, we see one group of people as fundamentally worth less than another, for this outlook serves to box “the other” to the point where fear catalyzes a paralysis upon reconciliation.

Nothing that we do or say is ever neutral. Our actions, from those springing from utmost definitive opinions to those defended by ignorance or naivety, are charged with agendas, however known or unknown they might be. The whole idea of being a peacemaker, or someone who is for peace and for the land, rather than for one group of people, is much more than a mere indifference towards people or politics.

While in the Middle East, I saw, heard about, and participated in lifestyles that challenge mentalities and realities of the box. The mere principles behind farming are ones that, instead of keeping things “in,” necessitate growth that goes “out.” Crops are no good if they do not grow beyond the soil in which they take root. And as we spent time installing the aquaponics system at The Tent of Nations, I began to understand how the way we care for land directly translates to the way we care for people, both people who are similar to us and people who are different than us. When we focus so much on the box, whether as a result of bitterness because of past historical relations or current multidimensional tensions, we limit the ability for everyone (because even at the most basic level, a seed is not planted for itself, but for at least the farmer) to grow and to flourish. But, when we cultivate a space for growth, caring for the processes surrounding that growth with adequate attention, curiosity, and humility, there is potential not only for the harvest to be all that it was created to be, but also for others to benefit from the harvest.

Approaching people and people groups the same way, although extremely difficult, engages us to the point where, in order to find peace and grace and forgiveness and reconciliation and love, we have to first desire such things for our neighbor, who is intricately interwoven into the roots of our own well-being. While at the Tent of Nations, our host described to us one afternoon over tea how he sees his farm as a form of “creative resistance” in the peacemaking process. Upon asking for an elaborating clarification of what he meant by both “creative resistance” and “peacemaking,” he proceeded to describe to us how, to him, the farm is the way that he and his family obey not only the command to “love your neighbor,” but also to “love your enemy.” He explained how, in the midst of political conflict, social strains, and religious tensions, peacemaking, which in this case is farming, can work only when an individual expounds so much energy in their work that at the end of the day, there is no energy left to hate.

A common phrase that I heard from both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Christians, and saw written in graffiti on walls, sidewalks, and buildings in both the Holy Lands and the West Bank, was “build bridges, not walls.” May we, as peacemakers, engage in a nonlinear style of distinction based thinking in which we choose to refuse to let the past harbor further inabilities to see people as people and peace as possible. May we, as peacemakers, pray for the courage, bravery, and foolishness to desire to build bridges not of hostility but of hospitality, not of isolation but of curiosity, and not of hatred but of love.

For further readings/insights towards Israeli-Palestinian relations, ideas of boxes in society, and peacemaking as a discipline, some of the materials that I have found helpful are:

Blood Brothers by Elias Chacour

The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan

Behind the Gates by Setha Low

My Life by Golda Meir

The Source by James Michener

Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity by Jeffrey C. Alexander, Ron Eyerman, Bernard Giesen, Neil J. Smelse, Piotr Sztompka

Cultures under Siege: Collective Violence and Trauma: Publications of the Society for Psychological Anthropology, edited by Antonius C. G. M. Robben, Marcelo M. Suarez-Orozco (collection of multidisciplinary essays)

http://www.holylandtrust.org/resources.html

Omar (film, Palestinian perspective)

Bethlehem (film, Israeli perspective)

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About the Author

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Abby is a junior at Wheaton College studying Anthropology and Spanish, and is also a part of Wheaton's Human Needs and Global Resources program. She finds deep joy in what others have labeled a "granola" lifestyle: the outdoors, trail running, wool socks, and granola. In her spare time, Abby will most likely be found doing improv, watching documentaries, or making hypothetical travel itineraries for trips she hopes to one day take.

3 Comments

  1. Chris Shaffer

    You are an amazing writer and observer and thinker. You will be an ambassador one day and you will help led the world to peace.

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  2. Sharon Watkins

    Thanks for your thoughts, Abby. Enjoyed reading them. Your uncle shared your post.

    Glad you are there and wrestling with the complexities of the conflict in that region in particular. It’s quite historic and profound. Pondering the implications of what you see there helps one to go after the deeper questions in life – one which you hinted at: what does it mean to ‘do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God’? I really enjoyed the farmer’s comment about how he sees farming as a way of creatively loving the land – and his enemies. I don’t know his unique struggles as a Palestinian Christian living on the land. Each land and people group has its own history, identity, questions, challenges and beauty – at once both deeply broken and yet exquisite. I like how you used the ‘box’ idea to articulate the driving power of fear in all of our lives – great insight. “There is no fear in love but – Perfect love casts out fear”…what does that mean, right? For individuals – for nations… for individuals living among the nations…?
    I have found the writings of CS Lewis, Ravi Zacharias & Os Guinness helpful too in addressing my questions about the complexities of living in this broken world. Press on –

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  3. When considering something, why is “context” important? Context gives a certain meaning to things. The idea of context is important for the distinction that I wish to make between inside and outside. The word context derives from the Latin,

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