This summer a group of young Israelis and Palestinians went on a trip to Ireland in order to learn about and reflect on the Northern Irish conflict and our own. Sometimes, when we are absorbed in our conflict, it helps to step out of this context and gain insights from someone else’s experience. One of the things I learned on this trip is that it is not about the quantity of people involved, but rather the quality of efforts for reconciliation.
We shared a little about this trip in our September e-mail prayer letter. In some of the activities, we split our Israelis and Palestinians into two national groups to identify core issues of conflict. It was interesting to see how each group mentioned the same issues, but looked at them from opposing perspectives. For example, land is one of the core issues. The Israeli Jewish group believes the land belongs exclusively to them; similarly, the Palestinian group believes the land belongs exclusively to them. Both claimed their rights to the land using religious and historical evidence. They also identified religion and security as reasons for the conflict.
In the next activity, we asked the groups to identify the causes of the conflict, this time role-playing by answering according to the other group’s point of view. Both groups explained that land, religion and security are also core issues of the conflict for the other group. The Israeli group said fear of the other is a cause of the conflict, and that Palestinians perceive occupation as a cause of the conflict. Fear and occupation are two sides of the same coin. Security is a basic human need that includes physical, emotional, spiritual and economic safety, and when it is threatened or denied (due to physical or psychological violence), the response is fear.
There was a paradox that emerged as each group demanded something from the other side, something they themselves were also denying the other. For example, the Palestinian group felt that their language and identity is constantly questioned by Israelis, yet they also acknowledged that Israelis feel their connection to the land is often rejected by Palestinians. Both sides wanted acknowledgment as a people group. Recognition is a human need that influences our sense of dignity, legitimacy and actions. When recognition is denied or challenged it leads to shame, anger and then to violence.
We designed these activities to show participants that when we identify the problems of a conflict, we also identify its solutions.
Through our personal relationships we get to know not only the individual, but also the culture and society of the other. This is an opportunity for us to affirm each other’s needs as individuals, members of a church/congregation and members of a people group.
“This is nice and all, but our conflict is too big for us to believe that we can make a difference,” said one of the participants. Powerlessness is a common sentiment as many feel overwhelmed when looking at the intractability of our conflict. One way we can move forward is by looking at how others have addressed these challenges in their context.
We heard from a number of speakers during our time in N. Ireland, but one that stood out to me is Dr. Trevor Morrow. During the Irish conflict, he was a minister at Lucan Presbyterian Church. He spoke about his role during the negotiation between the Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. He shared how the churches in N. Ireland played a negative role in the conflict because they maintained the social divide. Some even said, “Because I am a Christian, I will not forgive them,” because they did not see what they deemed as “true repentance” from the other side.
The majority of the churches identified so strongly with their own side that they were unable to prophetically address the conflict. They elevated their political and cultural identity over their God-given identity to seek and pursue peace, something he called “the idolatry of the church.” However, some chose to use their individual freedoms to think critically about their place in the conflict. Morrow noted that it was individuals on the fringes of the local church who were successful in making a difference. These individuals challenged the “idolatry of the churches” and questioned its justification of violence. When preaching in churches about loving the enemy and seeking reconciliation, Morrow saw congregants shake their heads in disapproval. He was alienated by his community because of this, and rarely invited to preach in churches. He shared about the pain he felt because of this marginalization.
During his talk, I couldn’t help but think about our context. During one of the reflection sessions, we asked our group if they thought our communities, Messianic Jewish and Palestinian Evangelical, are agents of or obstacles to reconciliation. The participants made several distinctions between the general public and believers. When it comes to promoting reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis on a national scale, all participants agreed that believers do not take a strong stance. When it comes to promoting reconciliation between Palestinian and Israeli believers, all the participants agreed that we do not do enough. An Israeli participant said, “As individuals we are all trying, but as a community I can’t say. Each one is in their own bubble.” A Palestinian participant said, “There are so many issues in our community. There are people who are hungry or suffering from basic human needs, and reconciliation is not a priority.”
Some of the participants felt despair and powerless in their ability to be agents of change. In light of what Morrow shared, they expressed that some of our churches increase our sense of marginalization. At the same time, Morrow’s personal story shows that an individual has the ability to influence others within her religious community and then her nation. Morrow ended his testimony by encouraging us to keep building bridges, and gave us some recommendations on how to engage in reconciliation:
If we follow and have the mind of Christ we must serve others, including those with whom we disagree. We should pursue what is just for them as well as for ourselves.
When Jesus became man, he did not cease to be God, but he set aside the rights and privileges of God in order to be with us. If you are going to be involved in peacemaking, you set aside the rights and privileges of being Israeli or Palestinian.
In order to forgive, Jesus gave himself up. The cost of forgiveness is enormous, but we are commanded to practice it.
The work of reconciliation is not easy, especially during heightened violence when both our peoples reject the other’s need, which is often the same need they long for. This is a cycle we are too familiar with, and the only way to release ourselves from this cycle is to do the exact opposite: reconciliation is to affirm each other’s needs. We need to be prepared to serve, set aside our rights, and forgive — and we can do so even as a minority, even from the fringes.
By Shadia Qubti