Biblically, justice is often described as right and good relationships. It’s about how – physically, emotionally, and spiritually – people flourish through right relationships with God, with each other, and with the earth. I had no idea at the time how right a friend was who gave me some advice as I left New Zealand to come here. He said, “To avoid becoming totally overwhelmed, try viewing the conflict through the relationships you form with those around you.” It’s true!
It doesn’t mean it’s all “kumbaya” and easy work either. Salim Munayer, the director of Musalaha, where I’m interning, shared with me how Musalaha has tried plenty of new approaches to reconciliation through relationships between Israelis and Palestinians over the years, and many times they’ve failed, had to regroup, use their intuition, and change tack. Like in the 90’s when the organisation was created after the First Intifada (Palestinian revolt against the Israeli Occupation). Musalaha brought together local pastors from both sides of the conflict, because of course pastors would be best able to live out the biblical ideal to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ and create peace, right? Yet as they brought the group together, instead, what happened was a series of heated disagreements between them which ultimately led to the group breaking up.
From this “fail”, Musalaha came to realize that first and foremost they needed to bring new groups for reconciliation together on neutral ground in the desert outside of Israel-Palestine. In this unique space the power balance between people groups is restored, there’s room for open, honest conversations, and Israelis and Palestinians are forced to rely on each other in the challenging conditions, enabling the walls of stereotypes to begin to crumble and friendships to form.
I was lucky enough to go to the desert with a new Musalaha reconciliation group last year. Memories of the vast bright-orange sand dunes and seeing my first ‘moon shadow’ of the mountains on the ground at night in Wadi Rum are special, but what I’ll remember most is seeing the women open up with their stories and share in each other’s pain of suffering from the conflict; knowing that only from that place could they truly start to resolve it together. As one young Palestinian woman said to the Israeli ladies, “Before I came here, I thought you’d be rude to us because that’s all I’ve ever felt at the checkpoints; abuse, cursing, mistreatment. But now, knowing you, I love my ‘enemies’, my ‘neighbours’, and I want to live with Jewish people.” Love isn’t easy. Justice isn’t simple. War is hideous. But I’m beginning to see how creating genuine friendships where love and justice co-exist truly is the only way to create long-lasting reconciliation that transforms our communities.
Looking through the lens of ‘relationships’, it’s become clearer and clearer to me the ugly role that prejudice has to play in conflict. Prejudice: Those uncompassionate, unfriendly attitudes we can so easily feel toward a person who comes from a specific people group, and where we also presume that that person shares negative qualities with the group they come from. Prejudice leads us to believe we’re better than someone else. It’s something we all have, even the media!
Before I arrived here I’ll be honest, I was afraid to live in the West Bank from everything I’d seen on the news. But it’s been a place where I’ve met some of the kindest, most hospitable people, who are often funny as heck too! Like my Palestinian friend at work who bought me gumboots and a hot water bottle when winter came, or the taxi driver who told us to take a different cab that had a cheaper fare than his (lol), or our ‘Palestinian mum’ who makes sure to tell her sons, “I love you, I love you, I love you,” at least four times a day. I’ve felt safe and at home here the whole time — “Ahlan wa Sahlan,” as they say, “you are welcome here”. From the moment I arrived in the West Bank, my prejudiced ideas have been transformed by loving kindness.
Whether consciously or subconsciously, we develop prejudice due to fear of being threatened in one way or another. The scary thing is, feelings of prejudice never remain simply feelings. They show themselves in our behavior, which, when influenced by prejudice, is often negative. Recognizing these prejudices is so important, and being willing to face them within ourselves and grapple with them in order to move past them is part of the process of reconciliation. It’s making me realise how easy it is to “other” someone else, to let that othering turn into fear, fear into hate, and hate into dehumanising them with our actions.
I’m finding this idea personally really convicting, both in terms of how I approach social justice and community change in general, but especially as a Pākehā New Zealander. Questions like, ‘how many Māori friends do I have?’ ‘How much have I made an effort to get to know and to listen to their stories? Their historical narrative as a people whose (almost entire country of) land was stolen from them?’ ‘What suffering do they face today because of the colonization of my forefathers?’
Love and justice go hand-in-hand, you can’t separate the two. So, the question is, are we willing to engage? To grow relationships, deeply embedded in the Kingdom of God? Both in Israel-Palestine, and for me personally, in Aotearoa. Do I genuinely love my Māori brothers and sisters and want to partner with them in creating the best future I can for them? It’s a no-brainer that I do, and I’m eager to learn more, to tackle the controversial issues back home through the power of friendship, and to bring to life the world that Jesus has in mind!
Sophie – Musalaha’s long-term ♥ Intern