In the past few weeks, I’ve been engaging quite a bit with some of our partner organisations here in the north of Israel and getting in touch with some other NGOs that I’ve only recently learned about. It’s been such a discouraging time politically that I needed the reminder that there are many, many people here who are desperately concerned about the situation and who are actively seeking change.
Sadly we’re still seeing daily clashes on the Gaza border as the Great March of Return continues, and there have been intermittent rocket exchanges between Gaza and Israel, with a particularly harrowing day at the end of May. Tensions are high, and as I type, a new story has appeared on the Times of Israel website saying Israel is rehearsing for an escalation.
A group of us are due to visit Gaza next week, but the situation is changing so rapidly that we won’t make the final decision to go until the last minute. Not only do we not want to take unnecessary risks ourselves, but we are also concerned about the safety of those who host us. If we do go, these little bears from Dunfermline Abbey will be coming with us to be distributed to children at trauma clinics and hospitals. (I’ve vacuum-packed them to make them easier to carry because we’ll have a 15 minute walk through no-man’s land between the Israel and Hamas checkpoints.)
And here, in Israel, a couple of hours drive up the coast of the Mediterranean from Gaza, protests have been held in Haifa. Haifa is often lauded as being a great city of coexistence, and I have to say that it’s one of the places I often go when I need to escape Tiberias. The bars and restaurants are trendy and a mix of Hebrew, Arabic, Russian and English can be heard on the streets. In the summer, foreign films are shown outside by the port. On the surface, it’s all rather idyllic.
But as a recent article in The Guardian stated: coexistence doesn’t mean equality. And since that horrific day of violence on the Gaza border on 14 May, there have been regular peaceful protests against what is happening in Gaza. Sadly, these were met with an excessive response from the police on Friday 18 May and the subsequent alleged assault of Jafar Farah, the Director of the Mossawa Centre (an organisation we have had links with in the past), while he was in police custody. The 19 who were arrested were released without charge on 21 May after an overnight hearing at Haifa Magistrates Court. According to those I’ve spoken with, the aggression from the police has eased and the protests continue, but there’s once again a wariness between the wider Jewish and Arab communities that always emerges during times of tension.
Just after the arrest of Jafar Farah, I visited Al-Tufula Centre in Nazareth, an NGO that specialises in child development and women’s empowerment within the Arab-Palestinian community in Israel. Their director Nabila Espanioly also works in coalition with a number of other NGOs (Jewish and Arab) in a broad range of local and international advocacy campaigns; and often, when Israel presents a report to the UN on women’s issues, she is involved in presenting a shadow report to reflect the experiences of Arab women.
Arab women in Israel face a conflict of existence and identity: they are both Arab/Palestinian and citizens of Israel, and they carry a religious identity as well: Christian, Muslim or Druze. They operate within a patriarchal culture and are marginalised in their own society because they are women. And within wider Israeli society as a whole, they are discriminated against not just on grounds of gender but also because they’re Arab.
I asked her what she might say to churches in Scotland, and she replied: ‘I would tell them that my problem is their problem; my struggle is their struggle. When we create a hierarchy of suffering, when we allow our struggles to be separated, we become divided, and that is disempowering to all.’
I remembered this a couple of days ago when I visited Jamal Shehade at House of Grace, the prisoner rehabilitation centre in Haifa, and was reminded again of what he said about being members of the Body of Christ together.
As I look around at my fellow members of the Body of Christ in this land — and at my brothers and sisters who may not share my faith but who are nonetheless children of Abraham with us — I feel the pain, and also I feel the exhaustion that comes with it. There is so much weariness in the land at the moment. So many — not only Arabs but liberal, secular Jews as well — are tired of the violence, the discrimination, the never-ending fear, the political posturing and polarisation.
If one fellow member of the Body of Christ says to us, ‘we feel like a finger that has been slammed in a door,’ which is essentially the message I hear over and over again in this place, it is not enough to offer sympathy as a bandage; acknowledging the pain, sitting in the midst of it, weeping is only the start. We are called to participate in God’s mission to heal what is hurt and reconcile what is divided. And this means eradicating the very source of the pain — the unjust structures, the narratives that dehumanise, the suspicion and fear.
In other words, we all need to join together to find a way of opening that damn door now, before it does so much damage the finger will never recover and the Body of Christ is forever weakened as a result.