Recently a neighbour was having a broken step to her terrace fixed. The first day, workers had removed the bottom slab, the one that had cracked and collapsed. They reinforced it and filled it with cement. But the next day, when they came to complete the work, they removed the second step and saw that all that lay beneath was dirt and tree roots and empty space. It would only be a matter of time before the second step collapsed. And even if that was fixed, the third would go. And so on. What seemed on the surface relatively straightforward and stable was an epic mess underneath which would take considerable work to put right.
I’ve come to realise that when people talk about the Israel-Palestine conflict, they view it like that bottom step: the Israelis, the Palestinians, and/or the international community need to remove the slab of the current political system, clear away the debris of mutual mistrust, and stabilise the region with new laws into which peace can be cemented. Of course, this is much easier said then done, but the concept is simple.
I think of how often I say to church groups, ‘Come and see. Go and tell,’ echoing the plea of the Christian leaders who wrote the Kairos Palestine document. If you have the resources, come see for yourselves. And then act in the way that you feel moved to do after you have witnessed for yourself the deep injustices that divide the land. Advocate. Campaign. Fundraise. Volunteer.
I tell people to see the separation barrier. To join with the Palestinian workers, herded like cattle, crossing Checkpoint 300 between Bethlehem and Jerusalem at 4am. Visit Hebron. Or a Bedouin village under constant threat of demolition. If possible, go to Gaza, and watch with horror how the hospitals are struggling to cope with 4 hours of electricity a day, a few expensive generators, and a couple of donated solar panels. Visit the Christians of the land, the ones who keep faith, who hope, who resist nonviolently and long for God’s reign of just peace. Hear the perspectives of liberal Jewish activists, or maybe listen to a Jewish mother and Palestinian mother share their grief after losing children to violence.
I realise now that this is an excellent way for people to see the conflict. (And, significantly, it is an excellent way to stand in solidarity both with those who are oppressed and those working for justice). It’s what I did when I came four years ago. I felt that fire in my belly as I saw what human beings are capable of doing to one another. What I saw led me to come back to do more. I saw the conflict. But I didn’t understand it.
How often do I hear others ask …. how often do I ask: ‘How can people do this to one another? How can it not be obvious that the situation as it stands is harming people on both sides of the wall, that fear is the occupying force across communities? And how is it possible to turn a blind eye to what is happening on your doorstep?’
Well, to answer this question is to remove that second step.
Travel away from the flash points of Jerusalem and Bethlehem and Hebron and Gaza.
Head up the coast.
Spend a Friday afternoon on a beach in Tel Aviv and then the evening in Jaffa’s trendy bars.
Grab a burger in Haifa and listen to Arabic, Russian, Hebrew and English being spoken all around you.
Go further north and worship alongside the Maronite Christians of Bir’am, the Arab village destroyed by the Israeli army in 1953, now a national park. Read the signs there which tell of an ancient synagogue and make little mention of the Christians who lived there.
Travel still further north towards the Syrian border to Majdal Shams, and hear some of the Druze elders share memories of life as Syrians and see the ID cards of their children which say Nationality: UNDEFINED.
Travel back to the Galilee, and speak to some in the Druze community there who are fully integrated into Israeli society, who serve in the military, and who feel the recent passing of the Nation State Law is a betrayal of their loyalty.
Go to back to the coast, to Dor beach and see Jews and Arabs swimming side by side.
On the way home, stop at the vegetable stall in the Arab village of Furaidis, and join the queue of tanned Jewish young people who crave the rice-stuffed vine leaves as much as you do after a day in the sun.
Have your perception of someone radically changed when you hear how they lost a loved one in 1967, or someone else who had only just entered the army when he was sent to the Sinai in 1973.
Hear a Jewish server in a cafe welcome an Arab family with some simple Arabic greetings. Watch them smile in return, wishing the server ‘Shana tova (Happy New Year)’.
Weep when you read just how disproportionate the distribution of funding is between Arab and Jewish communities and see the evidence first hand when following the Israel National Trail through rural Arab villages.
Celebrate with the Shehade family when a plaza in central Haifa is named after their husband/father Kamil, founder of House of Grace.
Listen to the sounds that surround you: young people laughing in a cafe. Girls squealing with delight walking into a shopping mall. A baby soothed to sleep by his mother. Husband and wife arguing over the shopping list in the supermarket. The whisper of the evening wind. The Muslim call to prayer. The silence as Shabbat comes in. Church bells. It’s all so idyllic. Until the familiar rumble of a military plane approaches.
Speak to the people you meet along the way, the ordinary ones. Hear them talk about what life is like here:
‘We have enough problems of our own. We can’t also worry about the West Bank or Gaza.’
‘Life is good here. Look at what a beautiful country it is, what a great life we have.’
‘If I had the money and the means, I would leave. There’s too much discrimination. Too much anger. Too much hatred. I don’t want my kids to grow up here.’
‘Coexistence is absolutely possible. Look: everyone in Israel is equal. The Palestinians just don’t want it.’
‘I worry less about my children when they go to Ramallah than when they go to Haifa.’
‘The checkpoints are necessary and are just like going through airport security.’
‘It’s not the people; it’s the politics.’
‘What can we do? Our leaders are corrupt. Their leaders want war. We want peace. But it’s hopeless.’
So many sights. So many sounds. So many views. So much to celebrate. So much to lament. So much awareness. So much ignorance. So much that’s familiar. So much that’s not.
That’s what you encounter when you remove that second step. Under that step that looked just fine on the surface is an innocuous-seeming mess of gravel and dry clumps of dirt, which in truth cannot support weight because because there’s nothing there to bind them together. Roots from different trees intertwine deep into the soil, providing food for the trees which grow strong but compete for the light and destabilise the ground around. And all around, empty space, an apathetic abyss into which all can collapse.
Repair is complicated and costly. But not hopeless. There are good materials already in place if only we could learn to work with them. I don’t know what the solution will be, and I know emergency repairs need to be made urgently (Gaza). But what I do know is this: peace will never come if we focus only on what is most visible and don’t look beneath the surface.