Bringing peace to Bethlehem


Visit to West Bank offers no easy answers

By Bill Braun

Mennonite Brethren were among a group from California formed  by West Coast Mennonite Central Committee to attend the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference 4 held March 7-10, 2016, at Bethlehem Bible College. The conference—named to highlight the barriers Israel has erected along the borders of the occupied territories—brought together more than 500 participants from 24 countries, with the largest numbers coming from the U.S. and Europe. About 80 participants were locals from the West Bank and 40 from neighboring Israel. In this essay, Bill Braun, pictured in the center of the top row, a retired Mennonite Brethren pastor from Fresno, Calif., reflects on the experience.

"When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31). 

After a nearly 20-hour flight, I arrived in Tel Aviv in the dark somewhere between “now” and “2,000 years in the past.”  We passed through a relatively easy airport immigration process and arrived very late in Jaffa, a near suburb of Jerusalem. Within two days, I was with a group of Palestinian Christians and various internationals inside an Evangelical Lutheran church where Israeli citizens are forbidden by law to go because of the ongoing occupation of the West Bank.  Reality had begun to set in. 

I shared a celebration of the Lord’s Supper with Mennonite Brethren and Brethren in Christ friends from California and with Mennonite friends from Alberta, Canada.  Also present were German Lutherans with Palestinian Lutherans. We were each handed a small olivewood cross and reminded by the Palestinian pastor that the cross resembles the mathematical function of addition, the “plus” sign. Through the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross, we are not only added to God’s family across time and space, we are added to God’s family on earth right now. 

The pastor challenged us to speak of our experience. The voice of the Palestinian Christians must be heard. Thanks be to God for the initiative of West Coast Mennonite Central Committee to form a California group to attend the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference 4 held at Bethlehem Bible College, March 7-10. Read an article describing more about the trip here.


Traveling as a tourist hints at challenges

The nine-day trip had begun with a drive along the Mediterranean Sea from Jaffa past Tel Aviv, past Netanya. We then turned northeast toward the Sea of Galilee. This was a day of tourism with only occasional hints that all is not what it seems in the Holy Land. 

The adventure began with the raising of the United States flag accompanied by the playing of the “Star Spangled Banner” in a wooden boat while sailing on the Sea of Galilee. Then it was on to the beautiful Mount of Beatitudes overlooking the Sea of Galilee and the jostling amidst other tour groups. From there it was a short drive to the Church of the Multiplication, with signs of recent terrorism still visible, and then the fish lunch at St. Peter’s Restaurant along the seashore. It was the Holy Land at its best, with only undertones of a fearful and difficult daily life, the effect of the ongoing conflict that eventually taints all conversations and memories. 

At its best, the geography is the beauty of the Sierra foothills in the springtime; rocky, green, fruitful and varied; nearly the same latitude as San Diego. The trees and vines were at about the same point in development as were the trees and vines in Fresno at this time of the year. Of course, this is all compressed. We moved from the seashore, across the hills and to the Sea of Galilee in just a short hour so the changes were exaggerated. 

At its worst, just less than a year ago, Jewish extremist teens from a settlement tried to destroy the Church of the Multiplication, circa AD 380, the site where the feeding of the five thousand is remembered. While the site is open again to worshipers and tourists, much of the damage remains to be seen. It was a foretaste of the extremist violence and ensuing fear that we were to experience in the coming days.   

With the obvious disclaimer that I’m only a nine-day expert—having seen, tasted, felt and heard only a very small, selected part of the story—I report part of what I experienced: 

  • The children in Bethlehem’s Aida refugee camp, established 49 years ago when I was a senior in high school, who called me “Santa Claus.”  I guess I’m older, larger and grayer than I realized.  We high-fived on the playground under the netting strewn with empty tear gas canisters. 
  • The wary eyes of the anxious 19-year-old soldier and the hopefully steady finger on the trigger of the M-16 at the checkpoint in Hebron. 
  • The chain link fencing overhead to separate the Palestinian market below from settler homes above that kept stones—but not other various liquids, including human excrement and acid—from the heads of shoppers in the market.  Of particular impact was the merchant who begged us not to buy but to “tell the story when you get home. You must.” 
  • The beauty of carved olive wood and the convivial Palestinian man, about my age, who has a workshop in his basement and employs seven young men. His wife had just fed us Maqlubah, a traditional Palestinian dish of rice, onions, cauliflower, eggplant and chicken whose name means “upside down.” We ate around the table with his extended family amidst us. Yes, upside down. I flew in the dark to come to a place that feels upside down to eat upside down food.    
  • The moment of absolute uncertainty and a queasy stomach inside an inner checkpoint in the city of Hebron as we stood with a local Palestinian community leader in the street near the group of new Border Police recruits. I realized how completely my fate was well outside of my control. We stood on the edge of the invisible line which forbade local Palestinians from walking that section of their own home town, a section now strung with shuttered shops and abandoned houses, primed to be lost to settler takeover. 
  • The young Israeli settler in conservative dress playing his guitar, dancing and singing for the two young smiling checkpoint soldiers who only moments before forcefully told our group that we could pass if we separated from our Palestinian guide.  We could walk on the paved left side of the fence dividing the street lengthwise and he on the rocky right, but only to a certain point.  

No one had an easy answer. A young Israeli peace activist who avoided military service by accepting an exemption for “mental reasons” said she expects that one day she will wake up and the wall will be coming down. She likened it to something like the seemingly sudden end of apartheid in South Africa or the collapse of the Berlin Wall.  She has no specific long-term plan of action. In hindsight, perhaps that is a measure of the hopelessness felt on all sides. 


Hoping the wall will fall

A former Israeli Defense Force tank commander spoke eloquently of his transformation. He had followed in his brother’s footsteps and served with the Second Intifada. He was involved in shelling Palestinian Authority government offices by direct order of his superiors. Through self-reflection and much study he had come to oppose the current government policies toward the Palestinians. 

He said that the increasing and overbearing weight of the current system on even Israeli society will eventually bring the wall down. In historical perspective, the current situation is not sustainable long term. However, in human, living terms it might be a very long time. Again, a sense of relative hopelessness mixed with some measure of fear for the near future, especially if tensions continued to rise on the Temple Mount.      

The rabbi who leads Rabbis for Human Rights vigorously defended the rights of Israelis to a homeland. In doing so he named the fear that grips all people in the situation.  He made the case that the wisdom of the human heart given to us by God should temper the extreme interpretations of our respective scriptures and allow us to “live as family. “There’s enough room for all of us,” he said 

Everyone said that, though clearly less obvious to the naked eye, there is much damage to all the people in this situation, Israeli and Palestinian. Violence seems to spawn more violence, and eventually that becomes a routine and accepted part of daily life. The oppressed and the oppressor alike suffer under the weight of collective punishment.  A Palestinian Christian leader confirmed this: “We are all losers in this mess we live in.” 

Although there is no clear long-range path toward reconciliation, all expressed the confidence that the conflict would end, someday, somehow, and they would diligently work toward that day, step by step. 


A bold call for bridges and not walls

So I flew into the dark 10 days ago. Upon reflection, it still seems that way.  The transit home was similar in length but all in the light of day. And I’m not sure that it was back into the light or back into the right-side up—maybe just back into the familiar.  Generalized stereotypes of entire groups, especially when accompanied by fear, confounds and constrains everyone, wherever they are in the world, at home being no exception. 

I observed the overwhelming and menacing physical walls, fences and checkpoints and listened to the many and varied pleas from people speaking boldly for “bridges not walls.” In this land that often feels more like a prison, I was both saddened to the point of tears and sporadically hopeful but without much enthusiasm. That hasn’t changed as I’ve returned to the routines of life at home. It’s one thing to speak of turning the other cheek, of loving the enemy; it’s a whole other thing to say and mean that living as a Christian in Bethlehem today. 

I needed the challenge of our summary speaker at the Christ at the Checkpoint 4 conference, the dean of Bethlehem Bible College. He issued a call to hope one week before Holy Week and just two weeks before Easter Sunday. Don’t simply wait for God’s intervention. God calls us to action for reconciliation and justice right now because Jesus has risen. The gospel is good news. God sent Jesus to show us how to live in a land under occupation and in doing so to die for us as he boldly declared God’s word to us.

Remember, God is for us. God honored Jesus’ life and sacrifice and in doing so has freed us from even death and the grave. So speak boldly to others, not about others. And in doing so, give the slowing diminishing population of Palestinian Christians a voice.  May we honor their bold voices.   

Bill Braun is a former board member of West Coast Mennonite Central Committee.



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